There is certainly a lot less confusion going around these days over the upcoming transition to digital television on August 31 than there was a few years ago. Unfortunately, a good portion of the public, namely those who have become perfectly content with their expensive cable and satellite packages, seem to be completely unaware of why this is so important. Anyone who thinks that picking up television signals for free with an antenna is a lowly, vestigial practice from the Cold War could certainly learn a lot from the growing number of Canadians embracing it, as well as the countries using it for innovation in mobile phone technology.
Over-the-air television is not outdated. In fact, Canada is one of the only countries where people (specifically in urban areas) have been completely and utterly brainwashed into believing that they must subscribe to cable or satellite services in order to watch television in any acceptable capacity. Many Canadians have forgotten that they are supposed to have free access to television signals, and over-the-air broadcasting is fundamental to ensuring that right.
It also does not offer inferior quality. Specifically, the digital over-the-air signals that our broadcasters will be switching over to in August are not only an entirely viable alternative to cable and satellite, but are in many ways superior. Unlike cable and satellite broadcast which heavily compress signals of local broadcasts to conserve precious bandwidth, signals received by an antenna are uncompressed and tend to be of much better quality. While factoids like these are widely known among broadcasting aficionados, the true benefits of digital over-the-air broadcasting will still likely come as news to many. A recent two-part Globe and Mail article does a fairly good job at reaffirming these points.
If you’re under the belief that this technology is only capable of yielding a small and insignificant number of channels, you may want to take note of the freeview system in the UK. With the country’s current backbone of digital broadcasting, even those living far away from urban areas are easily able to pick up more than sixty unique channels using an antenna, may of which are in HD. Naturally much of this consists of Top Gear and QI reruns, but it is still more than Canadian cable services provide for over $60 a month! And while we Canadians are currently witnessing the pains of corporate media consolidation as providers like Bell and Shaw stifle competition and access by buying out broadcasters, the UK has long since conquered this scenario. Multiple broadcasters in the UK are owned and operated by our good friend Rupert Murdoch’s Sky company, which goes virtually unchallenged in the area of satellite broadcasting. Despite this, prices and access to services are still kept at an incredibly reasonable level, in large part because freeview is such a viable and competitive option. Over-the-air broadcasting is truly a force to be reckoned with in the UK, which demonstrates one of many ways balance can be achieved in order to offset the effects of corporate vertical integration.
Yes, I know that this is far from the case in Canada. Unless you’re lucky enough to live in southern Ontario (which I suppose would actually be most of you), antennas will generally yield under a dozen stations at best. The practical reasons for Canada’s over-the-air accessibility being so weak mostly involve sparse population distribution across a massive country, and are entirely valid. That reasoning most certainly keeps us from having the same quantity of content that a densely populated country like Britain is able to enjoy, but you can’t deny that these excuses are taken to their absolute limits in order to justify a paywall media culture. Even if we can’t embrace a much preferable free broadcasting culture, we can at least aim to be more informed and expect these broadcasters to fulfill their objectives to their communities rather than obscuring them.
Case in point: Canadian broadcasters are essentially bribed by the CRTC into keep their over-the-air transmitters going at all. As things stand right now, local stations are only allowed to simultaneously substitute their signals over American cable and satellite broadcasts (in order to secure higher ad revenues) if they keep their transmitters running. To these stations that thrive off of lucrative American programming, keeping the transmitters running has merely become a liability allowing them to maintain a comfortable status quo. This is especially apparent now that most of them are owned by companies with interests planted firmly in making sure that as many Canadians as possible are subscribing to cable or satellite instead of getting their television for free. Since they own them and everything.
Cable and satellite packages may be at their peak now with baby boomers lapping up PVRs like sweet antifreeze, but their decline in the future is inevitable. As people start to realize that internet services are a far more practical way of delivering the type of content we seek on specialty services, demand for those services will decrease. This may one day leave us with television consisting only of the barebones essentials of whatever stations are still broadcasting over-the-air, which would make maintaining them fairly important. This relevance also goes beyond the living room. If you’re ever in Korea, ride around on their transit system for a while and observe what people are doing with their phones; many of them will be watching clear, high quality television signals, not via internet, but using antennas.
This should rank fairly high on the list of reasons why people should support the expansion and adoption of digital over-the-air broadcasting. Obviously telecom and cable companies would not be open to this approach, and indeed the idea isn’t going to make inroads in every country in the world. But the possibility for a future not dictated by telecom companies looking to squeeze every penny they can out of bandwidth charges is there, and we should be demanding nothing less.
In short, if you see a house that has a gigantic aerial antenna attached to it, don’t laugh. Chances are the person living there knows exactly what they’re doing.