For a charge of as much as $3 for each service, a customer can dial a telephone number and hear a joke, meet new friends, get an update on events in a television soap opera—or listen to softcore pornography. Since October, 1986, Bell Canada has been a conduit between subscribers in Ontario and Quebec and 137 programs on Bell’s special “976” exchange. Callers who dial various advertised numbers to hear a weather forecast or medical advice pay for each call—which range in length from one to four minutes—plus long-distance charges if the service comes from outside their area code. Bell receives about 20 per cent of the revenues generated by the firms using the 976 service. Between October, 1986, and March, 1988, Bell earned about $3.1 million from the service. Still, company officials say that the service has not lived up to their initial expectations—in either profitability or content. As a result, on Dec. 1, Bell officials advised the
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) that they will discontinue the 976 numbers next month.
Bell wants to abandon the service for several reasons. For one thing, the 976-number services have not proved to be as popular in Canada as they have in the United States, where they were introduced a decade ago. Originally, Bell officials forecast that 25.6 million calls would be made on 976 numbers in Ontario and Quebec in 1988. But the actual number of calls last year, according to Bell spokesman Marilyn Koen, was 5.7 million. Koen also said that Bell officials had hoped the 976 line would attract a wider range of services, including sports statistics for settling arguments or stock market quotations. Instead, Bell officials said that more than onequarter of the services are so-called fun lines— party lines used to introduce people to one another or services in which callers listen to taped romantic or pornographic fantasies.
Bell’s decision to drop the 976 service also stemmed from complaints from parents who found that younger members of their households were incurring large charges without their knowledge. In response, the CRTC late last year ordered Bell to provide safeguards. Bell was told that it would have to advise customers when 976 charges reached $50 a month, and provide them with a way of blocking the 976 service if they did not want it. Bell officials said that the requirements would have been too expensive. In the end, said Koen, “we were left with the feeling that this is not something we want to be involved in.”
Even some of the firms presenting information on the 976 numbers were critical. BDR Audiotex Inc. of Oakville, Ont., was one of the first companies to sign up with Bell in 1986 and, with more than 70 services—including horoscopes, a trivia line and a game phone—is one of Bell’s largest 976 clients. But BDR’s president, Daniel Maitland, called the 976 service “a product out of control,” adding, “There is a lot of consumer outcry, and rightly so.” Still, the fate of the 976 exchange is not sealed. CRTC director of inquiries Paul Godin said that eight organizations have submitted applications with the CRTC regarding Bell’s shutdown request. As a result, said Godin, commission officials will consider both sides of the case before announcing early in February whether they agree with Bell’s decision to pull the plug on the service.
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