Canada's Cable Unbundling Falls Short With "Skinny" TV Packages

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The CRTC's plans to shake up Canadian TV has seen only 66,000 viewers sign up for a $25 per-month entry-level package.

Canada's broadcast regulator on March 1 tried to deter cord-cutting by ordering cable and satellite TV operators to start offering a $25 per-month "skinny basic" TV package.

The results so far indicate Canada's great cable unbundling is an early bust as cord-cutting has only continued to gather steam. Most Canadians have yet to unravel their pay TV bundle, as the CRTC on Friday reported only 66,000 Canadians have signed up to the $25 starter TV package in the last six weeks.

And only just over a third of Canadians in a national market of over 13 million households have subscribed to individual pick-and-pay channels, or slimmer cable packages, or both. The fault, says analysts, lies in part with a CRTC that allows service providers to make the $25 basic cable packages more appealing by dropping the price only, and not by including more popular U.S. channels.

"The $25 packages are essentially all the over-the-air stations, which can also be accessed by using an antenna, a cheaper alternative," Brahm Eiley, president of the Convergence Consulting Group, told The Hollywood Reporter. On March 1, phone giant Bell Canada began offering a $25 entry-level TV package with no cross-border U.S. network station signals or American cable services, and 10 French-language services among its 26-channel offering.

That left out cross-border U.S. channels for ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox that Canadians have long considered staples of their pay TV bundle. Rival cable carriers Rogers Communications and Shaw Communications also rolled out their own skinny cable packages at $25 per month that include U.S. channels like the major networks and PBS.

But Dwayne Winseck, a professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, argued domestic carriers have done their best to discourage the take-up of the entry-level TV packages as they look to maintain their market dominance. "I don't think it's ended up all that attractive an offer. The companies have tried to give this stuff a stillbirth," he said.   

Winseck added the CRTC deserved credit for giving Canadians viewing platforms beyond costly pay TV bundles as a real-world cable unbundling experiment gets underway. "We have fostered greater awareness of options, including sticking with what you got, going to the skinny basic package, or you can go OTA, or you can go OTT," he said, referring to over-the-air antenna and over-the-top streaming services.

Analysts add the real test for Canada's cable unbundling will come on Dec. 1, 2016, when the CRTC has mandated that TV service providers must begin offering full pick-and-pay. The era of cable unbundling underpinned by affordable entry-level packages was ordered by the CRTC to discourage cord-cutting and cord-shaving as Canadians increasingly embrace Netflix Canada and other digital options.

The CRTC's starter TV packages have done little to stop cord-cutting as it gathers pace north of the border. Convergence Consulting reports 190,000 Canadian households ended their cable or satellite TV subscriptions in 2015, up 81 percent from 105,00 Canadians cutting the cord in 2014.

Convergence predicts another 191,000 Canadians will cancel their cable or satellite TV package in 2016. Where are they going for their TV fix?

The Convergence report estimates Netflix Canada currently has around 4.9 million subscribers. The Canadian streaming market has also been bolstered by the entry of local SVODs Shomi and CraveTV, and the recent launch of the Sportsnet Now streaming service by media giant Rogers Media.

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