Posted in TV

The beginning of the end for over-the-air TV

See this map full-screen

  • Red: CBC
  • Blue: Radio-Canada
  • Yellow: TVO
  • Purple: TFO
  • Green: Télé-Québec

Small dots are transmitters being shut down (text appears in grey), large dots are transmitters that will keep running; dots marked “A” are privately-owned affiliates unaffected by this move.

This is a map I created (through a combination of a list from the CBC and Industry Canada’s database) of all 658 CBC and Radio-Canada television transmitters in Canada, plus those of provincial public broadcasters TVO, TFO and Télé-Québec. As of today, more than 600 CBC and Radio-Canada transmitters are no longer licensed by the CRTC and are in the process of being shut down if they aren’t already. Ditto for more than 100 TVO transmitters and four TFO ones.

The CBC’s mass shutdown of television retransmitters (all of them analog) is part of a budget-cutting process that is expected to save $10 million a year in maintenance costs.

The CBC littered the country with television retransmitters, most of them low-power, from 1977 to 1984 as part of its Accelerated Coverage Plan. The goal was to make sure that every community of 500 people or more was served by a CBC and/or Radio-Canada television transmitter (depending on their mother tongue).

But the transition to digital television and the need to cut costs has made the case for keeping these transmitters running much weaker. For one, more than 90% of Canadian television viewers have a subscription to a cable or satellite service. And most of the remaining viewers will be served by one of the 27 digital television transmitters running in markets where CBC and Radio-Canada offer local programming.

(This includes CFYK in Yellowknife, the flagship station of CBC North, which until now has been operating as an analog station. The CBC has replaced it with a digital one, CFYK-DT, effective Aug. 1.)

According to the CBC, only 2% of Canadian television viewers will be affected by this shutdown. The rest either have a television subscription or are within range of one of its digital transmitters.

What’s more, the CBC says in its submission to the CRTC, maintenance is becoming more difficult and expensive because of the lack of availability of spare parts for analog transmitters. Since the U.S. has already undergone a complete transition to digital, there’s little demand for analog transmitter servicing, and the companies that once did that have stopped. Price for parts has increased, in some cases as much as 100%, the CBC says.

And so, with the CRTC’s reluctant blessing (the commission explains in its decision that its licenses are authorizations to operate stations, and it cannot force a broadcaster to operate a station it doesn’t want to), the 607 analog retransmitters were remotely shut down Tuesday night by CBC technicians, the satellite feeds to them replaced with color bars. The equipment will be removed, says Martin Marcotte, director of CBC Transmission.

Markets big and small

It isn’t just places like Cambridge Bay, Nunavut that have lost their over-the-air television stations. The shutdown affects all the CBC’s analog transmitters, which includes all retransmitters, including all the ones the CBC got special permission last year to keep running because they were in mandatory transition markets.

The list of transmitters being shut down (PDF) includes CBC transmitters serving Victoria, Whitehorse, Saskatoon, Subury, London, Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières, Saguenay, Moncton, Saint John and Sydney; and Radio-Canada transmitters in Calgary, Gaspé, Sept-Îles, Kuujuaq, Îles de la Madeleine, Fredericton, Halifax, Charlottetown and St. John’s.

When the CBC said it would not convert its Quebec City CBC transmitter to digital, there was a minor revolt among viewers angry about losing the only station there broadcasting hockey over the air. The compromise of keeping the analog transmitter running was seen as inadequate. Now even that is gone.

What about multiplexing?

When the CBC was grappling with the issue of what to do with minority-language transmitters in large markets during the digital transition, many suggested multiplexing, having the minority-language service running as a subchannel to the majority-language one. No additional equipment would be required for transmission. It would just be a question of encoding two channels into the data stream. U.S. stations make significant use of this, with subchannels offering enhanced programming ranging from repeats of local newscasts to weather to programming from an entirely separate network. Because there’s a limited amount of data that can be used, most subchannels are standard-definition.

The CBC was against the idea of multiplexing a year ago, worried about the degradation of the main signal that would come from adding a second one. While it’s true that adding subchannels limits the amount of bandwidth available to the main one, requiring more compression of the signal, the amount required to fit an SD signal wouldn’t be that serious. Consider that digital cable television encoders can easily fit two HD signals in the same 6 MHz channel, and some are even pushing it with three.

And given the choice between an almost-perfect HD channel and an adequate SD one, and a perfect HD channel and no minority-language channel at all, it seems obvious for me which way to go.

With the analog transmitters being shut down, the CBC is more open to the idea of multiplexing, and is currently testing it. “We continue to investigate the possibility of multiplexing in our engineering lab,” Marcotte tells me, explaining that they anticipate “the next generation of encoders will provide satisfactory quality to multiplex 2 HD streams in a single ATSC channel provided bandwidth is not allocated to other uses such as Mobile DTV.”

But the CBC’s submission to the CRTC makes it clear that’s not something they’re prepared to do just yet:

“Thus far, the test results indicate that although a single ATSC channel is capable of broadcasting two HD signals, this cannot be done without signal degradation which is manifested in a less clear picture. CBC/Radio-Canada has not gone to the expense and dislocation of converting its broadcasting network to digital in order to degrade the quality of its HD signal and has no intention of doing so. However, the Corporation will continue to monitor this technology and may reconsider if and when it meets our standards, and, more importantly, funding becomes available.”

If the CBC can make this happen, it would mean that in markets such as Calgary, Halifax, Sherbrooke and Quebec City, where there’s only the majority-language transmitter, it could eventually add a minority-language service as a subchannel, even in HD.

But, Marcotte warns, “even if the technical hurdle is met, there are nevertheless policy considerations that would need to be analyzed.”

Though it has suggested multiplexing as a solution to the prohibitive cost of setting up digital television transmitters, the CRTC has not yet authorized Canadian television stations to use multiplexing. It’s not clear how they would be licensed, though it’s expected the CBC would have to apply to the commission before using them.

TVO too

The CBC isn’t the only public broadcaster tearing down its analog transmission network. TV Ontario has also applied to the CRTC to shut down all its 114 analog retransmitters, and the CRTC has, for the same reasons, granted that request. The Ontario public broadcaster is left with only its nine digital transmitters.

The move has had an impact on Ontario’s French-language public broadcaster, TFO, which has been forced to shut down four of its transmitters that are on towers owned by TVO that are coming down. Its remaining transmitters are low-power ones in remote communities. It’s unclear how long those will keep operating.

For Quebec’s public broadcaster, Télé-Québec, this is a non-issue because it has already converted all 12 of its transmitters to digital, even those in small markets.

Will the privates follow?

With the shutdowns, more than half of the roughly 1,300 television transmitters in Canada went dark in one day. And the majority of the remaining ones are owned by private broadcasters. What will they do with their transmitters?

For the large owned-and-operated stations of CTV, Global, Citytv, TVA and V, there’s nowhere near the same amount of analog retransmitters. Many of these stations have only the main transmitters in their markets, which have already gone digital.

For smaller broadcasters, including privately-owned affiliates, many have gone digital even though they weren’t required to. Few have given any indication they plan to shut down their remaining analog transmitters, even though they must face the same financial pressures as the CBC. A comment could be made here about smaller broadcasters caring a bit more about their over-the-air signals, but I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

Community transmitters

The CBC’s decision prompted a response from CACTUS, the Canadian Association for Community Television Users and Stations, demanding that decommissioned transmitters be offered to community groups free of charge so they could operate their own community television stations. TVO made such an offer, CACTUS said, but the CBC did not, despite letters from people served by more than 200 transmitters being shut down.

CBC responded that CACTUS misunderstood the issue, and that most towers are not coming down, either because the CBC does not own them (it leases space on 250 towers) or because they are still carrying radio transmitters. Only about 80 towers and other “transmission assets” will become defunct because of this shutdown, and the CBC will be selling them to get the best price. It also said “the Corporation has every intention of reaching out to communities interested in purchasing the site to pursue their own community broadcasting interests.”

The CBC warns, correctly, that communities might not be interested once they learn how much it will cost to keep those transmitters operating, but says it is happy to discuss transferring equipment for those that are ready to make that investment.

The end of over-the-air TV

While fans of over-the-air HD television sing the praises of being cable-free (even to the point of being condescending towards those still subscribing to cable or satellite service), the business case for conventional television is fading fast. There have been few applications for new over-the-air television stations over the past decade, while there have been hundreds for new cable channels. While there are a few cases where stations are being scooped up, in most cases television stations can’t even be given away.

About the only thing keeping conventional television on the air is regulation. The CRTC requires conventional television stations to have at least one transmitter, and in order to benefit from simultaneous substitution (replacing American channels’ ads with Canadian ones where both run the same program at the same time), the Canadian station must have an over-the-air HD transmitter in its market.

As more transmitters shut down, demand for over-the-air television will continue to decrease. Eventually it will disappear completely, its frequencies reallocated to other services. How long that will take is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for sure: These transmitters aren’t coming back.

25 thoughts on “The beginning of the end for over-the-air TV

  1. Mike

    Re: “As more transmitters shut down, demand for over-the-air television will continue to decrease”

    As an aggregate, probably true, but no shutdowns in the Toronto/Hamilton/Niagara area and antennas continue to become more popular. If anything, it will be come much more regionalized. Many areas of the country may go to zero OTA while it will continue indefinitely in other parts.

    Reply
  2. Bill Lee

    And over 10 percent of viewers in the Vancouver area are using OTA (over-the-air). Why? Age, Inertia, dreadful Shaw service, not much better Telus, etc.

    And costs. They got their digital converters for old sets, or have newer sets with digital built in.
    And the aging population don’t watch as much TV as they used to. Teens never do.

    I am waiting for the Conservative governments offer of reception inplants to all citizens, purely for entertainment, of course.

    Reply
    1. Alex H

      Yes, and in Vancouver (and most major centers) OTA isn’t going away, at least not for the medium term.

      What isn’t framed here is what percentage of the population will lose out in this deal. The numbers are really, really small here, the transmitters in many cases were only addressing a few hundred people, and many of them have alternate means to view TV (dishes being the most common). When the numbers get really worked out, I suspect we are looking at something that MIGHT touch 10-20,000 people, and most of them could easy be moved forward to the late 20th century and set up with alternate reception means.

      Heck, CBC could do a deal with Bell and Shaw to have at least 1 CBC channel always come up for free on their sat systems, even if a receiver is not completely activated. End of issue for almost everyone.

      Reply
  3. Bill Lee

    And how will the cottage/cabin/at-the-lake people feel when they lose analogue TV this year?
    Has there been a cry out from summer places?

    Reply
    1. C. Sobieniak

      It’s these areas I bother to care about. It just doesn’t help anyone unless they bother to install a dish at that cabin and hope nobody steals it outside the vacation period.

      Reply
  4. Alex H

    It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion here. Offering OTA service is no longer profitable, and when you consider that a significant part of the Canadian broadcast business is owned by a very few companies, there is little incentive for them to maintain money losing services. There is no competitive issues in play.

    Moreover, as you noted, 90% of people have cable, sat, or IPTV services in Canada, and the availability of at least one of those services is effectively 100% of the population or just about. You can almost always get some sort of sat TV, even in the very far north – just need a much bigger dish to amplify the signal.

    It should also be said that OTA is a business model swimming against the current: Even with “local content matters” fees on your cable bill, the reality is that paying to broadcast OTA is nowhere near as profitable as getting paid to hand a signal to a distributor cable company to sell. With forced coverage, it pretty much clears the deck when it comes to making money. Simply put, eliminating most of the broadcast infrastructure, while maintaining direct contact with 90%+ of your viewers is a win, no matter what.

    Where I am living now I have wonderful IP TV service, super HD, and many, many channels to choose from. Can you guess that I am not in Canada anymore?

    Reply
    1. C. Sobieniak

      “It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion here. Offering OTA service is no longer profitable, and when you consider that a significant part of the Canadian broadcast business is owned by a very few companies, there is little incentive for them to maintain money losing services. There is no competitive issues in play.”

      See what happens when you shut us Americans out!

      Reply
  5. Jessie james

    Well, in Outremont in downtown Montreal we can barely receive any digital channels over the air. CBC channel 6 is the worst sinner in this department. But every channel cuts out, stutters, goes blank, etc.

    Digital over-the-air television has been a complete screw-the-consumer so they move to cable pile of bull crap.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Well, in Outremont in downtown Montreal we can barely receive any digital channels over the air. CBC channel 6 is the worst sinner in this department. But every channel cuts out, stutters, goes blank, etc.

      If you’re having problems receiving CBC television from there, it’s not the fault of the transmitter, which is putting out more than 100,000 watts. Maybe your TV is being overloaded? (Try disconnecting the antenna and see if it still works.) Or maybe the TV’s tuner is faulty.

      Reply
    2. ATSC

      1 – Make sure you have a good TV antenna. And make sure that the antenna is exposed towards the TV transmitters on Mont-Royal.

      2 – Locate the Signal Meter in your TV. Use it to help you point or place the antenna in a sweet spot that will allow you to get a strong signal.

      3 – You may need a pixel drop compensator if you are in a difficult position. Look at these items. Read up on what they do.
      http://overtheair.saveandreplay.com/Distribution_amps.asp

      4 – Here is also a site that offers good selection of TV antennas. Use it to compare antennas. Read the data specs on each one. This will help you to figure out a good model to buy. Or not buy. Check prices over at amazon.ca as well. Shop around.
      http://www.saveandreplay.com

      5 – Ask around for what other people are using for their OTA set-up.

      6 – You can install a outdoor antenna indoors. You can buy a small TV antenna tri-pod to mount the antenna indoors next to a window. Or mount the antenna on a wall next to a window.

      7 – Also, as was mentioned, you might have a overload. That means that the signal is way too strong for your TV’s tuner. So, perhaps a more low end TV antenna set up would be best. Try moving your current TV antenna away from a window. See how the signal meter reacts. Also, don’t place an antenna close to electrical devices. It can pick up the signal noise off these devices.

      8 – Can you post a link of the current TV antenna you are using?

      9 – Don’t forget that most TV channels in Montreal are broadcasting on UHF. So, you need a antenna that can handle UHF. Only CFCF and CFTM are on VHF now. CBMT (CBC) is actually transmitting on UHF channel 21, but re-maps to 6.1 in order to associate to it’s old analog channel number.

      Reply
    3. C. Sobieniak

      “Digital over-the-air television has been a complete screw-the-consumer so they move to cable pile of bull crap.”

      That’s pretty much one way to view it. That sort of “portability” that use to be there in the past is long gone for the days when I would be watching stations clearly while my dad ran his Kenworth semi truck down the highways.

      Reply
  6. Bryan

    Re: “As more transmitters shut down, demand for over-the-air television will continue to decrease”

    Of course demand for something is going to decrease if one can no longer get it. This is the only way the CBC can grab some cash back from it’s viewers because (and I believe the % is much much higher than the 2% claimed) it forced people to subscribe to services such as cable and satillite which the CBC then gets paid for.

    “Death throws for the CBC”

    Also the CBC ratings have been slowly declining for years as they continue to loose bids to carry relevent programming and have lost most of the one thing they were good at (Sports). By shutting down these transmitters I can pretty much guarantee that HNIC will be canceled before the 2014 – 2015 season as the only reason the NHL even considers them is because they were the only broadcaster that could transmitt all game awarded to every house in Canada regardless of if they had a subscription based service or not. If revenue from HNIC goes I can not see the CBC surviving much past that point.

    So by not turning those analog transmitters digital I feel the CBC has signed its own demise as anything relevent to Canadians, which is a shame to a once proudly Canadian institution.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      it forced people to subscribe to services such as cable and satillite which the CBC then gets paid for.

      The CBC doesn’t get paid for people’s cable/satellite subscriptions, unless you count subscription fees for CBC News Network and RDI.

      Reply
  7. Tobin

    I live in Nanaimo and get 9 HD OTA channels from Vancouver. OTA is the way to go. More and more people I know are making the switch and cutting the cord.

    Reply
    1. Dave

      Hi Tobin. I have been lurking on a few OTA forums for a number of months now, but haven’t yet gotten serious toward setting something up. I was intrigued by your post (which I realize is now a bit old) as I also live in Nanaimo. I didn’t think it likely I would be able to get anywhere near nine clear channels OTA. Do you mind telling me approximately where you live in town? I am in the Diver Lake area. FYI, I found your post while searching for information regarding Shaw’s LTSS program.

      Reply
  8. Doug

    Your map indicates the loss of SRC in Lethbridge, Alberta. We also lost our powerful CBC transmitter. It’s sad, but eventually all ota tv is done, I think. For now I was able to get Shaw’s LTSS satellite service to replace my cbc. The installer swore up and down I’d want it for other signals, too, but I showed him how good digital OTA is and he understood.

    Reply
  9. Mike

    I live at about 10 miles outside of Halifax and I lost access to ATV and Global last year. Now I have lost the french channel as well. That leaves me with only CBC which is only good on a good weather day.

    Reply
  10. Marlene Robertson

    I live 20 minutes outside of Moncton NB, lost CBC two years ago and today lost ATV/CTV. We currently receive CBC French channel and Global OTA. My question, if CBC Saint John has been shut down, why is the CBC French channel still OTA? Any solutions to my TV viewing other than the cable companies?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      We currently receive CBC French channel and Global OTA. My question, if CBC Saint John has been shut down, why is the CBC French channel still OTA?

      Moncton is an originating station for Radio-Canada, so its (digital) transmitter stays running. Saint John and Moncton are not originating stations for CBC, so their (analog) transmitters were shut down. There’s CBC Fredericton, CBC Charlottetown and CBC Halifax as the closest over-the-air transmitters. Beyond that, you’re either getting cable/satellite or watching whatever you can online.

      Reply
    2. Lloyd Wadden

      Marlene: Have you not looked into the LTSS program offered by Shaw Direct satellite (formerly known as Star Choice) As part of the CRTC conditions allowing them to buy Global you may be eligible to get FREE
      (hardware and installation included ) very basic standard definition service ( not HD ) of what were formerly your local OTA channels. Check out the following links :

      http://www.shawdirect.ca/promotions/english/digitaltransition/default.asp?WT.mc_id=DTV
      and also

      http://freeat33.com/free-television-with-shaw-canada-ltss/

      As it sounds like you live in rural area outside of Moncton, you’re likely a prime candidate for this program.
      Shaw’s web site is a little cryptic as what LTSS is all about, but if you Google it further you’ll see lots + lots of people have benefited from it.

      Reply
  11. Ray Lanier

    I have a Summer Camp in Northern Vermont and like many Americas south of Canada we like to get the CBC/Canadian perspective on many issues, but with CBMT going digital and moving from channel 6 to channel 21 we’ve lost access to CBC, we were never able to receive CBMT-3 (Ch. 50). We however receive Sherbrooke stations CHLT-DT (Ch. 7/TVA), CKSH-DT (Ch. 9/SRC), CKMI-DT (Ch. 11/Multichannel/Global), CIVS-DT (Ch. 24/TQ). It would be great if CBC would approve multichannel transmission and transmit over CKSH-DT and allow us south of the boarder to receive OTA some of the Canadian English programs we enjoyed.

    Reply
  12. pete

    hi steve,

    do you know why global tv has stopped signalling there station? for the past week, there is a message stating to rescan the channels, yet it’s not to be found anywhere else.

    i have a HD tv with a converter box for the other non HD tv’s. i get all the other channels okay but not global. would you know why??

    tks
    pete

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      do you know why global tv has stopped signalling there station?

      Can’t pick it up from here. Could be they’re having transmitter problems, but I haven’t heard anything.

      Reply
    2. Baz

      Having trouble with a few channels here in Montreal. Used to get 12, 62 and a few others. Now it only finds 3. It does seem like maybe a big antenna is down. Either that or they built a superstructure right in my line of sight. Hope not.

      Reply
  13. Jean-Marc

    I live in Toronto but am originally from the US. I like getting channels from Buffalo and in fact, they are adding channels there. Buffalo is definitely not a great economic center yet Buffalo is increasing the number of channels and they use multiplexing effectively. The CW channel 23.2 constantly broadcasts movies and Fox 29.1 has a couple of decent shows to watch. I find Canada so backwards in this area.

    In any case, if I ever wanted a satellite provider, I would hop over the border and get DISH. It’s not illegal as I understand it. You can declare it at the border and they can’t take it away. Google to find out more. It’s cheaper and you get a better channel line-up. All you need is a Walmart or other Pre-Paid card and address. Go to CBI USA to get a mailbox and order stuff from the US while your at it!

    Reply

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