Friday, April 27, 2012

How to drag the CBC kicking and screaming into relevance

The CBC is facing decreasing budgets. The Conservative party of Canada, who find even the idea of a publicly funded national television station outdated and counter productive to their philosophy, have cut the budget of the CBC yet again.  The CBC is an easy target, because they've done so many things wrong over the years.

Ultimately I believe the CBC to be a worthwhile public expenditure.  Whether I feel they're left biased or not, like the BBC and PBS and others in their respective countries, any modern well off nation should have a public broadcaster.  If only to provide coverage where "for profit" or private entities don't.

So with that out of the way, my main belief (not surprisingly to regular readers of this blog) is that the CBC has bungled their digital OTA (Over-The-Air) conversion. 

Certainly, switching from analogue to digitial  costs money, and certainly the CBC is seeing less and less of it.   Realistically, the CBC should have 10 years ago set aside money to take advantage of the opportunities OTA digital broadcasting provides them, both in serving communities and citizens across Canada, and in the potential to make extra cash.

Why should the CBC care about OTA?  In their own words OTA is dying (it's not), and not worth paying for (it is).  The CBC should care for OTA because to OTA viewers, CBC is king.  And OTA is set to increase as more and more people abandon Cable TV, just like CBC is abandoning their "Bold" digital channel.  People don't need 400 channels.  People realize they're watching the networks, including CBC, and maybe a few other shows.  They're either getting what they want online, or waiting for DVD's.  Cable isn't going away any time soon, and certainly Canada has a ridiculously high rate of cable subscribers, but I believe that it's only going to go down, and CBC should take advantage of that fact.

Secondly, digital OTA provides opportunities for the CBC to better service communities and perhaps even make money.  How?  Read on.

With Analogue signals, people received one channel that was often fuzzy and subject to ghosting and what have you.  Ever since the digital conversion last year, at least in most major cities, with an ATSC rather than NTSC tuner you can now pick up a perfect digital signal.  Which is great, but even better for the CBC, is they can multiplex additional signals.  What does this mean?  The CBC can, as many American stations do, add SUB-channels and make use of unused space to broadcast more stations.   The CBC generally broadcasts a 720P HD digital signal.  At least here in Winnipeg they do.  That means they could add 3 digital Standard definition sub-channels. 

The CBC has a large back-catalogue of programming.  What could they offer on a sub-channel that would be relevant to Canadians?

They could offer CBC News Network, but they probably won't as they get a fee for carriage from the cable companies mandatory by the CRTC.  Which is backwards thinking, but whatever.  However, they could offer a CBC News Lite channel that simply gives headline news on a loop and none of the extra programming one would find on CBC News Network (I still call it Newsworld)

They could offer a childrens subchannel.  There are years of Mister Dressup, Sesame Street, Friendly Giant, and other programming in CBC's archives.  Couldn't hurt to put it up on a subchannel.   Educating kids is a great public service, and people will be more furious at future CBC cuts if they feel quality childrens programming is being attacked.  Right now the Conservative government gets away with its CBC cuts because people think the CBC is wasting money on overpaid union staff, poor quality television, and is basically lock in step with the Bells and Shaw Cables and Roger TV's of this country trying to suck money out of Canadians for artsy fartsy productions that nobody cares about.  I disagree with this, there is a lot of decent and even great programming on CBC TV and Radio, but that's the perception, and that's why the CBC is an easy target.  Unless they work to change this perception, they're doomed.

Another subchannel option the CBC could offer, with little real effort needed, is to offer a weather or Environment Canada style channel on OTA.  Weather warnings, Local weather updates.  Basically the text weather channel on most cable offerings.  All they'd need to do is get some programmer to write a script and output the info to the screen.  It probably wouldn't even take much bandwidth as a subchannel.  The best thing is instead of background music, they could put CBC Radio One, Two, or Three as the audio feed.  They could even offer a similar CBC News channel that basically prints out RSS feeds from their website to the screen.  Or they could have a third channel that's just community news and events.  Just the lowest quality text only video they can get away with, along with giving another outlet for their radio offerings.  Why wouldn't they?  They might even be able to put cheap local advertising on a scroll at the bottom of the screen. 

No matter how you look at it, sub-channels offer the CBC a way to harness their dominance in OTA in Canada and make themselves less expendable in the long run.  Now, what about places outside of the major cities?  Some of them have been abandoned by the CBC and major networks.  This is the shame, but here is another opportunity for subchannels to help bring a resurgence to OTA and the CBC's relevance. 

Obviously the CBC can't afford to blanket the country in digital as they did when they originally began broadcasting.  However, theres nothing preventing the CBC from working with smaller towns or municipalities to find a way to cover the costs of a repeater tower in their communities.  You could fit 8-10 standard definition channels on one transmitter.  The cost could be shared between the CBC and other channels (SRC, or even Global, CTV, what have you), until such a time as it would be cost effective for them to build out their own tower.  In the meantime, the CBC could operate and maintain the antennas.  Who knows.  They could even rent out subchannels for religious or advertising purposes, assuming the CRTC allows it.

You can pick and choose what you think are good ideas, but there are options available, and the CBC doesn't seem to be pursuing ANY of them.  Which doesn't help their case as being relevant to Canadians.  Relevant to Canadians who make money thanks to the existence of the CBC, perhaps, but that's not enough. 


unclebob said...

Absolutely correct

The View from Seven said...

They might get some ideas from the ABC, their fellow government-owned broadcaster in Australia. In addition to the regular ABC service on x.1, they offer reruns/time-shifts, children's programming and an all-news channel on their subchannels.

I wonder, though, about the fate of CBC OTA in rural areas. If the reduction of CBWT 6.1's coverage area and the CKX-TV shutdown are any indication, the CBC can shut down most of its rural repeaters and get off scot-free because everyone left hanging will either sign up for cable or buy a satellite dish. In fact, the budget cuts give them the perfect political cover to do that.

Anonymous said...

Another use of a sub-channel would be to broadcast the second or non-dominant language of a market as the sub-channel, where no digital service is being planned. For example, CBC as a sub-channel of SRC in Quebec City and SRC as a sub-channel of CBC in Saskatoon.

The View from Seven said...

Breaking news: CBC seeking CRTC approval to shut down all Manitoba and Northwest Ontario TV transmitters except for Winnipeg, pleading poverty after recent federal budget cuts.

If approved, relays in Kenora, Lac du Bonnet, Dauphin, etc. would sign off on July 31.

Anonymous said...

But does not the crtc say you need a new license for a sub channel?

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