Switch to digital TV may close smaller network stations

The CTV signal is so clear in the rural Ontario township of South Glengarry that all you need is a pair of rabbit ears to pick up Lloyd Robertson reading the news at 11 p.m.

OTTAWA — The CTV signal is so clear in the rural Ontario township of South Glengarry that all you need is a pair of rabbit ears to pick up Lloyd Robertson reading the news at 11 p.m.

But next year, the old transmitter for the Ottawa-based CTV station is slated to go dark, and folks will be down to one signal, from CBC in Montreal.

It’s a situation that will be repeated across the country, as broadcasters prepare to shut down analog TV transmitters they can’t afford to convert to digital technology by a government-imposed 2011 deadline.

CTV has identified 45 towers that it will mothball a year from now if there is no financial assistance from government, in places such as Campbellton, N.B., and Invermere, B.C.

Who should pay to make sure all Canadians continue to receive TV signals, at a reasonable rate, is a critical part of the debate broadcasters are having with the Conservative government.

When broadcasters clamour to “save local TV” — as CTV is doing in a massive public-relations campaign this week — they are simultaneously pressing Ottawa to pony up some money for the expensive transition.

The industry says it’s already struggling with sinking ad revenues and a increasingly fragmented audience. There’s no business case, executives say, for spending $1 million to upgrade a transmission tower that serves a small pocket of people.

Heritage Minister James Moore is adamant the government will not step in.

About nine per cent of Canadians don’t get their TV through cable or satellite dish, and most of them live in big cities or border towns where over-the-air signals are clear and plentiful.

For those urban dwellers with older-model TVs attached to rabbit ears and antennas, a digital converter box will allow them to get a variety of digital stations.

In the United States, where the transition to digital will happen on June 13, the federal government gave citizens a US$40 coupon to help buy a converter for their older TVs.

There’s no such program in Canada. And for hundreds of thousands of Canadians sprinkled across the country in more rural and remote areas, a digital converter won’t matter anyhow — there won’t be any digital signal to convert.

CTV and CBC estimate one per cent of their viewers won’t get their broadcasts; Canwest Global estimates three per cent.

The networks and the big cable companies, through a working group, have proposed a “hybrid” solution, where Canadians who are left without TV signals when transmitters are shut down will be served by either cable or satellite companies.

But that means incurring a monthly fee they never had before.

The change will disproportionately affect lower-income Canadians, says Michael Janigan of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. The organization is pushing government to regulate a new basic-cable package at a vastly reduced fee.

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