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CRTC putting big TV changes on the table

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This could be the beginning of the biggest shakeup in Canadian television viewing in several decades.

Then again, it could turn out to be more of the same flipping thing we've experienced for years when we switch on our TV sets.

In preparation for the third phase of its medium-redefining Let's Talk TV: A Conversation with Canadians initiative, the federal broadcast regulator last week issued a call for submissions that will help shape a public hearing on the future of this country's television system, which begins Sept. 8 in Ottawa.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's stated goal is to establish a new approach for the TV business in Canada, one that "fosters choice and flexibility in selecting programs, encourages the creation of compelling and diverse content made by Canadians and empowers Canadians to make informed choices."

Lofty goals, those, but also sufficiently vague to make them a bit hard to wrap one's head around as having any direct impact on the daily tube-watching experience of average Canadians.

What's much more interesting about the CRTC's announcement and call for public input lies in a couple of the specific items the commission intends to explore.

The first, which speaks directly to the "choice and flexibility" issue, is a CRTC proposal that "the basic television package that all subscribers receive be slimmed down and get back to basic." In other words, requiring TV-service providers to limit their basic, lowest-cost programming packages to local stations, channels of "public interest" deemed essential by the CRTC (including public-affairs channel CPAC and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network), local educational channels, community channels and services operated by provincial legislatures.

Beyond this newly redefined "basic," the CRTC is proposing that TV-service subscribers be given three options: choosing additional channels on an individual, pick-and-pay basis, building their own packages of specialty and/or pay-TV services or choosing from pre-arranged packages or "tiers" created by cable and satellite service providers.

The pick-and-pay option is something many Canadians have been demanding for years. Cable and satellite companies have resisted, because bundling services ensures more eyeballs for (and revenue from) channels than can be realized by channel-by-channel purchasing; as well, the practice can actually lower the price of popular services with broad appeal (say, History or HGTV) while ensuring that more niche-oriented and less popular channels (such as Fashion Television, BookTV, G4techTV or One: Body, Mind & Spirit Channel) can be packaged with popular ones and therefore have a chance of being seen.

If the CRTC's initiative results in the implementation of a true pick-and-pay TV model, cable and satellite providers will be forced to do a massive re-think of the services they offer, and it's likely that many fringe-y specialty channels -- the ones that very few viewers would choose as stand-alone services -- will cease to exist.

The second intriguing element in last week's call for submissions is that the CRTC will give serious consideration to the elimination of simultaneous program substitution, the long-established and (for TV viewers) endlessly annoying practice that allows Canadian networks to override U.S.-network signals anytime they are airing an acquired American series in the same time slot as its originating U.S.-network home.

The intent of simultaneous program substitution is to protect the financial interests of the regional rights-holders of programs. Canada, as the next-door neighbour to the world's largest creator of TV content, finds itself in a unique situation because consumers here have direct access to U.S. networks, but Canadian networks, despite our geographic proximity, are, in fact, foreign buyers of American shows and should enjoy the same regional rights protection as buyers from Great Britain, Australia or Brazil.

The forever-controversial practice might make sense, from a legal and/or business perspective, but ask any Canadian who's missed all those great Super Bowl ads because the Canadian simulcaster force-fed them an inspiration-starved diet of Tim Hortons and Canadian Tire ads what he or she thinks, and you'll understand why the CRTC is making simultaneous program substitution part of its Conversation with Canadians.

Whether the public hearings will ultimately result in major changes to these two areas of the Canadian TV landscape, or to anything else that affects what we watch, remains to be seen. History has shown the CRTC to be much more inclined toward baby-step evolution or maintaining the status quo than doing anything that the industry would consider rash and the public might deem creatively consumer-friendly.

But at least these big-ticket items are on the agenda. And that, for every Canadian who's ever picked up a remote control and wondered what the heck is going on on all those channels, represents an opportunity.

You can view the CRTC's news release, including instructions on how to submit your views, here: Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 29, 2014 C3

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