Ask many Winnipeggers which TV stations are associated with the phrases “Channel 6, Cable 2”, “Channel 7, Cable 5” and “Channel 9, Cable 12”, and they will know the correct answers: CBC, CKY-CTV and CKND-Global, respectively.
Some might even know that “Channel 13, Cable 8” is Citytv and that “Channel 3, Cable 10” is Radio-Canada, the French-language public network.
But ask Winnipeggers about “Channel 35, Cable 11”, and you’re likely to see a blank expression come across their faces.
From the arrival of the CBC’s Winnipeg station, CBWT, in 1954 to the launch of what was then known as 13 MTN in 1986, the debut of a new local TV station was always a big deal.
By contrast, the launch of Omni 11 on Feb. 6, 2006 — officially, CIIT channel 35, cable 11 — went almost unnoticed. The station, which offered a mix of religious and secular programming, had no local celebrities, weak public awareness, and not even a known studio location.
Subsequent rebrandings as CIIT 11, Joytv and finally as Hope TV — currently a (tedious) mix of religious and foreign-language programming — couldn’t get the station out of the ratings basement. In fact, the latest rebranding was a bit of a disaster. As Joytv, the station reached 70,000 viewers for a total of 84,000 viewer-hours per week in Fall 2012. In Fall 2014, as Hope TV, it was only reaching 20,000 viewers for a total of 42,000 viewer-hours each week.
As for its competitors in Fall 2014:
- CKY-CTV reached slightly more than 1 million viewers each week, for a total of more than 3.2 million viewer-hours;
- CKND-Global reached 596,000 viewers weekly, for a total of about 1.8 million viewer-hours;
- CBWT-CBC reached 735,000 viewers weekly, but for 1.7 million viewer-hours;
- CHMI-Citytv reached 372,000 viewers weekly, for a total of 729,000 viewer-hours;
- CBWFT-Radio-Canada, which broadcasts only in French, reached 121,000 viewers weekly, for a total of 214,000 viewer hours — five times CIIT-HopeTV’s total viewer-hours!
With numbers like that, you wonder why ZoomerMedia, Hope TV’s owner, bothers to keep the station on the air.
Believe it or not, the station that even gets thumped by the local French channel in the ratings is a potential pot of gold for its owners: not for its small audience, but for the frequencies that its channel 35 over-the-air signal occupies.
When the first North American television stations went on the air in the late ’40s, only a mere 72 MHz of bandwidth was available, divided among 12 channels, each 6 MHz wide, between 54 and 88 MHz and between 174 and 216 MHz.
Since stations sharing the same channel had to be kept about 300 kilometres apart to minimize interference, and most neighbouring-channel stations had to be kept about 100 kilometres apart, it was soon clear that just 12 channels wouldn’t be enough to satisfy North America’s needs. So, starting from the early ’50s, 70 new UHF channels between 470 and 890 MHz — channels 14 to 83 — were made available to broadcasters.
This was perhaps a little much, so in 1983, the relatively few TV stations between channels 70 and 83 were required to relocate to lower channels or to go off the air so that those frequencies could be used by a new technology: cellular telephones.
The next big technological change came some 20 years later, as TV stations began to migrate from analog to digital broadcasting. With demand rising for additional bandwidth for wireless data services, and digital broadcasting making it possible for two or more broadcasts to share the same 6 MHz TV channel, channels 52 to 69 were the next TV frequencies to be reassigned.
Yet the remaining UHF channels, 14 to 51, were still seen as a wasteful use of bandwidth that could be put to better use by wireless data services. So, the U.S. is preparing to hold an auction that could reassign channels 31 to 51 to other uses, with TV stations currently operating on those frequencies being given the option to either move to a lower channel, if one can be found, or to be bought out and go off the air permanently.
Canada is expected to do the same in the near future.
The frequencies those stations operate on are so valuable that, by one conservative estimate, a 6 MHz-wide channel covering a population of 800,000 could be worth $4.8 million to $9.6 million U.S. just for the rights alone.
That might sound like pocket change by TV business standards, but it might be easier to take the money and run than to move to a new channel — a move that would require stations to spend large sums of money on engineering studies and on installing new or additional transmitters and antennas.
Especially when local TV stations are struggling to make any money. A financial summary published by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) earlier this year showed that conventional television stations last made a pre-tax profit in 2011, with collective losses exceeding $226 million in 2015.
Three Winnipeg TV stations operate within the 20 channels* being eyed for an eventual Canadian bandwidth auction: Hope TV on channel 35, Global on channel 40 and Radio-Canada on channel 51.
Global does well enough in the market, even assuming that it’s a loss-leader for owner Corus Media, that it might consider moving to a lower channel. The station had originally been expected to remain on its historical channel 9 frequency after the 2011 analog-to-digital transition, using channel 28 only temporarily; but instead requested channel 40, perhaps realizing the higher frequency might have greater future value.
Radio-Canada, on channel 51, could easily share channel 27 with CBC Winnipeg without losing its high-definition picture, allowing the higher channel to be sold off for data use if CBC-Radio-Canada so chooses.
But Hope TV, the little-watched TV station with no local studio and no local personalities? The station that is little more than a rebroadcast of an obscure religious cable network — the ultimate waste of bandwidth, and a sin for which a Toronto TV station was stripped of its licence? The station that gives us the oddity of the Van Impes? It might just be worth their while to take the money and run if and when they get the chance.
* – Excluding channel 37, which is not used for broadcasting in the U.S. or Canada. This small gap in the UHF band is used for scientific purposes.