Why you might soon be able to kiss your cable or satellite provider goodbye

It was one of the ugliest campaigns that Canadians ever witnessed outside of an election campaign.

On one side were the country’s cable TV companies, calling on Canadians to fight the “TV tax”, which would force cable customers to pay a monthly surcharge to support their local TV stations.

On the other side were the country’s TV networks, calling on Canadians to help “save local television”, which the cable companies had charged their customers to watch without passing anything along to the content provider.

That was two years ago.

Relations between the cable operators and the TV networks have been tense ever since. But technological change might be about to bring back the acrimony of two years ago.

Here in Canada, the Sept. 1, 2011 switch to digital television went almost unnoticed by most people, less than 10 percent of whom receive their TV signals over the air.

Yet the broadcasters are in a powerful position to change that balance.

Right now, Canadian broadcasters are using digital TV at a fraction of its full capacity. They’re using it the old-fashioned way: one channel, one signal.

Go just south of the border to Grand Forks, however, and you’ll find digital television being used much differently.

For example, Prairie Public Television carries four program streams on each channel. On subchannels 1 and 2, you’ll find the usual PBS programming that you’d find on cable channel 3 here in Winnipeg — one in high-definition, the other in standard. On subchannel 3, you’ll find a channel with programs of interest to the station’s Minnesota audience. On subchannel 4, you’ll find a separate lineup of educational programming and documentaries.

ABC affiliate WDAZ carries its normal feed on subchannel 8.1, plus the CW Network on subchannel 8.2 and weather information and the audio from a Fargo radio station on subchannel 8.3.

Fargo NBC affiliate KVLY (formerly KTHI on Winnipeg’s cable dial from 1968 to 1986) carries its standard feed on channel 11.1 and a national general -interest specialty network called This TV on subchannel 11.2.

These subchannels are used inconsistently across the United States, however. Go a few hours down the highway to Duluth and you’ll find that the subchannel programming is totally different.

That’s because the U.S. networks own relatively few of their affiliates, preventing the networks from creating new national networks that can be tuned in over-the-air in every market, coast-to-coast.

The Canadian networks don’t have that problem. Tune in CBC, CTV, Global or Citytv and you’re most likely getting your signal from a local transmitter owned and operated by the national network.

Thus, if they wanted to, the networks could bypass the cable and satellite companies and deliver their specialty channels over the air in every major market in Canada, with a lineup which might look something like this:

Winnipeg

3.1 Radio-Canada Winnipeg (Standard)
3.2 Radio-Canada Winnipeg HD
3.3 RDI (all-news)
3.4 Artv (arts/culture)
3.5 (Optional audio or subscription service)

6.1 CBC Winnipeg (Standard)
6.2 CBC Winnipeg HD
6.3 CBC News Network
6.4 Bold
6.5 Documentary

7.1 CTV Winnipeg HD
7.2 TSN
7.3 CTV Two
7.4 Much
7.5 CTV News Channel

9.1 Global Winnipeg HD
9.2 HGTV
9.3 Showcase
9.4 Slice
9.5 Food Network

13.1 Citytv Portage/Winnipeg (Standard)
13.2 Citytv HD
13.3 Sportsnet
13.4 OLN
13.5 G4 (or optional audio/subscription service)

35.1 Joy TV Winnipeg (standard)
35.2 Joy TV HD
35.3 Vision TV
35.4 ONE
35.5 (Optional audio or subscription service)

Before that becomes reality, however, there are two things left to do.

The first is for digital tuners to become commonplace in your mobile and handheld devices. Handheld digital TVs are already on the market, and adapters which would allow people to watch the news or sports on their iPhones while riding the bus or sitting in Starbucks are on their way, so that day is not far off.

The second is for the stations to upgrade their signals to the same standard used by cellular providers — something they should have done during this year’s digital transition, but didn’t always do.

Global’s signal now transmitting from high above Portage and Main already meets this standard, covering all except for the outer edges of Winnipeg with a signal equivalent to what you would need to get reliable indoor cellphone coverage.

The CBC’s signal is expected to be even stronger once the Mother Corp. sorts out the problems it’s been having with its antenna atop the Richardson Building. Weaker, but still adequate signals, are or will be available from Joy TV and Radio-Canada.

CTV’s and Citytv’s signals, however, aren’t up to standard. First of all, they’re still on the VHF band while everyone else is on UHF. VHF is roughly the digital TV equivalent of using a 2400-baud dial-up modem on a static-laced phone line in the high-speed Internet era, or trying to make money playing rock music on AM radio. VHF just won’t cut it.

CTV’s problem is compounded by the fact that their transmitter is so far south of town — watch for a tall tower just off Highway 75 next time you’re passing Ste. Agathe — that even if they switched to UHF, they would have to crank up the power to half a million watts or more to match Global’s signal quality in Winnipeg.

The same goes for Citytv, which operates from out near Elie. Both stations might want to consider scouting out the rooftops of Winnipeg’s high-rises as potential second transmitter sites.

But once that’s all been sorted out, many Winnipeggers might find themselves cutting the cord.

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

3 Responses to Why you might soon be able to kiss your cable or satellite provider goodbye

  1. Jeff says:

    Not likely to happen. The problem is that many of the cable only services you use as examples earn money from the cable/satellite carriers for number of subscribers. I doubt they would make their services available to be transmitted for free over the air.

  2. Jim Burnside says:

    It would be nice if the cable providers had the same level playing feild MTS enjoys as to American and Canadian packaging . Too bad we cannot order what and who we want and pay whatever per channel . The changes for packageing are coming so they say , now that Shaw is a TV provider funny how much queiter they are now , that they may have to put up their own cash . Canadian Networks need to provide better shows and stop riding on American coat tails or lose their licence .

  3. bwalzer says:

    @Jeff

    I agree. Another example of why allowing distribution to merge with creation is a bad idea.

    Something interesting has happened in the states. The existence of subchannels has helped to spawn a new category of content creation. People are packaging up old content to create advertiser supported nostalgia channels. Here are some examples:

    http://www.myretrotv.com/
    http://metvnetwork.com/
    http://www.thistv.com/

    These work with a barter arrangement. The broadcaster gets to insert a certain percentage of local advertising. The rest is national in scope (direct marketing) and comes with the feed and supports the operation of the feed.

    Since these feeds come with their own ads they are sent on the satellite unencrypted. This provides content for people living out in the sticks. The relative lack of FTA (Free To Air) satellite content is another result of the weird regulation we have here. Until recently you couldn’t even get CBC on satellite (and that is only on C-band)…

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