Dear Minister Moore,
The good folks at the Hill Times have granted me permission to repost the Wire Report article by Karen Fournier regarding CBC’s DTV plans in New Brunswick.
Features interviews with Steven Guiton, myself, Karen Wirsig, Ian Morrison, and a statement from your spokeswoman Codie Taylor.
CBC not asking for funding to fill holes in controversial digital transition plan
- February 28, 2011 – 8:22pm — Karen Fournier
OTTAWA—The CBC is not asking for any additional funding for its transition to digital, over-the-air television broadcasting, even though the move will leave at least 10 communities across Canada without access.
Even if it received funding, the CBC probably wouldn’t spend it on the digital transition, Steven Guiton, the CBC’s chief regulatory officer, said in an interview.
“Even if we had the finances, we would be hard-pressed to spend so much money on one single technology, a technology that, to be honest, is on the decline, when we have to make investments in all these other technologies,” Guiton said by phone.
“We’re definitely not asking for government funding, and if new funding were to come along … I’m not sure we’d be using it for over-the-air.”
In January, the CRTC opened a consultation on an application from the CBC to add a digital transmitter to serve the Fredericton market.
The plan involves relocating the transmitter to Fredericton, where service will be available, but Saint John will be without reception.
The CBC also has no plans to convert its transmitter in Moncton, which means that market will also lose signal reception.
The CRTC said the CBC’s proposal is inconsistent with its policy, which requires broadcasters to match their existing analog coverage.
The commission noted that the proposal would decrease the station’s potential viewership in Saint John by 62.5 per cent, or from 303,465 to 113,930 people.
But Guiton said the CRTC’s numbers are incorrect.
“I don’t even know how they get that, because that’s just wrong,” he said.
Guiton said only five per cent of people living in Saint John use over-the-air and 95 per cent of New Brunswickers rely on cable or satellite to receive their television signals.
In its application, the CBC said its priority is to ensure good coverage for the Fredericton area because it is the provincial capital. The cost of the CBC proposal is $456,000, according to the application.
“The costs associated with a new DTV television station are very high. CBC/Radio-Canada cannot afford to convert all stations simultaneously. In the present case, the capital of each province is the priority,” the CBC wrote, adding that it hopes to convert a transmitter to serve Saint John in a few years if and when the funds become available.
But Guiton said that, while the CBC is facing some financial restrictions for the transition, that isn’t the only issue.
“The other issue is recognizing that over-the-air, as a television technology, isn’t what it used to be. It’s no longer the most important way that Canadians get their service,” he said.
“We have to make investments on a number of platforms, such as online.”
Guiton said that, each month, more people in New Brunswick access the CBC’s Fredericton signal through an online portal than over-the-air.
“Like all media companies, we have to balance our investments across multiple platforms and we have to make sure that we’re in line with making our services accessible to all Canadians across all these platforms,” he said.
The commission received about 81 letters in opposition to the CBC’s application.
Steven James May, a PhD student in communication and culture at Ryerson University and author of a blog on the digital transition, wrote in opposition to the CBC’s proposal.
“While such a move by any Canadian broadcaster would be unacceptable under the Broadcasting Act, this proposal is particularly unacceptable coming from the CBC since they are the country’s national public broadcaster,” he wrote.
May instead proposed that the CBC install two digital transmitters to serve the New Brunswick region.
“Why are we asking broadcasters and our public broadcaster to make the digital television transition without the proper funds so that in the end they can serve the Canadian public? … I don’t have an answer for you,” May added in a phone interview.
He said the government should do whatever it takes to ensure all Canadians have continued free access to CBC content.
The Canadian Media Guild (CMG) also wrote the commission to express concern about the transition.
The guild said the federal government should step in to help fund the CBC’s efforts to move to digital broadcasting.
“As a Crown Corporation—and unlike its private counterparts—the public broadcaster cannot borrow for capital infrastructure and amortize the borrowing costs over several years,” the CMG wrote.
“There is no way CBC/Radio-Canada could provide free digital OTA [over-the-air] service across Canada without cutting programming or entire services to pay for it.”
The CMG also noted that Saint John won’t be the only community to lose access to over-the-air reception of the CBC. The guild said the situation will also hit Victoria, B.C.; Lethbridge, Atla.; Saskatoon, Sask.; London, Kitchener, and Barrie, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Whitehorse, Yukon.
Seven other communities outside Quebec will lose access to Radio-Canada, and five communities within Quebec will lose access to CBC, the guild said.
Karen Wirsig, the CMG’s communications coordinator, said by phone that the CBC has limited resources, and must set its priorities according to directions it receives from the government.
“Over-the-air is not a brig priority for them [the government],” she said.
“The CBC is working hard to ensure that they’re ready for other kinds of new media developments that are also necessary. They can’t pay for everything.”
Ian Morrison, a spokesman for watchdog group the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, said in a phone interview that the CBC evaluated its priorities and determined funding the transition in Moncton and Saint John was not at the top.
“This is a $1.7-billion Crown corporation that says it doesn’t have enough money to continue to serve poor and elderly people in the two largest cities in New Brunswick,” he said.
“It’s a question of priorities … I hope the CRTC will not accept its proposal.”
Morrison said the CBC’s plan “leaves aside” people outside the capital, and that the CBC should strive to expand its reach.
“In this case, they’re contracting their reach … They’re behaving like a private broadcaster,” he said.
“People are upset down there … It’s probably more serious in New Brunswick than anywhere else in the country, on a proportionate basis.”
Liberal MP Brian Murphy has also criticized the CBC’s plans. In a letter to Heritage Minister James Moore, Murphy said the CRTC should reject the CBC’s proposal.
“It’s not fair to offer over-the-air service in Fredericton while eliminating it in New Brunswick’s two largest urban centers and it goes against Parliament’s intentions as expressed in the Broadcasting Act,” he wrote.
The Broadcasting Act says the the CBC’s programming should be made available “throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose.”
Murphy told Moncton newspaper the Times & Transcript last week that the Liberal caucus plans to discuss the issue in the coming weeks.
Codie Taylor, a spokeswoman for Heritage Minister James Moore, said by email that the minister has been “very clear” about the transition to digital.
“We expect CBC, like all other broadcasters, to make the necessary adjustments,” Taylor said.
On Monday CRTC officials appeared before the House of Commons heritage committee to discuss the digital transition.
Scott Hutton, the CRTC’s executive director of broadcasting, told the committee that he expects all Canadians to be ready for the digital transition deadline of Aug. 31, 2011.
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