Entertainment

Clement says he won't delay digital TV transition

Industry Minister Tony Clement says he doesn't want to delay the transition from analog to digital TV despite loud warnings from networks and consumer advocates that Canada is far from ready for it.
'If we stick to the deadline and actually have quite a detailed plan, … [the switch to digital TV] should not create any misery for Canadians,' says Minister of Industry Tony Clement. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Industry Minister Tony Clement says he doesn't want to delay the transition from analog to digital TV despite loud warnings from networks and consumer advocates that Canada is far from ready for it.

An estimated 900,000 Canadian households that rely on antennas don't have televisions equipped to receive digital signals, which are to replace analog signals by Aug. 31, 2011. They'll have to buy a set-top converter box to receive the new signals.

Another 44,000 households live in areas that won't be able to get digital signals and will need to invest in a satellite dish.

"I'm really going to try and avoid postponing," Clement told The Canadian Press. "I would really like to stick to the deadline.

"That requires us to engage with the industry sooner rather than later. If we stick to the deadline and actually have quite a detailed plan, it should not create any misery for Canadians." 

U.S. President Barack Obama was forced to delay his country's transition to digital from February to June 2009 when it became clear that industry and consumers were not ready for it.

Washington launched a huge public-awareness campaign and spent more than $1.5 billion on a coupon scheme to help citizens pay for the new set-top converter box they'd need in order to receive digital signals.

On the day of the full switchover, June 12, 2009, 4,000 government operators were available 24/7 to take calls from confused consumers.

The British government has a $300-million, seven-year public-awareness campaign underway for their gradual transition to digital, which will end in 2012. The United Kingdom also provides technical help to the elderly, the disabled and low-income households getting their TVs up to speed.

But there has been no large-scale move to inform Canadians about what's on the horizon.

A link to frequently asked questions on Industry Canada's website is dead, and the TV industry has no co-ordinated approach to letting viewers know what to expect.

Awareness campaign needed

CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein and his fellow commissioners have urged the government to fund a public-awareness campaign and help consumers with the cost of upgrading their TVs or buying a satellite dish. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))
The federal broadcast regulator recommended the Conservative government start funding a public-awareness campaign and help consumers with the cost of upgrading their TVs or buying a satellite dish.

For its part, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is consulting on the transition and putting together new numbers on who will be affected and to what extent. It will be examining the issue of what to do with people who currently pay nothing for TV and will be forced to invest in cable or satellite.

The government is expected to reap billions from the transition by selling off the old analog spectrum to wireless and other telecom companies.

Clement said he's made no decisions on whether a consumer subsidy program is in order, but he and his department are actively studying the issue.

"I would agree, we have to start moving quite smartly, rapidly to start disseminating this deadline that's coming up and to work out the best way to roll this out," he said.

"You're talking about a small percentage of the population but, nonetheless, their world is going to change."

Will miss more than favourite shows

For Joy Robbins in Digby, N.S., that means losing her strong CBC and Radio-Canada signals when the local analog transmitter is mothballed. She gets Global and CTV from Halifax with the antenna, but they, too, will disappear unless she invests in a converter to make her TV digital-ready — something she was only vaguely aware of.

"If you look around the community, a lot of people don't have cable, and some are on a fixed income," said Robbins. "It's going to affect them more."

'It's clear that television services are an important way that Canadians receive information, relate to each other and have a form of national cohesiveness.'—Michael Janigan, Public Interest Advocacy Centre

Michael Janigan of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) calls Canada's approach to the transition "leadership by amnesia." He said the concern for consumers goes well beyond someone missing out on their favourite TV show.

"It's clear that television services are an important way that Canadians receive information, relate to each other and have a form of national cohesiveness," said Janigan.

The networks, meanwhile, have said in no uncertain terms that they cannot afford the transition of all their towers based on the current deadline and have been demanding government help.

The CRTC softened the blow a little last year by saying they would only have to convert towers in markets of 300,000 or more people, but that hasn't stemmed the complaints.

CTV has transition to digital planned in only three markets: Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto.

"It's another cost to us on a money-losing business without any chance of recouping the expense," said CTVglobemedia's executive vice-president of corporate affairs Paul Sparkes.

"Governments are going to make billions off of the auction, and private broadcasters can't be expected to bear the brunt of these costs given that we're being moved off of the spectrum."

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