Blog: A whale of a story one line at a time

As spring buying kicks into gear, PHD Canada's Rob Young breaks down Let's Talk TV into bite-sized pieces.


By: Rob Young

Have you read Moby Dick? Don’t worry if you haven’t – you’ve heard about it, right? Captain Ahab tries to kill a white whale because he’s insane but the effort ends with his own death – and that of his crew. Only Ishamael survives to tell the tale, the conclusion of which is foreshadowed from the start.

Creating a one-line synopsis of a long and complex story is challenging. And while a lot of nuance is lost in summarizing, the “one liner” gives us the core essence of the matter when time is precious and sparse.

In that spirit – for those readers who need to know “just enough, but not too much” about the Let’s Talk TV review and its impact on Canada’s TV business – I’ve created a one-line synopsis of the key CRTC decisions.

Why revisit it now? These “decisions” are in the process of being activated this fall, including the set-top box working group and arrival of pick-and-pay pricing in early 2016. Since media buyers are currently working on spring 2016, the time is right to take another look at the long list of changes the CRTC has undertaken for Canadian broadcasting.

In the interest of time I’ll skip the part about how the CRTC regulates all Canadian broadcasting and telecommunications activities and enforces rules it creates to carry out the policies assigned to it; the best-known of these being Canadian content rules. Let’s also skim over the part about how the chairman and chief executive officer Jean-Pierre Blais wants to give Canadian viewers even “more control over the choice in, and affordability of, their services.”

And I’m sure you’re all familiar with last fall’s public hearings that represented the third and final phase of the CRTC’s conversation (Let’s Talk TV) that produced all these new regulations.

So let’s get right to some of the CRTC decision one-liners.

Over-the-air transmissions, Decision 2015-24, (Jan 29, 2015)

It doesn’t matter that people don’t use rabbit ears that much, you all know that over-the-air is free, so broadcasters, you better keep giving the good people of Canada these freebie over-the-air signals or we’ll pull your station off basic cable and cut off your simulcasting privileges.

Local programming, Decision 2015-24 (Jan. 29, 2015)

We know local TV programming is really, really expensive to produce relative to revenue potential, but you broadcasters have enough money so please stop complaining about this and we promise to look into this again sometime soon.

Simultaneous substitution, Decision 2015-25, (Jan. 29, 2015)

We’re going to allow you broadcasters to continue simulcasting TV programs for the time being because we know it’s worth about $250 million, but wait for it; you can’t simulcast Super Bowl LI (February 2017) because Canadians told us they wanted to see the sexy US hamburger commercials instead of those dull old Canadian commercials even though the people can see the sexy hamburger commercials over and over and over again on the internet any time they want.

Discovering programming, Decision 2015-86, (March 12, 2015)

We’re not sure how the good people of Canada are going to discover new Canadian programs in this on-demand world and so we’re going to hold the very difficult to pronounce “Discoverability Summit” this fall – no let’s make that next year sometime – where all the stakeholders can come together and work out strategies and mechanisms and would you all please stop rolling your eyes.

Local Avails, Decision 2015-86, (March 12, 2015)

Hey cable guys – you know those four minutes an hour on the US specialty services that you use to promote stuff your company owns – well three of those four minutes (ouch) now need to be used to promote Canadian program services.

Video on demand, Decision 2015-86, (March 12, 2015)

Hey cable guys – we’ll keep our regulatory hands off you if you want to compete with Netflix with a good old made in Canada Crave/Shomi-like move and since we need to categorize these kinds of things we’ll put it under DMEO, which stands for “Digital Media Exemption Order.”

Set top box (STB) audience measurement, Decision 2015-86, (March 12, 2015)

Hey industry – we want you to set up a working group to figure out how to measure audiences using STBs and report back to us and if we don’t see “adequate progress” we just might “intervene with specific guidance,” if you get our drift.

From quantity to quality, Decision 2015-86, (March 12, 2015)

Hey broadcasters – you still need to run minimum levels of Canadian content in the evening but we’re easing the minimums for the overall broadcast day in order to encourage fewer but higher quality Canadian programs and John Doyle (Mr. Discoverability) wishes everyone good luck with that.

Entry-level cable service, Decision 2015-97, (March 19, 2015)

Hey, cable guys: starting March 2016 you’re going to offer Canadians a basic cable package for $25 max and that’s with all the priority U.S. and Canadian signals because Canadians are really bummed out over their cable bills these days and furthermore, you’ll be promoting this offer and we’ll be watching to make sure you do!

Cable bundles, Decision 2015-97, (March 19, 2015)

Hey, cable guys: by March 2016 you need to make like IKEA and offer signals to the people in the form of pick-and-pay or offer build-your-own bundles or small pre-assembled bundles and by December 2016 you need to offer the people all of these things because Canadians are really bummed out about paying for stuff they don’t watch.

Canadian signals vs. non-Canadian signals, Decision 2015-97, (March 19, 2015)

Hey cable guys: by March 2016 you need to offer more Canadian services than non-Canadian services even though the people will choose what they want in the end (see cable bundles above).

Dispute resolution, Decision 2015-97, (March 19, 2015)

You small BDUs and small independent programming services are like little kids who get bullied in the school yard; you’re afraid of tattling to the CRTC when it’s time to negotiate your affiliation agreements, so from now on, everybody is going to get a healthy dose of dispute resolution 120 days before these agreements expire.

Radio between independent and non-independent discretionary programming services, Decision 2015-97 (March 19, 2015)

Hey, you big vertically-integrated cable guys: by September 2018 you’ll need to carry one of those little independent program services for every programming service that’s part of your vertically-integrated self; that’s a 1:1 ratio, baby.

Canadians living in official-language minority communities (OLMCs), Decision 2015-97 (March 19, 2015)

Hey cable guys: we’re generally cool with the way things are going here but we’ll need to make some tech-language changes because of all the other decisions we’ve made.

Ethnic/third language programming, Decision 2015-97, March 19, 2015

Hey you cable guys: if you want to offer a non-Canadian third language service like RAI (Italian Public Broadcaster) you’ll need to offer a Canadian same-language option as well (Telelatino), so this is another one of those 1:1 ratio deals.

These CRTC decisions impact our business, and so, in the interests of brevity, here’s a one-liner summary of implication.

Canadians want to pay less for cable and only pay for what they want to watch so the service providers must alter their basic offering and rethink their program packages while competing with Netflix, which might lead to some technical changes in how TV services are delivered into Canadian’s homes and will likely kill off a bunch of specialty channels in the process, while behind-the-scenes, we fiddle with discoverability and set-top-box audience measurement. 

In summary and with apologies to Herman Melville, we could use the Moby Dick narrative as a metaphor for our industry right now. The Canadian public is like the great white whale running free in a sea of video options having escaped from the clutches of the service providers. The linear-TV business model, like Captain Ahab and his crew, is slowly sinking. And the CRTC, like Ishmael, survives by clinging to bits and pieces of floating relevance.

Rob Young oversees PHD Canada’s insight and analytic output in addition to managing mixed media modeling projects where returns on investment are determined by marketing channel for client campaigns.