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OTA is Here to Stay

The CRTC preserved an important and affordable alternative to subscription TV (cable, satellite and IPTV) with its decision to require local broadcasters to maintain their Over-the-air (OTA) transmitters. These transmitters are the last bastion for people unwilling to pay soaring subscription TV prices but wishing to stay connected to their local news and communities via television stations.

OTA transmitters are now all-digital (meaning high definition picture quality) modern replacements for broadcasting (TV or radio) delivered via analogue transmitters (think tall-antennas-on-the-roof-of-local-TV-stations) that used to be picked up by viewers with “rabbit ears” or larger home antennas attached to their traditional television sets. This form of broadcasting is the oldest: stations send their broadcasts out over the airwaves, as opposed to running them through cable, satellite or the internet. This method of broadcasting still reaches an estimated 32 million Canadians.

Broadcasters, including the CBC and CTV, had proposed during the CRTC “Talk TV” hearing to eliminate their OTA transmitters as a cost-cutting measure. They argued, in part, that subscription TV has gained so much traction that the need for such transmitters was no longer there. They also argued that they could use the savings for local programming.

Canadians vehemently opposed that idea. When soliciting public comments during Talk TV, the CRTC found that 95% of comments from Canadians consumers supported keeping these transmitters going.

“People want their local news and current events. They want to keep up with their community and that is available from OTA transmissions,” stated John Lawford, Executive Director at PIAC. “If your information needs are really well met by this and it’s free, why would you want to shut this down?”

Another of the issues that the CRTC addressed in Talk TV was local broadcasting requirements. In subscription TV packages, broadcasting distributors are required to carry local stations broadcasting in their “basic package”. The CRTC held, however, that if one of these local stations were to turn its transmitter off it would cease to be a “local broadcaster” and could not, therefore, qualify for carriage in the basic package. However, since some of the local broadcasters were owned by large networks that might be comfortable with removing these stations from basic service, the CRTC added that any local broadcaster that refused to keep its OTA running might lose its right to broadcast on any TV platform (including subscription TV).

It’s fair to say that OTA TV was threatened with extinction in Canada as little as a year ago, however, this CRTC ruling has rewoven it into the fabric of the Canadian broadcasting system. PIAC and the groups it represented in the Talk TV hearing pushed the idea that OTA had a future for Canadians, and consumers backed that statement with an overwhelming response to the CRTC that they wanted it to remain.

“It’s free, it works, and Canadians wanted it to stay,” said Lawford. “The decision is a huge win for the public interest.”

Read the CRTC decision on OTA here.

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