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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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