Sunday, February 28, 2010

Keep TV stations' hands out of our pockets

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is campaigning to force Canadian cable TV companies to pay TV stations for the privilege of carrying their signals. This seems entirely backward to me!

Cable TV started around 1950 and was then called Community Antenna TV (CATV). At that time all TV reception was through antennas. People who lived far from the transmitter needed a big antenna to get an acceptable picture. Because these antennas were very expensive, whole neighbourhoods agreed to share the cost and the signal, and CATV was born.

So cable TV subscribers pay the full cost of bringing TV signals into their home. Without cable TV, the TV stations would have a much smaller audience; in fact, it would make more sense for the TV stations to pay the cable companies for this service, then hit up their advertisers for more money for "delivering more eyeballs" (as they say in the trade).

All communications in Canada are regulated by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Under CRTC rules, Canadian cable companies must carry local stations, and all cable customers must pay about $200 per year for those stations (this is called "basic cable"). Only then can customers add "specialty" channels like movies, sports, ethnic etc.

So customers are already forced to pay to receive stations they
can get for free by sticking a bent coathanger into their TV's antenna socket. Now, in addition, the cable companies will be forced to pay a new tax to subsidize local TV stations. The cable companies, quite understandably, intend to pass this tax on to their customers - and the CBC is even campaigning against that.

International comparisons show that Canadians pay more, for worse service, in all the fields the CRTC regulates - home phones, cell phones, cable and satellite TV, and Internet service.
We would be better off if the CRTC was scrapped and replaced by a body that put customer needs first, permitted more competition, and allowed unpopular services to go out of business.

The CBC website wants me to urge my government to both support this new tax AND prevent cable companies from passing it on to their customers. Instead, I urged my government to end the free ride for local TV stations by allowing cable subscribers to opt out of "basic cable". If half of us did that, together we would save almost a billion dollars per year.

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