'Skinny Basic' Cable To Get CRTC Review After Complaints About Cable Companies

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TORONTO — Canada's broadcast regulator said Tuesday that it is launching a public hearing to evaluate the implementation of so-called skinny cable services, its latest shot across the bow at the TV industry.

As of March 1, the CRTC mandated that cable and satellite TV service providers offer basic cable packages capped at $25 monthly and let consumers either add channels to their subscriptions in an a-la-carte manner or through pre-packaged bundles. The companies are required to offer both options in December.

The CRTC is taking their compliance with these regulations into account as part of the licence renewal process for many companies. It has already renewed the licences of some providers until November and said it plans to extend them until the end of August 2017 unless any issues arise during the hearing.

jean pierre blais crtc
CRTC chairperson Jean-Pierre Blais. (Canadian Press photo)

CRTC chairman and CEO Jean-Pierre Blais has previously hinted at the possibility of not renewing licences as an enforcement tool.

The CRTC introduced skinny cable measures so Canadians could better match their TV services with their needs, he said. Since March, nearly 100,000 people have opted to subscribe to the basic cable package, according to the CRTC.

"Concerns have been raised, however, about how some television service providers have been implementing these new options,'' he said in a statement. The CRTC has fielded 1,800 calls, including complaints, about skinny TV packages.

One of the concerns is that the packages can be more expensive than $25 after adding in installation and equipment fees, and critics have warned that, as a result, skinny packages may actually result in higher TV bills for consumers.

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Last month, the CRTC asked companies to provide it with details of their new offerings and any additional charges required and published their responses on Tuesday. Canadians can submit comments to the CRTC on the issue until June 23.

"As we prepare for the full implementation of pick-and-pay, we will have an opportunity at the public hearing to verify whether their actions are in keeping with our objective,'' Blais said.

While a variety of companies' practices will be reviewed, only four are required to attend the public hearing. Bell, Rogers, Shaw and Videotron are scheduled to attend the hearing starting Sept. 7 in Gatineau, Que. The hearing is expected to last between two and three days.

The CRTC summoned the four companies to the hearing because they are vertically integrated and their customers represent about 78 per cent of all TV subscribers in Canada, said spokeswoman Patricia Valladao. Vertically integrated companies own both programming and distribution channels.

Bell is happy to participate, said spokeswoman Caroline Audet, as the company says it surpassed the CRTC's requirements by offering all the required choices ahead of the Dec. 1 deadline.

"Concerns have been raised, however, about how some television service providers have been implementing these new options."— CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais

Videotron also said it has complied with the new regulations.

"It is important to note that this hearing is in connection with the renewal of our licences, not to a non-compliance with CRTC requirements,'' Videotron said in a statement.

Rogers spokeswoman Jennifer Kett said the company is looking forward to working with the commission on its licence renewal and answering any questions about its services. Rogers has always supported more choice for consumers, she said.

Shaw did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The CRTC may decide to call other TV providers to the hearing after the public comment period closes, said Valladao.