Canada Forces Cable Unbundling of All-News Channels

The CRTC ordering carriers to offer Sun News Network, either in a package or a la carte, could mean a lifeline or death blow for the loss-making conservative channel.

TORONTO -- Canada has started ordering domestic carriers to unbundle their TV channel offerings.

The CRTC, the country's TV watchdog, on Thursday compelled cable and satellite TV operators to offer all Canadian news channels, either in channel packages or à la carte, to its customers by May 18, 2014.

The decision will be watched closely by American broadcasters and carriers, in case a precedent is set in Canada for Washington, D.C. to follow as it considers cable unbundling for the U.S. market.

After all, the CRTC has effectively launched cable unbundling across Canada, initially for 24/7 news channels.

The move also provides a possible lifeline to Sun News Network, the all-news conservative channel facing do-or-die competition from rivals CBC News Network and CTV News Channel.

The loss-making Sun News Network earlier this year failed in a bid to secure mandatory carriage from the CRTC to ensure what it claimed would be its survival.

At the same time, the regulator conceded upstart news channels faced distribution obstacles from cable and satellite TV carriers.

So the CRTC has responded by ordering carriers to offer all news channels, without compelling Canadians to subscribe to Sun News Network, dubbed by critics as Fox News North.

"Canadian news services are an important part of our democracy," said CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais in a statement Thursday.

"With the rules we are announcing today, Canadians, as citizens, will have access to the news services that are of interest to them and will therefore have an opportunity to be exposed to a variety of opinions on matters of public concern," he added.

The Canadian news network ruling also opens the door here to cable and satellite TV subscribers no longer having to purchase expensive packages of local, U.S. and other foreign channels, and just be able to buy the TV channels they want to view.

The CRTC is responding to a consumer-friendly policy from the ruling Conservatives in Ottawa to fend off growing support for opposition parties like the NDP and the Liberals.

Domestic carriers have already moved to introduce a partial a la carte system for cable and satellite TV subscribers as Netflix Canada and other U.S. digital platforms increasingly draw Canadians online to view TV content.

Critics warn some Canadian TV channels will disappear and pricing for surviving channels will rise if they cannot be protected and promoted when packaged with more popular domestic and foreign channels.