José Breton must be happy.*
He’s the guy in Quebec City who protested that CBC was going to shut down its TV transmitter there and not replace it with a digital one. Being a hockey fan, his main issue was that he wouldn’t be able to get Hockey Night in Canada without cable.
In a decision published Tuesday morning, the CRTC decided to give the CBC another year to make the conversion in 22 markets that are large enough that the CRTC designated them for mandatory conversion but small enough that they do not have original programming and the CBC was prepared to pull the plug on them rather than spend millions on new transmitters.
These include transmitters in Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières and Chicoutimi that rebroadcast CBC Montreal. They also include a large number of Radio-Canada’s transmitters outside Quebec. The Globe and Mail has a map here.
Breton wasn’t the only one trying to stop his city from falling through the cracks. The city of London, Ont., actually passed a resolution demanding the CBC save its transmitter there.
Since Radio-Canada transmitters in Quebec are shutting down, the CBC is going to use the old Radio-Canada analog transmitters in Trois Rivières and Quebec City for CBC programming, taking advantage of the better coverage of those transmitters. On the flip side, its transmitter in Chicoutimi (Saguenay) will see its power drop significantly because it’s on a channel that is supposed to be vacated.
Here’s what’s going on for each transmitter:
- CBMT Montreal must still terminate analog transmission on Channel 6 by Aug. 31. Its transitional digital transmitter on Channel 20 will move to Channel 21.
- CBJET Saguenay will drop in power significantly, going from 12,000 watts to just 496. Because it’s running on Channel 58, which is one the government is forcing all television stations to move off of (big cities or small), it drops to low-power unprotected status. This also means that Industry Canada (which regulates frequency allocations) can force it to move frequencies if it wants to give it to someone else.
- CBMT-1 Trois-Rivières switches from Channel 28 to Radio-Canada’s old spot on Channel 13, and gets a power boost from 33,000 to 47,000 watts, in order to increase its coverage area.
- CBVE-TV Quebec City switches from Channel 5 to Radio-Canada’s old spot on Channel 11, and gets a power boost from 13,850 to 33,000 watts, increasing its coverage.
- CBMT-3 Sherbrooke remains operational, unchanged at 14,000 watts on Channel 50.
- Other retransmitters in Quebec (there are about 40 of them from Kuujuaq to Îles de la Madeleine) are not in mandatory markets and will remain running as they were before.
The CRTC’s decision is understandable. It was backed into a corner by the CBC. Not allowing the extension would have meant forcing the CBC to shut down these transmitters – many of which are in minority-language markets – and would have meant, some have argued, failing in its mandate.
It’s also the latest compromise on the digital transition. Originally the CRTC wanted every TV transmitter in Canada to be converted to digital. Then in 2009 it said only “mandatory markets” – capital cities, those with multiple stations and those with populations above 300,000. Then in March it removed the territorial capitals from the list of mandatory markets. And now CBC and Radio-Canada retransmitters won’t have to make the transition.
In 2009, I argued that the digital TV transition is a counterproductive waste of money. Two years later, with the deadline only two weeks away, this seems even more clear. Broadcasters are waiting in some cases until literally the last minute (midnight from Aug. 31 to Sept. 1) to switch their analog transmitters with digital ones, because they know that the analog transmitters reach a larger audience. The fact that the CBC is pushing for a delay and that so few transmitters are being changed outside of mandatory markets is a clear indication that market forces aren’t pushing hard in the direction of digital TV.
And why should they? Having high definition is nice, but the vast majority of people rich enough to have purchased high-definition TVs also have cable or satellite service. Most of those on analog TV are either too poor to afford a subscription service or are too disinterested in TV to spend the money.
Digital television is being forced on us for reasons that still elude me. The government wants to auction off TV channels 52-69 for wireless services, but analog transmitters in those frequencies can be reassigned lower channels without converting them to digital (there certainly aren’t more than 50 television transmitters operating within range of Quebec City or Moncton).
Analog over-the-air television has existed using roughly the same technology for more than half a century. Forcing broadcasters to spend millions on hundreds of new transmitters and consumers to spend hundreds on millions of new televisions (or digital converters for their existing sets) without a clear need seems ridiculous.
UPDATE (Aug. 17): Actually, Breton isn’t happy. He’s calling the decision a “false compromise”, says the CRTC should have forced the CBC to install a digital transmitter in all mandatory markets, and points out that because most digital converter boxes don’t pick up analog signals, people won’t be able to easily switch between CBC and other channels in these markets.