As the broadcast hearings into the future of television wrapped up in Gatineau, Que., the great divide between the industry and consumers yawned ever wider.
Consumers told the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Communications (CRTC) they want a cheaper way to get their entertainment, faced with cable bills rising faster than inflation. They want choice and the ability to combine over-the-air signals with streaming services. If they want cable and satellite, they want a pick and pay model so they can get what they want, not irritating bundles whose contents change at the whim of the cable company.
The broadcasters and cable companies, mostly one and the same, want a way to make more money in the face of declining ad revenue. Streaming services like Netflix are a huge threat and should be regulated to help pay for Canadian content. But regulating the Internet will only hurt consumers, countered Corie Wright, Netflix’ global public policy director.
The CRTC will announce its decisions on Dec. 15. As it deliberates, here are three messages consumers delivered at the hearings.
Put us first
Readers complain about poor customer service, cable packages that keep changing and costs that keep rising.
People who live in rural areas and smaller communities particularly, feel poorly served by cable and satellite. They’ve been left behind by infrastructure and service upgrades and what’s available is expensive and not always reliable. They want the CRTC to look after them.
“There is no cable [where I live] and the telephone lines — installed in the 60s — are failing and barely able to provide a dial tone on most days,” said Stephen Orr, who lives north of the GTA, but still in the 905.
He says the strip between Milton and Oshawa is a good example of a dead zone. To the south and the north, services are good. But in his corridor he can’t get a reliable telephone dial tone.
Orr has abandoned his landline for wireless phones, but notes this is not necessarily an option for those with young children or the elderly, who do not have wireless and may need the wired service for 911 service.
Curb the power of the Big Four
Readers see the consolidation of the broadcasting industry working against them. Bell Media owns the CTV network and Shaw owns Global network. Rogers owns City and Omni. From a business point of view it makes sense. Less so for consumers.
Vertical integration lets the companies cross-sell services from TV to phones and Internet and tie up customers with bundles.
Despite crying poor, Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Videotron are doing just fine. According to BCE’s website, BCE has raised its dividend 69 per cent since 2008 and is one of the top dividend stocks in Canada with a 5 per cent dividend yield. Rogers has increased its dividend in each of the last 10 years, Shaw in the last 11.
Here’s how they do it: Cable bills rising faster than inflation. The average household spends $185 a month spent on cable, Internet and phones, the sixth-largest household expense, according to the CRTC.
“The telecoms are still running the show,” wrote David Bergson. “The two-year phone contract is a good example. Yup. It’s only two years now, and not three.”
One commenter wrote: “Remember the days when we were told the airwaves belonged to the Canadian public and applicants for broadcast licences had to make promises to deliver local news? That was the cost of winning a licence.”
From a Mississauga reader: “My wife and I are frustrated Rogers customers. The last straw was installing a new digital box this weekend and ending up with less channels — we lost CNN, TSN and other channels. When we called Rogers, they were happy to offer another package — still less channels and more money. My wife wants to switch to Bell, but are they really better?”
Over-the-air TV is a public service
More than 1 million Canadian households watch TV with an antenna. These viewers believe free transmissions should continue to be a requirement of a broadcast license and worry that the CRTC has asked whether it should allow these transmissions to be shut down.
“The CRTC has a duty to ensure access to news and weather,” says Dave Marion, who lives in a subdivision in North Dumfries, in the Cambridge area. There is no cable service and he finds satellite too costly.
“I am thrilled to be away from the $250 a month bills. I do miss the odd specialty channel, but I spend a lot less time watching TV and a lot more time outside.”
A popular comment on the Let’s Talk TV web page added: “What would rural viewers do without OTA? Cable companies will not install infrastructure as it is too costly, satellite service is often unreliable and Internet service in most rural areas is pathetic, thereby leaving rural customers without television service.”
Plenty to think about ahead of the decision.