There was a shot in the arm last month for proponents of free TV in Canada, when the all-party Heritage Committee recommended the CBC submit a plan to maintain over-the-air TV in all areas of the country that currently receive it after analogue transmitters are shut down in 2011.
The so-called “hybrid” plan that CBC submitted to the CRTC in late 2006 proposed installing only 44 digital over-the-air transmitters. That would mean abandoning the public network of more than 600 repeater transmitters that serve smaller communities, forcing Canadians in those areas to subscribe to cable or satellite. The plans that the private broadcasters shared with the CRTC were even less generous, promising very little in the way of upgrading analogue transmitters to provide free digital signals after 2011. Click here to read more about that.
According to preliminary research commissioned by the Canadian Media Guild, people in nearly 1,000 communities will suddenly be cut off from free TV after 2011 if the broadcasters get their way.
“The (CBC) hybrid plan has been the source of some concern to Canadians because it effectively eliminates the principle of unversal access to CBC/Radio-Canada,” the Heritage Committee notes in its report on the future of CBC. “Many Canadians still rely on over-the-air transmission to receive their television signals. A number of witnesses (appearing before the committee) argued that Canadians should not be required to pay to receive the signals from their public broadcaster.”
The committee is urging CBC to explore the possibility of partnerships to extend free digital TV coverage to all Canadians currently served by analogue transmitters. The report also recommends that the federal department of Canadian Heritage provide one-time funding to CBC to cover the costs of the transition of digital TV.
One key advantage of digital over analogue TV is the ability to broadcast up to six stations on the same transmitter– known as multiplexing. In many parts of the country, the ability to receive six stations for free would represent a major improvement in service, potentially providing access to an all-Canadian and regionally relevant group of channels that is not typically the focus of cable or satellite services.
And with improved free TV service, the country might even see a reversal of the trend toward cable and satellite viewership. Some of the latest data indicates that 16.5% of CBC and Radio-Canada’s total viewing is over the air. Over-the-air viewers spend 40% of their time watching Canadian programming, versus 29% of the time spent by digital cable subscribers.
The CMG is commissioning further research on the possibilities of introducing free digital television in smaller communities across the country, using the multiplex approach. The union plans to present the results of its research to CBC/Radio-Canada, the CRTC and the Heritage Committee in order to further the debate about maintaining free TV in Canada in the 21st century.