CBC Launches HDTV Broadcasts

Service limited to Montreal, Toronto
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Service limited to Montreal, Toronto

TORONTO

After years of moving at a snail's pace, the Canadian HDTV market took a big step forward March 5, when CBC/Radio-Canada lit up its Toronto and Montreal over-the-air HDTV services. The national public broadcaster, which operates English and French radio and television networks as well as Internet services across the country, will provide both HD television services in Canada's two largest cities in 1080i on a 24/7 basis.

"Our overall plan has been to ease our way into digital transmission and HD production, as much as possible, by making those expenditures part of our normal capital replacement cycle," said Ray Carnovale, vice president and CTO of CBC/Radio-Canada. "Our strategy has not been to lead in this case, but to adopt HD at a prudent rate, as we could afford it."
DTV Border Interference Issues RemainWhat impact will the CITY and CBC DTV operations have on U.S. TV stations along the U.S-Canadian border? According to the FCC's CDBS files of Feb. 27, 2005, the CBC has DTV channel 64 (CBLT) in Toronto and channels 64 (CBFT) and 61 (CBMT) in Montreal. Based on an agreement between the FCC and Industry Canada on the use of the 54-72 MHz, 76-88 MHz, 174-216 MHz and 470-806 MHz bands for DTV broadcasting along the common border, the only CBC station affected is CBMT in Montreal, which has a requirement that the effective radiated power (ERP) has to be equal to or less than that of channel 62. No call letters or location was specified for channel 62.

According to the agreement, the entry for CITY-TV is "-10 dB to Batavia NY after transition, Batavia -3 dB to Toronto." This is confusing as WPXJ-DT, the Buffalo, NY PAX affiliate, is on channel 53 now, but can't remain on that channel after the transition. WPXJ-DT chose to elect its final DTV in round two of the FCC channel elections.

With many Canadian DTV stations operating above channel 51, interference concerns with new users of the out-of-core spectrum are still being resolved. In an Oct. 22, 2004 letter to former Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC), concerning interference to 700 MHz public safety channels, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said the FCC was working with Canada to "realign" vacant Canadian DTV and analog channels that posed potential interference to public safety operations in Washington state. The letter notes that Canada moved vacant DTV channel 68 in Victoria, BC to channel 43, as well as reassigning analog channel 68 in Vancouver, BC to analog channel 41 and reassigned Victoria BC analog channel 66 to analog channel 46.

As the DTV transition in Canada has started much later than the transition in the U.S. and is likely to finish much later as well, this is likely to have an impact on many users of TV broadcast channels, whether broadcast or new services, even after the U.S. DTV transition ends.

-- Doug Lung
Carnovale explained that the English network is run from a master control center in Toronto, while the French network is run from Montreal. In Toronto, the company will transmit from the CN Tower, and in Montreal, from its tower atop Mount Royal. The HD broadcasts will have a unique playlist from the analog channel, but under Canadian regulations, the company is only allowed to schedule 14 hours per day of unique HD programming.

In Toronto four private broadcasters are already on the air with a digital signal, but in Montreal, CBC/Radio-Canada will be the first to market.

NATIVE CONTENT

The Toronto private broadcasters, CityTV, Omni Television, CTV and Global, rely heavily on American HD programming, but as Canada's national public broadcaster, CBC/ Radio-Canada airs very little foreign programming. So, the availability of Canadian HD-originated content will be an issue initially.

And although CBC/ Radio-Canada has scheduled some unique HD-originated programs, including CBC Television's popular documentary series "The Nature of Things," the sitcom "The Newsroom," as well as an upcoming 10-part documentary series, "Hockey: A People's History" and "Getting Along Famously," initially most of the content will be upconverted from SD.

"There'll be a substantial amount of upconversion, but upconversion can be exceptionally good, especially if we're starting with anamorphic 16:9 masters," he said. "You can get some very impressive results."

CBC/Radio-Canada expects to have an HD mobile production truck ready for the road by June, and Carnovale believes Canadian HD production will grow at a healthy pace. "There'll be more and more day-by-day and week-by-week."

As for the decision to opt for 1080i, Carnovale explained, "We feel that the spatial resolution improvements of 1080i more than outweigh the temporal resolution advantages of 720p, because the 720p improvements aren't evident the vast majority of the time. I'd rather have sharper pictures the majority of the time, than better temporal resolution on those few shots where it might actually make a difference."

NO MANDATE

Although Canada has adopted the ATSC standard, broadcasters north of the border face an entirely different regulatory regime. Canada's regulator (the CRTC) is encouraging broadcasters to convert to high definition. So, although multicast channels are allowed, they have to be licensed as a separate channel and are not guaranteed carriage on cable and satellite.

However, the CRTC decided early on that the must-carry rules for a broadcaster's main digital channel would mirror the old analog rules.

"Certainly the great thing about the Canadian approach to digital TV is mandating mandatory carriage," said Carnovale.

Michael McEwan, president of CDTV (the equivalent of the ATSC), explained that, "Overall, the Canadian DTV strategy was to lag behind the Americans by a couple of years. The Americans took the edge off in terms of new technology--figuring out what worked and what didn't work--and the costs started dropping. They bore the brunt of that initial phase, and we saved the Canadian industry and consumers a lot of money by doing that. Now the challenge for us is that we want to finish the transition around the same time."

That lag time has yielded one unexpected benefit. LG Electronics recently revealed the results of a nationwide survey conducted by Decima Research that found there's already a huge installed base of HDTV-ready sets, in spite of the fact that to date, there's been very little to watch.

Overall, 16 percent of Canadian homes already have an HDTV-ready set. By comparison, Forrester Research estimates there will be 12 million HDTV-ready televisions in the United States by the end of 2005, translating to approximately 10 percent of American homes.

Steve Preiner, director, LGe Canada explained that, "Although 16 percent may seem like a high adoption rate for HDTV-ready televisions, we were not overly surprised, as that figure is in line with the sales numbers we have been seeing over the past couple of years. It's impossible to say for sure why Canadians appear to be purchasing HDTV-ready televisions at such a rapid rate and so much faster than Americans."

"It's not price-point. It's not the Canadian dollar," said McEwan. "I'm at a loss to say what the reason is, except to say that historically Canadians buy more home theaters on a per capita basis than any other country in the world, and so I'm not surprised."

NO SHORTAGE

Another key difference in the Canadian rollout is that unlike the United States, spectrum scarcity isn't as much of an issue in most of the country. Hence there's not a fixed analog turn-off date and no mandated deadlines.

"I'm sure Industry Canada [a government-level cabinet that regulates communications, among other things] would love to have the spectrum back to lease it out, but having said that, there's still lots of available spectrum in Canada compared to the United States." McEwan explained. "So we have a market-driven approach and that's a very positive thing. It lets the industry go at its own economic pace."

CBC/Radio-Canada has also received a license for a Vancouver English HDTV service, and it has pending applications for a French service in Quebec City and both English and French DTV channels in Ottawa.

But according to Carnovale, that's where the company's rollout plans end, at least for now.

With a population density that is less than four percent that of the United States, Canadian broadcasters face some serious economic challenges trying to bring digital TV to the country's remote rural communities. In fact, it took a huge government-funded initiative in the 1970s and 80s to build out analog coverage for those areas.

"You can cover 70-75 percent of the population with about 15-20 transmitters, but if you want to get the other 25 percent, you've got to build 400 transmitters," explained McEwan. "And I'm not sure the industry can afford that infrastructure. So maybe we're going to have to find another way of delivering HD programming to rural parts of the country."

At present, it seems unlikely that the government is prepared to fund another massive infrastructure project to subsidize the transition.

"The economics aren't there to build the system out. It simply won't happen. So we're going to have to be innovative about this," said McEwan.

Some of the proposals that would maintain the idea of free local television include a subsidized cable or satellite box to deliver the local channels that viewers currently receive over the air, or huge tax incentives for broadcasters to increase their digital penetration.

But as yet, there is no consensus, and the issue of how to cover the other 9.8 million square kilometers, beyond the major urban centers remains unresolved.