Last week, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced that as of December 2016 it will require pay-TV providers to offer a la carte subscriptions. Viewers will pay for a base package that includes all over-the-air, regional and public access channels, then they’ll be able to select any other channels they want to pay for.
This is exactly what I’ve been advocating for years for all pay-TV viewers. Content providers force fifth-tier rerun channels into pay-TV bundles to squeeze a few more dollars and to preserve channel real estate for future rebranding. They make it harder for competitors to establish new channels, and they pad subscribers’ bills with little benefit.
Of course, the folks who profit from the status quo and those who support those folks have always said that the sky will fall once a la carte starts. Less than two years ago, an industry analyst claimed that, for example, ESPN would cost around $30 a month if sold separately. (Now that Sling TV sells ESPN plus a few other channels for just $20, that analyst might need to revise her figures.)
Whenever I heard those arguments, I always pointed to Canada, where some pay-TV companies have had a loose form of a la carte for years. Satellite TV provider Shaw Direct, with over 900,000 subscribers, already offers most of its channels in small bundles or even “Pick and Pay” a la carte to supplement its broader programming packages. (The other Canadian satellite TV provider, Bell Direct, which used to offer similar bundles, now sells tier-based packages similar to any cable company. But I digress.) Canada’s ESPN equivalent/sister channel, TSN, costs nowhere near $30/month, and the Canadian sky has not yet fallen.
Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, enthusiastically promotes a la carte as a way to get viewers what they want at a lower price. Through the years, Consumer Reports has campaigned against cigarettes, in favor of testing cars for rollover safety, and lots of other stuff. Have those folks ever pushed an idea that turned out to be really awful? I can’t think of any; if you can find an example, please post it in the comments.
In the US, content providers have too much clout to ever allow a la carte, but at least we’ll all get to see the results of Canada’s real-world experiment. How many pay-TV channels will die? Will new, independent channels spring up to take their place? Will the average bill go down? Will TSN cost $30? We’ll know the answers just a couple of years from now.