Television Policy in a Changing Environment

Michael Dewing
Legal and Social Affairs Division

When it comes to Canadian television policy, it has always been tricky to balance the interests of consumers, content creators, and broadcasting and distribution companies. Corporate integration, rapid technological change and shifting viewing habits make it even trickier.

In its latest review of the Canadian television system, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) takes on the challenge of balancing these interests and responding to technological change.

While many people are happy with traditional ways of watching television, others are abandoning cable and satellite television services in favour of the Internet. Unregulated services such as Netflix are increasingly popular.

In addition, video-on-demand, personal video recorders and mobile devices are changing the way people watch television.

Content producers, local television broadcasters, pay and specialty channels, and cable and satellite distributors face the challenge of adjusting to these changes. As an added complication, a single corporation may own content producers, broadcasters, specialty channels and distribution networks.

Objectives of the broadcasting policy

As the regulator of the Canadian television system, the CRTC tries to achieve the objectives set out in the Broadcasting Act, particularly those of the broadcasting policy for Canada. These objectives include providing a wide range of programming, serving the needs and interests of Canadians, and making maximum use of Canadian creative resources.

Under the Broadcasting Act’s regulatory policy, the CRTC must also ensure that the system is adaptable to technological change and facilitates the provision of Canadian programs.

From time to time, the CRTC reviews the television regulations to adapt them to the changing environment. In September 2013, it launched the “Let’s Talk TV” study on the future of television. A year later, after asking Canadians for their comments, the CRTC held formal hearings on its approach to the television system.

Meanwhile, in November 2013 the government had requested the CRTC to examine the possibility of consumers choosing the pay and specialty channels they receive rather than having to subscribe to a package of channels. These channels receive a portion of the subscription fees that consumers pay for a package, but many consumers resent having to pay for channels they never watch.

New approach for cable and satellite distributors?

In its April 2014 report to the government, the CRTC said that as part of its broader “Let’s Talk TV” study it would examine the following approach for cable and satellite distributors:

  • offering and promoting a small, all-Canadian basic service, which would include only local Canadian conventional television stations, mandatory channels such as the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and the Weather Network/MétéoMédia, provincial educational channels, the community channel and the provincial legislature channel;
  • allowing subscribers to select other channels on a stand-alone basis (pick-and-pay); and
  • allowing subscribers to build their own custom packages of channels.

As the CRTC pointed out, while this approach would provide consumers with more choice, some channels that rely on subscription revenues might not survive.

In addition, because these channels must contribute funding toward Canadian programming, fewer channels might lead to less funding. (Of course, unregulated services such as Netflix do not have to provide funding.) As well, some American channels might refuse to be offered on a stand-alone basis.

On the other hand, the approach could lead channels to offer more widely popular programming and find new ways of appealing to audiences.

The CRTC examined other policy options as well. One of these was a change to simultaneous substitution, which allows cable or satellite companies to replace an American channel with a Canadian one that is airing the same show at the same time. As a result, for example, Canadians see Canadian advertisements, rather than American ones, when viewing such shows.

Another option was shutting down local over-the-air (OTA) transmitters. This would reduce costs for local stations.

Recent decisions

In November 2014, the CRTC announced the first decisions related to “Let’s Talk TV.” It banned cable and satellite services from requiring subscribers to give 30 days’ notice when they want to cancel their contracts. This will make it easier for them to change service providers.

In decisions announced in January 2015, the CRTC recognized that many Canadians still rely on OTA transmissions. It said that local broadcasters who shut down their transmitters would lose certain privileges, such as inclusion in basic packages and the ability to request simultaneous substitution.

The CRTC also decided that, as of 2017, it would not allow simultaneous substitution during the very popular Super Bowl broadcast or for programming on specialty channels.

The CRTC will release further decisions over the coming months. In them, it will try to ensure that the television policy meets the objectives of the broadcasting policy in an ever-changing, ever-trickier environment.

Related Resources

Dewing, Michael. Canadian Broadcasting Policy. Publication no. 2011‑39‑E. Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 6 August 2014.

Theckedath, Dillan, and Terrence J. Thomas. Media Ownership and Convergence in Canada. Publication no. 2012‑17‑E. Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 10 April 2012.