A carrot and a stick kind of thing. The broadcasters can still shut them down, but they’ll lose the right to have their content carried as part of basic cable and satellite packages, among other things.
And as Industry Canada opens up and reallocates bandwidth at the high end, the next friction point may not be far away. Mobile phones and the internet require more and more space, so a reshuffling of the deck could see some of TV channels moved.
That would mean upgrades, or replacing transmitters to keep the free signals operating, says Peter Miller a Toronto communications lawyer and a past executive with CHUM and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters.
Over-the-air TV fans made the most noise at the Let’s Talk TV hearings in September. They told the CRTC they don’t want to buy cable or satellite services. They’re happy with free signals that come and go with the weather, often combined with web-based services. It’s about freedom of choice as much as cost.
Related: What the decision means for OTA viewers
I’m in that crowd. I was a cable subscriber for 24 years until I opted out in 2012. We combine 21 channels over-the air and a Netflix subscription. It doesn’t work for everybody, but it does for me.
As part of the Let’s Talk TV debate, the CRTC asked broadcasters what they think about over the air TV.
Bell, whose holdings include CTV, CP24 and TSN, said it doesn’t want to give its content away and local news is losing money. It put the two points together and suggested shutting down the transmitters, ending free TV and then charging everyone a local news fee. That includes the over-the-air crowd who would have to pay up or go without.
“Keeping over-the-air TV is the right thing to do,” says Patricia Trott, director of public affairs. “While local TV is facing financial challenges, we don’t think shutting down OTA transmitters would have helped the situation.”
Related: Why pick and pay is too late for me
The decline in local advertising has been precipitous, Bibic says. It means all news gathering is losing money, while “Book and Fashion TV, the least watched of our specialty channels have five employees and make money.”
So why doesn’t Bell just close some stations, transmitters and all?
“We could and we have talked about it, but we would prefer to find a better solution,” Bibic said. “Surely given the value here, we can find a model that works.
“Over-the-air provides local content viewers value the most and long term it is at risk. There has to be some change to ensure its viability and the CRTC has not seized that opportunity.”
Businesses cross-subsidize many products, for many different reasons. It may be good for their image, for their brand, or helps them sell other things, whether wireless phone services or pay-per-view movies. They also find new revenue streams, like CraveTV, Bell’s recently launched answer to Netflix.
It’s also hard to make a convincing argument you’re on the ropes when BCE’s dividend has increased 69 per cent in the past six years and its share price is up 28 per cent in the past year alone, including a record yesterday.
More columns by Adam Mayers
Over-the-air TV facts
What is OTA? Since the 1950s, broadcasters have sent signals over the air, which can be picked up by antennas.
Is the signal good? The transmissions may be better than cable because the signal is not being compressed to be distributed through the cable pipe.