CRTC unveils proposal to make TV contracts more consumer friendly

The CRTC also said it expects closed captioning services to be included free of charge when those programs are broadcast online

CRTC-BELL-ASTRALOTTAWA – Canada’s broadcast regulator issued its final thrust Thursday in a series of moves aimed at positioning consumers “in the driver’s seat,” ahead of the country’s broadcasters, offering up a draft code that would require cable and satellite companies to make customer contracts easier to understand.

Broadcast service providers would also have to more clearly spell out fees and policies surrounding early contract cancellations and adding or removing individual channels under the code.

In issuing the proposed code, the CRTC also said it expects closed captioning services for Canadians with disabilities, already available through regular television programming, to be included free of charge when those programs are broadcast online and on mobile devices.

And it said described video – a talk-over service for visually impaired viewers – must be expanded, with a requirement that all programs aired between 7 and 11 p.m. include the service by September 2019.

“Canadians will have access to compelling television content, the freedom to choose the content that meets their needs and tools to navigate a dynamic marketplace,” Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said.

“They are now in the driver’s seat.”

The CRTC received more than 13,000 submissions from individuals, interest groups and industry players since it launched a wide-ranging consultation process called Let’s Talk TV in 2013.

From the get-go, the commission made clear its decisions would move regulation in a more consumer-friendly direction, away from favouring the commercial marketplace.

It should come as no surprise, said John Lawford of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, given statements made by Blais when he was named by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to head up the regulatory body in June 2012.

“When he was first appointed, he did a number of interviews and quite clearly said ‘I’m here to do consumer stuff’,” said Lawford.

It’s a welcome change for consumer advocacy groups like OpenMedia, which have been encouraging a change in direction since the days when former CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein declared in a public hearing that “citizen comments and concerns are out of scope” with the regulator’s mandate.

“There’s definitely been a cultural change,” said OpenMedia campaign coordinator Josh Tabish.

“That being said, they still have a long way to go to improve things.”

Still, the decisions have sparked disappointment and even outrage on the part of some broadcasters.

But they are not intended to invoke a negative reaction from industry, said Scott Hutton, the CRTC’s executive director, broadcasting.

“It’s not putting down companies,” said Hutton.

“It’s essentially looking at the Broadcasting Act and ensuring that everyone who is in the industry and everyone who should benefit from those objectives … get something out of it.”

The TV code proposal follows on other recent CRTC directives that prohibited 30-day cancellation policies and required cable and satellite services to offer individual channel selection on top of a trimmed-down, lower-cost basic TV service.

The regulator also announced a dramatic overhaul of what some critics had complained were protectionist rules governing the amount of Canadian television programming.

The CRTC said last month it was eliminating the 55-per-cent daytime quota for Canadian programs that local TV stations must broadcast, but maintaining rules requiring that broadcasters spend to produce Canadian content.

Thursday’s proposed code also comes on the heels of a dispute that went public this week between the president of Bell Media and Blais over the regulator’s so-called “pick-and-pay” system.

The spat erupted after Blais announced the so-called “pick-and-pay” model for TV service.

The Globe and Mail reported that, shortly after Blais released the decision last week, the president of Bell Media intervened to exclude the regulator from news coverage on CTV, the country’s largest private broadcaster which is owned by Bell Media parent BCE Inc.

It was just the latest in a series of bitter disputes between Bell companies and the CRTC.

Industry watchers say Bell, unlike most other telecom companies in Canada, is worried that the CRTC’s consumer-friendly approach is hurting its bottom line.

And for good reason, say consumer advocates.

“Bell has more to get mad about,” said Lawford.

“They’re behemoth-sized,” he said, pointing out that Bell has moved over the years from being a telephone company to what is now one of the largest vertically-integrated firms in the country with business holdings in TV networks, satellite distribution, newspapers, cellular services as well as traditional landline phones.

The regulator is accepting public comments on the draft TV service code until May 25.

It wants to know what information consumers are looking for from cable and satellite providers when they sign up for service.

It’s also asking how much notice cable and satellite companies should give customers before hiking prices and what constitutes a “reasonable time frame” for service calls.