Canadian digital TV transition lacks leadership
The Department of Canadian Heritage has been slow to promote the transition to digital over-the-air broadcasting because of dithering and delay over promotional campaigns and reluctance from broadcasters.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has ordered the end of analog broadcasting in major markets by August 31, 2011 and an upgrade to digital over-the-air broadcasting.
The end of analog broadcasting will free up part of the broadcast spectrum so new wireless providers can enter the market. However, if Canadians using rabbit ears don’t buy a digital-to-analog converter box, their TVs will go dark on September 1.
Industry experts have long criticized the government’s promotional efforts. Now the government has less than three*
five months to warn more than 850,000 Canadian households it estimates receive TV exclusively by antenna.
Documents obtained through Access to Information show the department in charge of coordinating the switchover, Canadian Heritage, was considering a video contest to promote the upgrade, but worried awarding a prize of $20,000 would look bad and that the contest could spread “misinformation.”
“Monetary prizes would encourage participation in the competition,” the memo proposing the contest says. “However, in times of economic uncertainty and government cutbacks, this could be viewed negatively by Canadians and in the media.”
The memo proposing the contest suggests Canadians may have had difficulty explaining the “technical and specific nature” of the transition.
The potential confusion could have ranged from participants creating videos incorrectly saying over-the-air broadcasting was scheduled to stop entirely or confusing the government-ordered transition with similar digital upgrades from cable or satellite providers.
Canadian Heritage confirmed by email the contest, which would have run from December 2010 to March 2011, never happened, but declined requests for an interview.
Michael Janigan, executive director for the Public Interest Advocacy Council, says Canadian Heritage has been asleep at the switch.
“The amount of lethargy that’s been shown, particularly by Canadian Heritage, is remarkable,” Janigan says. “The Canadian government seems to have ignored the lessons of the United States and Europe in promoting their transitions.”
When Americans and Europeans made the switch, governments and industry ran multimedia campaigns on billboards, websites, radio and TV for more than a year prior to the deadline. The U.S. government even provided vouchers for converter boxes – a measure Canadian Heritage has ruled out.
In Canada, the CRTC’s order to broadcast public service announcement only came down March 18 and it doesn’t take effect until May 1 – only four months before the switch.
Janigan says the broadcast regulator has tried to make changes, but it has lacked support from Canadian Heritage.
CRTC documents obtained through Access to Information show the broadcast regulator could not force broadcasters to promote the transition since many already had their licences renewed past the August 31 transition deadline. University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist says this weakened the CRTC.
“The CRTC’s primary mechanism to influence broadcaster activity is through licence renewal.” Geist says. “Obviously, there are other regulations in there for certain violations. It’s license renewal where it holds the hammer more than any other circumstances.”
Broadcasters were expecting government leadership in the transition. CRTC briefing notes show the majority of broadcasters wanted the government to either lead the promotional campaign or pay for it. Geist says broadcasters haven’t been eager partners.
“This transition was one that the broadcasters had very little interest in from the beginning,” Geist says.
Broadcasters can’t charge advertisers or viewers for the switch, so they will lose money paying for the new technology. However, Geist says switching from analog to digital broadcasting may have broader benefits – it will free up frequencies on the broadcast spectrum for new uses such as wireless broadband.
“This represents our best and – possibly, for the foreseeable future – last opportunity to really inject significant new wireless competition in Canada.”
** UPDATED: I edited the story to reflect the current time for the switch. This was an article I pitched to a large news organization, but it was not picked up. Since I wrote this article some DTV transition ads have started airing on major TV networks, though there are still many outstanding issues.