11/15/2013 15:49 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 18:58 EST

Ottawa takes 1st steps to offer cable choice

Heritage Minister Shelly Glover has taken the first steps toward meeting a Conservative throne speech promise to provide more choice for Canadian cable customers.

In an announcement Thursday in Vancouver, she said the federal government has asked the broadcast regulator to prepare a report on how pick-and-pay television service might work and what steps might have to be taken to unbundle TV services.

“We are convinced that this is something that Canadian consumers want,” Glover said. “We want to give them choice and we have indicated very clearly that we will require television channels to be unbundled.”

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has until April 30 to deliver a report to the minister, who was appointed in July as former heritage minister James Moore moved into the industry portfolio.

While most cable providers offer a range of packages with stations bundled together, Vidéotron, Bell and Rogers also offer consumers the option of selecting individual stations to bundle with their basic package.

Louis Audet, CEO of Montreal-based cable distributor Cogeco, said the industry is a “full and willing participant” in the process to change how TV is distributed in Canada.

'Normal evolution'

“This is a totally normal evolution,” Audet said in an interview with CBC-TV’sLang & O’Leary Exchange.

“We’ve been battling with our program suppliers now for two years to bring more freedom to be able to meet our customer’s demands, which is for more targeted smaller packages.”

He said the cable and satellite providers entered arbitration at the CRTC to ask for the freedom to provide a pay-per-channel option.

In October, the CRTC announced a new consultation with Canadian consumers, asking what they like and don’t like about their TV service and TV content. Next spring the broadcasters will weigh in and the distributors will also have a chance to comment.

One of the big questions is how to meet cultural objectives that are part of the CRTC’s mandate, Audet said.

“There is a cultural policy in this country that forces distributors to carry and package channels in a certain manner. It remains to be seen further to the dialogue the CRTC has undertaken with the population on Oct. 24 ... how the cultural policy of this country evolves and as a result of that, through negotiation with program suppliers we’ll see what we are able to do,” he said.

What about Netflix?

Glover said Ottawa has asked the CRTC to determine any costs consumers might face because of unbundling of TV service. It also wants to figure out whether ethnic and specialty channels could survive.

Audet said he expects the industry to find ways to integrate video-streaming services such as Netflix into their offerings. Cogeco’s U.S. unit is experimenting with Tivo, a set-top device that allows streaming from the internet, live and on-demand video, as well as broadcast options.

“A number of people have seen Netflix as an enemy of cable distributors. We rather see it as a complement to the complete offering of cable distributors,” he said, adding that Cogeco is testing a platform similar to Tivo for the Canadian market.