Talking heads

Two weeks of hearings by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) called Let’s Talk TV are over. With the exception of a contretemps with a Netflix official, the proceedings were predictable. Everyone from the Harper government to consumers is in favour of pick-and-pay rather than the lump-and-allow preferred by the cable companies but we have to put up with months of delay before any CRTC decision, let alone action.

Cable television is the last great monopoly in Canada. If you move into a neighbourhood and want cable, you only have one choice. Ridiculous. What if you were told you could only shop at Loblaws? And when you sign up with a cable company you have to buy their unwieldy packages. I’m a Rogers customer, pay about $125 a month and can summon 300 channels, only a dozen of which I ever watch.

Go through your channels sometime. Do I really need every CTV outlet in seven cities, six Global, three City stations and more shopping channels than Winners has buggies? Nor does the availability make any sense. I get CNBC but not MSNBC, BNN but not Bloomberg. And of course I receive the ever useful Fireplace Channel, Aquarium Channel and Sunset Channel where the sun never seems to set. I can order Al Jazeera as a one-off, but if I want HBO (which I do) I have to take all the schlock on The Movie Network as well. 

The cable companies claim that they will go bust if viewers are allowed pick-and-pay. Yet they rank among the most profitable firms in Canada. Share prices over the last ten years have risen by 178% for Shaw, 196% for Cogeco and 275% for Rogers. Over the same period, the TSX 60 was up 93%, Royal Bank 177%.

Oh, and let’s fret about Netflix. (Declaration: I’m a subscriber.) Netflix has an estimated annual revenue in Canada of $300 million, money Canadian TV executives think they should have. Rogers just paid $5 billion for hockey rights. Why should anyone worry about cable viability?

Finally, how much excellent Canadian programming is created by these giants? This week, PBS ran a terrific seven-part fourteen-hour documentary on the Roosevelts. The last time I can recall anything similar here was CBC’s Canada: A People’s History. That was in 2006, eight years ago. Let’s stop talking and start picking.


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