Monday, June 13, 2011

TV is Changing. Are Canadians On Board or Being Left Behind, Once Again?

I read recently that in the last 12 months television viewing via over the air (OTA) has increased by a noticeable percentage in the US. One theory is the economy. That may be a factor, but I think another one is the advent of digital TV. Americans are discovering that OTA provides a superior high-definition picture over cable or satellite or fiber optic and for free.

The US switched off its analog transmitters (for the most part) back in 2009. Canada will do so on 31 August 2011. The US required broadcasters to advertise and replace all of their analog transmitters with digital ones, and the US provided a coupon to assist people to buy digital-to-analog converters for their old TVs. As the switch-over date approached, the American PSAs became quite detailed in how one goes about installing a converter box. Canada finally required broadcasters to advertise the change, but the ads are nowhere near as comprehensive as the 2009 US ones. Some Canadian broadcasters didn't even initially mention the coverter boxes.

The other diff is that the CRTC, for reasons unfathomable to me, does not require broadcasters who do not have an actual station in a community to replace the analog with a digital transmitter in that community. So London, Ontario, for example, will no longer receive CBC -- a public broadcaster supported by tax dollars from every Canadian, including Londoners -- because CBC will not replace its analog transmitter with a digital one in that area.

And lastly, the Canadian government refuses to provide coupons to assist Canadians in this hard economic time to switch.

It is almost as if the CRTC and the Canadian government, in collusion with our broadcasters, want to manipulate Canadians into buying cable or satellite services, into thinking that free OTA is no longer available or watchable.

Yet we are seeing down south a shift in the way Americans watch TV, which we as a nation will not because of the piss-poor governance of the CRTC and the Harper government in this matter. Once again, we will be left behind in technological innovation.

Already, Canadians are denied watching TV over the Internet through methods like Hulu; there are no Canadian equivalents to Hulu. Netflix finally came on the market here; in response, the big telcos upped their data rates and put caps on them -- usage based billing -- so that only the wealthy and spendy can afford it -- unless you're a connected Canadian and know that small ISPs offer unlimited usage based billing. Watch all the TV you want over the Internet for no more cost than sending an email.

The big telcos tried to force the little guys to switch to their usurious method of billing but failed in their initial attempt. Only vigilance will prevent them from succeeding.

The other problem is that although all the broadcasters provide streaming of some of their shows, some of them do so with such poor picture quality or provide only one episode at a time that one doesn't want to watch that way. Another way to look like you're in on the technological change while stifling it.

Essentially, companies are trying to keep Canadians from taking advantage of Internet TV watching.

And now through minimal PSAs and reduced number of transmitters, they want to keep Canadians from reaping the benefits of digital TV.

It really is quite astonishing what OTA digital TV can do for our television viewing. First off, the picture is not compressed, so when you receive HDTV, you get the full high-definition experience. The picture is noticeably clearer, sharper, better than HDTV via cable or satellite. Once you see it OTA, you won't want to go back.

Second, every broadcaster can put multiple sub-channels on their own channel. Last week, an upper New York station, which already had three channels on its frequency, added a fourth -- Spanish music. These sub-channels are like specialty channels. Because of how US broadcasters are taking advantage of this innovation, I now have three music channels (country, cool, and Spanish), a retro TV channel (I can watch all my fave 70s/80s shows and cool 60s ones), a sports channel (it is now possible to watch swimming or bicycle road racing or track and field in between the Olympics), a home and style channel, a cartoon channel, religious channels, a learning channel... The list will continue to grow as US broadcasters recognize the demand is there and supplies it. How do they pay for it? The same way the main Canadian networks do: advertising.

So what are Canadian broadcasters doing? Nada. They have one channel per frequency. Yawn. This is particularly egregious in the case of CBC. They are a public broadcaster funded by tax dollars from you and me, yet they provide channels solely through cable and satellite that only a few can afford. These channels ought to be broadcast over the air on digital sub-channels -- CBC News Network on 5.1, HNIC on 5.2, Bold on 5.3, and so on -- so that all taxpayers can watch what they're paying for. Once CBC does that, the other broadcasters will be forced to follow suit for competitive reasons, as long as the CRTC and the Harper government don't enable their current dinosaurian tendencies.

Televison began over the air. Cable and satellite emerged to provide for-the-most-part reliable signals and then a variety of programming. Now we are seeing a shift back to over the air for the better picture quality and increasing programming and a new shift to Internet TV for its convenience and variety. New TV will allow us to choose between OTA or Internet, between American or Canadian broadcaster, between indie show creators and broadcaster-streamed content.

But as it is now, Canadian creators cannot take full advantage of this new opportunity and Canadian consumers cannot reap the full benefits. Canadians must get aware and get active in contacting their MPs to demand a digital transmitter in every community, demand telcos be forced to provide true high speed broadband with no usage caps, demand that licensing agreements change to match the changing technology. If we don't, we will slide even further into the backwater.

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