Digital Television in Canada - History


The digital television transition in Canada and the United States will result in spectrum on channels 52 to 69 being re-allocated for other purposes. The United States government already auctioned most of this spectrum and Canada is planning on doing the same. The United States government, using some proceeds of the spectrum action, funded an education campaign in advance of the transition, provided subsidies to many broadcasters in support of transitioning to digital, and provided subsidies to consumers for digital to analog converter boxes. In contrast, the Canadian government did not provide any similar funding in support of the digital television transition. The Canadian government's most visible efforts to support the public in the transition to digital over-the-air television has been in the form of a website entitled Canada's Transition to Digital Television (DTV) along with some newspaper, radio, and television advertisements in the month leading up to the transition deadline.

Engineering firm Spectrum Expert Inc. estimated a total cost to Canadian broadcasters of $378-425 million dollars to convert all 738 Canadian full-power television transmitters to DTV on their newly-assigned channels; if the 1238 low-power transmitters were converted, costs would increase further. Some of the highest costs were for existing full-power VHF rebroadcast transmitters that would have to be replaced by new UHF facilities in locations far from broadcast studios. As a worst case, CTV-owned CJOH-TV-6 and CJOH-TV-8 were estimated at a conversion cost of over four million dollars each. While CTV had threatened to shut down a long list of these full-power rebroadcasters on August 31, 2009, as of 2011 the transmitters are still on the air.

Several broadcasters, including the CBC, argued that there is no viable business case for a comprehensive digital conversion strategy in Canada. Converting a transmitter to digital has up front capital equipment costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which can in more extreme cases reach over a million dollars, though some cost recovery in energy costs is possible due to lower transmission power required to cover an area as compared to analog, if the same channel is used. At CRTC hearings in 2007 on the future direction of regulatory policy for television, broadcasters proposed a number of strategies, including funding digital conversion by eliminating restrictions on the amount of advertising that television broadcasters are permitted to air, allowing terrestrial broadcasters to charge cable viewers a subscription fee (retransmission consent) similar to that already charged by cable specialty channels, permitting licence fees similar to those that fund the BBC in the United Kingdom, or eliminating terrestrial television broadcasting entirely and moving to an exclusively cable-based distribution model.

The CRTC ultimately decided to relax restrictions on advertising, gradually removing all limits to the number of advertisements per hour of broadcast programming, as the funding mechanism. However, a CRTC statement issued in June 2008 indicated that as of that date, only 22 digital transmitters had been fully installed across the entire country, and expressed the regulator's concern that Canada's television broadcasters were not adequately preparing for the shift to digital broadcasting.

The US financial crisis and subsequent 2008 recession adverserly impacted advertising sales, the primary source of revenue for most broadcasters. Inadequate revenue in combination with debt incurred from purchasing other media companies caused Canwest, owner of the Global Television Network, to file for bankruptcy protection and to be subsequently purchased by Shaw Communications. Some Global Television Network and CTV stations in smaller markets were closed or sold. Seeking further sources of revenue, the television broadcasters including CTV launched an aggressive and somewhat successful campaign to re-open debate for introducing value for signal from cable and satellite television providers) debate in 2009.

On August 6, 2010, CBC/Radio-Canada announced in a press release that only its existing digital stations, along with both Alberta CBC Television originating stations plus all Télévision de Radio-Canada (SRC) originating stations in Quebec City and Moncton, would be DTV-ready in time for the August 2011 deadline. The remaining CBC/SRC originating O&O's were to be converted a year later in August 2012, subject to CRTC approval. In December 2010, CBC/Radio-Canada updated the information on its website to state that its was striving to convert originating O&O by August 31, 2011. CBC stated that it does not intend on transitioning any of its full-power repeaters to digital, despite in some cases being in markets (such as Kitchener, London and Saskatoon) required to convert by August 31, 2011.

In many instances, stations transitioning to digital continued utilizing the same channel, antenna or other facilities for their new digital transmitters after the end of transition. To save costs, with the exception of some stations in the largest markets, stations chose to flash cut from analog to digital at the transition deadline rather than spending on the infrastructure and energy costs needed to broadcast the station in analog and digital at the same time.

Leading up to the transition deadline, CRTC expressed concern that "if all broadcasters wait until the last moment to proceed to the transition, there could be a shortage of professional engineers and competent technicians capable of assuming the development of new plans and the installation of new systems and structures". Due to limited engineering resources, Global Television Network flash cut its transmitters over a 2 month period leading up to the deadline and TV Ontario flash cut its transmitters two weeks before the deadline. In contrast, most other networks and stations converted at the deadline.

There are no requirements for new televisions sold in Canada to include digital tuners (as they must in the US market), nor are there any labelling requirements for analogue-only receivers; some new televisions may be unable to tune a digital signal without an external ATSC tuner. As of 2010, an estimated 900000 Canadians relying on antennas prior to the transition deadline were expected to lose over-the-air television reception by the transition deadline, as they are not ready for the digital transition. While a new HDTV receiver connected to a terrestrial television antenna will receive OTA digital television, Canadian regulations do not require cable television operators to carry these free local HDTV signals in unencrypted digital format on their systems.

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