The country’s television regulators took a potentially big step in that direction on Friday — and it could reverberate in the U.S. where Big Media companies are determined to keep their lucrative pay TV packages intact. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission said that Bell Media — the country’s largest owner of cable and satellite channels — has the right to unbundle its services: A household’s payments for each channel can be pegged to the number ordered. (For example, those who want just a few channels would pay more for each one than would someone else who orders lots of services.) The ruling doesn’t require pay TV distributors to break-apart their bundles, although that’s something the regulators clearly want. Bell Media President Kevin Crull acknowledged that the ruling could result in higher prices per channel. But he says the change — which would free consumers from having to pay for channels that they don’t want — will help Canada “maintain its position as a world leader in providing consumers with both a wide array of programming choices as well as packaging flexibility, all at affordable rates.” All eyes will be on Canada’s experience: Programmers here vigorously oppose a la carte pricing. They say it could result in consumers paying more than they do now while potentially dozens of channels — especially those appealing to niche audiences — go out of business. A change also could trash the earnings of network owners that depend on collecting consumer payments for little-watched channels. The CRTC “said we want to see things move in this direction,” says George Mason University Law School Prof. Jeffrey Eisenach, who specializes in broadcast regulation. He says it’s just a matter of time before bundles become obsolete. With the advent of VOD services such as Netflix “the market is being fundamentally transformed.”
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