OK, someone’s going to need to explain this one to me, because it doesn’t make any sense.
Conventional television broadcasters (CTV, Global, TVA, TQS and CBC/Radio-Canada) are pleading with MPs and the CRTC for the ability to charge cable and satellite distributors for fees to carry their channels. Their argument is that the advertising model has failed them, and they require a second revenue source to pay for all those local news stations and transmitters. They also say it’s unfair that specialty cable channels get subscriber fees. (Why am I paying money to networks that air non-stop Seinfeld reruns packed with ads anyway?)
Since the distributors would undoubtedly pass these fees onto their customers (despite their billions of dollars in profits), this would effectively mean that Canadians would be forced to pay for television channels that are broadcast for free over the air.
On Wednesday, Bell, whose Bell TV is one of two direct-to-home satellite services legally operating in Canada, announced it had come up with an “innovative” solution to this problem, that wouldn’t cost consumers extra, would help broadcasters and more importantly not hurt its own bottom line.
That solution is “freesat”, a system where some over-the-air television channels would be beamed to homes via satellite for free. Bell would be happy to provide this service if it meant they didn’t have to do this fee-for-carriage stuff. (It’s also easier to convince people to sign up for paid satellite service when they already have the equipment.)
So there you go, a win-win-win solution. Right?
Oh wait, not right, because this doesn’t solve anything.
Bell seems to believe that the financial problem of television stations is their upcoming transition to digital transmission. While the purchase of digital transmitters is a nontrivial problem – the CRTC’s estimate is that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars – and it has led to the decision to shut down many retransmitters, that’s not what the broadcasters are complaining about. Their argument is that the cost of local newsrooms and local programming is too high to be paid for with advertising alone. Bell’s idea would not solve this problem.
Its financial uselessness isn’t the only flaw in Bell’s Freesat plan, as Digital Home also points out. Among the others:
- Freesat would require users to purchase satellite dishes and decoders from Bell, at a cost much higher than a simple over-the-air digital-to-analog converter. One of the main reasons people don’t have cable or satellite is cost, so the people who would need this are also the people least likely to afford it.
- Not everyone has a home that can accommodate a satellite installation.
- Bell’s satellite service doesn’t carry all local conventional television channels (like, for instance, Global Quebec). This wouldn’t change under Freesat. So viewers would actually lose channels. Not to mention that the decision of what channels we’d have free access to would be Bell’s alone.
- This proposal ignores the fact that there’s a second satellite provider in Canada. How would StarChoice fit into this? Would it also have to provide free channels?
I have my issues with the transition to digital. I’ve already argued against it, and still believe that there’s plenty of room to move existing stations out of the higher channels (say, 50-69) and auction off those frequencies. Digital television would make a technology that’s been used for more than half a century obsolete unnecessarily.
Freesat is worse. The equipment is bulkier and more expensive, and it doesn’t give all local channels. It’s the worst of two worlds.
Oh by the way, if “Freesat” sounds familiar, it could be because it’s the name of a real free-to-air satellite TV service in the U.K., or because Bell is recycling this exact same idea from a year ago.
Nice try, Bell.