Tag Archives: Videotron

Videotron makes HD customers a bit happier

TSN in SD (left) and HD (right)

If you’re one of those Videotron digital subscribers who had TSN and/or Rogers Sportsnet in standard definition but didn’t feel like coughing up $3 a month to get the same channels in HD, now you won’t have to.

Last week (in the middle of the Olympics), the cable provider unlocked TSN HD (660), Sportsnet HD (661) and TSN2 HD (681) for subscribers who had the equivalent channels in SD (TSN2 comes with TSN). That’s not an insignificant number of subscribers, since TSN and Sportsnet are in a lot of packages, including the very popular Anglo package.

When I asked her about it this week, Videotron vice-president Isabelle Dessureault said the company had come to new agreements with Bell (TSN) and Rogers (Sportsnet) that allow the channels to fit in with Videotron’s pricing structure. Under Videotron’s system, anyone who pays the HD service fee and adds a channel to their lineup gets it in both standard and high definition. The $3/month sports package was the only exception to that system until now.

The new contract comes into effect on Sept. 1, Dessureault said, so customers will stop being billed the extra $3 fee as of that date (pro-rated depending on each customer’s billing cycle).

But why are the channels being unblocked if people are still being charged? Dessureault said the company is still bound by its previous agreement until Sept. 1, so has to keep charging the way it did. But whether the channel is unblocked or not is decided in a different way, usually at the discretion of the broadcaster. She admitted it may not make much sense logically, but it’s the way they have to operate.

People interested in saving a few cents can call up Videotron customer service and ask to cancel the package immediately.

Videotron wouldn’t say how many people subscribe to the $3/month sports HD package.

New HD channels coming

Sports channels aren’t the only new HD channels some people are going to be seeing on Videotron. The company confirmed via social media that Showcase, Food Network and HGTV will be launching in HD soon.

I’m told the date is Aug. 29, and that they will be on channels 676, 682 and 683, respectively. (The last two don’t correspond to SD channels – 102 and 103 – but 602, 603, 702 and 703 are already assigned.) As with other channels, those who have the SD channel and pay the HD service fee get the HD version without extra charge.

Also launching Aug. 29 with a free preview is Nat Geo Wild Canada, SD only, at Channel 118. The Shaw-owned channel launched earlier this year and is available on Shaw and Rogers systems.

Finally, Videotron is adding Prise 2 HD, which sounds really strange because Prise 2 airs reruns of old shows. TVA says it’s launching it in HD because it plans to introduce original nostalgia-themed programming.

The additions will help quell some complaints about Videotron’s poor selection among English HD channels (Showcase was definitely a noticeably absent one). But the company still lags far behind Bell in English HD selection. Other channels that should be on Videotron’s list include MuchMusic, Comedy and secondary Movie Network channels (currently the main channel and HBO Canada are the only ones in HD, leading MExcess, MFest and MFun in SD only).

UPDATE (Aug. 31): The HD channels and Nat Geo Wild launched as scheduled on those channels. Prise 2 has launched on channel 695.

The beginning of the end for analog cable at Videotron

Remote controls for Videotron illico boxes will be needed soon in all homes with television service.

Do you have analog cable with Videotron? According to the statistics, probably not. The cable provider has managed to move more than three-quarters of its TV subscribers to the illico digital service, and the number of residential analog cable subscribers is quite low. A lot of 80-year-old West Island grandmothers who still think they’re getting service from CF Cable TV.

Anyway, last week Videotron took the first step toward dismantling its analog service by issuing a stop-sell order on new analog cable television subscriptions. Existing customers will continue to have service, but should expect to be forced into digital cable some time over the next few years.

How long exactly isn’t clear. Videotron vice-president Isabelle Dessureault wouldn’t put an exact date on it. But a timeframe of, say, 18 months is realistic, giving the company all of 2013 to make the transition.

You can read more about Videotron’s plans in an article I wrote for Wednesday’s Gazette, and another I wrote for the website Cartt.ca (subscription required).

This transition particularly affects the West Island, because it’s an area with a lot of analog television subscribers, and the western region of Montreal that Videotron inherited from CF Cable is the one that still has the most analog channels (55, according to a website that tracks Videotron’s network in detail, though that includes TVA’s Télé-Achats, which has just been shut down.) Some services have already been pulled off analog cable, like YTV and CMT.

Videotron has already started making this transition in Gatineau, where it killed the analog Telemax service and reduced its analog cable offering to a bare-minimum 30 channels (mostly local stations and must-carry channels). There, it offered free set-top boxes for existing analog customers (and free 36-month rentals for those who have a digital subscription with additional sets on analog cable). Dessureault wouldn’t say whether similar offers would be made in Montreal, but expect something along those lines. Dessureault explained that most set-top boxes are subsidized by Videotron – even the ones people buy – so the lower the price the higher the amount of the subsidy. It would probably be worth it to free up all that space and charge people more for more channels (not to mention prevent people from moving to Bell), but we’re talking about a serious outlay of cash to get thousands of homes set up with these boxes.

Don’t worry too much about losing your service right away. Videotron will walk people through the transition when it eventually happens.

6 MHz is a lot of space

It’s hard to understate what the disappearance of analog cable would do for Videotron’s ability to pump out more service. Each of those 55 channels is 6 MHz wide (the same bandwidth as an over-the-air television channel). In the space of each of those analog signals, Videotron could, through its QAM digital encoding, put through seven standard-definition channels or two high-definition channels, Dessureault tells me. An analysis of Videotron’s encoding system shows those numbers are actually higher, with some of those 6 MHz channels carrying three HD channels and as much as a dozen standard-definition ones. (The difference is compression – the more compressed the signal, the more channels you can fit in that block, but the lower the quality.)

Analysis of a 6 MHz Videotron QAM block at illicotech.com shows 12 SD channels and six audio streams in a space that would have been used for a single analog television channel

Doing the math, those 55 analog channels could become 165 new HD channels in addition to the 71 Videotron already has. In other words, tripling its current offering. Or it could become more than 600 new standard-definition channels, which I’m pretty sure is far more than the number of local TV stations and specialty channels that exist in this country.

Most likely Videotron will use the new frequencies to boost the number of SD channels and the number of HD channels, as well as the amount of bandwidth related to video-on-demand service and cable Internet (Videotron wants to particularly improve upload speeds, making the network more symmetrical in upload vs. download). All of this must share the same cable and so must be separated out on different frequencies.

The pressure is definitely being felt most in HD channels. Videotron is adding a handful every year, but space is at a premium. Videotron’s French HD selection is quite good. Well, it has to be, since no French-language commercial television service is going to be successful in Canada if it’s not on Videotron. But in English HD channels, Videotron lags behind Bell TV, which is aggressively trying to woo potential customers in the Montreal area with its fibre-optic Fibe service. Videotron only recently added such popular channels as Space and Discovery in high definition, and it’s still missing Showcase, Food Network and HGTV (though Videotron will add those three by the end of the month). MuchMusic, OLN, Comedy Network, CTV News Channel and YTV are other channels that should be high on the list of HD channels to be added to the grid.

And, of course, there’s still the continuing cry from customers to add AMC. Sorry, wish I had good news about that one. Videotron is aware of demands for it, but it seems discussions between Videotron and AMC haven’t borne fruit yet.

An unnecessary money grab?

After the Gazette piece was published, I got an email from someone who was thinking this move was more about Videotron wanting to push people off analog cable than it wanting more space for HD channels. A Cult MTL piece discussing this issue also frames it as a screw-the-poor move by Videotron.

While I don’t doubt for a second that Videotron’s main goal is profit, I have no reason to doubt its explanation. It has a bit of room left for new HD channels, but by 2014 it will be extremely limited, and the number of new channels and number of existing ones upgrading to HD will only grow.

Before saying they’re screwing customers, let’s see if they actually do it first. If Videotron offers set-top boxes for free (or as a free rental), as well as a digital channel package that gives the same channels for the same price, the net cost difference to the customer will be zero, combined with a hefty equipment subsidy on the part of Videotron.

This news was also discussed on DSL Reports and Reddit.

Specialty channel war is screwing customers

UPDATE (Nov. 23): We have a truce! RDS2 has come to Videotron, while TVA’s channels including TVA Sports and Sun News are coming to Bell TV.

This fall, two new all-sports networks are being launched. One, RDS2, is owned by Bell Media. The other, TVA Sports, is owned by Quebecor’s Groupe TVA.

Personally, I think this is good news. Competition for viewers will do good things, like bring Montreal Impact games to the TV screen. And the CRTC has determined that sports channels – currently the most profitable format – are healthy enough that they shouldn’t be restricted from competition. (Not healthy enough for Radio-Canada and Rogers to jump in the fray, but still healthy).

But you can’t get TVA Sports if you’re a subscriber to Bell TV. And it’s not clear if you’ll be able to get RDS2 if you subscribe to Videotron (it has deals with only Bell and Shaw so far). That may change (RDS2 is most likely doomed to failure if it can’t get Videotron carriage), but even if it’s just a delay, this is yet another example of two companies whose affiliated television distribution services are giving undue preference to their affiliated specialty channels.

Another example in the sports sphere is TSN Habs, a part-time regional offshoot of the TSN channel that has regional English-language broadcast rights to some Canadiens games. It’s available on Bell TV, but not on Videotron, despite Videotron’s huge subscriber base in Quebec, where I understand the Canadiens are popular – even among anglophones.

Sports isn’t the only type of channel where this problem exists. In the past few years, broadcasters have applied for and received dozens of licenses for unregulated specialty channels – the so-called “Category 2” channels that aren’t protected from competition and have low requirements for Canadian and original content. In exchange for some liberties in programming, the channels have no guaranteed carriage, so cable and satellite companies can choose whether or not to include them in their lineups, and the broadcasters can choose to charge whatever they would like.

Quebecor has been particularly active in this field, launching a bunch of new channels (including TVA Sports), many of them in high definition. In all cases, those channels are immediately carried on Quebecor-owned Videotron’s cable system, but few of them are on Bell TV.

To give you an idea of what’s going on here, I’ve compiled a table below of specialty channels owned by the big cable and satellite companies (Cogeco is included for reference, but doesn’t own any specialty channels). I’ve limited the list to those channels that are either Category 2 (unregulated, with no guaranteed carriage) or that have high-definition feeds available.

I’ve marked in bold where a service is offered by the affiliated distributor that is not offered by at least two of its competitors, suggesting undue preference. I’ve marked in red where the opposite is true, where a service is not offered by the affiliated company but is offered by at least one competitor.

Channel Owner Bell TV Videotron Shaw Direct Cogeco Rogers Cable
Discovery Bell Media (64%) SD/HD SD* SD SD SD*
Space Bell Media SD/HD SD SD SD SD
MuchMusic Bell Media SD/HD SD SD SD SD/HD
MuchMoreRetro Bell Media X SD X SD(O) SD
MuchLOUD Bell Media X SD X SD(O) SD
Much Vibe Bell Media SD SD X SD(O) SD
PunchMuch Bell Media SD SD X SD(O) SD
Comedy Gold Bell Media SD SD X SD(O) SD
Investigation Discovery Bell Media SD SD X SD(O) SD
Discovery World Bell Media (64%) HD HD HD HD HD
ESPN Classic Bell Media (80%) SD SD SD SD SD
NHL Network Bell Media (17%) SD SD SD SD SD
TSN2 Bell Media (80%) SD/HD SD/HD SD/HD SD/HD SD/HD
TSN Habs Bell Media (80%) SD/HD X SD/HD X X
LCN Groupe TVA SD SD/HD SD SD/HD(Q) SD
CASA Groupe TVA SD SD SD SD(Q) SD
Prise 2 Groupe TVA SD SD SD SD(Q) SD
Mlle Groupe TVA Dec. 15 SD/HD SD SD/HD(Q) X
TVA Sports Groupe TVA Dec. 15 SD/HD SD/HD X X
Sun News Groupe TVA Dec. 15** SD/HD SD SD/HD(O)** SD**
Yoopa Groupe TVA Dec. 15 SD/HD SD SD/HD(Q) X
Showcase Shaw Media SD/HD SD SD/HD SD/HD(O) SD/HD
Showcase Diva Shaw Media SD SD SD SD SD
Action Shaw Media SD SD SD SD SD
BBC Canada Shaw Media (80%) SD SD SD SD SD
DejaView Shaw Media SD SD SD SD SD
DIY Network Shaw Media (80%) SD SD SD SD(O) SD
Dusk Shaw Media SD SD SD SD SD
Fox Sports World Canada Shaw Media (58%) X SD SD SD SD
Global Reality Shaw Media X X X X SD
Food Network Shaw Media SD/HD SD SD SD SD
History Television Shaw Media SD/HD SD SD/HD SD/HD(O) SD/HD
HGTV Canada Shaw Media SD/HD SD SD/HD SD SD
Movietime Shaw Media SD SD SD SD/HD(O) SD/HD
Rogers Sportsnet One Rogers SD/HD X SD/HD SD(O)/HD(O) SD/HD
Sportsnet Sens/Flames/
Oilers/Vancouver Hockey
Rogers SD/HD X X SD(O) SD/HD
OLN Rogers SD SD SD SD SD/HD
Setanta Sports Rogers SD/HD SD SD/HD SD(O) SD/HD

(Q)/(O): Denotes channels that Cogeco carries in Quebec or Ontario only.

*Discovery World HD, a separately licensed channel, is available on Videotron.

**The situation with Sun News is complicated by the fact that a conventional TV station was broadcasting its content. Rogers, Cogeco and Bell carried the conventional signal, but Sun News asked Bell to pull the channel or start paying for it.

You can see in the chart 12 instances among the 37 channels where there is evidence of undue preference. This does not necessarily prove such a thing – there could be all sorts of reasons to choose whether or not to carry a channel – but it’s annoying nonetheless for customers who want a certain channel and can’t get it for no apparent reason other than it’s owned by the wrong cable company.

You’ll also see four (UPDATE: five) instances where a service isn’t offered by the affiliated company. It’s worth noting that all of those services predate their ownership by the affiliated cable/satellite company.

The CRTC actually has a rule against this sort of thing. It’s called “undue preference”, and it is supposed to prevent just this sort of thing. The problem is that it’s hard to prove. Negotiations between broadcasters and distributors are secret, and we don’t know how much each distributor is paying for each channel.

Still, this may come to a head soon. Sun News has filed a complaint with the CRTC alleging undue preference on the part of Bell when it pulled the station’s signal and refused to pay for it.

Hopefully the CRTC will take a close look at this issue and do something about it before the flood of new channels makes the problem – and viewers’ frustrations – even worse.

Quebecor begins hypocritical outrage campaign

UPDATE (Sept. 20): QMI Agency has published a joke of a news article by Raphaël Gendron-Martin. It quotes only TVA’s Pierre Dion bashing Bell and Cogeco for not carrying TVA Sports, and makes no apparent attempt to contact Cogeco or Bell for comment. The hit piece appears in the Journal de Montréal (on the front page), 24 Heures, TVA Nouvelles and Argent (twice). Dion also appeared on LCN and TVA’s Salut Bonjour, where again no apparent attempt was made to contact Cogeco or Bell for comment, no mention was made of RDS2 or TSN’s Habs channel not being on Videotron, and Dion went unchallenged on anything he said. (In the case of Salut Bonjour, it’s clear host Gino Chouinard is being fed his questions and even refers to Dion as “boss” at the end.)

Despite what I am unfortunately forced to conclude (to use Dion’s logic) was an organized misinformation campaign from Quebecor that abused its media power, Cogeco did respond by way of an open letter (PDF) that was also published on Facebook. Cogeco said it was interested in carrying TVA Sports and even made an offer that TVA refused.

No (public) word yet from Bell.

I sent an email to Gendron-Martin asking him about his article. He responded by pointing to full-page piece in Tuesday’s paper by Danny Joncas, which quotes representatives of Bell and Cogeco. Gendron-Martin did not respond to questions about why he didn’t contact Bell or Cogeco before writing his piece, nor why he didn’t mention Videotron not carrying RDS2, nor whether he was ordered by his employer to write this article in this way.

Joncas’s reaction piece was not posted online, either by the Journal or by any other QMI website. The original article from Gendron-Martin still appears on those websites unaltered, with no indication that there has since been a response.

Joncas’s piece quotes both Bell and Cogeco saying these negotiations should be conducted privately instead of in the media, and that both are negotiating with TVA. It also says TVA rejected Cogeco’s offer because it wanted better placement in Cogeco’s specialty channel packages.

UPDATE (Sept. 23): The CRTC has released new rules concerning this issue (press release, decision, Globe and Mail story). It offers some specific rules (no mobile/Internet exclusivity deals for TV programs), but also includes a lot of rules barring things that are “unreasonable” or “excessive”, which leaves a lot of room for disagreement over what qualifies as unreasonable.

It also pushes off a lot of decisions until later, including whether cable and satellite companies should be required to offer à la carte subscriptions (though they seem to be moving in that direction).

Whether those new rules will change how these big telecom companies deal with each other is to be seen.

Community lacking in community TV

The CRTC will be holding a hearing this month about community television, and at least one group is hoping they will close loopholes (or even just curb abuses that aren’t even loopholes) that allow cable companies to use these channels as promotional arms.

The CRTC requires cable companies to devote 5% of their gross revenues to Canadian programming. Of that, 2% must go to a community channel, kind of like those “cable access channels” we hear about in the U.S.

Even though it’s a very small fraction of their money, the cable companies decided they would put it to good use. Instead of just giving it over to an independent community broadcaster, they’d run their own community networks. Rogers uses the moniker RogersTV. With Videotron, it’s VOX. Shaw TV, TVCogeco, you get the idea.

The problem with having the cable companies in control is that this can lead to abuses. Rogers is being accused of having too much advertising. Others of not keeping proper records (which, admittedly, is a chronic problem for many low-budget broadcasters).

But the biggest problem seems to be that the programming itself isn’t fulfilling its mandate:

The CRTC audits found that Cogeco, Rogers, Shaw, and Persona all classified staff-produced news and other programming-even MTV promos in one instance-as “access programming”. Some Eastlink systems reported no access programming at all.

“The CRTC’s data show that Canada’s ‘community’ channels have become promotional tools for cable companies,” said Catherine Edwards, spokesperson for CACTUS.

A look at VOX, Videotron’s community channel, and you can see what they mean. A show devoted to TVA’s Star Académie. A show put together by a (former) Quebecor-owned weekly newspaper. Quebecor personalities are all over the schedule.

Sure, there’s the “Mise à jour [city name here]”, and the half hour where they show traffic cameras. But I don’t see much access here, nor do they make obvious how someone could get involved.

Perhaps the era of community television is over. We no longer need cable access when we have Internet access. People can just put their videos on YouTube. (Ratings certainly suggest that, with market shares of 0.1 and 0.2%.)

But until the CRTC makes that determination, cable companies should start playing by the rules – the spirit as well as the letter.

UPDATE (May 15): La Presse’s Marc Cassivi also thinks Vox isn’t doing what it should as far as community programming.

Want choice with Bell TV? Move to Quebec

Bell TV (formerly Bell ExpressVu) announced on Friday that it will begin offering à la carte packages for customers in Quebec, in an obvious response to Videotron, which already offers à la carte packages.

Here’s a comparison chart to give you an idea of how they match head-to-head on à la carte packages:

Package Videotron Bell TV
Basic + 15 à la carte $37 $40
Basic + 20 à la carte $39 $44
Basic + 30 à la carte $47 $47
1 extra channel $2 $2
5 extra channels $5 N/A ($2×5=$10)
10 extra channels $10 N/A ($2×10=$20)
15 extra channels N/A ($5+$10=$15) $15
20 extra channels $15 $19
30 extra channels N/A ($10+$15=$25) $22

Both Bell and Videotron tack on a $3 “network access fee” and a 1.5% LPIF fee, neither of which are included in their advertised prices (and aren’t included in this table). None of the prices include installation, equipment rental, or bundle rebates (which is why Bell’s basic rates are $10 more than advertised).

It’s no coincidence that Bell’s basic + 30 is the same price as Videotron’s, that’s the whole point behind Bell’s offering, which is only available in Quebec. People in Ontario who might want to benefit from this aren’t allowed to for no good reason other than Bell is better able to screw them over.

CBC asked the Competition Bureau about this obviously targetted pricing, but they said it would actually increase competition between Bell and Videotron in Quebec, and be good for consumers here. That’s true, but it’s obviously unfair to consumers in Ontario and elsewhere who won’t have à la carte packages for the sole reason that Bell doesn’t have a competitor in those areas willing to offer that option.

The CRTC should look into this, and consider requiring direct-to-home satellite providers to give the same options to customers in all areas unless provincial or local regulations make different demands.

UPDATE: Elias Makos points out something I hadn’t noticed: Bell excludes a number of popular channels from its à la carte offering, including CNN, A&E, TLC, MuchMusic and Teletoon. You have to get a separate package for that.

In related news, Bell will also be offering remote DVR programming using Sling Media technology. This will be useful for people who forget to set their DVR to record a show while they’re gone – now they can go online and remotely program it from the office or wherever they are.

Welcome, TSN2

tsn2

On Wednesday morning, TSN2 went live on Videotron’s Illico digital cable feed, on Channel 61 (681 in HD). GOL TV, which formerly occupied No. 61, has moved to 58. Channel 661 (the more logical place for the HD feed) is Rogers SportsNet HD, which will no doubt cause some confusion because SportsNet East SD is 81.

The channel is free for anyone who has access to TSN. Similarly for the HD feed.

TSN2 isn’t quite like any other channel. Its license actually requires it to mostly duplicate content from the main channel with a three-hour delay. And that’s because the license for the network wasn’t designed for the purpose TSN is branding it to become (essentially a Canadian equivalent of ESPN2).

Here’s the deal: TSN is a national network airing mostly live sporting events (hockey, football, curling, all the good stuff). But live game of the major sports leagues are also really finnicky about television rights. Some of them might enforce a blackout on local television coverage if the arena isn’t sold out for a home game. Others have exclusive deals with a local station or network, and so require regional blackouts. Others take their orders from Zorxon the Great and just declare blackouts randomly. So a sports network like TSN (and particularly the Rogers SportsNet regional networks) would be required to black out its programming for certain regions.

To help with this problem, the CRTC allowed TSN to split its network, both timewise – having a west coast feed on a three-hour delay – and to substitute other programming to replace blackouts, like another game. To make sure that TSN didn’t use this privilege to create a second network, they limited the amount of replacement programming to 10% of the schedule, which works out to 2.4 hours a day.

In 2008, TSN decided to rebrand this split network and “launch” what it called TSN2. Now there would be ads about what’s on this new network (that ran on all of CTV’s television properties), and the fact that it’s 90% the same as TSN was downplayed as much as possible. Besides, 2.4 hours means they can do what they want between 8pm and 10pm every day. Important events would air on TSN, but equally important events that happened at the same time would air instead on TSN2, and the network made sure everyone knew about that.

The reaction from the public was predictable. Having been told that their favourite sports programming would air on a network that they didn’t have access to, they followed TSN’s instructions (“For more information about TSN2, viewers are encouraged to contact their television provider“) and began badgering their cable and satellite providers. One by one they folded, and began carrying the second network.

Videotron was one of the holdouts, but it was just a matter of time before they too were forced to add the channel. There was a petition, a Facebook group, and all sorts of rumours about when Videotron would add the channel to its Illico digital cable lineup (Pierre Trudel had it “concrete” that it would launch Sept. 30).

This week the rumours were confirmed by various sources inside Videotron, and the service went live as scheduled. TSN sent out a press release about it, boasting that it’s now in 4.5 million Canadian homes and is the most-watched digital cable sports network.

I’m certainly not opposed to more sports networks. Even the CRTC has admitted it’s time to deregulate them and allow them to compete. Still, I think TSN should just ask for a license for another sports network to air separate programming. Instead, it will eventually go back to the CRTC and say that this arrangement is unworkable, and that it needs more leeway for more alternative programming (no doubt playing it as being better for the consumer) and the CRTC will cave, basically handing TSN the keys to a new specialty sports network.

In the meantime, I won’t say no to the channel. I’m just glad I don’t have to pay extra for it.

My new, cheap remote control

My new remote, much like the old one

My new remote, much like the old one

Yesterday, I did something stupid.

Actually, I did many things stupid. First, I put my glass of orange juice on a table I knew perfectly well wasn’t stable. Then I wasn’t careful when I sat down, knocking the table and causing the glass to spill onto my remote controls.

Then, thinking I was brilliant, I decided to rinse the orange juice off my Videotron illico remote (taking the batteries out first to avoid short-circuits). It worked, in that the orange juice stickiness was gone. But being impatient, I put the batteries back in after only a couple of hours (the case was dry, but the internals were still soaked), and shortly thereafter started smelling the familiar scent of a blown capacitor.

So I was in the market for a new remote (I suppose I could have just tried to replace the capacitor, but I can’t open the remote without breaking it and I value my sanity). It had been hours, and not only is walking the six feet to the television a horrible idea to even ponder, but the thought of pressing the “CH+” button a hundred times to switch between CTV and the Comedy Network made me want to shoot myself in the head.

Since the Illico remote has special functions (that aren’t accessible on the box itself), I didn’t want to get a general universal remote, and lose something important like the on-screen guide navigation. Looking at Videotron’s website and that of electronics retailer Future Shop, I found both quoting a new Videotron-branded remote at $35. Thirty-five dollars for a plastic case, some buttons and an infrared transmitter. I’d blame Quebec union labour, but these things were made in South Korea.

Rather than pay that ridiculous price, I headed down to cheap electronics store Addison Electronique. They specialize in raw electronics. If you need a resistor, a switch or a breadboard, that’s where you go. They suggested a similar remote that they said was compatible with Illico boxes, and it only costs $8.

Left: Videotron-branded RT-U49C-15+. Right: Pioneer BR-360

Left: Videotron-branded RT-U49C-15+. Right: Pioneer BR-360

Though the Videotron remote is Videotron-branded, it’s hardly unique. Rogers, Time Warner and other digital cable providers use identical remote controls and boxes by the same manufacturers, with only the branding changed. The Pioneer remote is supposed to go with a Pioneer-made digital cable box, but has a similar design and uses the same codes as the one used by Videotron.

I took a chance (Addison has a no-refunds-no-exchanges-it-doesn’t-matter-if-it’s-an-empty-box-you-ain’t-getting-your-money-back policy), took the remote home and it worked perfectly once I got the AAs in.

The differences are minor. Missing on the knockoff remote are the “all” and “mode” buttons, the # button for HD zooming, the M1/M2 memory buttons and the favourite button, none of which I ever use. The device buttons don’t light up, and there are a few buttons (Menu, help, day +/-) that don’t do anything. But all the important stuff (guide, info, A/B/C, VCR-style controls for video on demand, and the usual remote functions) work fine.

In fact, I discovered the new remote had an extra feature the old one didn’t: it communicates properly with my television set, something the old one never could achieve despite hours of entering programming codes. I can now remotely turn on and off the TV (and control its volume) with the same remote I use to change the channel.

So, if this new remote does all the same functions and is essentially equivalent in every way that matters, why does Videotron’s remote cost more than four times as much?

UPDATE (Nov. 29): $8 too expensive for you? It’s only $5 at Acces Electronique on the West Island.

CRTC Roundup: Details on CJNT/CHCH sale

The CRTC has called a hearing for Aug. 24 to hear Channel Zero’s proposal to buy CJNT Montreal and CHCH Hamilton. The application includes some goodies we didn’t hear about in the announcement in June.

The purchase price for both stations is $12, specifically:

  • Land $3.00
  • Buildings $3.00
  • Other Fixed Assets $3.00
  • Goodwill $3.00

The stations would be financed through a loan of $4 million from CIBC and Brian C. Hurlburt, and $3 million from Channel Eleven. That would go to increasing the size of CHCH’s newsroom and creating a new production facility at CJNT, plus eventually changing both stations to digital.

Canwest can pull out of the deal if CRTC approval is not given by Aug. 31. Channel Zero expects the CRTC will make a decision on the same day as the hearing, I guess.

The proposed programming grid for CHCH would be as follows:

  • Weekdays: News and local progamming from 5:30am to 7pm, followed by two movies, news from 11-12, a repeat of the prime-time movies and a really-late-night movie from 4am to 5:30am
  • Weekends: News and local programming from 6am to 1pm, followed by two movies, a one-hour 6pm newscast, two more movies, a one-hour 11pm newscast, and then three repeats of movies shown that day

The proposed programming grid for CJNT would look like this:

  • Local ethnic programming in the morning and during the evening supper hours (four hours a day total)
  • Music videos during the day
  • International ethnic movies during prime time
  • Movies (it’s not clear if this would be ethnic or not) overnight

On how they’ll bring the stations to get rich quick modest profit:

A short answer is that we will, if the application is approved, focus each of these stations on their core competency; news and local programming at CHCH and relevant and local multi-cultural programming at CJNT. We will not be relying on expensive first run U.S. programming and therefore we can bring the stations to modest profitability in a relatively short time frame.

A table of financial projections optimistically shows CJNT showing a profit as early as fiscal 2011, mainly due to the assumption that local advertising sales will have more than tripled by then, from $1.2 million a year to $4.3 million, despite the fact that they’re replacing first-run U.S. shows by less-expensive movies in prime-time.

Similarly, ad sales at CHCH are expected to recover to $43 million a year (on par with pre-recession levels, optimistic since more than 80% of that advertising came from non-news programming which Channel Zero would be getting rid of), which combined with spending $30 million a year less on programming expenses, and the CRTC’s new taxes on cable companies, would result in seven-figure profits beginning in fiscal 2012. Without its projected $4 million a year from fee for carriage (it predicts a “75% likelihood” for that “by 2011”), the station would stay in the red until 2014.

Channel Zero is also asking for changes to the licenses for CHCH and CJNT. Among them:

  • Deletion of a requirement for CHCH to have a minimum level of “priority programming” (things like Canadian dramas and news magazines). It argues such requirements are not asked of small stations, only of large broadcast groups.
  • Deletion of a requirement at CHCH for an independent monitoring committee, since these are related to Canwest’s cross-ownership of various media which Channel Zero does not have
  • Deletion of a requirement for CHCH to air four hours a week of described video (with the understanding that the station would use described video where available)
  • Removal of a requirement for CHCH to have distinct programming from Global’s CIII-TV Toronto, which becomes moot if CHCH isn’t owned by Canwest.
  • Deletion of a requirement for CJNT to make sure 25% of its films are Canadian (Channel Zero argues there aren’t enough foreign-language Canadian films to make that feasible – and it will abide by other Canadian content requirements)
  • Deletion of a requirement for French-language non-ethnic programming. Canwest twice asked to be relieved of this requirement, and was turned down twice by the CRTC. Channel Zero argues the station must focus on one market for non-ethnic programming, and the French market is already saturated here. It’s hard not to agree with that logic.
  • Increase in minimum requirements for local ethnic programming from 13.5 hours to 14 hours per week

The Canadian Media Guild’s Lise Lareau looks a bit skeptically at Channel Zero’s plans for CHCH in Hamilton, notably the requested license amendment to remove the requirement to air Canadian dramas and movies in prime time.

UPDATE: The CHCH union, which has agreed to support the sale in principle, is grieving Canwest’s plan to wind up its pension plan before the sale.

Campus/community radio review

The CRTC is undergoing a broad-based review of its policies for campus and community-based radio stations. Among the questions it’s asking:

  • Should campus and community stations be treated differently?
  • Should high school stations be licensed?
  • What kind of programming requirements should they have?
  • Should low-power “micro” radio stations be licensed or exempt from license?
  • How much advertising should they be limited to?

The deadline for comments is Sept. 11. The hearing is Nov. 30 in Gatineau.

Not so bold

After being slapped on the wrist for violating terms of license, the CBC has made good on its promise to request an amendment to change the nature of its specialty channel known as Bold. Formerly called Country Canada, the channel was licensed as a network for rural Canadians from a “rural perspective”, but since its transformation into bold (they don’t capitalize the B, so as to remain edgy or something) it’s basically been a network to throw leftovers at. It airs everything from drama reruns to soccer games.

The CBC’s argument for the change boils down to this:

There is insufficient programming from a “rural perspective” to program the service.

Sorry farm people, but you’re just not interesting enough for a whole channel, even with Heartland and Corner Gas.

New programming categories

Since the CRTC announced that it would allow specialty networks access to all programming categories when asked, they’ve gotten some requests for exactly that.

Astral Media is asking for access to all programming categories for Canal Vie, Canal D, Historia, MusiMax, VRAK.tv, Ztélé and MusiquePlus

TVA has received approval for Les idées de ma maison to air up to 10% animated programming. Argent and Mystère have access to a slew of new programming categories, everything from religious programming to feature films and music videos, so long as they fit with the channels’ themes and don’t compete with other networks and don’t go above 10% of the broadcast day. Prise 2 also gets categories added (see below)

Prise 2 must keep its CanCon

Prise 2 can now air TV programs that are as little as 10 years old (the previous minimum was 15) and movies as little as 15 years old (previously it was 25), as well as access more programming categories (documentaries and live sports, limited to 10% of the broadcast day). A request to reduce their CanCon requirement from 35% to 30% was denied.

Télé-Québec, Canal Savoir stay on the air

While the major networks (TVA, CTV, Global) got one-year license renewals as they sort out that fee-for-carriage thing, the smaller non-profit networks are being renewed for the full seven years.

CFTU (Canal Savoir) has been renewed for seven years with no changes to its conditions of license (except a reminder that it will need to transition to digital by August 2011).

CIVM Montreal (Télé-Québec) and its retransmitters across Quebec were also renewed until 2016, with some considerations about representation of minorities but otherwise no changes.

Corus gets more steamy

Corus Entertainment has come to an agreement to buy Sex TV and Drive-in Classics, two specialty channels, from CTVglobemedia. The next day Corus reported a $145-million quarterly loss. Last year Corus bought CLT from CTV and rebranded it VIVA.

In other news:

My cable bill and Videotron’s profits

My monthly bill to Videotron passed a milestone this month, crossing the $100 barrier and sitting at $100.38 for my Internet and digital cable.

In April 2008, the bill was $94.74 a month.

Nothing has changed in the amount of service I get. The increase of $5.64 a month is due entirely to Videotron’s price hikes:

I could understand this if Videotron’s costs were going up and it needed the extra money to stay afloat, but according to Quebecor’s financial statements, Videotron makes a shitload of money. Like, $800 million in profit off $1.8 billion in revenue. Not only are those numbers higher than any other unit of the megacorporation, but the profit margin is way, way higher than Quebecor’s newspaper or broadcasting divisions.

Even if you take amortization and capital costs out of the equation, that leaves $165 million of profit for Videotron, more than enough to cover interest payments on its $1.8 billion debt.

I’m not that great with quarterly statements, so my numbers might be off here. But Videotron is making a heck of a lot of money off me and other cable subscribers.

No wonder Canada is considered to have the most overpriced broadband Internet in the developed world.

CRTC Roundup: Videotron must closed-caption porn

We made fun of this a bit when it came out, but there was a serious policy question being asked by Videotron: Should cable companies be required to spend money closed-captioning on-demand pornography and programming aimed at preschool children who can’t read?

The month, the CRTC ruled that, well, yes, they should.

While you might think it common sense that such programs should be excluded from closed-captioning requirements, the CRTC said that children should have access to captioning so they can learn to read, and parents should have access to what their children watch. There wasn’t much discussion about the porn angle, namely that nobody cares what people are saying in pornographic movies.

In any case, the CRTC said Videotron hadn’t made a case that it’s so financially strapped that it can’t afford captioning costs, so the application was denied.

Konrad’s oopsie

The CRTC chairman said sorry for saying that conventional broadcasters like CTV and Global wouldn’t commit to taking carriage fees from cable and satellite providers and putting all that money into local programming. It turns out they were ready to make just such a commitment.

That certainly makes the TV people look better. But what guarantee would we have that they wouldn’t take back their existing funding to local stations now that this new source of revenue is available to them?

Bye Bye was wrong

You hate to still be talking about this, but the judgment is in about Radio-Canada’s Bye-Bye: It really was racist. The CRTC passed on complaints to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council and asked them to judge the show. The CBSC normally rules only on private broadcasting, but the CRTC asked them for their advice (if anything, this shows that there’s no reason the CBSC shouldn’t also deal with complaints about public broadcasting).

The CBSC’s ruling dismissed most of the complaints (though some only barely), including those about jokes on anglos, the poor, immigrants, dépanneur owners, Indian call centre operators, Julie Couillard, Céline Dion, politicians, and a single complaint saying they were unfair to GM. It also said that the show did not go over the line in its treatment of Nathalie Simard, and didn’t even hint at the abuse she suffered at the hands of Guy Cloutier, father of Bye Bye hotst Véronique Cloutier.

The council did rule that three things crossed the line:

  • Jokes against blacks, particularly the sketch involving Denis Lévesque and Barack Obama as well as comments from Jean-François Mercier about Obama being easier to shoot in front of the White House.
  • The portrayal of violence against women in a sketch involving the family of Patrick Roy.
  • The rebroadcast of the show the next evening without viewer advisories.

The racist jokes, the council said, were gratuitous and abusive. Though Radio-Canada, the show’s producers, its writers and its performers did not intend to foster racism and intended for the comments to be ironic, the council ruled that the context didn’t make this sufficiently clear, and the comments could easily have been taken at face value. It brought up a number of previous cases to support its view that comedic irony isn’t a blank cheque to make racist comments.

It’s hard not to agree with the council’s well-thought-out decision. Bye Bye didn’t intend to be racist, but it did intend to shock. And when you’re spouting racist comments just to shock people, how is that different from just being racist?

This decision is worth reading if only for the words “a rather cartoonish rabbit-like act of intercourse.”

Technically, this is just a recommendation to the CRTC. It is up to the commission to decide if it agrees, and if so what kind of sanction it will impose. Normally, private broadcasters are required to air a notice of the decision to viewers. We’ll see if the CRTC orders Radio-Canada to do the same.

More power for radio

It’s going to be a bit easier to listen to some out-of-town radio stations thanks to some CRTC approvals of power increases:

  • CKOY 104.5 FM in Sherbrooke, the sister station to Montreal’s CKOI, gets a huge power boost to up to 50,000 Watts. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to hear, especially with CBC Radio One’s second 100W transmitter at 104.7 FM in the west end. But if you’re in the Eastern townships and had trouble hearing the station, you should have much less of that now.
  • CJLM 103.5 FM in Joliette gets a modest boost from 3,000 to 4,500 Watts, which will help people on the north side of the island and on the north shore.
  • For those on the south side, they’ll be hearing FM 103.3 in Longueuil, which in the same decision saw its allowed power output grow more than five-fold. It’s still a low-power community radio station, but maybe now it won’t disappear off the dial when I hit the Plateau.

Haitian station wants change of frequency

CJWI, a Haitian AM station currently on 1610 AM, wants to change its frequency to 1410, which is where CFMB used to be. The move would put CJWI in the regular, non-extended AM band, allowing people with older radios to hear it. It also wants to increase its output power from 1kW to 10kW, and relocate its transmitter.

Rogers, small cable companies get nannied

The Canadian Cable Systems Alliance asked the CRTC to intervene in stalled negotiations it was having on behalf of small cable companies across the country with Rogers over its SportsNet service. The CRTC has the power to intervene in these cases, but it prefers not to. However, since regulations require some cable companies to carry SportsNet (and will until new regulations take effect in 2011 that deregulate the cable sports channels), it decided it must step in here. Details are kept in confidence to protect both businesses, so that’s about all we know.

Slice wants less CanCon

Canwest-owned Slice channel has noticed that its Canadian content requirements are much higher than what other specialty channels require, so it wants to get the same deal. It’s asking that its CanCon minimum programming requirement be dropped from 82.5% to 60%, and that it be forced to spend only 45% instead of 71% of revenues on Canadian programming.

City wants less CanCon movies

Citytv has asked the CRTC for a change in license that would eliminate a requirement to air 100 hours of Canadian movies each year – which works out to about a movie a week. Rogers (which owns City now) argues that it is the only conventional broadcaster that has this requirement and it shouldn’t be singled out. Canadian movie-makers say Rogers has pulled a bait and switch, praising Canadian movies when it bought the network and now quietly wanting to get rid of them.

Want Al-Jazeera?

The CRTC is opening up the can of worms about allowing Al-Jazeera English into the country. The commission had previously approved the Arabic-language version of the network, with unique requirements that distributors monitor and censor its content, something that requires far too much work for the cable and satellite companies.

The commission is considering adding the English channel to eligible foreign networks that cable and satellite can add to their lineups, but it wants comments from Canadians who might be opposed to it. They specifically want evidence of abusive comments, with tapes if possible.

More specialty channels

Conventional TV may be dying, but specialty channels are exploding like nobody’s business. The CRTC is holding a hearing on July 21 where it will listen to proposals for new networks:

  • Black Entertainment Television Canada (English and French) – self-explanatory, I would imagine.
  • Reality TV – A Canwest proposal for reality shows, DIY programs and scripted reality shows. This network was originally approved by the CRTC in 2005, but expired before Canwest could launch it, forcing them to start over from scratch.
  • AMET-TV, an African and Afro-Caribbean-themed channel that carries programming in English (70%), French (20%) and African languages (10%)
  • New Tang Dynasty Television Canada HD, a generalist network mainly in Mandarin but also other Chinese languages.

CPAC wants to be patriotic

CPAC, the politics channel that carries House of Commons proceedings among other things, is asking for permission to expand its boundaries on July 1 of each year. It wants to add three programming categories which would allow it to carry musical performance, variety, entertainment and related programming from Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill and elsewhere. A reasonable request if I’ve ever heard one, though I don’t think there are similarly specific exceptions to such rules on other channels.

A bold move

The CBC was in the process of getting slapped by the CRTC because it was violating its license with respect to Bold, a specialty channel. Formerly Country Canada, its license says it should air programming directed toward rural Canadians. But since then it’s basically been a dumping ground for whatever content the network wants to put there.

After the CRTC called a hearing, the CBC waved the white flag. It has proposed a license amendment, though one that would keep the rural focus.

Good news, bad news for Olympics

Following a request from the CRTC chairman, CTV and the CBC have been in talks about using CBC stations to broadcast French-language Olympics coverage for the tiny, tiny portion of Canadians who:

  • are unilingual francophones
  • don’t live in Quebec or within range of a TQS station
  • don’t have cable or satellite TV service
  • don’t have broadband Internet access
  • AND want to watch the Olympics in French on TV

You’d think this number would be so small as to be negligible (about 10,000 apparently fit the first three criteria), but in the spirit of political correctness, CTV (which owns the broadcast rights and is part of a giant consortium that’s covering the games) is looking at using some CBC stations to retransmit its TQS/RDS Olympics coverage over the air.

The problem is that the CBC isn’t crazy about donating the stations and getting nothing in return. Specifically, the debate is over ad revenue: CTV wants to keep it all (minus some compensation for what they would have had with their regular programming), and CBC thinks that’s crazy.

On the plus side, Corus has joined the giant consortium, which currently includes CTV (with TSN and RDS), TQS, Rogers and APTN. Corus will have Olympics coverage (though it doesn’t sound like much) on CKAC Sports as well as updates on CKOI, Info 690 and 98.5FM in Montreal.

In other news

And finally, not that anyone doubted it would happen, but the CRTC has allowed CBC Television and Télévision Radio-Canada to continue to operate for another year.

Rogers missing the point

Rogers, which appeared in front of the CRTC today to tell them it’s a bad idea to make crazy-profitable cable companies give money to on-the-brink TV broadcasters, says the whole CanCon problem is moot because it’s developing a Canadian version of Hulu which will feature CanCon.

There’s only one hitch: You have to be a Rogers cable subscriber to use it.

Perhaps CBC got it wrong, or Rogers executives are using a stretched analogy, but they seem to be talking about video on demand over digital cable, not online video.

UPDATE: This post makes it clearer: Rogers wants to setup online video in a walled garden format where you’d have password-protected access to programming based on what you’ve subscribed to on their cable system.

People in Quebec who have Videotron Illico digital TV get lots of video on demand. Plenty of TV shows can be viewed for free on the service, provided those TV shows are owned by Quebecor. Quebecor owns Videotron and TVA, so you only see TVA shows on the service.

That doesn’t sound to me like it’s solving the new media problem.

Videotron wants more money

I got a letter in the mail today from Videotron saying that they’re upping the basic digital cable price by $1 a month (plus taxes) as of March 15. I wouldn’t have minded it so much (hey, times are tough, right?) if my bill hadn’t already gone up by $1 a month (plus taxes) when Videotron decided to cancel one of my channels and then charged me a new, higher rate when I changed my lineup (because it was a “new” service).

So why are they charging more now? Well, all the investments they’re making in infrastructure (that won’t affect me), including all those jobs they’re creating in Quebec.

And those investments have made a difference, after all (emphasis mine):

Customer surveys indicate that our customers’ satisfaction level remains high; indeeed we are in the top league of suppliers of cable TV products in Québec.

Well, if Videotron is one of Quebec’s top cable TV providers, then it must be good, right? And if customer surveys reveal high satisfaction, I’d be stupid if I wasn’t satisfied too. I mean, it’s not like Videotron has an absolute monopoly over digital cable TV in this area and is abusing that to suck as much money out of customers as possible, knowing full well that their only other option is another customer service nightmare with Bell’s satellite TV.

Taking a look at parent company Quebecor’s latest quarterly financial report (PDF), I see that Videotron made $579 million in profit in the first nine months of 2008. Mind you, most of that money was taken up by amortization and capital costs, which left a paltry $150 million of actual profit from Videotron’s 1.7 million customers (which works out to about $100 profit per subscriber over nine months).

So I can really see how that extra $1 a month is vital to the future operation of Videotron’s services.

UPDATE: Rogers is also raising its cable/internet rates. Coincidence?

Super Bowl commercials FTW

The Gazette’s Denise Duguay reports that Videotron did not, in fact, substitute its NBC HD channel for CTV HD as CTV’s press release suggested it would, meaning she was one of the few Canadians to watch NBC’s Super Bowl commercials without having to hook up an antenna.

Of course, for those who want to see them, they’re all over the place online: Just for Laughs, Spike, NFL, FanHouse, YouTube, MySpace. Some include so-called “banned ads” and other attention-grabbers.

Dominic Arpin provides some of his favourite ads. But really, they all suck.

Oh, and that was a good game today, even if I could pay only half attention to it.

Videotron: Peachy

On Dec. 30, Videotron removed a channel from its digital cable service. WPCH, formerly WTBS, is an Atlanta superstation that would broadcast a lot of comedy reruns, movies and Atlanta Braves baseball games. For the past year it’s been known as Peachtree TV.

On Jan. 15, more than two weeks after the signal on Channel 115 went dark, Videotron sent out a letter to customers who had it as a custom channel selection telling them it was no longer being offered:

Letter from Videotron

The gist of it is that WPCH demanded more money for carrying the channel, and Videotron balked.

Now, I could complain that the notice came out much too late, or that there was no mention of a refund to customers who had a dead channel for weeks, or that those forced to redo their channel selection are being charged more now because of new rates established for “new services”.

Instead, I’ll refer to the “attached directory”, a pamphlet of available channels, which apparently Videotron didn’t think to update:

Peachtree listing

I have no words to describe this level of incompetence.

Broadcasting regulation nerdgasm

The CRTC got real busy last week making some big announcements/decisions/suggestions about television broadcasting regulations. Many of them are boring, minor or technical, but here are a few that aren’t:

Over-the-air carriage fees

The big one for broadcasting companies like Canwest/Global, CTV, TQS and Quebecor is the decision to reject the suggestion that “broadcast distribution units” (i.e. cable and satellite companies) should be required to pay fees to TV broadcasters who broadcast over the air freely.

This idea came out of the whole TQS saga, when the network’s owners decided that it needed the ability to somehow blackmail cable companies into giving them money. Since cable specialty channels get per-subscriber fees in exchange for their content, shouldn’t broadcast networks – whose budgets are supposedly higher because they need to produce local news – get money too?

The flip side of the coin is that these network broadcasters are broadcasting freely, using public airwaves. Cable and satellite companies are required by law to carry local broadcast channels on their basic packages. Subscribers don’t get any added value from getting over-the-air stations on cable (except, perhaps, not having to deal with rabbit ears), so why should they have to pay for them?

The CRTC’s decision was tough (emphasis mine):

CTVgm and Canwest proposed that any FFC only be made available if broadcasters meet monthly local programming requirements. However, they did not commit that the FFC, or any portion of it, would result in incremental spending on Canadian programming.

While OTA broadcasters have shown a recent decline in profitability, they, as other enterprises, might first look to their own business plans before making a request for increased revenue from the Commission. In the Proceeding, no business plans suggesting new sources of revenue were provided to the Commission. Neither the rationale for strategic initiatives by OTA broadcasters, such as recent major acquisitions, nor the basis for financing those initiatives or the impact of those initiatives on profitability were explained to the Commission at the public hearing.

The CRTC did cave on one point though: It said that so-called “distant signals” (e.g. CTV Vancouver for us Montrealers) should be able to “negotiate” carriage, in order to offset the trouble that this time-shifting business has caused. What that effectively means is that broadcasters can set rates for out-of-market broadcast stations and simply not allow their channels to be carried on other regions’ cable networks unless they pay their fees.

Broadcasters are happy with the parts of the decision that give them money, and unhappy with the ones that don’t. They’re for less regulation in the broadcasting industry, but they want corporate socialism for the “ailing” over-the-air broadcasting sector.

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