Canada sets out future TV policy
January 30, 2015
By Colin Mann
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has issued two decisions related to some of the issues addressed in its ‘Let’s Talk TV: A Conversation with Canadians’ public consultation, as well as a decision relating to the future of mobile television content. These announcements concern local television stations, ‘simultaneous substitution’ and mobile television services.
The CRTC notes that the way Canadians watch and enjoy content is evolving rapidly. They increasingly use the Internet and mobile devices to access content. The CRTC wants to make sure that Canada’s television system not only adapts to keep up with the rapid pace of change, but innovates to find new ways to enable Canadians to watch and produce content.
In December 2014, the CRTC published its first decision related to Let’s Talk TV, which banned 30-day cancellation policies of service providers when television subscribers wanted to change service providers. The fresh decisions are the latest announcements further to the Let’s Talk TV conversation. In the coming weeks, the CRTC will issue more decisions related to this process, which will provide a forward-looking framework for Canada’s television system.
The CRTC has reaffirmed that free over-the-air television is, in the near term, a competitive alternative to cable and satellite television. Local television stations are important sources of local news and information programming for the communities they serve, as well as of entertainment and educational programming.
Also, with multiple online options available, Canadians who choose not to pay for cable or satellite subscriptions can still have free access to their local television stations, many of which are available in high definition with minimal one-time equipment costs. Seventy-six per cent of Canadians can receive the signals of at least five stations, and in some cities they can tune in to 15 or more channels. Over-the-air signals provide exceptional image quality because they are not compressed.
The CRTC heard from many Canadians who did not wish to lose access to free over-the-air television. It has therefore put broadcasters on notice that should they decide to shut down their over-the-air transmitters, they will lose the regulatory privileges that come with over-the-air transmission. These include mandatory carriage on the basic packages offered by cable and satellite companies and the ability to request simultaneous substitution (the temporary replacement of the signal of a television channel with that of another channel showing the same programme at the same time). The CRTC also announced it will examine the funding of local and community programming in 2015-2016.
During the Let’s Talk TV conversation and for a number of years, Canadians have complained that simultaneous substitution mistakes cause them to miss certain parts of live events. For instance, they sometimes miss important plays during a football game or part of a presentation at an awards ceremony.
Given that the Super Bowl is a unique event and that the heavily promoted advertising is part of the spectacle, the CRTC has decided to prohibit simultaneous substitutions during the Super Bowl starting at the end of the 2016 NFL season (i.e., the Super Bowl in 2017). It is open to Bell Media, the current right holder, to waive its simultaneous substitution privilege for the 2016 game.
In addition, the CRTC will not tolerate avoidable errors related to simultaneous substitution. It is putting in place regulatory measures to ensure that Canadians don’t miss important parts of the programming they enjoy and pay to watch.
In this regard, the CRTC encourages Canadians to be vigilant and to send complaints when they see a substantial simultaneous substitution error. Cable and satellite companies that make errors may have to rebate their subscribers, while local television stations that make errors may lose the privilege to request simultaneous substitution for a period of time or for specific types of programming. The CRTC will announce further details on the implementation of this measure at a later date.
The evidence presented at the Let’s Talk TV public hearing showed that revenues generated by simultaneous substitution are important to the broadcasting system. They keep advertising dollars in Canada, which in turn helps create programs that Canadians value (including news and information), maintains jobs and supports local economies.
For these reasons, local television stations will continue to be allowed to request simultaneous substitution and cable and satellite companies will be allowed to perform it for the time being. Cable and satellite companies, however, will no longer be permitted to perform simultaneous substitution for speciality channels.
The CRTC recognises that many Canadians still rely on over-the-air programming for news and information programming, but it is also clear that the schedule-driven model of the past is changing and a more viewer-centric and on-demand model is emerging. As such, the CRTC does not expect over-the-air television and simultaneous substitution to be around indefinitely.
An open communication system
As Canadians turn more and more to the Internet for viewing content, it is important to make sure that these new platforms are made available to Canadians in a fair and open manner. In this regard, the CRTC issued a decision that reinforces its commitment to an open Internet. The CRTC has directed Bell Mobility and Vidéotron to stop giving their mobile television services, Bell Mobile TV and illico.tv, an unfair advantage in the marketplace, to the disadvantage of other Internet content.
These companies exempted their own mobile television services from their standard monthly data charges. Content from other websites or apps, on the other hand, counted against the customer’s data cap.
Bell Mobility must eliminate this unlawful practice by April 29th 2015. For its part, Vidéotron indicated that it planned to withdraw its illico.tv app for BlackBerry and Android devices by the end 2014. Vidéotron must confirm by March 31st 2015 that this app has been withdrawn and ensure that any new mobile TV service it offers does not give it an unfair preference or advantage over similar services.
This decision will favour an open and fair marketplace for mobile TV services, enabling innovation and choice for Canadians says the CRTC.
“We heard Canadians when they told us that they rely on their local television stations for news and information,” commented. Jean-Pierre Blais, Chairman of the CRTC. “We also heard that missing parts of football games and other live events due to substitution errors is a major irritant. Canadians are also increasingly watching television in different ways, and they told us that they want an open communication system. We heard them. We are building a framework that takes into account today’s realities by acknowledging that some elements remain important to Canada’s television system, though for how long is an open question. Yet at the same time, we are setting the course for the future of television – a future where Canadians benefit from innovations and more choice. Today’s decisions, along with the others we will be releasing in the coming weeks, are the building blocks that will shape the television system of tomorrow,” he concluded.