- 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 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.
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.
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.