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Canadian industry stalling as free TV makes a comeback

A surprising number of people don’t know that it’s possible to watch live TV without subscribing to cable or satellite or without streaming shows on the internet. Free, over-the-air TV is like a well-kept secret– something the industry itself is curiously reluctant to promote. So you may be reading it here first: people living in urban centres can generally pick up a good range of TV channels with a simple set of rabbit ears. And there’s no monthly fee.

It’s not illegal and, despite being the original and longest standing way to send signals to television sets, it’s not old fashioned. People with a digital TV set (ie. Bought in the last year or two) who have seen the beautiful picture that comes through on the new digital over-the-air channels are amazed. The quality is fantastic and the monthly cost is zero.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. Canadian broadcasters continue to be reluctant to upgrade their transmitters to digital; free digital TV is therefore unavailable in many communities across Canada. If Canadian broadcasters have their way, it may never be available in smaller cities and rural areas, even after the August 2011 deadline to turn off the analogue transmitters that provide free TV coverage across the country today.

When the Guild first began examining the transition to digital TV around the world in 2006, the overwhelming attitude in Canada was that over-the-air TV was a thing of the past. The subtext was that the viewers who really count for the broadcasters are subscribers to cable or satellite. There was therefore no reason for the networks to spend money upgrading their moth-eaten analogue transmitters. Residual over-the-air viewers might have to be accommodated somehow, but that wasn’t something the broadcasters were going to worry about.

Fast-forward to 2009 and little has changed. Oh, except for the transition to digital in the US, coming to an end this month, which appears to be ushering in a new renaissance for OTA TV. For those living near the US border, the number of free digital channels available has mushroomed.

“Karim Sunderani flicks through channels on a 40-inch high-definition flat panel television at his Mississauga electronics store, Save and Replay,” the Toronto Star reported on its front page on May 26. “The picture is crystal clear, the sound powerful. But the stunning HD images don’t come via cable or satellite. They come over the air. For free.

“‘All you need is an antenna, just like in the old days, and an HD television with a digital tuner,'” says Sunderani, adding that he has sold more than 1,000 antennas a month since March.”

In the midst of a recession, who isn’t looking for a way to chop at least $60 off their monthly bills?

Of course broadcasters are crying poor themselves. They want to do less Canadian programming, they want money from cable and satellite companies in exchange for their signals, and they don’t want to have to put up digital transmitters in all but the biggest Canadian cities. They say it will cost $1 million per transmitter for the upgrade.

The CRTC is beginning to look at the issue seriously. At hearings last month, it asked the broadcasters to begin justifying their plans for the digital transition. The commissioners were clearly looking for alternatives to simply shutting down transmitters in large swaths of the country and denying the option of free OTA service to about one-third of Canadians.

The CMG was ready with detailed research on how broadcasters could actually improve free TV service in smaller communities with an affordable approach to using digital transmitters. Our proposal was well received by the commissioners, including vice chair Michel Arpin, who said, “I hope people have been listening to your suggestion because it is worth it to study it.”

As we’ve noted before, a single digital transmitter can broadcast up to six digital channels on a single frequency. By reusing as much of the existing equipment as possible, the average community could be served with improved free TV for an upgrade cost of around $156,000. Shared among six broadcasters, the cost of reaching viewers directly is a pittance. All the viewers would need, in addition to their regular antenna, is a digital TV or a $60 converter box for their analogue set. And, where they might get one or two channels now, they would start to get as many as six free channels over the air.

Bell TV (which provides the ExpressVu satellite service) came forward with a less fleshed out alternative of its own, proposing to devote unused satellite capacity to a small free satellite service called “Freesat” for those Canadians in smaller towns and rural areas who don’t otherwise subscribe to satellite or cable. Bell would pick up a range of OTA signals on this unused bit satellite space and beam around six local and regional channels back to viewers through a special satellite receiver. Under the proposal put forward by Bell TV, provincial educational broadcasters such as TVO, which now gets more than 20% of its viewing over the air, would not be included in the Freesat service.

The necessary equipment for Freesat would cost each viewer around $500. And Bell TV would divert some of the money going to the Local Program Improvement Fund to cover its administrative costs. Broadcasters would have to pay somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 per month to get their signals to Bell’s facility in Toronto so that they could be sent up to the satellite.

The two approaches will likely be looked at in more detail during the next round of TV broadcast hearings at the CRTC in the fall. The CMG will continue to argue that free, over-the-air TV should not be abandoned in Canada. Otherwise more and more people are likely to turn away from TV and rely exclusively on the internet for news and entertainment, which will be a further blow to broadcasting in general, and local news and programming in particular.

We also believe it is not good public policy to deny free TV to people in Canada just because they happen to live outside the major “broadcast markets.”

For more information on the CMG’s model, see the CMG’s submissions to the CRTC on local and over-the-air TV.

Karen Wirsig is communications co-ordinator at the Canadian Media Guild.

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