The CRTC is moving ahead with its Code of Conduct for TV service providers (TVSPs). The Code was initially announced on March 26, as a by-product of the Let’s Talk TV proceeding (Broadcasting Notice of Consultation CRTC 2015-105). Now, in its best populist spirit, the Commission is asking for public comment on its TV Code:
“Canadians sent us a strong message that they were encountering problems with their television service providers. The CRTC is acting on these comments and has prepared a draft version of a TV Code that reflects what Canadians told us. I invite them to take an active part in the discussions. Now is the time to shape your TV Code.”–CRTC Chair JP Blais, May 12, 2015 (emphasis original)
Less consulting, more research
The Commission may have the substance right, but it has the timing and execution all wrong. The idea that TVSPs provide lousy service isn’t exactly new. Much of the evidence has been anecdotal. A public consultation, however, will not make up for that shortcoming. Worse still, the idea of holding this public consultation arose from the earlier public consultation that was part of Let’s Talk TV. They’re breeding.
It turns out there is systematic evidence of the bad behavior of TVSPs. In its last full survey on subscription TV, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) found that the two most disliked companies in the industry are Time Warner Cable and Comcast.
In fact, across all the industries ACSI measures, Comcast and TWC take the prize for being the most unpopular companies of all (Massive survey finds Comcast and TWC are the two most hated companies in America – period). You know the business has a problem when the top cable guy, NCTA CEO Michael Powell, acknowledges that “people hate cable guys.” Even Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has been saying his first order of business is to fix the company’s horrendous service issues (Comcast’s Plan to Dominate the Cable Industry Failed, So It Might Start Being Nice to Customers Instead).
While this is American, not Canadian evidence, the real story here is why the Commission continues to make public consultations a stand-in for serious demand-side research. We should already have our own empirical data about exactly what Canadians dislike about their TVSPs and which take precedence over others – one of many nuances you can’t get from self-selected results.
A little late for TV? How about broadband?
The timing of the code consultation is also unfortunate. It’s launching the very month the industry is in turmoil about a decline in the TV delivery business and a corresponding move by cable-TV providers more deeply into the broadband business. Even the NCTA has been rebranding as a result: its recent Cable Show ran for the first time as the Internet and Television Expo, or INTX for short.
A recent confirmation of the TV-to-Internet shift comes from where the real money is – Comcast’s financial results. They show, as one headline reported, that “Comcast Is Now an Internet Company.” As of its current quarter, Comcast now has slightly more broadband subs than it has cable-TV subs. As the Recode item puts it, the “good news for Comcast is that it doesn’t really matter if it’s selling video or Internet, because it controls the pipe either way.”
This trend should be worrying Canada’s regulators and consumers. The control over both pipe and content that characterizes vertically integrated conglomerates (VICs) is far more typical of our market than of the US market. In Canada, four VICs (Bell, Quebecor, Rogers, Shaw), along with Cogeco, take in well over 80% of all revenues in the broadcasting sector (CRTC CMR 2014, p.35). In the Internet access business, five companies continue to control over 90% of the market by revenue: the four VICs and Telus (CRTC CMR 2014, p.186).
So what happens when these firms begin to suffer from a long-term softening of the TV business, through the relentless effects of fleeing audiences, dropping revenues, and the CRTC’s introduction of VIC-unfriendly iniiatives like skinny basic cable and pick-and-pay? They’ll exploit two market factors – their control of the Internet pipe and lack of meaningful competition – to raise prices, manipulate data caps and under-invest in network upgrades.
The irony here is that the Internet and OTT video have given broadcasters and TVSPs pause, while consumers enjoy far more choice, affordability and flexibility than TV was ever able to provide. Now it’s fast, affordable access to the Internet that needs help.
Where should this help come from? Where’s our ISP Code of Conduct?
Consider the provisions the CRTC has put into its draft TV code. They include use of plain language; clear prices and the effect of introductory discounts; customer obligations; equipment charges; and privacy policies. These kinds of consumer protections should not be treated as though they’re trapped inside your TV set. They’re all significant and contentious issues for broadband subscribers too – and in certain cases, as with privacy protections, much more so.
Canadians have a myriad of choices for getting access to TV and TV-like video. But we have only two or three options for getting residential access to the Internet, most of which are slow and expensive by international standards. Whatever comes of the TV code consultations, the CRTC would do well to start thinking about how to protect Canadian broadband subscribers as well as they intend to protect TV subscribers.