Dear Minister Joly,
Today is the day that TVO, Ontario’s educational public television broadcaster, had originally scheduled to shut down eight of its nine over-the-air (OTA) digital television transmitters. At the time of the announcement in January 2017, TVO’s CEO Lisa de Wilde argued that the change (as approved by TVO’s Board of Directors) reflected “the reality of today’s media environment” and that the shutdown would save the broadcaster $1 million dollars annually. Less than three weeks later TVO reversed the decision, stating that it had heard from its viewers and that its digital OTA transmitters in Windsor, London, Chatham, Kitchener, Belleville, Cloyne, Ottawa, and Thunder Bay would continue operating past July 31, 2017.
While it appears that TVO will continue to support its nine OTA digital television transmitters until the end of the year, it is unclear whether or not January 2018 will see TVO attempt another shutdown of its transmitters outside of Toronto. This scenario highlights the important question of how to assess when is the right time for a conventional OTA television broadcaster to shut down a transmitter. Based on statements made by TVO on this topic, that time has already passed since the educational public broadcaster is desperate to siphon savings to be realized from the shutdown of OTA transmitters, even if it means citizen access to its programming is degraded as a result. While TVO’s broadcast licence is subject to approval by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), TVO reports to the Ontario Ministry of Education and receives roughly 85% of its (combined) annual revenue from the province. According to TVO, the scratching of the planned July 31, 2017 transmitter shutdown outside of Toronto was only possible after the Ontario Minister of Education Mitzie Hunter offered up an extra $1 million dollars so that TVO might continue operating all nine of its OTA transmitters throughout Ontario’s sesquicentennial year.
With TVO’s OTA television transmitters outside of Toronto apparently now operating on a one time emergency cash injection from the province, a comprehensive OTA television transition plan from TVO is due. Such a transition plan will need to be shared with Ontarians prior to implementation if the broadcaster hopes to avoid a repeat of 2017. Ideally, this plan will span from 2018 to TVO’s next CRTC broadcast licence renewal request date in 2022.
In the meantime, TVO must enhance the online live streaming of its programming to Ontarians prior to shutting down any of its OTA transmitters. While the delivery of TVO programming via the open internet still requires Ontario households to both seek out and secure a broadband internet connection suitable for video streaming (service that is not yet available across the entire province), and to pay for a monthly internet plan that will cover regular online video streaming of TVO programming, such live streaming would nonetheless provide access to TVO programming to internet-connected Ontarians streaming TVO from home, school, the public library, and/or a Tim Hortons parking lot. Currently, TVO’s The Agenda is the only program that TVO live streams on a regular basis.
In addition, TVO also needs to start advising Ontarians on how best to prepare for Canada’s 600 MHz spectrum repack that will require five of TVO’s nine OTA television transmitters to change the channel that they broadcast on starting as early as 2019.