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Pulling the plug on free TV outside the big cities

The Canadian TV industry is poised to open up a massive digital divide between urban and small town TV viewers beginning in 2011. That’s when broadcasters are expected to unplug their analog transmitters in favour of digital.

Those of us who live in the big cities, such as Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver– you know, the cities where the decision-makers actually live– will probably soon start to get more free, over-the-air TV than ever. Broadcasters are already busy installing digital transmitters in major urban centres.

Those who rely on rabbit ears and aerial antennas in small towns risk seeing nothing but snow on their screens, unless they are willing to pony up for cable or satellite service.

That’s because broadcasters, including CBC and TVO, appear to have no plans to upgrade their hundreds of smaller transmitters that send free TV signals into communities such as Rimouski, Quebec, Goose Bay, Newfoundland, Nipigon, Ontario, and Kamloops, BC. The broadcasters believe the “over-the-air” viewers in thousands of communities like these, from coast to coast to coast, should cave in and buy cable or satellite.

CMG commissioned research this year and found an affordable way to deliver digital TV signals in small communities. Because digital signals have more capacity, up to six broadcasters could share a single transmitter, using what’s called a multiplexer, to send out six different channels on a single frequency. This would be an even more economical way to do what broadcasters already do in smaller communities with their analog transmitters: share towers and, in some cases, maintenance.

Broadcasters south of the border are already using multiplexers to send out more than one local channel each. In New York City, the 20 over-the-air broadcasters are sending out a total of 55 free channels on their digital transmitters, some in HD and most at standard definition. Each broadcaster has its own transmitter and sends out various sub-channels, in most cases with different content, on top of its HD channel.

It stands to reason that Canadian broadcasters, who have already installed digital over-the-air transmitters in the major cities, will follow suit and begin offering more than one free channel each in those places. Add that to the plethora of U.S. border stations and there is soon likely to be an embarrassment of riches for free TV viewers in Canada’s large border cities (think Toronto and Vancouver).

It hardly seems fair that the introduction of digital TV will bring great things to big city dwellers who don’t want to pay for cable or satellite and, at the same time, signal the death of free TV in so many other places across the country. Especially when there’s an opportunity to increase free TV service in places where it’s always been bare-bones.

The CMG research uses real quotes from equipment suppliers to figure out how much it would cost broadcasters to participate in a shared multiplex in a smaller community. We estimate that, on average, it would cost a total of $132,000 to upgrade and multiplex a single transmitter. If six broadcasters were to sign on, the average cost to each one in a single location would be $22,000 … the price of a modest family sedan. The value to local viewers would be significant: they would get six good-quality local and regional stations without having to pay a monthly fee.

In the UK, shared multiplexes are being used to provide dozens of free TV channels to viewers.

The question remains whether Canadian broadcasters are willing to take up the challenge of maintaining country-wide free TV, or whether they’ll simply put their efforts into offloading the costs of delivering their signals onto cable and satellite subscribers. We’ll get our answer when the networks go to the CRTC, beginning early next year, for licence renewals.

In the meantime, the CMG has begun sharing the research with broadcasters and industry groups and is launching a campaign to save free TV in Canada. To join the campaign, write to freetv@cmg.ca or call 1-800-465-4149.

Click here for more information about free TV in Canada.

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