Oh Canada! Oh HD!

Unlike the United States, Canada does not have a transition plan in place for digital terrestrial television broadcasting. That, however, hasn’t stopped Canadian broadcasters from producing and distributing programming in HD, whether it be by cable, satellite or over-the-air.

Canadians are just like Americans... except that they’re not.

Confused? Well, rather than trying to unravel the pretzel logic of this truism, why not observe it in action by considering the rollout of Canadian HDTV?

On the one hand, “HDTVs are a sale phenomenon in Canada, with over two million Canadians owning HD-compatible sets,” says Fred Mattocks, CBC’s executive director of production resources and regional programming. “As well, cable TV and satellite distributors are pumping out HDTV set-top boxes as fast as they can.”

Considering that most Canadians get their TV from cable or satellite, this latter fact is extremely significant. It also explains why HDTV content is being offered by cable/satellite-only services such as The Movie Network.

In fact, “On conventional television in Canada, virtually all prime-time programming is available in HD from U.S. sources or through Canadian broadcasters,” says Mike Cosentino, CTV’s vice president of communications. Clearly, HDTV is taking off in the Great White North, just like it is in the United States!

But hold on a minute: unlike Uncle Sam, the Land of the Beaver does not have a deadline in place for switching off analog television. You read that right: There is currently no Canadian H/DTV transition schedule on the books.

As a result, Canada’s HDTV transition is being entirely driven by the market. That’s somewhat ironic, given that this is the land of socialized medicine and government-imposed domestic programming regulations on TV and radio, but there you have it.

Stranded in this contradictory space, Canada’s three de facto commercial networks—CanWest Global, CHUM Television and CTV—plus the publicly-funded CBC are making their own decisions about where and how to offer digital HDTV to this country’s 30 million residents.

Are Canada’s broadcasters upset by this fact? It depends on who you talk to.

“I don’t see where any hard deadlines would help move the process any faster,” says Bruce Cowan, CHUM Television’s director of broadcast technology. “We are controlled by the marketplace, and the adoption of HD services by consumers.”

“We’re not only working without a deadline for HD, but we also don’t know where SD fits into the [digital] future,” says Peter Ashkin, president of CanWest Global’s technology group. “The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC; Canada’s version of the FCC) has announced a policy review of their TV rules, so that they can articulate their posture on HD and SD. But until that happens, we’re in the dark.”

“It would take a whack of money for CBC to convert our entire broadcast chain to HDTV,” says Fred Mattocks. “Without a mandated changeover deadline for DTV, as they have in the U.S., there’s just no way for us to afford to do it. Even with a mandated changeover date, it may never be economical to replicate the entire analog broadcasting system coverage.”

So there you have it: when it comes to HDTV, Canada’s over-the-air broadcasters are just like their U.S. counterparts, except that they aren’t. Having untangled this pretzel logic, let’s look at how each of Canada’s Big Four is handling their HDTV rollouts.

To date, CanWest Global has focused its HDTV activities on delivering HD content to Canada’s cable TV and satellite providers, rather than worrying about getting its own H/DTV transmission systems on air. As mentioned above, this strategy makes sense given that most Canadians watch TV on cable or satellite.

“Programming that comes to us in HD—such as the programs we source from the U.S.—passes through to our cable TV and satellite distributors in their original form,” says Ashkin. “However, the content we originate—such as news—is currently shot in SD, then upconverted to HD.”

This said, CanWest Global plans to launch an HD version of flagship Toronto station CIII in the near future. “We also have H/DTV licenses for our Vancouver station CHAN, and CHCH Hamilton, which also broadcasts in the Toronto market,” Ashkin says. These station launches will be part of a technology revolution at CanWest Global, as the company replaces its tape-based architecture with file-based video servers.

“We’re doing a number of experiments in our news studios with HD equipment,” Ashkin tells Television Broadcast. “At present, we’re really not sure what constitutes a good user experience in HD. It’s got to be more than just seeing a wider picture of the same set. We also have to decide what to do with the extra audio channels that 5.1 provides.”

Despite being a cash-strapped public broadcaster, or perhaps because of it, CBC-TV has taken the lead in over-the-air HDTV broadcasting in Canada. After all, you gotta keep the taxpayers happy! At present, CBC has over-the-air transmitters pumping out content in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and is planning to launch over-the-air service in Ottawa. Its HD content is also being carried on the nation’s big cable TV carriers and both satellite services.

In terms of content, CBC is producing major sports programming such as Hockey Night in Canada and CFL football in HD, although budget concerns mean that occasionally half of a hockey double header (from different cities) has to be shot in SD. As well, many of CBC’s major drama series are now being shot in HD, including the upcoming Hockey: A People’s History. However, CBC News remains in SD, as do a number of programs “that are coming from our library, or contain time-dated content that won’t be salable in a few years time,” says Fred Mattocks, CBC’s executive director of production resources and regional programming.

Ironically, even though it is a public broadcaster (half-funded by government money, and half by advertising), CBC is probably the Canadian broadcaster most concerned with the business case for HDTV, or rather, the lack of one. “With no deadline in place for switching off analog broadcasting, offering HD forces us to duplicate our coverage without gaining any additional advertising revenue,” Mattocks says. “This makes it impossible for us to justify rolling out HD to smaller CBC markets.

“Creating enough HDTV content is one challenge,” he adds. “Replacing capital intensive over-the-air networks is another one entirely, and one that is made worse by the lack of a mandated DTV transition.”

In March 2003, CHUM Television’s CitytvHD became Canada’s first over-the-air HD broadcaster, with its signals emanating from Toronto’s CN Tower. Since then, “we’ve mainly been doing HD using purchased programming such as movies,” says Bruce Cowan, CHUM Television’s director of broadcast technology. “We also have one Sony HDW-700A HD camcorder which we’ve used to produce a few programs, namely for our FashionTelevision division which is aired on CitytvHD. In addition, we have produced the MuchMusic Video Awards in HD over the past three years, for airing on CitytvHD.”

Having since been joined on Toronto’s HD airwaves by CBC and CTV, CHUM Television is poised to up the HDTV ante in Canada’s largest TV market.

“We’ve decided to upgrade the primary production control room in our Toronto facility to 100% HD,” Cowan says. “To do this, we have selected a Ross Synergy 4 video switcher, and a Grass Valley Trinix 512 x 512 HD router. We will be acquiring eight Sony HDC-F950 studio cameras for use throughout our Toronto facility.”

“Our HD equipment will be used for CitytvHD,” says Cowan. However, with 23 channels being produced out of CHUM Television’s Toronto facility, the company will have the ability to upgrade its other channels, as demand requires.

“We made a point of getting to market with HD first in Canada, and our decision certainly encouraged other broadcasters to move as well,” he notes. “We now intend to move to the next level and introduce daily, live HD content and we will continue to expand our HD offerings further, in line with market demands.”

Beginning in September, CHUM Television plans to broadcast Toronto’s number one morning show, Breakfast Television, in HD, as well as CityLine and CityNews at noon, 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. With this announcement, CHUM Television is positioned to become the first to offer an over-the-air high definition daily newscast in Canada.

CTV may have been beaten to the on-air HDTV punch by CHUM Television. But as Canada’s dominant commercial TV network, CTV has more than caught up by offering both its U.S. imported hits (CSI, Desperate Housewives, and Lost, among others) plus homegrown series such as Corner Gas and Degrassi: The Next Generation in HD. In fact, CTV now has two full-time HD programming services in operation: CTV HD East and CTV HD West. CTV HD East is broadcast in Toronto from the CN Tower, while CTV HD West is transmitted to the Vancouver market from Mount Seymour. Both services are also available to Canadian cable TV and satellite subscribers.

In addition to its over-the-air channels, CTV parent company Bell Globemedia operates a number of cable/satellite-only services such as TSN (The Sports Network) and The Discovery Channel Canada. HD versions of both channels are now available on cable/satellite. As well, Bell Globemedia produces special HD programming linked to major events, such as the recent 2006 FIFA World Cup.

All told, CTV has made substantial progress in HDTV programming. In fact, “With 100% of its Canadian scripted productions in HD and more than 45 series, movies and specials all available in HD, CTV’s high definition content represents more HD hours than any other Canadian network,” says Mike Cosentino, CTV’s vice president of communications. However, no deadline has been set for converting its local and national news programs to HD, or for launching HD over-the-air channels outside of Toronto and Vancouver. At present, CTV has transmitters in 25 Canadian markets.

As a country that believes in regulation—at least more so than its southern neighbor—Canada would seem likely to impose an H/DTV transition deadline, thus allowing its over-the-air broadcasters to make concrete plans based on a set analog switchoff date.

However, forcing Canadians to buy H/DTV sets would cause a political firestorm, because people here would resent the government telling them how to spend their money. So don’t be surprised if the CRTC—backed up a voter-sensitive minority federal government—takes a kid gloves approach to rolling H/DTV in Canada. Should an H/DTV deadline be imposed, it will likely be so far in the future and so cushioned by government incentives that the U.S. approach to deploying DTV will seem like, well, socialized medicine and government-dictated domestic content regulations. “Oh Canada! Oh HD!” indeed!

James Careless covers the television industry. He can be reached at jamesc@tjtdesign.com.