The great unbundling: Canada is forcing cable operators to let people pick their channels

Canadians will soon be able to choose whether they pay to watch moments like this one unfold on their TVs.
Canadians will soon be able to choose whether they pay to watch moments like this one unfold on their TVs.
Image: AP/Matt Slocum
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O Canada, the true north strong and free.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said it will require cable TV providers to let their customers “pick-and-pay” for channels after buying a basic package capped at $25 a month. It’s perhaps the most sweeping reform measure ever enforced on the television industry by government regulators.

“This policy sets out a roadmap to give Canadians more choice when it comes to the selection and packaging of their TV services,” the CRTC said in a statement. “It also seeks to ensure that Canadians have access to a diverse range of content through a healthy, dynamic TV market.”

Starting in March of 2016, Canadians will be able to buy a slimmed-down TV package for no more than $25, and then have the option to supplement that with smaller packages of channels or a pick-and-pay system, according to Global News. And then in December of 2016, cable operators will have to offer both options on top of the slimmed package, which must include local channels, US channels that can be picked up free over the air, and channels the CRTC deems to be in the public interest.

This is clearly a massive victory for Canadian TV-watchers who wanted more choice in their programming without having to pay exorbitant cable fees. The cable providers, however, argue that it could result in job losses and revenue drops. If the model is successful, it could blaze the trail for other countries to implement similar mandates.

In the US, the FCC isn’t close to ordering cable companies like Time Warner Cable and Comcast to offer pick-and-pay packages, although some already offer similar deals in an attempt to lure potential cord-cutters. The FCC has, however, signaled that it will reclassify internet services like Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and Apple’s forthcoming service, which offer slimmed-down bundles of channels, as the same type of distributor as cable companies (MVPDs).

If and when that happens, programmers will have to negotiate in good faith with these services, and more and more of them will start offering more channels. It won’t be exactly pick-and-pay, but it could come pretty close.