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Is it really time to pull the plug on free local TV?

Let them buy cable. So say Canada’s major broadcasters when asked if they should be required to continue sending out their signals over the air to rabbit ears across the country.

The CRTC, the body that sets the rules on TV in Canada, had wondered if the money that might be used to upgrade the equipment that sends TV signals out over the public airwaves might better spent on programming.

It was a fair question. But then the biggest over-the-air broadcasters– you know the ones: CBC, Radio-Canada, CTV, CHUM, Global, TVA, TQS– seized the opportunity to write the eulogy for free access to TV over the airwaves. Most people already subscribe to cable or sattelite, they argue. Why shouldn’t everyone be forced to sign up?

HDTV as excuse
The pretext for the CRTC’s question, and the broadcasters’ answer, is the move to high-definition TV. HDTV not only requires new production equipment and new TV sets. To send an HD signal out over the air, you need a digital transmission system. Broadcasters in Canada still rely almost entirely on analogue transmission. By contrast, broadcasters in most of the world’s industrialized countries are well on their way to upgrading their over-the-air transmission systems from analogue to digital.

And even in Germany, where only about 5% of the population picks up TV signals over the air, the public broadcasters were required to fully replace analogue transmission with digital without losing a viewer. It was a matter of public policy.

“We don’t have the funds, nor do we think it is necessarily the appropriate public policy to go back to the model that was put in in the seventies of having transmitters in all communities of 500 or more,” CBC president Robert Rabinovitch told the CRTC on November 27.

That may sound reasonable, if we were actually talking about communities of 500 people.

In fact, the CBC is proposing to upgrade only 44 TV transmitters across the country for both the English- and French-language services. They would be in “major markets” where the CBC now has a local station. The remaining 618 transmission sites– the repeaters– would be mothballed. It is being called the hybrid plan.

As it turns out, the CBC is already beginning to implement a hybrid plan with a nod from the CRTC. Earlier this year, the CBC affiliate in Kamloops (population 82,000) ended its relationship with the public broadcaster to take up with CanWest global. Arguing that it did not have the money to put up its own transmitter in Kamloops, and that only a small minority rely on over-the-air reception anyway, the CBC was allowed to stay off the air in Kamloops.

“As the highest quality source of programming in Canada, paid for by Canadian tax dollars, it is downright appalling that it is not longer available for everyone,” wrote Kamloops resident Pam Astbury in a testimonial for the CRTC. “We appreciate that media technology is changing and funds are limited, but the CBC must not drop its loyal communities in short-sighted decisions.”

Astbury is part of a group called Save our CBC Kamloops that has gathered more than 2,000 signatures on a petition to restore the CBC to the public airwaves. The group is rallying students and seniors, as well as people who can’t afford, or choose not, to sign on to the 200-channel universe. So far, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears at the CBC.

The local programming challenge
Aside from the loss of free access to the public broadcaster, reliance on cable and satellite brings another headache for TV viewers who live in smaller Canadian centres: how do you get programs from and about your region? And for the local stations themselves, how do you deal with a total loss of control over how and when viewers receive your programming?

In New Brunswick, for example, ExpressVu subscribers have to wait until 6:30pm to view their “CBC News at Six.” And they fare better than StarChoice subscribers, who don’t get the CBC regional news program at all.

A Salmon Arm B.C. (population: 15,210) resident described to the Guild her experiences with TV.

“We are unable to get CBC TV without cable, and are unable to get CBC Newsworld WITH cable,” wrote a frustrated Maggie Cameron. “For four or five years, we were able to get CHBC (now a Global channel), Family Channel, CNN and Knowledge Network on cable for about $10 per month. We now must pay $30 per month for the above, plus a lot of U.S. junk that we do not want. We have cancelled cable and lost everything on TV, plus CBC Radio 2.”

Another unanswered question is how residents in Canada’s North would get affordable local aboriginal TV programming and life-and-death weather information. Even the Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network is proposing to abandon over-the-air transmission in the North and it is not yet clear what the CBC, which now broadcasts to remote northern communities in eight aboriginal languages, plans to do.

And what about access to French-language programming outside of Quebec?

CBC and the other conventional stations say that cable and satellite companies should be required to carry all local stations and provide them to local customers. Those companies aren’t exactly complaining, although they are warning that they would need to expand their own infrastructure to handle all of the new signals, especially once most programming is in bandwidth-inhaling HD.

A study submitted to the CRTC at the start of the hearing concludes that StarChoice and ExpressVu will each have to put two new satellites in space by 2020 to accommodate both HD and carriage of all local stations. The report doesn’t focus on cable companies, but obviously they will need to increase their bandwidth as well. The report suggests that “incentives or subsidies” will be put in place to get cable and satellite companies to carry the local stations. But it is silent how much this massive infrastructure upgrade and subsidy/incentive system will cost and who will pay for it.

More clarity needed on costs
In the end, it may make more sense to simply subsidize the upgrade of the over-the-air system, which will likely provide more local and regional broadcasting flexibility, particularly in the event of a localized disaster. At the very least, it would be a good idea for the CRTC and the federal government to examine all of the various costs before simply allowing broadcasters to abandon the airwaves in places they find inconvenient or unprofitable, and before shutting down the public infrastructure built by CBC/Radio-Canada over decades.

So far, we know that CBC/Radio-Canada estimates its digital upgrade would cost $278 million. It’s not small change, but it could be supported by a special grant from the federal government and amortized over a number of years. As well, perhaps the costs could be shared with others, including provincial, community and non-profit broadcasters.

As it turns out, aside from HD, another feature of a digital, over-the-air transmission system is the capacity to broadcast more than one station using a single frequency. That means that in smaller communities, a single transmitter could provide service for as many as six over-the-air stations at standard definition. The folks in Kamloops and Salmon Arm would likely be interested in that possibility.

In the U.K. and Germany, broadcasters have gotten together to provide multiple stations over the air using a single frequency. In some areas, viewers in those countries can get up to 30 channels for free at standard definition. Sounds like a formula to give cable and satellite companies a run for their money. Is that why it’s never been considered very seriously in Canada?

Instead of thinking about hybrid delivery, as the CBC has proposed, how about considering hybrid reception? It is not uncommon in North American homes that are hooked up to satellites to have a second or third TV set connected to an antenna precisely to access local TV.

“Conventional broadcasters have turned a tidy profit using the public airwaves,” Barbara Byers of the Canadian Labour Congress pointed out to the CRTC on December 1, where she spoke on behalf of more than three million workers and their families.

“The Broadcasting Act says they continue to have an obligation to serve the public interest,” Byers said. “We need to be asking why they should be suddenly let off the hook when it comes to maintaining their transmission infrastructure. Now, there may be good reasons and a new approach may be a good idea, but we don’t think that the issue has been fully explored.”

The Guild urged the CRTC to hold a broader public debate on the issue before simply allowing broadcasters, one by one, to turn off their transmitters.

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

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