Why a forgotten TV station is a potential pot of gold

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.


25 minutes with Jim Adelson

As 1967 ended and 1968 began, television in Winnipeg was limited to what little viewers could receive over-the-air: the two local CBC and CTV stations, Radio-Canada’s French-language station, and a weak signal from a U.S. border station in North Dakota.

But in the summer of 1968, Winnipeggers’ television choices expanded dramatically. A group of businessmen erected TV antennas near the Minnesota border, and relayed three new U.S. TV signals back to Winnipeg via an intercity microwave link to provide content for Winnipeg’s two new cable TV systems: Videon in the western half of the city, Greater Winnipeg Cablevision in the east.

As viewers became familiar with the new offerings — NBC affiliate WDAZ, ABC affiliate KTHI and CBS affiliate KXJB, all from North Dakota — they also became familiar with the local personalities on those stations, who soon became as well-known in Winnipeg as they were south of the border.

One of those personalities was Jim Adelson, KXJB’s affable sports director and program host, who was a familiar face to a generation of Winnipeggers who watched the station’s channel 4 signal from the introduction of cable TV in 1968 until it was dropped from the lineup in 1986, when more reliable satellite signals from Detroit came available.

Last year, Adelson — now in his late eighties and long since retired to Arizona — visited Fargo and KXJB to reminisce on the station’s 60th anniversary. In a 25-minute interview that might bring back memories for Winnipeggers who remember the days when KXJB had a large audience in this city, Adelson shows that he remains a good story-teller.


Click on image to open video in a new tab. (Might take a moment to begin.)


On dealing with controversy:

“I did the live studio wrestling, and that was a kick. I mean, people would come in and sit around the ring and the wrestlers would put on a show.”

“My favourite was . . . I can’t think of his name now, but he was the bad guy and he wore a swastika . . . So we got some boos and I was in the ring with him, and a couple of months later, my boss gets a letter . . . ‘How can you let Jim Adelson, a Jewish boy, stand in the ring with that terrible Nazi-looking guy.’ So the boss calls me in, and, I don’t know, I’ll call him.”

“I called the office and got Vern’s buddy, his assistant, and he started laughing. I said, ‘What’s so funny about this? The boss is madder than hell, you know!’ He said, ‘Do you know what the guy’s name is really? Jerry Goldberg — he’s one of your boys!’ I said, ‘Huh?!’ So, I went and talked to the boss, and he said, ‘Oh, forget it . . .'”.

On the risks of live programming:

“I did a half-hour talk show at 5:30 . . . you could call and visit. And we had a blizzard. It lasted for about three days, and I was stuck out there, and that was the one communication people had. As a matter of fact, I was doing a show and a kid called and said, ‘Say, I’m at the Westward Ho in Grand Forks. I’m single, and I’m looking for a girlfriend to get through this blizzard with me. Have them call room such-and-such!’ Live on television. I said, ‘I’ll try.'”


Ha ha — you want to commercialize what?!

KUSW tried, without luck, to make money playing rock music on shortwave radio from 1987 to 1991. It was purchased in 1991 by a religious broadcaster alleged to have unceremoniously held a bonfire to burn KUSW's "sinful" music library.

KUSW tried, without luck, to make money playing rock music on shortwave radio from 1987 to 1991. It was purchased in 1991 by a religious broadcaster alleged to have unceremoniously held a bonfire to burn KUSW’s “sinful” music library.

Years ago, television advertisements encouraged Canadians traveling abroad to take their shortwave radios along so that they could tune in Radio Canada International, a division of the CBC, to keep up with the news from back home. In the pre-Internet era, it was a useful public service that not only kept vacationers in the loop, but was also used by Canadian diplomats and other expatriates living abroad, and to reach foreigners keen to learn more about Canada.

RCI and other government-owned shortwave broadcasters, such as the Voice of America, the BBC World Service and Radio Havana Cuba, operated in a now-obscure part of the radio spectrum between 5 and 20 megahertz, well above the 530-1700 kilohertz AM band and below the TV frequencies that begin at 54 megahertz.

Though the sound quality on the shortwave band was mediocre at best, the signals could travel several thousand miles under good conditions, well beyond the range of AM and FM stations.

But shortwave listeners were too few and far between, and reception was too reliant on the vagaries of atmospheric conditions, for the frequencies to have much commercial value. Thus, shortwave long remained the domain of dull state broadcasters, and God-casters promoting Jesus to whoever happened to be listening.

Not that a few didn’t try to make money on shortwave.

Superrock KYOI set up operations on the tiny U.S. Pacific island of Saipan in 1982, and broadcast American rock music to Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand and the Soviet Union’s Far East; but gave up in 1989 and sold the station to a religious broadcaster.

But the real death of commercial shortwave radio seemed to take place on Dec. 16, 1991 when KUSW Salt Lake City, another rock station targeting Canada and a small domestic audience, left the air for the last time after a four-year run.

Its new owners, a California-based religious organization called Trinity Broadcasting, not only bestowed the station with a new set of call letters — KTBN — when it returned to the air two days later, but is alleged to have perversely held a public bonfire to burn the late KUSW’s music library.

Twenty-three years later, however, a Florida broadcaster believes that shortwave commercial broadcasting’s time might have finally come.

At 7 p.m. Eastern time on Oct. 31, Global 24 — no relation to Canada’s Global Television — took to the air as a 24-hour news and entertainment station targeting the Americas, Europe and Africa from a transmitter site in southern Florida.

“Global 24 represents another step in the long overdue commercialization of shortwave radio,” the manager of the company that owns and operates Global 24’s transmitters said in an Oct. 21 news release. “We are excited to be working with them on their ambitious program to engage and entertain a global audience.”

“Shortwave radio is a medium for the 21st century. No other medium provides for global access of information on a handheld device without access to an infrastructure, satellite, internet connection or membership fee,” the station notes on its web site as its rationale for using 9395 kHz (9.395 MHz) — a frequency few North American households have the necessary radios to tune in.

The station’s programming is eclectic to say the least, ranging from the left-leaning “Democracy Now” public affairs show to a musical program called “Global Music and Turkish Talent Box”, an arts program called “Shakespeare on Shortwave”, and a weekly science program called “Exploration”.

A program on “Survival, Homesteading and Off the Grid Living” is said to be in the works.

If nothing else, Global 24’s launch is a gutsy move, as even government-owned and religious broadcasters have dramatically reduced or eliminated their shortwave presence in recent years, viewing it as an old technology made obsolete by the Internet. (Radio Canada International maintains a small online presence, having closed down its shortwave radio operation in 2012.)

Yet Global 24 isn’t necessarily hostile to the Internet. If you’re one of the many who doesn’t own a shortwave radio — or even knew what “shortwave” was before reading this post — the station also broadcasts online.

Pairing option brings YouTube to your regular TV

La Nipote

From the 1974 Italian comedy “La Nipote”. If the icon in the lower right hand corner is present, it will be possible to send the video straight from your computer or wireless device to your TV set. (Click to enlarge.)

If the broadcast regulators at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) are worried about the impact of unregulated Internet video streams on the Canadian broadcasting system, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais wasn’t showing much of that chagrin when he spoke to the Vancouver Board of Trade earlier today.

“Despite the mountain of media stories about Netflix, and Shomi, and HBO online, and CBS online and Bell’s Project Latte, let’s not lose sight of the fact that about 60% of Canadians do not stream TV programming,” Blais told the audience today. “Canadians still watch on average 28 hours of traditional TV a week.  And the hours of viewing to online video services, including cute kittens on YouTube, is only 1.9 hours per week.”

But YouTube is interested in making its vast online video library part of your regular prime-time viewing.

The traditional living room TV set was a large, heavy box that could only use one video source at a time. Today’s newest TV sets are relatively lightweight panels that can alternate between a cable or satellite connection, free over-the-air digital TV (which offers superior picture quality), HDMI computer connections, USB drives and Wi-Fi — all using just one remote control.

These so-called “Smart TVs” are gaining in popularity. A 2013 forecast expected worldwide Smart TV shipments to reach 141 million units in 2015, up from 66 million in 2012.

These TVs often include self-updating software that downloads apps you can use to access streaming video services. YouTube, BBC News and TED offer free access to their services; while the Cineplex Store and Netflix offer pay-TV options.

One of the particularly handy features of the YouTube app is that, if your computer and your TV both use Wi-Fi, you can now easily send any videos you find on your computer straight through to the TV set.

Here’s how it works (Wi-Fi enabled Smart TV required):

  • Open the YouTube app on your Smart TV, and look for the Settings option.
  • Look for the “Pair Device” option on the TV screen.
  • On your laptop or wireless device, go to youtube.com/pair
  • By this time, there should be a 12-digit code on your TV screen. Back on your laptop or wireless device, enter this code in the “Enter pairing code” field, and wait for the connection to be made.
  • Start the video on your computer and, when prompted, choose the “Play on your TV” option. Or, look for the play-on-TV option in the lower right hand corner of the video.

As long as you are signed in to YouTube when you do the setup above, the two systems should be able to communicate with each other again in the future. If not, repeat these steps

This brings the whole YouTube video library to your living room TV, and gives you the freedom to “geek out” on whatever interests you: full ABC coverage of the 1972 U.S. presidential election, silent movies from the ’20s or racy Italian comedies from the ’70s, video compilations of drunken politicians, the evening news from Ghana or even some historical Winnipeg TV clips courtesy of RetroWinnipeg, drbpony and this site.

When all else fails, just call it “new”

Many Winnipeggers have a pattern to their radio listenership. They wake up in the morning to an alarm clock radio normally permanently set to one preferred station, and drive around town listening to one or two preferred stations. Some people might listen to a single station for extended periods during the day at work.

Few will ever have spent a significant amount of time listening to 100.7 FM in Winnipeg, known as Jewel 101 in its latest incarnation. The station, which currently plays a wide-ranging format ranging from Barry Manilow to Rihanna — billed as “light and refreshing” — has experimented with nostalgia, country and rock formats over the years in an unsuccessful attempt to rise above its lowly place in the Winnipeg radio ratings.

How bad are things at Jewel 101? In the Fall 2013 Winnipeg radio ratings, 100.7 FM (officially known as CFJL-FM) reached just 19,500 listeners in Winnipeg and the surrounding region. This placed them second-last among the 15 stations that subscribe to the BBM rating service in terms of the number of ears reached. Of the fifteen, only French-language station CKSB reached fewer people — but they’re not dependent on advertisers for their survival.

Jewel 101’s problems are not unique. The station now known as Virgin Radio 103.1 spent about a decade casting about with different brand names and formats between the late ’80s and late ’90s before achieving success with the hit-music oriented Hot 103.

Current stations 99.1 Fresh FM and TSN Radio 1290 also did their fair share of experimenting with different formats over the years, none of which turned out to be hits.

Normally, a station in Jewel’s position would consider strengthening its commuter-oriented morning and late afternoon offerings. Jewel’s morning show, hosted by Winnipeg radio veteran Don Percy, only gets fleeting promotion on the station’s web site; its afternoon drive-time show hosted by Russ Tyson, another radio veteran, appears to get no top-page promotion at all.

Or it might review its pickles-and-ice-cream mix of Manilow and Rihanna, which might not be quite what the leave-it-on-in-the-background-all-day audience is looking for.

Yet Jewel 101 is trying something completely different. In a recent filing with the CRTC, Canada’s broadcast regulator, Jewel’s owners see the station’s 100.7 FM frequency as being somewhat jinxed. As their supplementary brief puts it:

Since the licence was initially granted in 2002, the specialty format on 100.7 has failed to generate audience interest. Consequently, the frequency itself has become stigmatized as “a station no one listens to”.

Therefore, the station’s owner, Dufferin Communications Inc., proposes that the answer to its problems might be found in sliding one FM channel over to the supposedly stigma-free 100.5 FM:


. . . While The Jewel format is fresh and new in the Winnipeg market, is enjoyed by those who tune it in, and is successful in other markets where it is played, it can not escape the stigma that comes with the frequency after so much time at the bottom of the ratings. Listeners have told our marketing department the station is a “loser”, and consequently, potential advertisers see the station as perpetually “last in the market” to our financial detriment. It is our belief that a change in frequency to 100.5 MHz will help Dufferin overcome and shed some of the negative baggage associated with the 100.7 frequency.

. . . We also believe that migrating 100.7 to 100.5 is the next logical step which will both give Dufferin an opportunity to capitalize on an “all new” Winnipeg Jewel, and improve the station’s technical parameters.

The last sentence refers to the fact that Jewel proposes increasing its transmitting power from 80,000 watts to 100,000 watts, which would give the station a slightly better chance of reception in office buildings and other signal-challenging environments.

It’s difficult to understand how 100.7 FM could be any more jinxed than was 103.1 FM, for example, during that station’s decade in the wilderness during the ’90s; or 1290 AM was when it tried its hand at everything from talk radio to World War II-era music, to reviving the CFRW glory days of the ’70s and ’80s before finally settling on a reasonably well-regarded sports format.

Likely, Jewel’s core problem is that its something-for-everyone format has long been and still is too broad for anything more than a relatively small number of listeners to bother tuning their alarm clock or car radios to; and that its drive-time shows are all but invisible even to those who might be fans of their veteran hosts.

But if they want to try moving their station just a nudge to the left on the FM dial and calling it “new” to see if that solves their problems instead, then good luck to them.

Controversial choices loom as TV border skirmish escalates

“Why can’t we see the Super Bowl ads?” That’s the big question that arises in Canada early each year, as NFL fans on this side of the border come to terms with the fact that they won’t be able to see the spectacular (and spectacularly expensive) ads that air during the biggest U.S. sporting event of the year.

That question about whose ads we get to see lies at the heart of an escalating border skirmish that could bring the future of easy Canadian access to U.S. network television into question.

As the CRTC, the Canadian broadcasting regulator, points out on its web site, it comes down to a matter of programming rights.

Forty years ago, Canadian broadcasters were incensed with the actions of several U.S. TV stations that had their transmitters south of the border, and purchased their programming rights there, but had studios and sales staff in Canada to produce and sell ads during programs for which a Canadian station had supposedly purchased the exclusive local rights.

Eventually, the CRTC announced a new policy called “simultaneous substitution”, or “sim-sub”, which would require cable companies to carry the Canadian signal on both channels if the same program aired on both a Canadian and American station simultaneously.

The Canadian stations were delighted with the results, one 2009 study estimating that “sim-subbing” added about 40 percent to a Canadian station’s audience when airing a U.S.-made program in prime time. It also sent the most aggressive “border pirates” reeling: the Texas-based owner of KCND, an ABC affiliate with its transmitter in North Dakota but studios and sales offices in Winnipeg, quickly sold the station to Canadian investors in 1975, who relaunched the station on this side of the border as CKND (now Global Winnipeg). KVOS, a CBS affiliate serving Vancouver from a transmitter in Washington State, survived; but eventually had to leave CBS and become an independent station to get around the sim-sub problem, and is now little more than a repeater for a Seattle station.

The regulators at the CRTC, who have an “arm’s length” relationship with the politicians but must occasionally show some sign of paying attention to public opinion nevertheless, have made noises recently about possibly getting rid of the sim-sub rules so that Canadians will be able to see the Super Bowl ads.*

In a consultation exercise launched this week, the CRTC asked Canadians how they would feel about U.S. stations being “offered in an optional package and local stations would receive money from the additional subscriber fees to cover the lost advertising revenue” as an alternative to sim-subbing.

In addition to placating Super Bowl viewers, this idea could deal with one aspect of a looming Canada-U.S. trade dispute.

In a Feb. 14 letter to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, a coalition of U.S. TV stations urged the American government to confront Canada over “failure to provide adequate and effective protection for the intellectual property rights (IPR) of American television stations redistributed in Canada” and “Canada’s ongoing denial of fair and equitable market treatment that causes harm and damage to American television stations owners and employees”.

Part of the coalition’s letter included an insistence that Canadian cable and satellite operators cease the “unauthorized modification” of U.S. signals caused by sim-subbing, the practice that causes Canadian viewers to see lacklustre Canadian ads during the Super Bowl.

Bell Media, the owner of CTV, Canada’s largest private TV network, as well as many cable channels, takes a different view. Not only do they want sim-subbing to continue, they want to expand it.

In fact, a Bell Media spokesperson even suggested a few months ago that U.S. networks be given the boot completely from Canadian cable and satellite systems:

BCE Inc., Canada’s largest broadcaster, would support the establishment of broadcasting rules similar to those of the United Kingdom, where American channels cannot be aired and broadcasters can license and air shows exclusively, the company said.

“Canada is the only country in the world where American channels are freely carried by cable and satellite distributors, dramatically impacting the value of the exclusive programming rights Canadian broadcasters purchase. Allowing U.S. networks freely into Canada causes massive market disruption. We would be supportive of such a system as seen in the U.K.,” Scott Henderson, a spokesman for BCE division Bell Media, said in an emailed response to questions.

[ . . . ]

Hendersen [sic] said Bell Media would also support a system of “non-simultaneous substitution,” which would expand the existing regime so that the signal is replaced even when the shows are played at different times. No matter when it airs, distributors would be required to substitute the U.S. broadcast signal with the Canadian broadcaster’s signal, including its advertising, where the Canadian broadcaster has the Canadian rights to the program.

Other broadcasting groups shied away from Bell’s aggressive ideas: a Rogers spokesperson was non-committal; a Telus spokesperson was firmer, suggesting that Bell’s position “doesn’t seem realistic”.

Sometime in 2014, the CRTC will begin consulting with the Canadian broadcasting industry on the future of sim-subbing. Regardless of whether they roll back or expand the practice, they will face a backlash from either broadcasters who feel that their business model is being undermined or from a public that won’t like the idea of paying for what they’ve long received at no extra (visible) charge.

To be making that decision while a Canada-U.S. trade war over property rights rolls on in the background, with the possibility that Canadian cable and satellite operators might have to enter into contentious negotiations with U.S. stations to continue using their signals, suggests that the CRTC will be feeling the heat indeed.

* – That is not the only way in which the CRTC has found itself aggravated over the sim-sub policy. After reading a Twitter exchange in which a Rogers Communications representative faulted the CRTC for the inability of Canadian viewers to see U.S. commercials during the NFL playoffs, a “dismayed” CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais fired off a tart letter reminding Rogers that substitution is only done at the broadcaster’s request; suggesting that broadcasters educate the public about a policy that was created on their suggestion “rather than simply passing blame onto the CRTC”; and ordering Rogers to “provide a report outlining the training your customer service representatives receive on this issue”.

Time for Canadians to pay to watch ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS?

Sixty years ago this month, the young Elizabeth II was crowned as Britain’s Queen at Westminster Abbey in London. This was naturally a matter of great interest to Canadians, many of whom were either British-born themselves or were the children or grandchildren of British migrants, and thus took “the British connection” very seriously.

It was also the first televised coronation of a British monarch, a controversial move at the time not only because it amounted to technology intruding upon an ancient rite, but also because of fears that the Queen might be caught at her nervous habit of licking her lips.

The final say rested with the Queen, who approved televising the event and, as it turned out, performed well in front of the cameras.

The broadcast could only be seen live in Britain, however, as the first international satellite TV links were still years away in June 1953. As soon as film was available, it was loaded on to aircraft that whisked the reels away to North America and other parts of the world.

Even then, the reels couldn’t be aired on television stations that didn’t exist. Toronto and Montreal already had their own TV stations, but Winnipeg’s first TV station, the CBC-owned CBWT, was still a year away from its May 31, 1954 sign-on.

In southern Ontario, viewers turned to the U.S. stations from Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland they had been watching since as early as 1947. In Vancouver and Victoria, where there was still no local television, film of the coronation had been delivered to Bellingham, Wash. where it became the inaugural broadcast on KVOS, a U.S. station established to make its money delivering American programming to both nearby Canadian cities.

Having established an early foothold in Canada’s households, it was difficult to disabuse Canadians of the idea that unfettered access to U.S. ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates — and later PBS and Fox stations — was some kind of a Canadian right.

In 1969, when regulators at the Canadian Radio-Television Commission tried to restrict the use of intercity broadband microwave relays to feed U.S. network affiliates into cable systems in Sudbury, Calgary, Edmonton and other cities far beyond the border, the public (and political) response was so negative that they backed down within months.

At the same time, some U.S. stations took a dim view of Canadian cable companies picking up their signals at the border and then re-selling those signals without permission or compensation.

Others spotted opportunity, and opened Canadian advertising sales offices to compete directly with Canadian stations. When North Dakota TV stations WDAZ and Prairie Public TV were nearly kicked off Winnipeg’s cable systems in favour of clearer satellite signals from Detroit in 1986, they considered the potential financial hardship frightening enough to help build a broadband microwave link from Grand Forks to Winnipeg to improve picture quality.

An uneasy peace prevailed between U.S. stations and Canadian cable companies from the end of the ’70s to the first decade of the 2000s. The stations weren’t getting their share of what the cable companies were making by re-selling their product, but having a large audience in nearby Canadian cities was still useful to point out to local advertisers on both sides of the border.

By the 2000s, though, the plethora of cable and satellite channels were harming local network-affiliated stations. Having peaked in 1980 at 15.2 million viewing-minutes for the average prime-time U.S. network program, network viewership went into a gradual decline for the rest of the ’80s, and a more precipitous decline from 1990 onward.

In 2013, the average U.S. network program attracts, on average, 4.4 million viewer-minutes, little more than one-quarter of the 1980 peak. To make matters worse, an expensive TV ad is fleeting and easily forgotten — but a top-of-the-page showing on Google or Bing gets immediate attention from exactly the right audience, and is easily bookmarked for later perusal.

Now those U.S. stations you’ve been enjoying for years need new sources of revenue — and they’re looking at you, the Canadian viewer, as one potential source.

A proposed new tariff would require Canadian cable and satellite companies to compensate U.S. stations for distributing their signals to homes outside the stations’ normal coverage areas. For 2014, each Canadian provider offering one or more of these “distant” U.S. stations would have to pay a royalty ranging from 60 cents to $1.06 per household per month.

U.S. stations are lobbying for compensation from Canada through Border Broadcasters’ Inc., which is linked to a P.O. box in Toronto and a Michigan phone number; and an industry group called the U.S. Television Coalition, which issued a statement last November calling for “equitable and nondiscriminatory consent and remuneration rights for American over-the-air TV channels imported and retransmitted in distant markets across Canada”.

The latter organization is primarily supported by stations in Buffalo, Detroit and St. Paul-Minneapolis.

It is unclear what position, if any, the U.S. network affiliates most familiar to Winnipeggers have on this issue. Both WDAZ and Prairie Public, which have been available in Winnipeg homes since the late ’60s and mid-’70s respectively, were asked for comments when this issue first started to get media attention; both never responded.

It is equally unclear what the consequences would be if a dispute over compensation broke out between Winnipeg’s cable companies and U.S. network affiliates. A 2008 dispute between a Fargo cable operator and the local CBS and NBC affiliates over a similar compensation matter resulted in subscribers losing access to the stations’ high-definition signals. The lower-quality analog signals were unaffected.

Loss of Winnipeg coverage would be inconsequential to the U.S. stations most often watched in the community — ABC affiliate WDAZ, CBS affiliate WCCO Minneapolis, Fox affiliates KMSP Minneapolis and WUHF Rochester and NBC affiliate KARE Minneapolis — as their Canadian audiences are not counted in their ratings.

Coverage loss would be more significant to PBS stations along the Canada-U.S. border. Several of these stations, such as Fargo-based Prairie Public, Mountain Lake PBS (Plattsburgh/Montreal), WPBS (Watertown/Ottawa) and KSPS (Spokane/Calgary/Edmonton) rely heavily on support from Canadian viewers and program underwriters.

A dispute would be hardest of all on cable providers such as MTS and Shaw, which would be seriously criticized for even a temporary disruption in service.

So get ready to open your wallet a bit wider in 2014. The era of redistributing far-away U.S. signals for nothing appears to be almost over for Canadian cable companies, and you can be assured any higher costs will be passed along to you.

And now for a local commercial break, 1970 style. Target might seem exciting today, but check out the horrible production values they used 43 years ago, in the ad that begins at about the 01:30 mark.

Could North Americans handle Britain’s cheeky advertising?

In 1975, an irreverent U.S. broadcaster named Lorenzo Milam decided to write a book that would serve as a how-to guide on how to start up a non-commercial radio station on a shoestring budget. He decided to call the book Sex and Broadcasting because, as his aunt advised him, the mere suggestion of sex would automatically double the book’s sales and quadruple its readership.

Milam’s aunt couldn’t have been all that wrong. Sex and Broadcasting became something of a classic among its niche audience, and Milam’s book of advice is still considered a valuable reference nearly 40 years later.

The makers of Tom Ford Neroli Portofino body oil are likely hoping that their racy advertising campaign will also double sales and quadruple product use. The ad shown below, which appeared in the London Evening Standard on April 19, a free newspaper distributed at London Underground stations, depicts a young nude couple, with parts of their anatomy not printable in a respectable newspaper cleverly concealed, dousing each other with the product.

London Evening Standard, April 19, 2013

London Evening Standard, April 19, 2013

The ad is the least racy of three used in the full campaign; the other two not-safe-for-work adverts being easily found on Google Images.

A newspaper can get away with such advertising in Britain, which tends to be a bit more socially conservative than its European neighbours, but still has a rich history of suggestive advertising and pushing-the-edge comedy.

Would such ads play well here in North America?

Perhaps they would be tolerated in the continent’s more outward-looking global crossroads cities, but it’s reasonable to presuppose that ads of this type would get a rougher ride in North America’s vast, less worldly, and often very insular provincial regions where reaction was most outraged at Janet Jackson’s 2004 “wardrobe malfunction” that exposed part of one of her breasts on network television. (Violence is fine on North American network television. But sex or nudity? Outside of a few cable television niches, not so much.)

Even as late as 2011, a former NDP MLA in British Columbia caused controversy when he suggested that it was inappropriate for Premier Christy Clark to wear an outfit in the Legislature that displayed a decidedly modest amount of cleavage.

All this suggests that the Tom Ford ad, which was deemed suitable for publication in the London Evening Standard, might still not be considered suitable for publication in the Winnipeg Free Press, the Winnipeg Sun or Metro.

But, I’ll leave this up to the audience. If you opened the Free Press, Sun or Metro one day and saw the ad above, how do you suppose you and those around you would react?

My brief holiday in London happened by pure chance to coincide with the funeral of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The opportunity to be an eyewitness to history and to watch the funeral procession go by en route to St. Paul’s Cathedral was too good to pass up.

However one feels about Mrs. Thatcher, who is still both loved and hated by many Britons, nobody does pomp and circumstance like the British.

Time for the FM band to turn Japanese?

AM_FM“Hello, hello, this is station CKZC, Winnipeg,” were likely the first words ever spoken over a Winnipeg radio station, by Lynn V. Salton, a former Royal Navy wireless officer who founded radio station CKZC at his Grosvenor Ave. home in February, 1922.

CKZC was a modest operation that only operated on Sunday and Tuesday evenings at a wavelength of 420 meters (roughly 710 on the AM dial) and a power of just 100 watts. The station would sign on with Salton playing the “El Capitan March”, followed by more records from Salton’s collection during the course of the evening.

It is presumed that CKZC disappeared from the airwaves around the time that the Winnipeg Free Press launched the short-lived CJCG at about 730 on the AM dial a few weeks later, with Salton as the station’s first announcer.

Though it was a mere fraction of the power used by modern AM stations — most Winnipeg and southern Manitoba AM stations broadcast at at least 10,000 watts —  Salton’s 100-watt station was picked up as much as 845 miles away (1,360 kilometres) according to the Manitoba Historical Society, thanks to the tendency of lower-frequency AM band signals to be reflected off the atmosphere at night.

It also helped that the radio bands were much less congested 91 years ago, when the first primitive AM radio stations were going on the air.

Tune across the AM band at night now, and you’ll hear a cacophony of sound as stations from up to 3,500 kilometres (2,175 miles) away clash with each other.

Unlike signal range, where AM still has a certain advantage over FM in rural areas, sound quality has never been one of AM radio’s advantages. AM stations still have to pack their signal through a relatively narrow “pipe” about 20 kHz wide, one-tenth the bandwidth typically available to an FM station and one-seventy-fifth the bandwidth used by a satellite radio channel.

It’s not just the bandwidth and background interference from other stations that puts AM at a disadvantage. So does its relatively low frequency, which makes it more vulnerable to crackling, crunching and buzzing noises caused by lightning, machinery, appliances, household electronics and power lines.

As portable FM radios and cassette tape players, with their superior sound quality, took the marketplace by storm in the late ’70s and early ’80s, AM radio stations began losing listeners rapidly. Many dropped music in favour of talk formats, and as profits continued to evaporate, replaced local programming with inexpensive syndicated shows.

AM’s descent into irrelevance continued nevertheless. In the United States, AM reached the turning point in 1978, the last year that it accounted for more listener-hours than FM. Today, AM stations account for less than one-fifth of all U.S. listener-hours, and the typical U.S. AM radio listener is 57 years old, according to a 2009 U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) study.

Among younger listeners, who vastly prefer listening to music whenever they listen to the radio at all, AM is a rarely visited wasteland of feverish haters, conspiracy theorists and religious fundamentalism. The same FCC study found that 12-24 year olds spend just four percent of their listening-hours on the AM band, rising only slightly to a nine percent share among listeners aged 25-34 years.

This led the U.S. broadcasting regulator to conclude that, “the story of AM radio over the last 50 years has been a transition from being the dominant form of audio entertainment for all age groups to being almost non-existent to the youngest demographic groups.”

Consequently, many broadcasters are beginning to give up on AM radio. The former 58 CKY and CKRC 630 have long since decamped to the FM band as 102.3 Clear FM and 99.9 Bob FM respectively. Two more stations — CKSB 1050 and the weaker CKMW 1570 from Morden/Winkler — are poised to join the exodus, with plans to shut down their AM transmitters and to move to 88.1 and 88.9 FM respectively.

This, plus CJNU’s plans to move from 107.9 to 93.7 FM, and plans to open a new country music station in Steinbach on 107.7 FM, mean that the Winnipeg FM dial is running out of bandwidth.

A new station on any other frequency would have to prove that it wouldn’t cause interference not just to any other Winnipeg or southern Manitoba station, but would extend the same courtesy to FM stations as far away as Brandon, Kenora and Grand Forks — a consideration that limits the FM dial to 20-25 local stations in even the largest cities.

Where will that leave CJOB 680, CKJS 810 and TSN Radio 1290, the three remaining Winnipeg stations without an FM slot?

One possibility would be to take over an existing station’s slot. This is a viable option for CJOB, which has a sister station in 99.1 Fresh FM that has been doing only so-so in the ratings. CKJS and TSN Radio, however, could only do this by displacing a more successful sister station.

Another suggested option would allow for massive power increases to fight off electrical and weather-related interference. Yet another would be for AM stations to simultaneously broadcast in both analog and digital, with the receiver switching back and forth between the two modes depending on which one produces a better signal; but results so far in places where digital AM radio has been attempted are far from encouraging.

There is also growing talk in the United States about expanding the FM band by annexing the frequencies currently allocated to TV channels 5 and 6, located just below the FM band between 76 and 88 MHz.

Such an expansion, if it even happens, is probably years away. Though most full-powered U.S. TV stations abandoned channels 5 and 6  in the 2009 digital switchover due to poor reception — digital TV reception on channels 2-13 often ends up looking something like this — a few stations still continue on. Some analog low-power and repeater stations that were exempt from the U.S. 2009 and Canadian 2011 switchover deadlines will continue operating until about 2015, and some might attempt to stay on channels 5 and 6 as digital stations thereafter.

Either the remaining channel 5 and 6 stations would need to move to other channels, or some kind of frequency-sharing agreement would have to be reached.

That latter option has a precedent: while FM radio was expanding rapidly in many parts of the world in the ’70s, Australia was struggling with the fact that it had already assigned the 88-to-108 MHz band used in most of the world for FM radio to Australian TV channels 3, 4 and 5.

After considering the possibility of using higher UHF frequencies, a move that would have made Australian portable FM radios useless in other parts of the world and vice-versa, an agreement was reached to move most TV stations overlapping with the proposed 88-to-108 FM band to new channels, aside from a few repeaters in isolated areas with no FM service. A second agreement will eliminate the remaining TV/FM overlap when Australia’s last remaining rural analog TV transmitters shut down at the end of 2013, reserving the 88-to-108 band exclusively for FM radio.

Given the long distances between the few full-powered channel 5 and 6 digital TV stations that will exist in either Canada or the U.S. after 2015, such a dual-use agreement could be reached. Accommodating FM stations in the space currently reserved for these TV channels should not be a problem in Winnipeg: both channels have been allocated for digital TV use in Winnipeg, but both are unoccupied and almost certainly will remain that way.

A second advantage of expanding the FM band downward is that radios that can tune in those frequencies are already being manufactured for the Japanese market, where FM radio stations have traditionally operated between 76 and 90 MHz, and might soon start showing up in the 90 to 108 MHz band after being vacated by Japanese TV stations during that country’s 2011 digital TV switchover.

Even if the North American FM band is extended down to 76 MHz in the years ahead, allowing all remaining southern Manitoba AM stations to move to FM if they choose, some local stations will continue simulcasting on both bands for 10-15 years after a 76-to-108 FM radio becomes standard in Canadian vehicles, as that is where many Canadians do their radio listening, and no ratings-sensitive broadcaster will give up that market segment.

At least not yet. But radio listening habits, like many other habits, are developed early and are progressively more difficult to change with age. This does not bode well for AM stations competing for the ears of a younger generation that spends more than 90 percent of its radio listening time on the FM band, and many hours more listening to high-quality audio tailored to their own tastes online and on their iPods. Like the listening public, AM radio stations will need to migrate to new technology to survive.

Community TV need not rely on the CBC’s old junk

Do you live in rural Manitoba or northwestern Ontario and still pick up CBC from one of their many towers dotting the region? Then get ready, because that signal will almost certainly be going off the air on July 31.

Canadian government policy once decreed that any community with 500 residents or more should, if possible, live within range of a CBC transmitter. This led to a proliferation of CBC towers across the province in the ’60s and ’70s, extending service to remote communities that had to wait until as late as 1975 to get their first glimpse of television.

Construction slowed in the late ’70s as the rapid growth of a new technology, satellite television, gave remote mining towns and First Nations access to the same array of programming found in the big cities.

By the late ’90s, home satellite dishes were both cheap and compact, leaving the CBC’s aging network of rural transmitters increasingly viewer-less.

Thus, it was no real surprise when the CBC applied on April 4 — less than a week after the federal government cut the Corporation’s funding by 10 percent — to shut down all of its English TV transmitters in Manitoba, northern Saskatchewan and northwestern Ontario, except for the Winnipeg transmitter, on July 31.

Though the shutdown officially needs regulatory approval, the CBC “has already given notice to affected tower landlords and has terminated all of the Corporation’s leases on the sites where our analogue television transmitters are located,” according to an April 4 letter to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

“We have also formally notified all [cable companies] of the termination of our analogue over-the-air television transmission at all sites effective July 31, 2012.”

This will save the CBC the enormous cost of converting its many transmitters across the province to handle digital signals. The Winnipeg stations that had to make this change by Aug. 2011 had to spend millions of dollars on engineering studies, new equipment and channel changes in preparation.

The CBC’s decision has led a small group called the Canadian Association of Community Television User Groups and Stations — or CACTUS for short — to insist that the CBC’s soon-to-be-retired towers and transmitters be made available for local use.

“This transmission infrastructure is worth millions and has already been paid for by Canadian taxpayers,” the group says on its web site.

“Rather than being scrapped, it could be maintained by communities themselves. The transmitters and towers can be used not just to continue free TV service, but also to set up local wireless Internet or mobile service, or a community TV or radio service.”

CACTUS supporters have launched a letter-writing campaign to federal broadcasting regulators, urging them to block the CBC from shutting down its rural transmitters without offering them to local communities first.

The trouble is: the CBC’s aging transmitters and towers are of limited value.

“Analogue technology and the related equipment and parts for repair are no longer readily available in the world,” the CBC noted in its April 4 application to the CRTC. “. . . [T]he expected life of these analogue transmitters is therefore very uncertain, and limited at best.”

Community groups taking over the CBC’s old rural transmitters would essentially have to go through all the steps required to launch a completely new TV station: applying for a broadcasting licence, building studios, buying a new transmitter, hiring staff, figuring out how to get the signal from the studio to the transmitter site, and so on.

And then there would be further complications.

First, there’s the matter of the towers. Many CBC towers are aging and require regular maintenance to ensure that failed strobe lights don’t make the tower a safety hazard to pilots, and to ensure that a tower can withstand the rigours of Manitoba weather.

In 1983, CKX-TV in Brandon was suddenly knocked off the air when its faulty 1,363-foot tower south of the city snapped and fell to the ground during a snowstorm. Across the border in 2004, Prairie Public Television’s Grand Forks transmitter was wrecked when a chunk of ice fell off the tower, and smashed through the roof of the transmitter shed at the tower’s base.

Then there’s the problem of the channel the CBC’s stations operate on.

Of the 48 transmitters that relay CBC Winnipeg programming to communities all over Manitoba, northwestern Ontario and three northern Saskatchewan villages, 46 of them are on the channel 2-13 VHF band.

Those are not good channels to be on in the digital era.

VHF channels 2-13 were fine in the old analog era. Though they were prone to interference from “skip” and everyday household appliances — hence the early abolition of the particularly vulnerable Channel 1 — they provided a reasonable signal at acceptable cost to station owners.

These channels were considered far preferable to UHF channels 14-83. UHF stations offered a cleaner signal, but needed more power to match the range of VHF stations, and reached fewer viewers due to the fact that many early antennas and TVs were not designed to receive UHF channels.

It’s all different in the digital era. Unlike old-style analog signals, digital signals don’t break out in squiggly lines, “ghosting” or dots when they are suffering from interference. The TV simply gives up trying to sort out the weird information it is receiving, and crashes.

VHF is so problematic for digital TV station owners that Rabbit Ears, a blog for digital TV enthusiasts, has started keeping track of stations’ desperate efforts to move to UHF, or at least get a massive power increase approved, under the heading VHF Nightmares.

This has been consistent with some Winnipeg viewers’ experiences: little or no difficulty picking up CBC, SRC, Global or Joy TV, all of which operate on UHF — but significant difficulty picking up CTV or Citytv, both of which stayed on their old VHF channels after the 2011 digital switchover.

To sort it all out, a community group that has been handed the CBC’s old equipment would have to find a UHF channel to move to, and not just install a new transmitter at the tower base, but a new transmitting antenna up at the top, too.

That would get very expensive, very quickly.

Those interested in keeping free CBC service in their community or starting a new community TV station have better options available to them than CACTUS’s plan.

They could follow the same path as local volunteer-run stations such as UMFM 101.5, CKUW 95.9 and CJNU 107.9, which operate from low-power transmitters installed on top of existing high-rises. (UMFM broadcasts from the corner of Portage and Main; CKUW and CJNU broadcast from neighbouring Osborne Village high-rises.)

Currently, nothing stops any community organization that has the funds to do so from applying for a TV station licence, even if it’s just a shoestring-budget operation consisting of a low-powered transmitter and antenna installed on top of a high-rise or a cell tower.

From a 70-metre (230-foot) high-rise or cell tower, a community group putting out a relative low-powered 500 watt signal on UHF channels 14-51 could expect to provide decent indoor reception over about an 11-kilometre (seven-mile) radius.

That would be enough to cover most of a medium-sized city, or a small town and its surrounding area.

Double the power to 1,000 watts (still a fraction of what commercial broadcasters use) and move up to a 110-metre (360-foot) tower or building, and coverage expands further to about 16 kilometres (10 miles).

And there are channels galore available for would-be community TV station operator to choose from. In Winnipeg, there are unclaimed channels on 25, 28, 42, 43, 46, 48 and 49. In Brandon, 16, 18, 27, 34 and 49 are up for grabs. The same is true for channels 30 and 50 in fast-growing Morden-Winkler.

Using the subchannels, a community group could offer CBC, CTV and Global service to a community abandoned by the corporate broadcasters, and offer a community channel based on Shaw’s Cable 9 in Winnipeg — or even on the hilariously bad Videon/Cablevision community access channels of the ’80s.

Community-based TV is within the grasp of any dedicated group of citizens. And it need not rely on the CBC’s goodwill.