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.

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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”.

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.

 

QX 104, Ignite 107 seek stronger signals in Winnipeg

Have you been having trouble getting clear reception of QX 104 or Ignite 107 on your alarm clock radio or in the office?

Apparently the owners of those two stations have heard your complaints, and are taking steps to improve reception in Winnipeg.

QX 104 has been battling the fuzzies since it signed on in 1981 as CFQX 92.9, a small-town community station from Selkirk with little more than a fringe signal in parts of Winnipeg. A new, higher-powered transmitter and a move to 104.1 in the late ’80s allowed the station to reach a larger audience and possibly save the station from going dark.

Their equipment still wasn’t able to push a fuzz-free signal in office buildings and high-density neighbourhoods, so the station is seeking broadcast regulator permission to move from its current transmitter site just west of Selkirk to a new site near Oakbank, about 15 kilometres closer to central Winnipeg.

If approved, this should guarantee a reliable signal on even the cheapest of the city’s radios, as well as providing the Steinbach area with better coverage.

A transmitter closer to Winnipeg will leave some listeners in Gimli, Winnipeg Beach and other Interlake communities with a weaker signal.

QX 104’s request comes on the heels of Ignite 107.1 getting regulatory approval last month to upgrade its flea-powered signal.

The plan approved by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will see Ignite 107.1 close down its 920-watt transmitter on top of Chateau 100 on Donald St. and switch on a new 100,000-watt system on Highway 2 between Oak Bluff and Starbuck.

This move will allow Ignite to offer a better signal on indoor radios in suburban areas, and expand its car radio coverage to Morden, Winkler, Portage, Stonewall and Steinbach. Indoor fuzziness might continue to be an issue in the downtown area and the eastern half of Winnipeg.

The station previously had a troubled history, once shutting down for a year due to financial difficulties, returning to air, and then continuing to bleed red ink  until it was sold to Golden West Broadcasting in 2008 for less than the cost of a Vancouver handyman-special bungalow.

Ignite’s move into the big leagues will reduce the city’s stock of low-powered microstations by one, leaving only 45-watt CJNU 107.9, 250-watt Kick FM 92.9 and  450-watt CKUW 95.9 continuing to operate at less than 1,000 watts.

Rural Manitobans without cable or satellite could lose Global Winnipeg signal

Sept. 1, 2011: "Hey, where did Global go?"

(Update, Aug. 13: The CRTC today approved Canwest Global’s application to relocate its transmitter to Portage and Main. This means that, after Aug. 31, 2011, Global’s over-the-air signal will disappear completely in Portage, Morden, Winkler, Carman and in Lake Winnipeg cottage country, and will be considerably weaker in areas shaded in blue or gray on the map below. The CRTC noted that it “did not receive any interventions in connection with this application.”)

If you’re one of the dwindling number of Manitobans who uses a rooftop or indoor antenna to get your television stations, get ready to hear a lot more in the year ahead about the changes you’ll have to make to prevent your screen from going blank after Aug. 31, 2011.

That’s the day when Canadian television stations will be required to shut down their traditional analog transmitters forever and switch over to a digital signal. It will have no effect to the vast majority of Canadians who are on cable or satellite, but will leave everyone else unable to receive any TV signals unless they’ve purchased a new television set or, at least, a digital converter box.

For some rural Manitobans who still rely on an antenna to tune in to Global Winnipeg’s program lineup, however, even the best preparations for the digital switchover might not be enough.

Global Winnipeg — still sometimes referred to as CKND — has a bit of a problem on its hands. The station has been paying rent to the CBC since 1975 to use their 324-metre (1,064-foot) tower southwest of Winnipeg to beam their signal across southern Manitoba.

For technical reasons, however, Global has been forced to look elsewhere for a new transmitter site to operate from following the 2011 digital switchover. They’ve decided, appropriately enough, that it would be best to transmit from the top of the Canwest tower in downtown Winnipeg.

According to an application filed with the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the federal agency in charge of regulating the country’s TV stations, this will cut parts of southern Manitoba off from Global’s over-the-air signal.

If Global’s plan to transmit from Portage and Main is approved, the station’s signal will no longer be receivable in Portage, Carman, Morden, Winkler or in cottage country north of the Netley Marsh after the 2011 digital switchover. (If you’re on cable or satellite, it’s unlikely you’ll be affected.)

As part of the CRTC’s public participation process, the Commission is asking any citizens who have concerns about Global’s proposed changes to submit their comments by July 5. Instructions on how to do this can be found on the CRTC web site.

Global Winnipeg Digital TV Coverage

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

Speaking of digital television, in case you missed it, fellow blogger Reed Solomon raised an interesting point in response to this blog’s earlier post on the 1986 Detroit vs. North Dakota cable TV fight, which nearly cut off Fargo-based Prairie Public Television from the many Manitobans who had not just been loyal fans of but also financial contributors to the station for years. He wasn’t pleased with the station for not putting a digital over-the-air signal into Winnipeg.

It’s not a bad question: why hadn’t Prairie Public ever put a signal into southern Manitoba, a market that accounts for roughly one-half of their viewers and a good number of their financial backers. (Even some of their own board members live in Manitoba.)

As a U.S. company, they couldn’t have legally received a Canadian broadcasting licence due to foreign ownership restrictions. An opportunity was readily available between 1975 and 1979, however, when they could have applied for an unused frequency just across the border in North Dakota that would have reached Winnipeg. It was an opportunity left ungrasped that nearly cost them the loss of half of their audience in 1986.

After 1979, a Fargo businessman had already obtained the rights to use that frequency, which would have forced Prairie Public on to a less desirable UHF channel if it wanted to put a signal into southern Manitoba.

Being on UHF was a liability back in the analog days, but can be an asset in the digital era because of differences in how an analog signal and a digital signal reach the viewer. So why does it still seem unlikely that Prairie Public will make a move into southern Manitoba?

Probably because of technological changes. They’ve been able to get a cleaner signal on to Winnipeg’s cable systems for a number of years now without going to the expense of setting up a new transmitter, thus securing their place in the Manitoba market. And the number of viewers they’d gain by having an over-the-air signal north of the 49th parallel would be marginal. So why go to the trouble?

Not to mention that Winnipeg — their key Manitoba market — would be just on the outer edges of their coverage area, as the hypothetical coverage map below for a hypothetical high-powered UHF station operating from Red River Broadcasting’s 427-metre Pembina tower shows. (However, as the second map shows, a UHF station operating from a 600-metre tower on the higher ground near Lancaster, Minn., about 30 kilometres east of Emerson and Pembina, would bathe Winnipeg with a 60 dBu signal, strong enough to allow reception with an indoor antenna.)

Potential coverage of a Prairie Public station aimed at southern Manitoba

Projected coverage area of a Prairie Public TV UHF station operating from Red River Broadcasting's Pembina tower. Assumptions: 750kW on ch. 20 from 400 metres above ground. (© Communications Research Centre Canada; http://lrcov.crc.ca/main)

 

Prairie Public Digital OTA coverage from a tower located near Lancaster, Minn., about 30 kilometres east of Emerson/Pembina. Assumptions: 316 kW on ch. 20 from a 600-metre tower. (© Communications Research Centre Canada; http://lrcov.crc.ca/main)

Nevertheless, it would be interesting to know if Prairie Public ever did contemplate such a venture into Winnipeg and southern Manitoba. Does anyone currently or formerly with the station have anything to share?

Credit to the Digital Home discussion forums for the idea for a blog post on Global’s post-digital plans.

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.

Resurrected Pembina station to provide Winnipeg’s first over-the-air digital signal

(Update, Oct. 15: KNRR is reported to be back on the air. Digital TV owners in Winnipeg are already filing reception reports online.)

I’ve covered a lot of topics in this blog since it was first launched earlier this year, but the July 11 post on the uncertain future of KNRR-TV in Pembina, N.D. has stood out among them as being one of the most frequently visited and re-visited pages over the past three months.

KNRR might have been licenced to serve tiny Pembina and the surrounding farms and small towns of northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, but the station had actually been meant to serve Winnipeg, 100 kilometres to the north.

The business plan seemed to make sense. It was the brainchild of Fargo independent station KVRR, which had decided to put up a 1,400-foot tower near Pembina to relay the Fargo station’s programming into Winnipeg. If a sales office in Winnipeg could just sell enough commercial airtime to cover its own costs plus those of keeping the Pembina transmitter up and running — a fraction of the cost of running a full-service TV station — it could generate a tidy profit for the station’s owners.

All they had to do was to get the station on to Winnipeg’s cable systems, to which the vast majority of the city’s TV sets were connected.

That turned out to be easier said than done.

Winnipeg’s cable companies applied to the CRTC to add KNRR to their lineups shortly after the Pembina station went on the air in January 1986. However, the owners of Manitoba’s TV stations, who were already competing with each other plus WDAZ’s Winnipeg sales office, had no intention of allowing yet another competitor on to their turf.

The broadcasters lobbied the CRTC to keep KNRR off of Winnipeg’s cable systems. In October 1986, they got their wish.

For the next 23 years, KNRR would stay on the air nevertheless, delivering its parent station’s signal to northeastern North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota and the dwindling number of Manitobans using rabbit-ears and rooftop aerials to receive TV signals.

During those years, KNRR was something of a money pit for its owners, generating neither profits nor cash flow. In 2008, however, the economic crisis in the U.S. and the $1-million price tag to convert KNRR over to digital by the June 2009 deadline made the station’s losses intolerable.

The station’s owners appealed to U.S. broadcast regulators to allow KNRR’s analog signal to stay on the air beyond the June 12 digital-switchover date, admitting that they were seriously considering shutting down KNRR, turning in its broadcasting licence and dismantling its tower.

When the appeal was denied, KNRR was left with no choice but to shut off its analog transmitter on June 12. It looked as though the station was dead.

On July 11, this blog suggested that Prairie Public TV give some consideration to buying KNRR while it still had its tower up.

As Winnipeg TV stations were then pleading with government regulators to relieve them of their local programming commitments, and KNRR’s owners seemed to welcome any opportunity to get the station off their hands, it appeared to present Prairie Public with the opportunity to strengthen its brand in southern Manitoba.

Half of Prairie Public’s audience and many of its donors lives north of the border, and four of the corporation’s 17 directors are from Winnipeg — including the chairman of the board — so why not use the Pembina frequency to shoot a signal across the border tailored to its Manitoba audience?

To my surprise, I then found out that KNRR’s owners had decided to keep the station on the air as a “public service”, informing U.S. broadcast regulators in early July that they intended to have the station back on the air with a digital signal by Oct. 18.

An employee of parent station KVRR indicated in an online discussion forum Monday that the date is real, writing that, “KNRR will also be lighting back up very very soon.”

When the station goes back on the air any day now, it will be the first over-the-air digital TV signal to cover Winnipeg and southern Manitoba.

According to TVFool.com, it should be possible to receive a passable signal in Winnipeg if you use a rooftop aerial or live in a high-rise above the ground clutter. Reception is expected to be good to excellent in Morden, Winkler, Altona, Morris and Carman.

KNRR's expected coverage area when it returns to air any day now. (© TVFool.com)

KNRR's expected coverage area when it returns to air any day now. (© TVFool.com)

The arrival of the first over-the-air digital signal should be good news for Manitobans who have watched with envy as broadcasters fired up digital transmitters in Vancouver and Toronto while putting off upgrades in Winnipeg until closer to the Aug. 31, 2011 deadline for all Canadian TV stations to go digital.

KNRR’s resurrection is also a good opportunity to reconsider the station’s exclusion from Winnipeg’s cable systems.

In 1986, Manitoba broadcasters objected to KNRR getting a slot on the cable dial out of fear that their Winnipeg-based sales reps would undercut the rates charged by Canadian TV stations and undermine the local programming those advertising dollars helped pay for.

Today, there’s little likelihood that KNRR would ever open a Winnipeg sales office. Just ask WDAZ what a worthwhile pursuit that was — they closed theirs long ago. KNRR would get a less-than-stellar place in the cable lineup to boot, taking over WUHF Fox Rochester’s channel 49.

Even then, whenever a popular Fox show is on a Canadian channel and a U.S. channel at the same time, CRTC rules require that the Canadian signal be carried on both cable channels — which would block out KNRR’s signal during several hours of prime time every week.

Without a Winnipeg sales office, there is no reason to believe that the Pembina station poses any significant threat to either the Winnipeg stations’ profitability or to their (ever decreasing) local programming commitments.

Now that the signal is almost back on the air, MTS and Shaw might as well seek to add it to their offerings.