HDTV Networks: Canadian TV on the super-cheap

UPDATE: DE-NIED!

A company nobody’s ever heard of is giddy over the CRTC’s decision today to hear its application for a new national high-definition television network broadcasting over the air in Canada’s eight largest markets, including Montreal.

HDTV Networks Inc., a company owned by John I. Bitove, creator of the Toronto Raptors and president of the Toronto 2008 Olympic bid, is proposing to setup a network based out of Vancouver, with what are essentially retransmitting stations in the following cities:

  • Edmonton
  • Calgary
  • Winnipeg
  • Toronto
  • Ottawa
  • Montreal
  • Halifax

All the transmitters will be digital over-the-air HD, and the programming will be all HD all the time.

(The network is not to be confused with U.S.-based HDNet, which has the same all-HD gimmick but does not broadcast over the air.)

But what’s really unique about this application isn’t the fact that it’s HD. It’s the fact that this would be the first national over-the-air broadcaster without any local programming.

HDTV’s plans are to have a national broadcast centre out of Vancouver, with seven local studios in the other seven cities. The smaller studios will be 2,000 square feet, which is about the size of a small family apartment.

But unlike Global TV’s plan to have “virtual sets” with local news and local anchors, the national news program will rotate among the local anchors. They have plans for “no locally-oriented programming, aside from possible segments of local news nested within a national news program.”

They want to be licensed as a national network, much like Global TV in Quebec is licensed as a regional network. As a result, they would take no local advertising and would provide satellite providers with only two feeds (one for each coast), much like specialty channels.

Proposed schedule

HDTV’s proposed schedule will broadcast 18 hours a day of regular content, which includes 60% CanCon during the day and 50% during prime-time (6pm to midnight). This is consistent with CRTC minimums for broadcast channels.

Their 13 hours a week of original programming will include the following:

  • “Live @XM,” a weekly 1-hour video version of a radio show on XM (Bitove’s Canadian Satellite Radio Holdings owns XM Radio Canada)
  • “Your Canada News Roundtable,” a weeknight 6pm 1-hour newscast in which panellists will editorialize about the news. Will also include “i-news” or “viewer-generated content” (more on that below)
  • “The World Show,” a weeknight 11pm 1-hour satirical news program, similar to The Daily Show or This Hour Has 22 Minutes
  • A Canadian documentary (1 hour per week), such as “Day in the Life of Canada,” in which videographers record … uhh, life …
  • A Canadian variety show (1 hour per week)

The rest of the week will be split between U.S. programming (10 hours per week) and programming from other countries like the U.K. and Australia (38.5 hours per week).

This part is interesting. With Global, CTV and Global’s CH network gobbling up Canadian rates to U.S. prime-time shows, HDTV was left with either getting third/fourth-rate U.S. shows or coming up with another option. They are looking at importing content from overseas, which would be cheaper and easier, not to mention desirable for those of us who have so little exposure to such programming.

Budget

Revenue is expected to come from national advertising (they won’t have local advertising since they don’t have local programming), as well as some infomercials, for a total that slowly rises to $100-200 million per year by the end of the 7-year plan.

Expenses will mainly be in Canadian programming, creeping up slowly to about $100 million per year, divided as follows:

  • News, information and documentary programming: 48%
  • Music, comedy, drama, variety: 15%
  • Non-Canadian programming: 37%

Viewer-generated content

Although the application says it will represent “a small portion” or “a minute portion” of their overall program schedule, the idea of viewer-generated content comes up quite a bit in the application, as “a fresh and cost-effective alternative to traditional network programming”:

HDTV Networks will also suggest and encourage Canadians to supply and feed content for news and current affairs, much of it with Internet-based video services.

Part of this is good. They’re championing the case for “providing an opportunity for the new wave of Canadian indie low-budget filmmakers,” giving the unpublished a chance to be seen. The application goes on about how CanWest/Global and CTVglobemedia are ever-expanding, ever-consolidating media empires, and that having a new, independent network will revitalize the media landscape.

On the other hand, looking at the network’s schedule it seems clear that they want to lean on cheap programming, which might cause them to try to exploit naive amateur content producers (like one-hit-wonder YouTube stars) and broadcast their content without any compensation.

Their “news” shows are perfect examples. While they produce a study that shows young viewers prefer engaging, funny and thoughtful over behind-the-desk boring hard news, HDTV Networks seems to take this as an excuse to dramatically downscale its news department:

We estimate that our news division will employ approximately two dozen people

Two dozen people for a national broadcast television network. That’s barely enough people to run a daily half-hour local newscast.

The other problem with user-generated content is that it’s hardly HD-ready. In fact, most of it isn’t even good enough for standard-definition TV. Their response to this was that they have the ability to “up-convert” to HD, which means they’ll either make it small on the screen or stretch it, and either way it’s going to look pretty bad.

Regional transmitters

City Channel (digital) ERP
Vancouver 18 300W
Calgary 25 10,000W
Edmonton 50 100,000W
Winnipeg 40 15,000W
Toronto 26* 160W
Ottawa 50 9,500W
Montreal 15 450W
Halifax 14 15,000W

*The application presents this as a temporary channel, to be used until Toronto stations migrate to digital TV at which point a more permanent home would be found.

The Montreal transmitter would be on a CBC-owned tower southeast of Brossard, which used to broadcast CBC Radio One on 940 AM. (They originally wanted space on the CBC-owned tower atop Mount Royal that just about everything else transmits from, but they were denied permission.)

The 450 watts proposed for the transmitter is painfully low for over-the-air reception. So low, in fact, that according to their own coverage map residents of the West Island would get interference from TVA’s CHOT station in Hull, which also has a license for digital channel 15. CFCF-12, by comparison, has an ERP of 316,000W, and is well received across the metropolitan region. Global’s CKMI, on Channel 46, uses 33,000W, and CBC’s CBMT on Channel 6 uses 100,000W.

What they really want

So if they’re so keen on being over-the-air (after all, it would be much easier and cheaper to just get approval as a digital specialty channel), why set up such low-power transmitters and have no local programming?

A skeptic (and I’ve occasionally been accused of being one) might suggest it has something to do with the preferential treatment the CRTC gives local broadcast stations in cable and satellite channel lineups. Local cable companies are required not only to carry local broadcast stations, but they’re required to have them as part of their basic lineup, and keep them low on the dial. (This usually isn’t a problem, since the cable companies currently don’t have to pay the broadcasters to carry their stations.)

Global TV, which has transmitters in Montreal, Quebec City and Sherbrooke, used this when it setup a low-power transmitter in Montreal and secured the coveted Channel 3 slot on analog cable here.

HDTV Networks have made it clear that they want to take advantage of this, and will provide a “down-converted” standard-definition signal to cable and satellite operators.

Conclusion

The prospect of another national television network is exciting. Even if it’s low-budget, relying more on independent producers than big production companies, it’s a net positive for media here. (And so long as these independent producers are properly compensated for their work, this is to be encouraged.)

But the privilege of using our airwaves to broadcast television signals comes with a price: Broadcasters have to provide local news and information programming, not just copy content from elsewhere and make money off the advertising revenue.

As it stands currently, HDTV’s programming would make a great digital specialty channel. But not a national over-the-air broadcaster in our eight largest markets. And since the number of people who own HDTV sets but don’t have cable or satellite service is insignificant, I think that’s the way they should go.

HDTV Networks’ full proposal (ZIP file of PDF documents) will be discussed by the CRTC on Feb. 11, 2008. The deadline for comments is Jan. 17.

Also on the docket, competing for an HD license in Toronto (Channel 21, 9,000W) is an outfit called YES TV. It seems even more based on user-generated content, specifically from young people of high school and college age. The proposed broadcast schedule looks more like that of a college radio station, and many parts of the original application were incomplete (leading to a long response to the commission’s initial questions). But if they can pull it off, it sounds like an interesting project.

YES TV’s full proposal (ZIP file of PDF documents) will be discussed by the CRTC on Feb. 11, 2008. The deadline for comments is Jan. 17.

5 thoughts on “HDTV Networks: Canadian TV on the super-cheap

  1. steph

    As a vancouver resident I can tell you a 300w transmitter will not be enough to reach virtually ANYONE. I can only recieve CBC over the air (even though CTV transmits an HD signal here) and I live in what could be described to any non vancouverite as downtown(kits).

    So this 300w transmitter would be great if you lived say, in the same building.

    Reply
  2. Les

    Nice I like it. The low power stations are to get a ch 2-13 slot on cable. Here in Edmonton power is not an issue. As a ham radio operator I can transmit with a 1000 watt transmitter just above channel 13. That makes it somewhat of a joke to only allow a commercial broadcaster such a low power limit. Thats our government hard at work!!

    Reply
  3. Fagstein Post author

    I think it’s more about the company than the government. Remember this is their proposal, not the CRTC’s or Industry Canada’s order.

    The point is that over-the-air broadcasters tend to care more about channel position on cable providers than they care whether people in the area can actually pick the station up off the air.

    Reply
  4. Dave

    Off Air is unimportant to most major broadcasters these days. The only reason they keep them maintained is because it is CRTC Law. Very few people still use antennas these days and is too much of a minority to matter. Cable and satellite is where the viewers are, and as a local broadcaster they would be low on the dial and gain more viewers

    Reply
  5. Yuprules

    Can’t wait for this in Montreal, hope they put the tower on Mount Royal unlike “disputing CBC/RDI and TQS” who are broadcasting from BEHIND A MOUNTAIN in downtown Montreal (oh look, the signal doesn’t even reach the West Island where MOST of their HDTV over the air viewers LIVE).

    Reply

Leave a Reply