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.

 

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.

Several Manitoba communities set to lose service after Digital TV switchover

Forget the Government of Canada ads about “clearing the snow” from Canadians’ over-the-air TV reception after this week’s digital TV switchover in Canada’s big cities. Some Manitoba communities will have nothing but snow thanks to some little-publicized changes the TV stations are making.

Manitoba’s TV stations aren’t just changing to digital. Many of them are reducing power and some are moving from tall rural towers to city rooftops, reducing their signal’s range.

  • CBC and Radio-Canada used to broadcast from a 324-metre (1,063-foot) tower near Starbuck, Man at 100,000 and 59,000 watts respectively. They’ll be moving by October to the roof of the Richardson Building, and reducing power on their new UHF frequencies to 42,000 watts and 7,600 watts respectively.
  • CTV will be staying put on their Ste. Agathe tower, south of Winnipeg, but reducing power from 325,000 watts to 24,000 watts on Channel 7.
  • Global has moved to the top of the former CanWest building in downtown Winnipeg, and is now on UHF Channel 40 with a power of 25,000 watts. They formerly operated from the CBC’s Starbuck tower at 325,000 watts.
  • Citytv will be continuing to broadcast from its Elie tower, west of Winnipeg, but will reduce power from 325,000 watts to 8,300 watts on Channel 13.
  • Joy TV will continue to broadcast on Channel 35 from their tower just off St. Mary’s south of the Perimeter, but will be reducing power from 22,000 watts to 6,000 watts.

These power reductions are based in part on some controversial calculations made by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which oversaw the 2009 digital transition south of the border.

Even though digital TV should require less power than traditional analog TV to produce a watchable picture, many critics argue that the Commission grossly underestimated the power needed for a station’s signal to overcome the challenges of the urban environment, where signal-absorbing trees and buildings and interference from machines and appliances take their toll on a signal.

When the U.S. switched to digital in 2009, some stations frantically sought power increases or to move from the Channel 2-13 VHF to the Channel 14-52 UHF band as it became clear that their digital signals weren’t strong enough to penetrate the urban jungle.

Since there have been a lot of hits on this blog over the past few weeks from people with questions about digital TV in Manitoba, here is a pre-emptive response to the questions some of you will have as to why you can no longer receive your favourite stations — and some suggestions on what you can do about it.

And if you want to get a better idea of what you should be able to receive where you live, check out Your Guide to Digital TV in Winnipeg and Southern Manitoba.

If you live or have a cottage in Gimli/Winnipeg Beach…

  • Radio-Canada Manitoba will remain weak in Winnipeg Beach, even with a rooftop antenna, and will become virtually impossible to receive in Gimli. You’ll probably get better results pointing your antenna east toward their Channel 11 analog transmitter near Fort Alexander.
  • CBC might still have a so-so signal in Winnipeg Beach if you have a rooftop antenna. This signal will become very difficult to receive in Gimli. (Hint: If you point your antenna ESE, you might pick up a weak analog signal from CBC’s Channel 4 Lac du Bonnet analog transmitter. If you point it north, you might pick up another CBC signal on Channel 10 from Fisher Branch.)
  • CTV reception will be very poor, even with a rooftop antenna. (Hint: Viewers north of Inwood might be able to get a weak CTV analog signal on Channel 8 from the station’s Fisher Branch transmitter.)
  • Global, Citytv and Joy TV will be very weak in Winnipeg Beach, even with a rooftop antenna, and will be virtually impossible to receive in Gimli.

If you live in Morden/Winkler…

  • CBC and SRC will become virtually impossible to receive, even with a rooftop antenna. Currently, Morden is on the outer edge of the station’s rabbit-ears range, and Winkler is in the station’s rooftop-antenna zone.
  • CTV and Citytv’s signals will lose strength, and might be difficult to receive with an indoor antenna in the middle of town. Both stations currently offer moderately strong “Grade-A” analog signals or better.
  • Global should be virtually impossible to receive, now that it has reportedly shut down its old analog transmitter.
  • Joy TV will be difficult to receive.

If you live in Portage la Prairie…

  • Radio-Canada Manitoba will become extremely difficult to receive, even with a rooftop antenna. Currently, Portage la Prairie is on the outer edge of the station’s rabbit-ears range.
  • CBC Manitoba will only be putting a very weak “deep fringe” signal into Portage. Currently, Portage is on the outer edge of the CBC’s rabbit-ears reception range.
  • CTV reception will only be satisfactory with a rooftop antenna.
  • Now that its analog signal is reportedly off the air, Global will be very difficult (if not impossible) to receive in Portage. Portage is just outside the western fringe of Global’s digital TV coverage area.
  • Joy TV will be extremely difficult to receive, as Portage will be on the extreme outer edge of its digital reach.

If you live in Selkirk…

  • CTV and Citytv’s signals will lose some strength, and might be difficult to receive with an indoor antenna in the middle of town. Both stations’ current analog transmitters cover Selkirk with a moderate “Grade-A” signal.
  • Joy TV might also lose some strength, with its analog “city-grade” signal being replaced with a digital signal that might not be strong enough to overcome the ground clutter in the middle of town.

If you live in Steinbach…

  • Radio-Canada Manitoba, CBC and Global will all drop from good to marginal indoor reception in Steinbach. Signal quality will depend on how many buildings, trees and other obstructions there are between you and the transmitter.
  • Citytv will be even worse, as Steinbach sits right at the point where any realistic hope of receiving Citytv with an indoor antenna ends.

If you live in Winnipeg…

  • Citytv might be difficult to receive in the eastern half of the city if you’re using an indoor antenna. Signal quality will depend on how much ground clutter — such as buildings and trees — there is between you and the Citytv transmitter.

Incidentally, the stations aren’t necessarily to blame for coverage reductions. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, the federal agency which regulates the airwaves in Canada, invited public comments on both Global’s and the CBC’s plans to reduce rural coverage — and no one objected.

Your Guide to Digital TV in Winnipeg and Southern Manitoba

(Updated May 20, 2012 with more realistic coverage maps and updated information on KNRR’s directional antenna.)

As Winnipeg’s TV stations prepare to shut off their remaining analog transmitters for good, there have been many visitors landing on this blog seeking information about digital TV. Thus, I’ve decided to put together this guide meant to help those who are getting ready for the digital switchover.

You’ll notice that the maps below are colour-coded.

Orange zone — Deep Indoor strength: Very strong signal. Should be fairly easy to receive in most homes and offices if you’re using the right antenna (i.e., a larger VHF antenna for CTV, KNRR and Citytv, and a smaller UHF antenna for the others). Signal might be less reliable in areas where people generally don’t spend much time watching TV anyway, such as elevators and parkades, or in areas with a lot of electrical and mechanical interference on the VHF channels. (Signal strength: 90+ dBu at 95% of locations, 99% of the time)

Magenta zone — Residential Indoor strength: Strong signal. Generally strong enough to penetrate the interior of most homes. Reception should be good for CBC, SRC, Global and Joy TV, all of which operate on UHF; VHF stations CTV, KNRR and Citytv might require the use of a good-quality VHF antenna with the rods lowered to horizontal and at a right angle to the transmitter. On the VHF channels, it’s best to have the antenna as far away as possible from refrigerators, air conditioners, microwave ovens and other appliances that might cause interference.  (Signal strength: 80-89 dBu at 95% of locations, 99% of the time)

Light Blue zone — The “Maybe Zone”: Use an outdoor or attic antenna pointed toward the transmitter for best results.  Or, if you’re using a hand-held device, try going outside. Indoor reception might be good in signal-friendly areas, such as rural and low-density suburban areas, or on the transmitter side of a high-rise. Indoor reception will likely be more difficult in inner-city areas and in the depths of the urban jungle. (Signal strength: 70-79 dBu at 95% of locations, 99% of the time)

Dark Blue zone — Rooftop Antenna Recommended: This signal generally won’t be received well inside a building unless you’re in a low-density suburban or rural area and near a window facing the transmitter. UHF channels might still come in reasonably well if using a hand-held device outside of the urban jungle. A rooftop antenna pointed toward the transmitter should offer more favourable results.  (Signal strength: 60-69 dBu at 95% of locations, 99% of the time)

Grey zone — No Indoor, Hit-and-Miss Outdoor: The signal will be quite weak in these areas. Don’t count on any indoor reception, or even on getting good results with an outdoor antenna in the heart of the city. You might get good reception, though, using a rooftop antenna in low-density suburban and rural areas.  (Signal strength: 50-59 dBu at 95% of locations, 99% of the time)

CBC Winnipeg (official call letters: CBWT) abandoned its long-time home on a tower located near Starbuck, Man. and relocated to a transmitter located at Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg. Since the lower channels are vulnerable to interference — which causes mild static or squigly lines to appear on analog signals, but which can seriously mess up digital signals — CBC moved up to Channel 27  on the UHF band, but will still show up on receivers as virtual channel 6.1. Reception remains good in Winnipeg.

CBWFT 3.1 coverage area

CBWFT (SRC) Channel 3.1 coverage area (© lrcov.crc.ca, Google Maps)


SRC, the French language equivalent of the CBC, also spent most of its life on the low end of the VHF dial since going on the air in 1960 as CBWFT on Channel 6, then switching to Channel 3 a few years later. Like its English-language sister station, Manitoba’s only French-language TV station now operates from high above Portage and Main at Channel 51 (virtual channel 3.1) on the UHF band. Indoor reception remains strong in Winnipeg, but varies elsewhere. Reception is reported to be quite good throughout Winnipeg.

CKY 7.1 coverage area

CKY (CTV) Channel 7.1 coverage area (Copyright lrcov.crc.ca, Google Maps)

CTV Winnipeg (a.k.a., CKY-TV) has not moved to the UHF band, opting to stay on its longtime Channel 7 VHF frequency. This could have both advantages and risks for the station. The advantages lie in the fact that over-the-air viewers do not have to invest in new UHF antennas in order to continue receiving the station. But as noted in the comments section, many viewers are having difficulty picking up CTV due to interference and the transmitter’s distance from the city.

Some VHF digital stations also fear being at a disadvantage as new handheld and mobile Digital TV devices come on the market in the near future. CTV Winnipeg still has the option of applying for a UHF channel, however. Reception should be better in the southern half of Winnipeg than the northern half.

CKND (Global) Channel 9.1 coverage area

CKND (Global) Channel 9.1 coverage area (© lrcov.crc.ca, Google Maps)


Global Winnipeg (a.k.a., CKND) was the first Winnipeg TV station to make the transition to digital in 2010. Like the CBC, Global’s digital signal originates from Portage and Main at Channel 40 on the UHF band (Virtual Channel 9.1). Reception has been reported to be very good in Winnipeg.

CHMI (Citytv) Channel 13.1 coverage area

CHMI (Citytv) Channel 13.1 coverage area (© lrcov.crc.ca, Google Maps)


Like CTV, CityTV (formerly known as 13 MTN, and later the A-Channel) is taking its chances on the VHF band, remaining on the Channel 13 frequency it has called home since going on the air in October, 1986. They’re running at only 8,000 watts, versus 24,000 watts for CTV, so their signal is hit-and-miss throughout Winnipeg.

CIIT (Joytv) Channel 35.1 coverage area

CIIT (Joytv) Channel 35.1 coverage area (© lrcov.crc.ca, Google Maps)


Joy TV is to Winnipeg television what CKJS is to Winnipeg radio — it’s there, but most people are only vaguely aware of its existence. It’s really just a specialty channel that can be received without a cable or satellite subscription. But, if you’re a fan of Joy TV’s religious programming and reruns of The Waltons and The Rockford Files, you’ll be happy to know that this station, which began broadcasting in 2006, is still on Channel 35. Indoor reception is definitely better in the south end of the city than the northern half.

KNRR (Fox) Channel 12.1 coverage area

KNRR (Fox) Channel 12.1 coverage area (© lrcov.crc.ca, Google Maps)


Poor old KNRR never had much luck. It was imminently about to go on the air in 1982 when something went wrong, causing the station’s launch date to be pushed back to 1986. In the interim, Canadian broadcasting regulations had changed in such a way as to effectively block KNRR from getting a slot on Winnipeg’s cable systems.
Thus, trying to pick up the then-independent KNRR’s diet of Star Trek and movies became something of a sport for Winnipeggers in 1986, who then only had seven English-language channels to watch on cable TV unless they subscribed to pay TV — which even then brought the total number of choices to no more than a dozen channels.

After missing the U.S. digital switchover deadline and being forced off the air for four months, KNRR began offering the first digital signal to extend more than a few miles north of the Canadian border in October 2009. But KNRR’s signal is too weak to be received with any reliability in Winnipeg — one local Digital TV enthusiast recommends a 40-foot mast in your backyard for best results. (This might not be so popular with your neighbours, though.)

If you live in Morden, Winkler, Morris or Altona, your luck should be considerably better, particularly with a VHF antenna pointed toward Pembina.

Note that to receive digital TV over the air, you will need either a newer TV set that is capable of receiving ATSC signals or a special converter box — not necessarily the same kind of box provided by your cable company — hooked up to your traditional TV set.

* – Images source: Communications Research Centre/Google Maps.

Technical assumptions all based on F(95,99) at 9 metres above ground.

CBC seeks to reduce rural Manitoba coverage, and doomsday prophets survive Global TV challenge

Portage and Main might be renowned as the windiest street corner in Canada. It could soon be the street corner most heavily bathed in electromagnetic radiation as well.

A few months ago, this blog reported that Global Winnipeg’s decision to move its transmitter 30 kilometres, from a CBC-owned tower just off Highway 2 near the village of Starbuck to the roof of the Canwest tower at Portage and Main, would mean that any rural Manitobans living more than 60 kilometres from Winnipeg and not yet on cable or satellite would have to switch by September 2011 if they want to keep watching the station.

Now it turns out that the CBC itself is also abandoning the Highway 2 site, and moving both its local English and French-language television transmitters to the top of the Richardson Building.

As with Global, this means that large parts of southern Manitoba will no longer have access to CBC Television without a cable or satellite subscription after the mandatory switchover to Digital TV at the beginning of the 2011-2012 television season.

According to the CBC’s application to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), their English signal after that date will only extend south to Morris, north to the southern edge of Lake Winnipeg, west to about half-way between Elie and Portage, and east to La Broquerie and Richer. The French signal will cover a slightly smaller area.

If you live in Portage, Morden, Winkler or Emerson and don’t have cable or satellite, you won’t have a CBC signal to watch after Aug. 31, 2011. Even if you live in Beausejour or St. Malo, you’ll need to replace your rabbit-ears with a rooftop UHF antenna if you want to continue receiving a reliable CBC signal without having to pay for cable or satellite.

Yes, that’s right — a UHF antenna.

Channels 2 to 6 — at the low end of the VHF band — are hostile places for a digital signal. That bit of interference caused by your parents’ electric carving knife or by an atmospheric disturbance causing TV stations in Tennessee to suddenly become receivable in Manitoba can make a complete mess of a digital signal.

Channels 7 to 13 — the upper end of the VHF band — are a little more interference-resistant. But UHF channels 14 to 51 are the most interference-resistant of all.

So UHF has gone from being television’s skid row — inhabited, according to longtime industry stereotype, by low-budget stations that made just enough money so that the station manager could hire an exterminator once in a while to get rid of the rats and roaches — to being the coolest neighbourhood on the dial, in less than a generation.

There’s just one hitch: most outdoor aerials in Manitoba were designed for VHF, not UHF, which could cause reception problems.

If approved by federal regulators, CBC’s English TV signal will be moving from channel 6 to channel 27, while the French-language service will be moving from channel 3 to channel 51 by next year’s Labour Day weekend. The deadline to make any objections known to the CRTC is October 26.

CBC Winnipeg Digital TV Coverage Area

Click here to find out if you'll still be able to watch CBC Winnipeg without cable or satellite after Aug. 31, 2011, and to find out if you'll need an indoor or outdoor antenna to do it. (© Communications Research Centre Canada, http://lrcov.crc.ca/main)

In other local television station news, the CRTC has dismissed a complaint about Jack Van Impe Presents, a paid-time religious program aired on Global Winnipeg. This stemmed from a 2009 complaint originally filed with the station and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council by an unnamed viewer, who claimed that the program is “inappropriate for daytime hours when children could be watching, as they will be traumatized”.

In particular, the complainant was irked by the impication that “only Christians will be saved when doomsday comes in 2012” and that “anyone who is not Christian will suffer a horrible death”.

In their weekly program, Michigan-based televangelists Jack and Rexella Van Impe present their case that Barack Obama and the European Union are harbingers that the world is imminently about to experience “the rapture”. When this happens, according to the Van Impes, selected Christians will suddenly disappear into Heaven, leaving everyone else behind to deal with the resulting chaos.

As the following excerpt from a May 31, 2009 broadcast shows, these doomsday scenarios are frequently interrupted by sales pitches for DVDs:

Jack: Well, as you know, Kissinger said we are preparing Obama to create the new world order and Brown is pushing Blair, really his enemy in the past in the U.K., to become the first permanent president of the European Union because he says “I want Blair to be a partner with Obama in the creation and architecture of the new world order.”  Every sign that you hear, every sign from Revelations chapters 6 to 18 occurs during the reign of the leader of the new world order.  It’s the final sign.  I can’t emphasize it enough.

Rexella: All right.  Friends, we need to be focussing on the fact that the Lord could come very, very soon.  That is good news.  We’re going to get on with more global headlines in just a moment.  But let me just say that, whoa, you want to get your call in right away.  We’re really trying to get them out as fast as we can [holds up DVD].  New World Order Rising, our wonderful offer of the week.

Rexella Van Impe explains the Rapture in this ’90s video*
(Yes, the ’90s really were that cheesy.)

* — Too bad they couldn’t make that plane swerve erratically through the sky for dramatic effect!

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.

Could local TV troubles lead to mergers?

This past week’s public hearings in Gatineau, Que. on the future of local and network television in Canada shed some light on what kinds of changes we could see in the industry in the years ahead.

Ailing due to competition from not just other channels but the Internet as well, the owners of the country’s local TV stations are looking to cut costs and bring in new revenues to prevent their properties from turning into financial basket cases.

What little that is left of local programming could go out the window. Global Winnipeg, which did 25 hours of local programming per week when it signed on in 1975, now seeks to reduce its minimum weekly programming quota from nine and a half hours to just five hours per week.

There was even talk about whether or not it is viable to keep transmitters up and running.

The 325-kilowatt signals pumped out by many of the country’s privately owned TV stations run up the stations’ electricity bills. This is on top of the millions that the stations will have to spend to upgrade their transmitters and masts by Aug. 31, 2011. By that date, all TV stations are to shut off their traditional analog signals and go all-digital.

Why bother with all that expense, the station owners wonder, when Canada is one of the most cable and satellite-saturated countries in the world. Today, not even one Canadian in ten uses rabbit ears or a rooftop aerial to get their TV signal.

Indeed, the broadcasters are already acting. CTV Winnipeg recently announced plans to shut down its four northern Manitoba transmitters by the end of summer, and CKX-TV in Brandon came close to shutting down before Shaw Communications agreed to buy the station for the princely sum of $1.00.

A look south of the border could offer some clues as to what we’ll see next: station mergers.

It’s getting a little more difficult to find local productions like this 1989 noon-hour public affairs show on 13 MTN (now Citytv Winnipeg). The bloopers for which MTN was famous — one former employee called it “Winnipeg’s equivalent of WKRP in Cincinnati” — have also become hard to find, too!

Station mergers appear to be the latest corporate craze in the United States, with former crosstown rivals now sharing the same studios and airing the same newscasts.

This happened just across the border in Fargo, N.D., where CBS affiliate KXJB/4 and NBC affiliate KVLY/11 (once known to Winnipeg viewers as KTHI)  effectively merged in 2007. (“Effectively”, because each station nominally continues to have a different owner and licence, even though the entire operation is run under a single roof by a shared staff. They even promote each other’s programs.)

It’s also happening in St. Louis, where local stations KTVI/2 and KPLR/11 are joining forces. And in Denver, where KWGN/2 and KDVR/31 are combining.

The same has happened in Tampa, Baltimore, Syracuse, Green Bay, San Antonio and elsewhere.

Could it happen in Canada? Traditionally, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the agency that regulates the broadcasting industry, has favoured a “diversity of voices” in news and public affairs.

A move toward two TV stations combining under a single roof would mark a dramatic reversal of that policy.

But it’s not entirely out of the question that the CRTC could eventually be swayed by ongoing losses at local TV stations.

In Winnipeg, this would probably be in the form of weaker stations like Citytv or Joy 11 moving in with CTV or Global. So, if you missed Sylvia Kuzyk’s 6 p.m. appearance on channel 5, you could always catch her an hour later on channel 8.

Or, you could be reassured that your TV was not malfunctioning just because you saw Eva Kovacs anchoring the same newscast at the same time on both channels 11 and 12.

Time will tell if this comes to pass. This week’s network summit in Gatineau might have been the first step in a restructuring of Canada’s local TV stations that would take us down that road.

TV stations no longer a licence to print money

Do you have any memories of KCND-TV or the early days of CKND-TV, either as an employee or as a viewer? Or any anecdotes to share about the personalities mentioned below? Please share them in the comments section or e-mail them to theviewfromseven@gmail.com, as they would be an important and valuable contribution to maintaining a written history of local television in Winnipeg and the Red River Valley.

Next week, the power brokers of the Canadian television industry will be gathering in Gatineau, Quebec to tell the government agency responsible for regulating the public airwaves what broadcasters need to survive.

The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission — better known as the CRTC — is used to hearing broadcasters tell them about threats to their viability. It has long been a tradition for existing broadcasters to tell the Commission of their concerns about “audience fragmentation” whenever a new TV or radio station sought a licence.

But this year’s talk of financial woes in the television industry have taken on a more urgent tone. Winnipeg-based media giant Canwest Global is fighting desperately to avoid bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the awkwardly named CTVglobemedia has put CKX-TV in Brandon up for sale, warning that Manitoba’s only non-Winnipeg-based TV station will shut down on Aug. 31, 2009 if no one buys it.

As Canwest itself noted in a Feb. 23 letter to the CRTC:

“For perspective, between 2004 and 2008, annual operating profit [for Canwest’s conventional TV stations] declined by $100 million (from $113 million to $13 million). Even with the proposed changes to our licences, our financial projections show that these conventional television stations will post negative operating income in Broadcast Year 2010.”

So much for the famous quote attributed to Canadian business tycoon Roy Thomson, describing the fabulous profits made by early TV stations: “Running a commercial television station is like having a licence to print money.”

Not anymore, Roy.

And it shows how far we’ve come from those heady days 35 years ago, when a hastily assembled group of men were ready to do all sorts of things to get once of those valuable TV licences.

The path to where Canwest is today started on June 28, 1973. It was election night in Manitoba, and after putting up a spirited campaign, Liberal Party leader Izzy Asper was reconciling himself to the fact that he was not going to be the Premier of Manitoba.

He hadn’t even come close. The Liberals finished the election in third place, with just 19 percent of the vote and a mere five of the 57 seats in the Legislature.

Not eager to hang around the Legislature for another four years as leader of a third-place party with little hope of gaining power, Asper began looking for other career options.

As legend has it, Asper’s assistant Peter Liba — later Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba — was reading the newspaper one day, when he spotted an interesting advertisement. The CRTC was seeking applications for a new TV station in Winnipeg. He showed it to his boss.

Asper was sold on the idea.

So too was Stuart Craig. He was the president of Western Manitoba Broadcasters, Ltd., the parent company of CKX-TV in Brandon. Craig and his associates prepared an application.

He then made the mistake of calling Paul Morton, a Winnipeg businessman who Craig thought might be helpful in starting a new station in the province’s largest city. Morton asked to see a copy of Craig’s still-confidential CRTC application, and Craig obliged.

The problem was, Morton was also in touch with Asper. Soon, Morton was on the Canwest Broadcasting team, a start-up company that was now competing with Western Manitoba Broadcasters for the Winnipeg licence. And Morton knew the intimate details of the other team’s application.

However, Canwest still had a problem to deal with. The Brandonites had two strong points in their application that would impress the CRTC: Their twenty years’ experience in running a TV station, and a proposed schedule that would feature heavy local content.

Canwest’s team had much less experience, and Asper himself was being kept out of the CRTC’s sight as he was still a member of the provincial legislature.

So, they came up with a bold plan that had never been tried before, but that might just impress the CRTC.

In the late ’50s, a group of American investors took note of the fact that while TV viewers in Fargo, N.D. had multiple TV stations to choose from, viewers in the much larger Winnipeg market had no choice: the CBC ran the only television station in town.

As foreign ownership of TV stations was (and still is) outlawed in both Canada and the U.S., the investors decided to do the next best thing. They would start up a TV station in the tiny border town of Pembina, N.D., and aside from producing some nominal local programming, run it as though it were a Winnipeg TV station, complete with offices on Portage Ave.

Their station, known as KCND-TV Channel 12, went on the air on Nov. 7, 1960 from a quarter-mile high tower located a mere 1,800 feet south of the Canada-U.S. border — roughly the distance between The Bay and Mountain Equipment Co-Op in downtown Winnipeg. They literally couldn’t get the tower any closer to Winnipeg if they tried.

By the ’70s, the vast majority of KCND’s revenues were coming from Winnipeg advertisers, even though KCND didn’t have the Winnipeg rights to the programs it bought. The Asper team knew that KCND’s practices were a thorn in the CRTC’s side.

Thus, Canwest proposed to buy out and shut down KCND, move the station across the border to Winnipeg, and launch a new station. With an existing staff and clientele in Winnipeg, the station would have an experienced staff from day one and would quickly become profitable.

Asper entered into negotiations with Gordon McLendon, the eccentric Texas millionaire who had owned KCND since the mid-’60s. He would later remember his negotiations with McLendon as being some of the toughest in his long career. Not to mention the fact that he arrived at McLendon’s ranch to find the Texan roasting an entire cow for dinner.

Eventually, McLendon agreed to sell.

It was a bold move that immediately positioned Canwest as the front-runner when the CRTC arrived in Winnipeg in May 1974 to hold public hearings on who should be given the new TV licence.

Then, everything nearly fell apart.

The Canwest team had co-opted Jerry Johnson, KCND’s Winnipeg manager, to help design a proposed schedule for the new station. Johnson knew that the CRTC would be looking for Canadian content, and ensured that the schedule had plenty of it.

Rejecting this, they asked Johnson to redo the schedule with more lucrative American programming. This schedule was then presented to the CRTC.

Brandon’s Stuart Craig and Western Manitoba Broadcasters was suddenly back in the game when their proposed schedule, with much more Canadian and local content than Canwest’s, was unveiled. Jerry Johnson had been proven right.

And then Craig dropped a bombshell, revealing that John Boler, the owner of CBS affiliate KXJB-TV in Fargo, was already planning to start a new station in Pembina if Canwest shut KCND down. Canwest’s application, based on the premise that the new station would face no competition from Pembina, suddenly seemed to be based on a questionable assumption.

The Canwest team brushed off Boler’s proposed new station, but used a more bizarre tactic to deal with the Canadian content problem. They went back and obtained Johnson’s original schedule, loaded with the Canadian content he knew the CRTC was looking for. Ordering Johnson to remain in a hotel room, the Canwest group then went back to the CRTC with Johnson’s original schedule — and proceeded to blame Johnson (of all people) for preparing a schedule with too little Canadian content, while the accused was conveniently unable to defend himself.

Canwest had recovered from a fumble, albeit in a way that might strike some as not being very nice.

By the end of 1974, Canwest had won the licence, defeating both Western Manitoba Broadcasters and a poorly financed cooperative group that never really had a chance.

KCND says goodbye, 1975

KCND says goodbye, 1975

On Aug. 31, 1975 at 9 p.m., cable subscribers in Winnipeg saw KCND’s channel 12 signal disappear as CKND signed on for the first time. Little did they know that they were witnessing the birth of a broadcasting empire that would extend to Chile, Australia and the U.K.

CKND prepares to sign on

CKND prepares to sign on

Eventually, the Craigs of Brandon would win the Winnipeg licence they wanted so much, with 13 MTN (later known as “A-Channel” and now as “Citytv Winnipeg”) going on the air in October, 1986. And Boler would get an FCC licence to launch a Pembina TV station, initially under the call letters KWBA-TV, by November 1979. However, the project would remain stalled for another six years before Boler’s Pembina station, by this time known as KNRR-TV, finally signed on in January 1986.

However, neither of them would prevent CKND from being a success for many years, financially and in the ratings.

For a while, having a commercial TV licence really did seem like having a licence to print money. The sort of thing that might justify partaking in tough negotiations, sequestering a man whose good advice was not heeded in a hotel room, and witnessing a cow being roasted by a strange Texas millionaire.

Next week’s CRTC hearings in Gatineau will show us just how far we’ve come from those days.


Related links:

YouTubers help keep Winnipeg television history alive

A collection of six posts about KCND Pembina on St. Vincent Memories

BibliographyCanadian Communications Foundation, Television Station History: CKND-TV Winnipeg
Herschel Hardin, Closed Circuits: The Sellout of Canadian Television (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1985)
Allan Levine, The CanWest Global Story: The First Twenty Years, 1977-1997 (Winnipeg: CanWest Global Communications, 1997)
Peter C. Newman, Izzy: The Passionate Life and Turbulent Times of Izzy Asper, Canada’s Media Mogul (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2008)
Chris Wood, Live to Air: The Craig Broadcast Story (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2000)