MONTREAL — Canadians are being asked about the so-called TV tax and the affordability of cable television and satellite services on a special website set up by the CRTC.
The federal broadcast regulator also wants Canadians to use the website to air their views on the availability of local news, information and public affairs programming.
“The TV industry is being transformed like never before,” Scott Hutton, the regulator’s executive director of broadcasting, said in a video on website, launched on Monday.
At the heart of the debate is a battle between the major television broadcasters and cable and satellite companies over who pays for TV signals.
The TV broadcasters have asked the CRTC to compel the cable and satellite operators to pay for the broadcasters’ TV signals to help maintain local stations and programming.
Cable companies have said such a fee could result in charging their customers as much as $10 a month on top of their bills to cover the extra costs.
The two sides have waged a high-profile advertising campaign, with the cable industry asking consumers to say ‘No’ to what it calls the TV tax and broadcasters appealing to consumers to save local programming.
On Monday, consumers were having their say on the affordability of local TV services section of the site, which had crashed.
“A tax for local TV?” wrote a consumer identified as Peter.
“No thanks. I would be happy to support my local station as a pay service, but please don’t force me to take other stations that are not relevant to me.”
Wrote an unnamed participant: “I, first, would be angry at the CRTC and the government for allowing this to happen. Then I would drop the services responsible for the fee increases. If I cannot drop them, I will drop others. Ultimately, I will use the Internet more and TV less.”
The CRTC said it’s looking at various options, including the possibility of negotiations between local stations and cable and satellite companies to determine the value of the signals.
Hearings are set to begin next Monday in Gatineau, Que., and Canadians have until Dec. 21 to comment online at television.askingcanadians.com.
More consumers are turning to the Internet to watch TV shows when they want and the rise of specialty channels have helped fragment advertising revenues in an already weak economy.
Telecom analyst Mark Goldberg said asking consumers if they want to pay more automatically brings in a negative response.
“So unless there’s some real value being put forward, I don’t think that you need to canvass 30 million Canadians to ask them if they want to pay more for anything,” he said.
In the end, consumers will be in the driver’s seat, said Goldberg, of Toronto-area Mark Goldberg & Associates Inc. Telecommunications Consulting.
“We’re going to choose to watch whatever content we want when we want to. One way or another it’s available in various formats.”
Law professor Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa said the Internet and the level of consumer control over how TV is watched is the “elephant in the room.”
Geist said some of the arguments put forward by broadcasters, such as pulling signals and leaving blank TV screens, highlights how the debate can be out of touch.
“Here we are sitting and debating proposals that are as if we are back in the 1960s and ’70s and consumers have no choice but to watch a program when the broadcasters tells us it will be available,” he said.
The local programming that broadcasters say needs to be save is “a bit of local news” and there are other ways to find the equivalent information, added Geist, who also holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce law.
More than 130,000 Canadians from across the country submitted comments confirming local television matters as part of an earlier CRTC public consultation that ended Nov. 2, CTVglobemedia has said.
Local TV Matters is a campaign launched by local Canadian television broadcasters to preserve local television for viewers across Canada.
Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore has said the cabinet wants the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to hold the new hearings and produce a formal report on the implications of fee-for-carriage.