Over-The-Air TV On The Chopping Block

ohaiotaThe landmark hearings that will determine the future of television in Canada, which I’ve mentioned a couple of times now, are currently in full swing, and it seems that all anyone wants to talk about is the prospect of pick-and-pay. That’s understandable since being able to pick only the stations you want in a cable or satellite package would be highly cathartic to just about anyone. The proposal put forward by the CRTC is actually really great, even revolutionary in a number of ways. There’s one big problem though: a provision that will allow local broadcasters in Canada to shut down their over-the-air transmitters, effectively killing what is supposed to be the fundamental backbone of the entire television industry.

Here’s the rundown: the Commission is pushing the idea of having cable and satellite providers reduce their bloated basic packages down to a mandatory “skinny” basic consisting only of essential services, on top of which customers can pick and pay for any individual services they wish. It seems like a reasonable way to slim things down until you consider that apart from legislature channels and APTN, this new basic package will consist solely of local services that can currently be picked up for free with an antenna and digital tuner in most markets. The insinuation seems to be that charging customers $20-30 for mandatory services will somehow be an equivalent trade for essentially eliminating the ability to access these services over-the-air for free. This is in line with the huge fallacy that using an antenna to access television is somehow an outdated practice, which is something I’ve already gone on about. along with the fact that Canada is perhaps the only country where the population has been convinced that cable and satellite subscriptions are the default for receiving television.

The digital transition a few years ago was supposed to reinvigorate the over-the-air market, just as it did in most other countries, but the CRTC has turned a cheek to that entire outlook. It certainly doesn’t help that the outsourced statistics they’ve drawn from for this proposal only go back as far as 2006 which tells us absolutely nothing about the current reality. Digital OTA may not have taken the country by storm, but there is a strong argument to be made that adoption (or re-adoption) is slowly but surely on the rise. The commission frequently cites that less than 10% of Canadians (not that a low number should even matter, given how many rely on it) use antennas, but that does not account for people who use an antenna in addition to a cable or satellite provider. Even more baffling is that allowing Canadian signals to voluntarily go dark will only ensure that the airwaves are dominated by American signals, which seems massively counterproductive from a cultural and territorial perspective. I mean, has the commission even considered how this might relate to issues of sovereignty?

It doesn’t help that no news outlet has given more than a passing mention to the demise of over-the-air. Even more horrifying is that the CBC has not only avoided shedding light on the negative aspects of eliminating OTA transmitters, but they have also come out as one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the move. This is appallingly short-sighted and strongly suggests that in this time of desperation, the Ceeb has lost pretty any notion of what serving the public even means. Public broadcasters could gain a lot of exposure and central focus in a properly retooled over-the-air environment, but that doesn’t seem to be as important as whatever meagre savings would come from this move.

Despite this lack of exposure this issue has received, the discussion page has been completely flooded with opposition to the elimination of OTA services, even in the sections where it’s completely off-topic. Contributing is as easy as making an account and sounding off, so if you care I recommend chiming in before the deadline on 19 September 2014. Also, if you’ve ever wanted to tell them what your dream basic package looks like, this may be your only chance. You can bet I did.

As great a development pick-and-pay is for cable and satellite technology, free access to local programming is not an acceptable price to pay. It provides an essential service for those who cannot afford a subscription service, and holds enormous potential for further development.  Not only do I think it is essential for the CRTC to maintain current rules for over-the-air broadcasting, but an additional hearing needs be held in the future to explore different ways the technology can be developed. In the UK and Australia, elaborate multiplexing systems are setup between multiple digital transmitters in order to deliver dozens of channels to the public through Freeview systems. While it may be difficult to do something on the same scale in Canada, a similar system can at least be set up with the proposed “skinny basic.” We shouldn’t be paying squat for that.





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