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Slowly, quietly, behind closed doors

In the last few days, my worst suspicions were confirmed about how the Canadian TV industry is dealing with the move to digital: slowly, quietly and behind closed doors. It’s almost as if there is stuff they don’t what us to know.

The CRTC set a date of August 31, 2011 to shut off analogue TV transmitters that provide free, over-the-air TV signals. As the deadline looms, it is less and less clear whether Canadians will still have free TV in a couple of years.

As I’ve mentioned before, broadcasters seem to be doing everything they can to miss the boat on free, over-the-air digital TV in Canada – unlike their counterparts in the U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world. The U.S. is poised to go fully digital in June and TV viewers with the right equipment can already pick up dozens of channels for free in U.S. cities as broadcasters use the additional capacity of the digital transmitters to create multiple free channels using a single frequency. [It’s called multiplexing and you can find out a bit more about it here; and check here to find out how multiplexing is being used in the UK to provide lots of free, over-the-air TV.]

Because we’re one of the only organizations paying attention to this issue in this country, we thought it might be a good idea to meet with CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein to talk about how the transition will affect regular viewers and access to Canadian programming. We wanted to suggest a broad transition working group that could both represent the interests of viewers (and not just the industry), and also figure out how best communicate the coming changes to them. After all, even industry watchers seem to think the only problem in Canada is the lack of a program to provide coupons for digital converter boxes for people with analogue TV sets. [If there’s no digital transmission, there’s no need for a converter box to pick up the non-existent signals.]

No dice on the meeting.

We’ve found out that there is a working group on the digital TV transition, apparently working under the auspices of the CRTC, and that it will issue a report in the next few weeks. Who’s in the group? Only the broadcasters, the ones that Konrad worried last June “might not be ready” for the transition.

Yesterday, we got a nice letter from Konrad, blowing off our request for a meeting. He thanked us in advance for our participation in the public hearing scheduled to begin April 27 that will deal with the broadcasters’ report on digital TV, among other (equally important) issues, such as how much local programming the broadcasters will have to provide. So we’re limited to ten minutes of face time with CRTC commissioners to raise a unique perspective of public interest. Meanwhile, broadcasters have been holding private meetings with the commission for months.

I expect the broadcasters’ report to confirm our worst fears about the digital transition in Canada: they will want to bypass it and leave us with no alternative to buy increasingly pricey cable and satellite subscriptions to watch television.

But no matter what the report says, the CRTC will not make decisions on the broadcasters’ plans for the digital transition until after a full licence renewal hearing in the spring of 2010, barely one year before the planned shut-off of analogue transmitters. Not exactly the kind of timing that instills confidence in the regulator’s commitment to free, over-the-air TV.

When the time comes (around the middle of March), we will be sure to let you know where to send your comments to the CRTC on this vital issue.

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