The Era of Free TV Coming to an End

Since the debut of broadcast television in this country more than 50 years ago, millions of Canadians have grown to expect free access to local television signals.  While the mechanism for accessing those ad or taxpayer supported broadcasts has evolved from rooftop antennae to cable and satellite distribution, access has consistently been free (cable obviously charges for access but it does not pay for carriage of local signals). My technology law column this week (Toronto Star version, Ottawa Citizen version, homepage version) noted that Canada's broadcast regulator has issued a decision that will bring the era of free local television to an end for many Canadians. Whether through the elimination of local over-the-air broadcasts or via additional cable or satellite charges to cover a new fee-for-carriage system, free is out and new fees are in.

The changes are the result of two policy decisions by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.  First, the CRTC set the ground rules for the digital transition of Canadian broadcasting by determining that many Canadian communities are likely to lose their over-the-air signal as part of the change.

In just over two years, Canada is scheduled to bring its television broadcast system into the digital world with a mandated conversion from analog to digital.  The move is long overdue (the United States completed its transition last month) and will bring considerable benefits by introducing greater broadcast efficiencies and freeing up valuable spectrum that can be used for new wireless services.

Canadian broadcasters have resisted investing in the new digital transmitters, however, claiming that the additional costs are difficult to justify given the shrinking market share of over-the-air broadcasting.  With less than 10 percent of Canadians still relying on over-the-air signals (most use a broadcast distributor such as a cable or satellite provider), the broadcasters argued that the digital transition was economically viable only in major markets.

The CRTC largely agreed, ruling that broadcasters are expected to convert to digital transmitters only in major markets, which it defined as "the national capital and all provincial and territorial capital cities, as well as markets either served by multiple originating stations (including CBC stations) or with populations greater than 300,000."

In Ontario, that covers Toronto, Hamilton, Barrie, Ottawa, London, Windsor, and Kitchener.  It excludes several important communities such as Kingston, Sudbury, and Thunder Bay.  Moreover, nationally every province has its share of exclusions, including Kelowna, Abbotsford, Red Deer, and Brandon.

As some communities face the prospect of losing their over-the-air signal, cable and satellite subscribers should prepare for paying for local signals.  After twice rejecting requests for a fee-for-carriage system for local broadcasts, last week the CRTC reversed course. Cable companies and their subscribers pay for premium channels such as TSN or CNN, but local signals are carried without compensation, resulting in a broadcaster-led campaign in support of the imposition of new fees for carrying the local signal.

The Commission did not set a fee, but it did order both the broadcasters and broadcast distributors to negotiate a settlement.  If the two sides are unable to do so, it promised to arbitrate a solution. The policy reversal – coming just days after a House of Commons committee declined to establish fee-for-carriage – is sure to set off a battle between broadcasters who argue that the fees are needed for their long-term sustainability and the cable and satellite providers, who view it as a cash-grab that could add $6 per month onto many cable bills.

As that fight unfolds, it is Canadian consumers who find themselves stuck in the middle, with some paying more for the same services and others about to lose access to broadcasts altogether.


  1. I hope the cable companies, after years of offering free distribution of local content, to the benefit of local broadcasters, decide to either stop doing so, or charge the local broadcasters for delivery. Local TV in Canada is so diabolically bad that nobody in their right mind would pay for it though…

  2. filesharing
    All I can say is, thank goodness filesharing is alive and well.

    These greedy bastards are just not going to quit driving their business model into the dirt until everyone has abandoned them and they are out of business, are they?

    Don’t they understand that we are sick of paying their exorbitant fees and will be even sicker when they drive the prices higher?

    Does the fact that I am paying a fee-for-carriage (i.e. now paying out of my wallet for content which I previously only paid for in my time watching ads) mean that they will stop making me pay in terms of my time watching ads? Of course not. Now they want to double-dip. They want my time and my money. Greed bastards.

    Hey, broadcasters and TV stations. See the newspaper industry? That’s your future! Can you be smarter than they are or are you just as stupid and greedy as they are (soon to be were).

  3. …and net neutrality
    … your ‘filesharing’ internet is in jepardy, your ‘free and open’ internet is too.
    These are the same companies lobbying to be allowed to ‘throttle’ whatever they want, to operate ‘thier’ networks, in ‘our’ Country, over the cables run through ‘our’ backyards and streets.

  4. Aboriginal TV network?
    Any ideas on what this means for so-called “special interest” digital channels? The CRTC held a soft spot in its heart for APTN, at least in the past and despite opposition from the free-to-air, satellite and cable interests.

  5. cable companies should pay
    .. that’s right Nattt, if you want local news, soon you’re gonna have to go outside and look around to see what’s going on. No local TV, no local news … hopfully someone will start a blog about my community.

  6. I haven’t had a TV for years and this is a good indicator that I will never have one. Why even bother about pre-timed limited choice video from next door (i.e. “local”) when you can watch all the video you ever want from anywhere in the world at any time of the day on the net?

  7. Paul Cullum says:

    The irony of cable VS digital OTA
    There is some irony in the cable situation in Canada. Many if not most subscribers to basic cable and satellite packages subscribe primarily because they don’t get decent reception of local stations OTA or it is not easy to. (You don’t even get an antenna when you buy a TV these days.) Once you get a basic package you also tend to get an assortment of US network channels along with it. With the switch over to digital OTA those same subscribers will find (if they tried and it their market is served) that they get even better quality from OTA than they would ever get from cable or satellite.

    Digital OTA could and should lessen the demand for basic cable packages because why would you pay a middle man when you can get better quality for free. I live in the Ottawa area where there aren’t many choices for ATSC yet. I suspect that in a market like Toronto, Roger’s should be concerned about the erosion of their basic cable package subscriber base. I’ve heard that you can get a fair number of US digital stations as well as most Canadian stations there. What is the point of basic cable in that scenario?

    Cable allows local broadcasters to lose viewers to US stations and to specialty channels. This impacts their advertising revenue. Basic cable mostly exists to provide signals to people who don’t feel adequately served by OTA(or at least came into existance because of this). If I could get all the local channels with the clarity of ATSC I would not use cable and while I would not get all the US stations I would still get most of my shows through Canadian channels.

    In case the irony isn’t clear I’ll state it more concisely:
    1. The broadcasters don’t want to invest in a technology would encourage people to watch more local broadcasts. This will make something like cable necessary as opposed to an alternative.
    2. They are pushing for a plan that would have them get funding from cable companies instead of making cable unnecessary for local broadcasting.
    3. Cable will result in the broadcasters losing what would be a local advantage. This will impact their revenues.

  8. Bye Bye CBC
    Well there goes my last ad supported video. The only over the air channel we get here is CBC, which we do watch as a family fairly often. Now to get the same channel I would have to pay at least $35 a month for satellite. I don’t think so. What ever happened to the CBC being made available to all Canadian citizens? Was it not intended as a “tie” for us as a country culturally?

  9. Local TV
    Rob, I don’t get broadcast TV. I don’t watch (other than when in hotels while traveling) broadcast TV. Loosing local TV is not a loss, but a benefit. You can get all the local news you need from the internet. The local news is mostly national news anyway in Ottawa.

  10. Vincent Clement says:

    Does this mean that the time alloted to commercials will decrease to match the US? Will it also mean the end of simulcasting? If yes to both, then maybe I’ll be in agreement with the additional fees.

    Rob: Oddly enough, I don’t watch local news on TV, yet I am fully aware of what is going on in my community. There is this wonderful thing called the Internet. I find that it provides a broader range and more current version of local news versus the so-called “local media”.

    Natt: The fact that some local TV stations were going to be sold for $1 seems to prove your point.

  11. relocal
    TV is a ridiculous way to tie us together culturally. I’m willing to bet dollars to doughnuts  of what our citizenry watches is direct American import, or ‘ports’ of shows from elsewhere (think Dragons Den on CBC – originally a Brit broadcast). If we rely on TV for culture we will slowly just become Americans. …oh wait…

    As for news gathering on TV. Forget it. Major media outlets will seriously shrink in the news gathering sector, eroded (and rightly so) by grass roots gathering and central dissemination on the Internet. Rob: Forget a blog, start a wiki for your area. Make gathering and sharing news a community and participatory sport!

  12. OTA TV
    I’m one of those folks that doesn’t have access to cable, and we haven’t been willing to pay for satellite. Being in the Ottawa region, I’ve been able to get about 18 channels OTA, 3 of them from the US (all out of Watertown). Luckily we are in the area covered (although I don’t know if the local A-Channel affiliate would be covered).

    What I am wondering about is the disposition of some of the repeater channels. For instance, the CBC out of Kingston has a repeater near Carleton Place. Is that going to convert even though the main station won’t need to?

    Had it been necessary for us to go to satellite, why would we watch the main networks? This setup may in fact backfire on them; given the satellite selection the percentage of my time that I watch Global and CTV would have dropped through the floor. If enough people do this, in particular in areas that aren’t having to convert, their market share goes down and they can’t charge as much for advertising time. I say it this way because, even if the smaller centre stations keep broadcasting analog signals, before too long will you be able to buy a TV that will receive the analog signal OTA?

  13. Goodbye, television
    Guess I’ll have to go down to the local pub to watch Hockey Night in Canada. I’m sure the owners will be grateful to the CRTC.

  14. What is this obsession with TV that so many people are showing? I can’t remember anything worthwhile watching that was only available on a TV.

  15. Doughrayme says:

    But they’ve already gutted the service…
    My principle complaint with this is that CTV has already killed the local ATV morning show because it couldn’t ‘afford’ it.

    This was a popular show in the community and A-Channel did a great job of rallying people to save local TV, but the point that most miss is that it’s already gone. Rebroadcasting the late night 30 minute news program for 3 hours is what we now get for morning news in London.

    I’m a Shaw satellite subscriber and I can tell you this, I have no interest in paying for local TV now that it offers nothing for me. My proposal is that they package these stations as a ‘Local TV’ bundle and let me opt out of the new charge. I can likely suffer through yesterday’s news with a pair of bunny ears and my 6 bucks in my pocket.

  16. Over The Air Has Been Moot In Many Urban/Suburban Areas…
    … where rooftop TV antennas are banned unless you own your own detached house on your own lot.

    Some cities even have a blanket ban on visible antennas.

  17. Free, live free says:

    What’s on?
    I recently gave up my TV. I cancelled my Rogers Cable, and even gave away my 27″ CRT. I haven’t missed it since. News I can keep up with online, and there are so many other things to do, like read a book, go for long walks, or surf the web in search of news that interests me (Mostly technology oriented). They can stand there with their hands out all they want, I’ll just walk past them like I do to most of the other beggars I see.

  18. Darryl Moore says:

    The Era of PAY TV Coming to an End
    Michael got it wrong, and this sad decision will end up biting the broadcasters in the back side.

    In the sort term some people may end up paying more for their cable television. In the long run this will only result in a faster migration from ‘pay’ tv, to free tv over p2p networks.

    I’d suggest that the broadcasters seriously find another business model as the life span of their current one has just been significantly reduced.

  19. dfd5:7c02 says:

    P2P on whose networks?
    TV over p2p sounds neat. But who controls the networks that would provide most Canadians with the high-speed connections they need to support that? Bell and the cablecos! What is the incentive for these players to build their infrastructures out, rather than shape/throttle/DPI what they already have to death while reaping huge profits?

    Canada will seemingly never have fast commodity connectivity. Where are the upstarts? How would you even begin to get into it? If you don’t admit that faster and unmediated connectivity is a public concern (i.e. you believe that the ‘free market’ sorts these things out like some deity of orderly progression), you are accepting that the gatekeepers to these vital resources can and very likely will be bands of thieves – a goddamned shame given that their infrastructures were often (at least in part) built as public works.

  20. CRTC Capitulated
    The private broadcasters have balked at maintaining local programming, have balked at upgrading their over the air signals to digital, and demanded compensation from the cable and satellite companies. Basically, the CRTC capitulated at the first indication that a few TV stations might be shut down.

    If the CRTC is going take away free access over the air, then the CRTC should be requiring that another free means of access be provided (e.g. free via satellite [e.g. very common in Europe) or via the internet]. Instead, in the CRTC’s same decision to allow broadcasters to weasel out of providing over the air digital signals, the CRTC rebuffed Bell’s “freesat” proposal.

    The outcome out of all of this will likely be that the broadcasters will use the savings from decreased infrastructure and additional revenues to further intensify the bidding war for U.S. programming. Meanwhile, I have yet to see any evidence that this exercise will have any impact other than lining the pockets of broadcasters.

  21. Why is converting to digital signal expensive?
    Is the CRTC and everyone else assuming that digital tv is HDTV? Everything is shot digitally now — it’s just cheaper, only the broadcast method would have to change.

  22. Local TV News.
    Oh please! There will always be local news. After the fall of our local TV station some many years back, one individual set up his own newscasts with video over the internet. Now he’s added time on both SCN, Sasktel and even Shaw locally runs his weekly newscasts.

    Thing is if these TV stations can’t do their own newscasts — then DON’T! Outsource that hour or so of news programming to locals and they will swiftly find that if they don’t have the funding to provide local news coverage, others can and will do it on a reduced budget too. Enough with the crocodile tears about how there will never be any local news. There will ALWAYS be someone to provide local TV news if the TV stations won’t.

  23. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I am in the process of un-digitizing my home anyway. I am cancelling my internet and I presently do not have cable nor a DVD player. I plan to listen more to the radio, read novels, buy a physical copy of the newspaper everyday, play my guitar, take walks, and generally enjoy life in its three dimensional form. I am tired of being nickled and dimed by rent collectors.

  24. Chris Bruner says:

    Canadians always pay twice
    You watch TV and you must watch commercials. You now have to pay to watch TV and you must still watch commercials. Try watching a season show on DVD to see the difference, watching commercials is really a payment, but if you’ve never known any better then …

    How much do you pay to go see a movie? $11 or so for 2 hours of entertainment. That entertainment is made up of a movie plus 15 to 20 minutes of commercials. You’ve just paid twice again.

    Buy a paper. Can’t see the articles for the Ads?

    And they wonder why they can’t make money? It’s because they aren’t selling value, they are selling advertising space.

  25. North of 49 says:

    No signal substitution, no bundling
    I’ll second what Vincent Clement said: that it *might* be OK to pay if it ended signal substitution — so you could finally watch, say, the Superbowl with the US commercials instead of Global’s inserts.

    But I’ll add that I’d want an end to bundling, too: pick only the channels I want from the whole list, no tiers, no packages, pure smorgasbord. It’s ridiculous to pay for ten channels I never watch to get one that I want.

    Let’s see… CBC, Newsworld, Rogers Sports Net, Knowledge Network, Discovery, PBS, and CTV/TSN during the Olympics. That’d do it. For everything else there’s the Net and the public library.

    We just watched The Wire, all five seasons, on DVDs from the local library. We’re working through Deadwood right now. And the library has literally dozens of series we never could keep up with when they first aired that we can now watch start to finish, at whatever pace we want, free of both fees and commercials. Appointment TV is all but dead at our house. (Except for hockey.)

    Several commenters talked about the networks driving their audiences away. Too right. We cut back to just basic cable for that very reason. Too many commercials, too many pop-up ads disfiguring the shows while they were actually on, and — a pet peeve of mine — way, way too many of those cowardly “viewer advisories” warning us about all the horrible scaries like skin, sex, swearing and simulated violence. Wasn’t there supposed to be a rating system to placate the prudes and the chronically offended? Guess not.

    Anyway, most network TV has become all but unwatchable. We’re getting punished by paying for (mostly) trash, we’re turning away to other distribution channels, so naturally the heavy thinkers at the boardroom tables figure the solution is to punish us some more.

    Good luck with that.

  26. ……
    not that big of a deal for me – the condo I live in has a deal with rogers that we get the box and channels included in our maintenance fee. If we did not have this I would just watch online – I read all the news before the evening anyways.

  27. Patrick McNamara says:

    Save the Citizens
    What the CRTC seemed to overlook is that if digital OTA is implemented, it could draw more viewers away from cable/satellite because the quality is so good. However, the cable and satellite companies, which also own or are at least tied to broadcasters, know this and don’t want to loose business. Also, having the free competition helps to restrict cable and satellite fees. The CRTC needs to change it’s mind on this to protect the citizens of Canada and not give into corperate pressure.

    Of course there does seem to be a trend towards the Internet as a source of TV material, but there’s so many restrictions being placed upon legal outlets that they’re only encouraging the illegal ones. Free TV has been a source of cheap entertainment for the poor for a long time, and if they can’t get it legally then they’re forced to get it illegally.

  28. Totally Unjustified, unless they completely remove the time harassing, frustrating and time wasting TV Commercials.
    Like a previous poster said, Enough is enough, I will certainly NOT pay for the ‘privilege’ of watching an ‘advertising vehicle’. The funny thing is, ‘pay-for-the-air-you-breathe’ is only acceptable in western societies. In case you didn’t know, there is no such thing as pay TV for regular stations in the third world and Asia.

    Seriously, the CRTC bends over for those who exploit us is, NOTHING good comes out of it anymore and it’s high time it got shut down and its parasitic policy makers fired to find real, actually productive jobs.

  29. Nuthin new here
    The era of Free TV started to end with CableTV (in the 70’s), and then, in the late 80’s when Millions of expensive Consumer Satellite Dishes/Receivers/… were truned into “BIRD-BATHS” instantly overnite.
    The CRTC et all, has been calmly letting that happen in one form or another since their inception. Canada really is nuthin’ but a socialist economy thrown on the backs of Canadian Consumers.

    sorry, nuthin’ new here folks.

  30. RF Communications Guru
    Love the new hDTV broadcast standards and move to digital transmission. I canceled my Satellite TV and put up a roof antenna. I now receive 45 crystal clear channels, 15 in 1080 HD. Quality is excellent. Oh, the majority is US, and I really enjoyed the Super bowl game last January for Free. Canadian broadcasters should face this. The majority of their higher paying subscribers are close to the US/Border. If they do not bring prices do a reasonable level, People will put up a roof antenna.

  31. Free TV WILL come to an end
    yes for over 60 years we have enjoyed cheap entertainment with a pair of rabbit ears. I too get over 20 crystal clear HD channels over the air for free since I ditched my rogers cable 2 years ago. Most are american. but in recent news, major networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX may also switch to the cable tv business model because the free tv model just isn’t working anymore. but i got some great ideas from your posts here, especially renting my favorite shows from the library or reading about my local news from the internet.