2015-02-01

Over-The-Air is here to stay... for now.

The first set of CRTC rulings from the "Let's Talk TV" hearings held in Gatineau QC last September were announced on Thursday, and the consumer comes out the winner in all of them. For cord cutters, the most significant ruling was that local TV stations are not allowed to shut down their over-the-air transmitters without significant consequences.

One of the discussion points put forth by the CRTC was whether local stations should be allowed to shut down their over-the-air (OTA) tranmitters as a cost savings measure. As you may recall, the large media companies that own local TV stations (Bell, Shaw, Rogers) have been crying for years about the cost of providing local TV. This is despite the fact that many local TV stations have been reduced to little more than retransmitters for a Toronto or Vancouver station with one or two daily newscasts the extent of their local content.

During the hearing, the commission and station owners explored what it might mean if OTA transmitters were eliminated. At present, local OTA stations enjoy special privileges within the Canadian television system. Cable and satellite providers are obligated to carry all OTA stations within their service area, offer preferential placement on the channel list, and include those stations in every subscription package. The OTA stations are not compensated by the cable/satellite companies, but they get expanded coverage in return - in some cases well beyond the reach of their OTA transmitter.

A number of consumers went on record to voice their support for OTA television, pointing out that without it, there would be no such thing as "free" TV. An OTA setup requires some one-time costs - setting up an antenna and optionally other hardware - but there are no recurring charges since the stations transmit their signal for free. They do this in exchange for the exclusive use of a portion of the public airwaves and the preferential treatment they receive in cable/satellite subscriptions.

Perhaps most telling during the hearings was that Bell Media stated that the savings from shutting down transmitters would be more than offset by lost revenues from advertising directed at over-the-air viewers. Given the public support for OTA and the testimony from Bell that there would be no economic benefit, it seemed to be a no-brainer that the CRTC would maintain the status quo, and now it is official.

The result is that any antenna setup you have or are contemplating (see here for tips) will be useful for several years to come. Given the speed at which the CRTC moves on such matters, I'd be surprised if there was another hearing and ruling on local TV before 2020. Video streaming will most likely have altered the video-consumption landscape radically by then, but whatever local stations stay in business will need to maintain their transmitters or lose their license and the privileges related to carriage on cable/satellite that go with it. Any station that does not have an OTA transmitter reverts to being a specialty channel, which means they're not guaranteed carriage and must negotiate with cable/satellite companies for carriage and compensation just as if they were TSN, Bravo, Cottage Life, etc.

The condensed version of the CRTC's ruling is available online at the CRTC web site: Over-The-Air (OTA) Television Broadcasting and Local Programming. Within that is a link to the full decision in case you want the details and an explanation of the reasoning that went into the decision.

CRTC Chairmain Jean-Pierre Blais also announced on Thursday that the landscape for simultaneous substitution ("simsub") would be changed and that Bell and Videotron were violating the Telecommunications Act by granting their own wireless television services an undue preference. The way that those services were billed (ex. $5 for 10 hours of video) was found to be favouring their service since all other video services (ex. Netflix, CBC.ca) get billed by the megabyte at regular mobile data rates, which is an order of magnitude more expensive than Bell/Videotron's time-based billing rates.

The simsub ruling is primarily of interest to cable/satellite subscribers so I won't delve into it on a cord cutting blog. The Bell/Videotron ruling is for mobile (cellular) service, but it's significant for cord cutters since it relates to network neutrality, which is very important to those who enjoy streaming services like Netflix in a country where the big media companies also control our Internet services. Michael Geist has an excellent write-up on his blog in case you care to read more.
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