A Category C service is the former term for a Canadian discretionary specialty channel which, as defined by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, provides programming in genres that are subject to different standard conditions of licences from those of other discretionary services. As of 2011, this category applies to all national news and mainstream sports broadcasters.
Under previous policies, these services were intentionally unprotected from competition by other Category B services of the same genre, but are still "protected" from competition by other discretionary services. In other words, if someone wants to launch a competing service, they must do so by committing to the same obligations, including common requirements for the exhibition and funding of Canadian-produced programming, as others. Discretionary services, by contrast, may not devote more than 10% of their monthly programming to live professional sports.
Mainstream news channels are subject to a form of must carry rules; they must be offered on a packaged or standalone basis, but not necessarily on the lowest tier of service, by all digital television providers. Category C sports services are not subject to must-carry rules; distributors must negotiate directly with their operators for carriage.
In an October 2008 public notice, the CRTC announced that it had considered the possibility of lifting format protection restrictions for channels of certain genres considered by the commission to be popular and diverse enough to support competition within Canada's television industry. In particular, the CRTC proposed to lift these restrictions for news and sports services, citing examples of Canadian channels which had remained popular and competitive with each other, despite the restrictions that had been forced in their licenses in order to negate such competition. CTV Newsnet (now CTV News Channel), because it competed with CBC Newsworld (now CBC News Network), was licensed to serve as a "headline news" service, and was originally required to operate on a strict 15 minute news wheel format (similarly to the U.S. channel CNN Headline News. CTV however, successfully lobbied the CRTC in 2005 to have these conditions loosened in order to provide a more flexible service, still within its assigned scope) On the other hand, TSN competes with Sportsnet and The Score (now Sportsnet 360)—which are licensed as national, regional, and sports news services respectively. Additionally, due to its licensing, The Score was restricted in the amount of live programming it can air. Similarly, TSN was facing scrutiny for having used policies, designed to allow timeshift channels for Western Canada, as a loophole to launch a second feed known as TSN2 for additional sports event programming. However, these complaints were dismissed by the CRTC.
Several months later, the CRTC officially announced in 2009 that it would be loosening format restrictions for all mainstream sports and national news services in the country, allowing them to use more streamlined and flexible licensing terms. As part of an overall restructuring of broadcasting regulations to prepare for the country's transition to digital terrestrial television, these channels became legally known as "category C" services beginning on September 1, 2011.
In September 2013, following the highly publicized, but unsuccessful bid by Quebecor Media to have Sun News Network converted to a Category A service, the CRTC opened a review on the possibility of adding mandatory distribution requirements for Category C national news services. The Commission acknowledged that its current policies had "barriers" that could prevent news channels from having a "pride of place" on the broadcast system, which could hinder their "exchange of ideas on matters of public concern."
On December 19, 2013, the CRTC announced the adoption of new must-carry requirements for Category C news channels. By March 19, 2014, Canadian television providers must offer all Category C news channels to subscribers as part of their lineup, and by May 18, 2014, all Category C news channels that are not already on the lowest level of service must be included in the "best available discretionary package consistent with their genre and programming", or offered to subscribers on a standalone basis. CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais stated that the changes were to ensure that Canadians would be able to "[access] the news services that are of interest to them" and have "[opportunities] to be exposed to a variety of opinions on matters of public concern." Previously, only the news networks of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were subject to formal carriage requirements; CBC News Network must be carried on a digital basic tier in English-language markets, and likewise Réseau de l'information must be carried on a digital basic tier in French-language markets.