If their $25 basic TV packages fail to meet CRTC expectations, cable companies could face trouble as they try to renew their broadcast licences.
In a surprise move, Canada's broadcast regulator recently demanded detailed reports on providers' new basic TV packages as part of their licence renewal process.
Within weeks, the commission will make those reports public. And Canadians will then be invited to wade in and tell the CRTC what they think.
"We'll take all those comments into consideration as we come up with a decision to renew [TV providers'] licences," said CRTC spokesman Eric Rancourt.
Channels available as part of the Rogers skinny basic package. (Photo: Rogers)
He added the CRTC could impose conditions on companies not offering the type of TV deals mandated by the commission.
The threat is an an about-face of sorts for the CRTC.
It had previously told CBC News it wasn't prepared to take any immediate action — despite the hundreds of complaints it had already received about the $25 basic TV packages being offered.
One big customer beef is that when extra fees are added, the deals can become pricey.
Although it has now demanded details from the cable companies, the CRTC says it's not yet passing judgment.
"It's premature to say at this point whether or not we're concerned," Rancourt said.
"Once we have the facts in front of us and once we've given the public an opportunity to comment, then we'll be in a better position to assess that."
The CRTC asked cable companies about extra costs such as mandatory equipment fees, pricing for added pick-and-pay channels, plus how the basic package compares to other TV deals they offer.
The commission also requested a precise tally of how many customers signed up for the packages and the number of complaints companies have received about them.
Why the CRTC wants answers
The commission introduced regulations last year that required service providers offer a "skinny" basic TV package for $25 or less by March 1. They also had to let customers top up the plan with individual pick-and-pay or small channel bundles.
The CRTC had billed the new deals as a way to "maximize choice and affordability for Canadian TV viewers."
But many Canadians who were hoping to sign up for the packages have since reported they feel let down.
Some have found that once extra fees or channels are tacked on, an "affordable" basic package can become more costly than their current, larger TV package.
That's because the new basic plans rarely come with any of the deals typically offered, such as discounts for added equipment.
So customers get stuck paying full price for extra necessities like a digital TV box and installation costs.
Bell's pricey basic package
For example, customers purchasing Bell Canada's basic Fibe Starter pack also have to shell out for the telecom's internet service plus PVR rental.
A Bell customer service representative pricing the option said a Fibe Starter pack plus unlimited internet and PVR would total $119.90 a month.
It's a far cry from the original $24.95 price tag for Bell's basic TV plan.
The telecom insisted in an email to CBC News that it complies with CRTC rules.
Customers have also complained that added pick-and-pay channels and theme-pack prices are too high.
For example, Rogers only offers added small-channel packages at this point, which can run as high as $18 each.
"It is still a ripoff," commented one reader to CBC News shortly after providers started offering the new deals.
"Thanks for nothing CRTC," wrote another.
Industry analysts have speculated that some TV providers purposely made the basic deals unattractive so customers wouldn't pare down their more lucrative TV plans.
"They're putting every obstacle they can into people's way," said Bruce Cran with the Consumers' Association of Canada.
He claims his association, like the CRTC, has been flooded with hundreds of complaints about the $25 TV packages.
He adds that they're still pouring in and complaints now include people who got the basic package and are unhappy with it.
"Some people who got the skinny package want to go back," Cran said.
He added that his association has tried repeatedly to meet with the CRTC to address the complaints but has been shut out.
The commission told CBC News it can't discuss an ongoing matter with any group.
"Because of the way our process is structured, it would be inappropriate," the CRTC's Rancour said.
But even that position has now been reversed, according to Cran.
Will it all matter?
Late yesterday he said the CRTC finally agreed to meet with his association this coming Monday.
There are no guarantees the CRTC's demand for cable companies to hand over information and the invitation for public input will lead to change.
But what is clear is that the $25 basic TV offerings have struck a nerve and the CRTC feels pressure to do something about it.
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