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Sign of hope for free TV in small-town Canada

Last Friday, when the CRTC approved the application by cable and satellite giant Shaw Communications to take over Canwest Global, it also took an important step to ensuring Canadians in smaller towns continue to have access to free, over-the-air TV after the switch to digital in 2011.

The CRTC told Shaw that, within the next five years, it must upgrade some 66 transmitters, mostly in the interior of BC, central and northern Ontario and Nova Scotia, serving smaller markets. It includes places like Sudbury ON, Kamloops and Kelowna BC, and Sydney NS that would have otherwise lost free TV signals after the transition. Previous owner Global had planned to shut down some of the existing analog transmitter in each of these 66 locations on August 31, 2011, and keep the others running only as long as they still worked.

The Guild has driven people crazy talking about the potential of free digital TV in smaller markets, using the ability of a single transmitter on a single frequency to send out up to six channels where an analog transmitter can only send out one. It’s called digital multiplexing and, perhaps due to sheer repetition, or because the CRTC wants us to go away already, the Commission also said in the Shaw decision that it is “persuaded of the benefits of multiplexing with respect to the promotion of media diversity and access, and its potential to offset some of the negative impact resulting from media consolidation.”

What multiplexing means concretely for the Sudburys, Kamloopses, Kelownas and Sydneys of the world is the potential for viewers to get more than just Global for free. Shaw has said it would consider multiplexing, and therefore sharing with other broadcasters, in some of these 66 locations. And perhaps what the CRTC is saying is that it would be good for media diversity if a new local TV service were launched in these places (perhaps a true community station?) that could piggy-back on the Shaw transmitter.

The ironies in this are delicious. First, that it’s cable giant Shaw that is the first with a national TV network to commit to over-the-air TV in smaller communities in Canada. Way to go. Second that Shaw might well end up helping independent community TV. This may be a pay of patching things up with supporters of independent community TV after the scrap they had earlier this year over the country’s community TV policy and where the $120 million in cable money that’s supposed to be devoted to “local expression” is really being spent.

Over to you, mayors of smaller communities. You can bring several channels of free TV to your city. Any takers????

Meanwhile, there’s a growing chorus of support for free, over-the-air TV, especially among those in major cities such as Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver and those who live along the US border who are already receiving the new high-quality digital signals for free. You can see the latest love letter to over-the-air TV here and an article about how to get free TV here.

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