Ensuring “appropriate and efficient” public broadcasting within a digital broadcast landscape

Dear Ian,

Figured I should chime in regarding CBC/Radio-Canada’s announcement last week that it will not be able to make the August 31, 2011 (over-the-air) OTA TV digital switchover (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/cbc-says-switch-to-digital-too-onerous-to-make-deadline/article1666092/).

This announcement is actually good news for television-viewing Canadians and by extension good news for CBC/Radio-Canada itself.

By asking the CRTC for permission to continue broadcasting analogue over-the-air television signals in all but 15 of its television markets, CBC/Radio-Canada is taking steps towards preserving its very existence as a public broadcaster. Although the broadcaster’s immediate motivation behind asking for such an extension likely relates to a lack of funds, CBC/Radio-Canada is also shoring up its presence within the emerging digital economy.

With a total of 654 analogue TV transmitters strewn across Canada, I would say it’s a fair guess that CBC/Radio-Canada currently has the largest over-the-air signal penetration within the county (I will work to verify this). The reason why CBC/Radio-Canada has so many TV transmitters can be found a few paragraphs into The Broadcasting Act:

Section 3. (1) (m) (vii): “(The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as the national public broadcaster, should) be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose…”.

When CBC/Radio-Canada’s analogue TV transmitters were first installed, such technology was indeed the “most appropriate and efficient means” to get its signals out to Canadians.  While digital television signals are arguably more efficient and provide the option of better quality transmissions, upgrading CBC/Radio-Canada’s numerous transmitters to digital comes at a great expense. The fact that the broadcaster is only planning to convert 27 of its 654 transmitters to digital is itself problematic, but asking for time to allow it to launch a comprehensive transition plan that will best serve all Canadians is certainly a good move by CBC/Radio-Canada.

Seeing that CBC/Radio-Canada does not have the funds to convert a measly 27 transmitters to digital, and the fact that CBC/Radio-Canada is not permitted to borrow money to fund such a transition, it reasons that the public broadcaster should be able to continue analogue television broadcasting until “resources become available” for a comprehensive switch to digital OTA TV.

If CBC/Radio-Canada is forced to stop analogue television broadcasting in cities like Halifax and Winnipeg, they will most certainly be failing to meet their mandate under the Broadcasting Act.   You can bet that when hundreds of thousands of Canadians wake up on the morning of September 1, 2011 and find their CBC/Radio-Canada signal(s) gone, the public broadcaster will start taking a severe beating in Parliament. After all, what good is a public broadcast signal if it fails to reach the Canadian public?


Steven James May

Twitter: @stevenjmay

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