Updated Dec 12—Cable and entertainment behemoth Shaw Communications has released a list of steps it says it will take to ensure it markets gay and lesbian specialty television channel OutTV fairly. But the plan ignores much of the spirit of the ruling that precipitated it.
The Canadian Radio Television-telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled against Shaw on Nov 4 saying Shaw subjected the little gay channel “to an undue disadvantage with respect to the marketing of OutTV.”
Shaw is one of the country’s largest providers of cable television services with over two million subscribers in Western Canada.
The ruling found that Shaw failed to promote OutTV to its customers, positioned it on the program dial among the porn channels, failed to tell OutTV management that it was moving its channel position and excluded it alone from Shaw’s all-in programming packages.
According to CRTC regulations cable providers must carry OutTV on their digital dials and market all digital specialty channels in its class equitably.
In its ruling the CRTC gave Shaw 30 days to submit a list of fixes. In a Dec 4 letter to the CRTC, Shaw vice president Michael Ferras writes that OutTV will be moved lower on the program dial, that Shaw will revise its website and print marketing materials to include OutTV, that Shaw will extend a free preview of OutTV to new subscribers and that Shaw’s customer service reps will be informed about all the changes.
“These changes will be fully implemented on 4 February 2009,” writes Ferras. “By implementing each of these measures, Shaw is committed to packaging and marketing OutTV on an equitable basis, with terms comparable to those applied to every other Category 1 digital specialty service.”
But Ferras also writes that Shaw intends to offer two all-in packages: one with OutTV and one without. The packages will cost the same but Shaw customers wishing to subscribe to OutTV will have to ask specifically for the all-in package that includes OutTV. The only difference between the two all-in packages is that one includes the gay channel and one doesn’t.
“We told Shaw prior to the filing that we wouldn’t accept dual packaging,” says OutTV chief operating officer Brad Danks. “There has never been a clear reason why there has been dual packaging…. I don’t know any channel on any system that is segregated that way.”
Danks is also skeptical that Shaw customer service reps can be counted on to explain to every Shaw customer the difference between the all-in package that includes OutTV and the all-in package the doesn’t.
“That’s just fanciful,” he says. “It’s not going to happen. Customer service reps are very young people at times. It would be ridiculous to think these people are being educated to the extent they would ever do that.”
Danks outlined OutTV’s objections to Shaw’s plan in a Dec 10 letter to the CRTC.
“The Reply does not adequately address the undue disadvantage relating to equitable marketing to which OUTtv has been subject, as found by the Commission in the Decision.”
Ferras did not respond to Xtra’s calls before press time.
Danks says those wishing to protest Shaw’s treatment of OutTV should write letters of complaint to the CRTC.
"They can go to the OutTV website and write to us with their experiences with cable companies good or bad,” he says. “We can provide them information about how to write to the CRTC. We’d like to hear from them directly."
This is not the first conflict between Shaw and OutTV. In 2001 when the channel, then under different management and called PrideVision, debuted along with a score of other digital cable channels Shaw resisted including it in its lineup at all. In order to see the CRTC-mandated free preview of PrideVision, Shaw customers had to program their set-top boxes to receive it every time they turned on their televisions. The free preview of PrideVision was accessible only through the pay-per-view menu and led subscribers to believe they’d be charged one cent every time they accessed it.
The CRTC ruled against Shaw then too.
And in April 2005 OutTV, not yet under its current management, filed another CRTC complaint against Shaw alleging inequitable treatment because Shaw was charging its subscribers more than twice the price for OutTV of any other category one channel on its dial. That complaint was withdrawn before the scheduled CRTC hearing after Shaw reached an agreement with OutTV.
Still, Danks just wants get past the ongoing stuggle with Shaw.
“What would make for a great 2009 is that we normalize our relationship with Shaw and that both of us spend more time trying to build our audiences rather than fighting with each other,” he says.
Pink Triangle Press, which publishes Xtra, holds a minority stake in OutTV.