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Unbundle TV menu for viewers

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CALGARY -- You have to credit Canada's youngest news channel, Sun TV, for getting folks to sit up and take notice. The cheeky, proudly right-wing, talk-radio styled TV station is mounting a campaign to get the respect it says it deserves from the country's broadcast regulator.

At root, the issue is money. It seems the Quebecor-owned channel is on borrowed time financially, having lost some $17 million in 2012.

Sun TV could cut its losses, it says, if it were moved into the most basic tier of TV, making it available to all subscribers, who would then have to pay a couple of bucks extra a year, whether they watch it or not. It argues it is a Canadian alternative that is doing 96 hours of programming a week, and it should be more broadly available.

Sun TV is trapped in the cable TV equivalent of a discounted bookshelf. In Western Canada, it is available in all-in "premium" cable and satellite TV channel bundles. In some cities, you can pick it from an -la-carte menu and pay extra. Meanwhile, the news stations Sun TV considers to be competitors, such as CBC and CTV, sit much lower on the dial and are available to all TV subscribers.

The reality is Sun TV's cable-giant owner agreed to the CRTC's conditions for operating in the first place, when presumably it had the option of saying no. Further, Quebecor has grown to the size it is because the country's broadcast system is regulated, and only a few companies (now all very large and diverse, such as Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor) were granted the privilege of offering cable TV services.

Just as real are the myriad struggles Canada's big media companies face in the revenue-generation battle. It's not easy being big and also being subject to regulatory restraint. Bell's effort to buy Astral Media was undone by the CRTC, cable TV subscribers are finding alternatives and are harder to keep, and Shaw's recent deal to sell unused wireless phone market space to Rogers is being criticized by smaller phone companies and consumer groups. There are dozens of such issues at play at any one time in the telecom/broadcast world, with the CRTC as referee.

The one constant is the beleaguered consumer who, not coincidentally, is the target of Sun TV's woe-is-us campaign. With limited options, TV subscribers are herded about by cable and satellite companies. Driven into a bewildering mix of grouped channel offerings and phone/Internet/TV bundles, many will pay the all-in highest price for 500 channels just to escape the dizzying prospect of deciphering the system.

If everyone were honest, they would acknowledge most of those channels are pipelines for cheap, repetitive content. They make a few pennies from every subscriber, get to run some advertising and serve largely to provide the illusion of choice. Real choice would permit subscribers to simply choose from a list of channels and have access to as few as 15 or as many as they want.

There was a ray of hope in July when the CRTC, in a dispute between Bell and Telus, ruled in favour of Bell's position TV channels offered through cable and satellite could be un-bundled, meaning they could be offered separately and at differential prices.

The CRTC left it to the companies to figure out the details, offering arbitration services should they not be able to do so. Once again, the consumer is left out of the picture, with little incentive for the industry to change.

If you contact your cable provider, as I did this week with Shaw, you can actually pay separately to get Sun TV, but you can't pay separately for CNN or BBC news. To obtain those, you either need a premium plan, or a base plan and an extra fee for about 10 news channels, most of which you don't want. You can pay extra for sports or movie packages, or just give up and pay $200 for cable, phone and Internet, which is clearly the goal of the system.

So, we shouldn't feel sorry for poor old Quebecor or Sun TV. However, program host Ezra Levant's You Tube plea that Sun TV's treatment is "not fair" is instructive.

You are right, Ezra, in the sense it is not fair TV consumers are treated so shabbily and should immediately have the option of purchasing access to only the channels they want to see.

That would, as it turns out, take care of Sun TV's problem. Consumers could choose it, just as they could choose other channels. So my suggestion for Ezra and the gang is to stop whining about the rules you accepted and advocate instead for new rules for TV consumers. My advice to consumers is to complain to your cable provider and to the CRTC.

Terry Field is an associate professor and chair of the journalism major in the Bachelor of Communication program at Mount Royal University in Calgary

-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2013 A11

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