The CBC as a “cultural conduit connecting our coasts”? That’s so 1986!

© thefuton

It was a debate that divided the community, pitting Winnipegger against Winnipegger. The newspapers covered every development, radio talk shows took passionate calls from both sides, and even U.S. television stations sent reporters to Winnipeg so that their viewers could find out what all the fuss was about.

It was the great North Dakota vs. Detroit debate of ’86.

It all started when Videon, the cable company that then served the western half of Winnipeg, proposed dumping the four North Dakota TV stations it carried — PBS affiliate Prairie Public TV, CBS affiliate KXJB, ABC affiliate WDAZ and NBC affiliate KTHI — and replacing them with four stations via satellite from Detroit.

The pro-Detroit camp in Winnipeg argued that Videon’s plan would mean better picture quality — no more problems with the U.S. network stations becoming barely watchable every time a blizzard or thunderstorm crossed Interstate 29 — along with more movies, more sports and 24-hour programming. The pro-North Dakota camp argued that we were cutting our ties to our peaceful Red River Valley neighbours and threatening to corrupt our youth with Detroit’s “if it bleeds, it leads” newscasts.

In March 1986, a compromise was announced: the weaker Fargo NBC and CBS signals would be replaced by the Detroit equivalents, while the stronger Grand Forks ABC and PBS signals would stay put, government regulators decreed.

It was an eventful year in local broadcasting. In the midst of the North Dakota vs. Detroit debate, Winnipeggers were also investing in rabbit-ears antennas in hope of picking up Star Trek re-runs and Madd Frank’s Saturday night horror movies following KNRR-TV’s Jan. 1, 1986 launch from Pembina, N.D. And in May, Winnipeggers weighed in on whether or not the unassigned channel 13 licence should be awarded to a Portage-based commercial station called CPLP-TV (renamed 13 MTN before it launched the following October) or a Winnipeg-based educational station called Manitoba Public Television (which obviously never made it to air).

It was also the first full year in operation for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an interest group formed  the previous year in opposition to the Mulroney government’s funding cuts to the CBC.

“How you can fight back to restore the CBC to its former glory,” reads one of their fundraising letters. “The CBC is a cultural conduit connecting our coasts, carrying thousands of expressions of our diverse national heritage each year — as important to our country as the St. Lawrence Seaway, the national railways and the Trans-Canada Highway.”

This quaint, flowery prose certainly sounds like something that might have been written in 1986. It actually wasn’t written all that long ago — it just arrived today, a six-page essay labeled “Exposed — Stephen Harper’s secret plan to destroy the CBC”.

Coincidentally, this missive arrived on the same day as an announcement which could have a far more profound effect on Canadian broadcasting than the $200 million CBC funding cut, CBC Radio 2 format changes and the pre-emption of Marketplace in favour of Jeopardy!, among other things the Friends essay bemoans.

The CBC’s Mrs. Brady — a cultural conduit since 1957

This far more important announcement? Yes, Google is getting into the TV business.

Not as a broadcaster or producer, of course, but as a search engine that will allow users to “look through live programs, DVR recordings and the Web, delivering a relatively compact list of results that can be accessed with a push of the button,” according to Reuters.

The real test of the technology will be this fall, when Sony will introduce a line of Internet TVs and Logitech International launches an adaptor that will bridge the gap between the Internet and existing high-definition TVs.

Internet TV is already a reality in some ways. If you can tolerate the small screen, you can watch Michael Moore’s latest movie online for free, glamorous people reading the evening news from Paris or even the first few minutes of the Feb. 24, 1992 edition of The National.

This, however, is a mere preview of what’s to come when a wireless router in your home will allow you to bypass the traditional broadcasters, cable operators and regulators — when you’ll be able to access Google through your TV set to find the programs you want  to watch, or set your alarm clock radio to wake up to a nearly commercial-free online radio station like France’s Live 9.

It’s a change that could turn the Canadian broadcasting industry on its head — and call the very existence of the CBC into question, given that its mandate is rooted in an era when its programming was one of just a handful of options on radio and television.

Funny that the Friends’ fundraising letter doesn’t mention that, opting instead for prose about the CBC as a “cultural conduit connecting our coasts” that sounds as dated as the ’86 North Dakota vs. Detroit debate and the aging, weather-worn Channel 12 antennas still pointed toward Pembina.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

2 Responses to The CBC as a “cultural conduit connecting our coasts”? That’s so 1986!

  1. Reed Solomon says:

    interesting article.

    While I am not personally one of those people who has little value for the left leaning CBC, I don’t think they’ve worked hard enough as a public service to convince Canadians that they’re worth the money. Case in point, the recent digital switchover. CBC found money to switch Toronto and Vancouver, Montreal and even Ottawa fairly quickly, but with the deadline slightly over a year away, thats as far as they’ve gotten. Apparently, the only thing that spurs Canadian stations to switch to digital is the threat that Canadians will tune in to the over the air American stations instead. Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, etc, not having any decent signals from the USA, out in the cold. Will I be hooking up cable TV to watch the world cup on a specialty channel through a high definition capable digital box? No, I won’t. Maybe I’ll watch an online feed, I don’t know. But nice job spending that money, CBC.

    I think the CBC should spend more money getting their signal into American border states, maybe we’d have more of a dialogue through media and it would help stop the inanity involving border security and fears of terrorism from Canada if American’s were exposed to a less vitriolic source of information. They’d appreciate it. Of course, Windsor apparently hasn’t gone digital either. Pity the folks in Detroit who can’t soak up Canadian culture like they’re used to.

    PBS went through a lot of expense and effort to distinguish itself in the new digital age, and it seems to me they’ve paid off (lack of an OTA HD signal in Winnipeg notwithstanding. No donations are going to be forthcoming from me, Prairie Public TV)

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    During last year’s shoutfest between the conventional broadcasters, the cable companies and the CRTC, I recall the broadcasters implying that, strictly from a business point of view, their preference would be to shut down OTA entirely on Aug. 31, 2011 since more than 90 percent of Canadian households are now on satellite or cable.

    The CRTC, as everyone expected, said that would be unacceptable in the absence of a nationwide “freesat” model.

    As far as Prairie Public goes, just for kicks I put some numbers into the FCC signal strength estimator web site to see what kind of coverage they’d get in southern Manitoba if they started up a 1,000 kW station at the border by piggybacking on KNRR’s 427-metre tower:

    Reliable indoor reception (80 dBu): 47 kilometres (Altona, Winkler, Morris)

    Indoor reception with antenna (70 dBu): 61 kilometres (Morden, St. Pierre-Jolys)

    Reliable reception with outdoor antenna (48 dBu): 94 kilometres (Steinbach, Carman, Winnipeg south of Bishop Grandin)

    Fringe reception with outdoor antenna (41 dBu): 109 kilometres (virtually all of Winnipeg and a significant portion of southern Manitoba)

    A custom-built 600-metre mast would boost those ranges by 5-12 kilometres, but would add significantly to both costs and startup complications.

    Prairie Public probably was kicking itself in the backside in the mid ’80s for not putting an OTA signal into southern Manitoba when it had the chance (i.e., 1975-79, when no one had a claim on the unoccupied Pembina frequency and CanWest would have given them the old tower for next to nothing just to keep would-be competitors away) and subsequently came dangerously close to losing half of their audience and membership base to WTVS Detroit.

    But now, they’d probably look at the costs (probably a couple million dollars or more in startup costs, plus ongoing transmitter operation and maintenance costs) and the technical limitations (fringe signal in much of Winnipeg, limited audience, the virtual non-existence of UHF antennas in Manitoba, and the need to convince the FCC to approve a second frequency at Pembina since the existing allotment is spoken for), and probably figure it’s not worth it unless they ran it as a Manitoba-focused channel with different programming than the rest of the Prairie Public system.

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