As beleaguered local television stations continue to face cutbacks and Web-streaming services like Netflix take off, the future of antenna television looks fuzzy.
Nevertheless, last week CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais voiced his crystal-clear support for over-the-air television, which is broadcast on open signals and available without a cable-subscription package.
The announcement comes after a long discussion on the future of television between the CRTC and more than 13,000 Canadians — about everything from over-the-air to pick-and-pay cable subscriptions — called Let’s Talk TV.
It means that over-the-air television is here to stay, at least for now. The Star spoke with Gregory Taylor, a Ryerson researcher and expert on over-the-air television, who presented during the CRTC hearings. Taylor is the author of Shut Off: the Canadian Digital Television Transition.
What was your take on Jean Pierre Blais’ speech?
I was pleased by all three major decisions. I thought that they were very much not just consumer-centred but citizen-centred. And I think the CRTC took a big-picture view — and its position as a public regulator quite seriously — and realized they were not just beholden to business interest. There were other issues at stake here.
Why is over-the-air television important to you?
Because it means that we are not restricted to cable and satellite subscription if we want to have access to broadcasting. If you remove the over-the-air sector, then we have no choice. The distributors have a complete stranglehold on things that are supposed to be public information, like news and current events.
I’m not saying that all channels should be free, over-the-air, but there should be a baseline that citizens can access. I think it’s a question of public access; it’s also a question of keeping the distribution companies accountable. It adds an extra element of competition to the scene — you don’t have to go along with them if you don’t want to.
How is over-the-air television being used south of the border?
Over-the-air is being used in a far more advanced way [in the U.S.] than we are in Canada. Take any comparably sized city in the U.S . . . and what you’ll get is a list often between 40 to 60 channels [available over-the-air]. You can put up to 4 channels on one licence . . . in Canada, nobody is doing that, but in the U.S. they are.
We have a very weak over-the-air system compared to the U.S., and most of it has to do with the fact that the same companies providing us our over-the-air channels in Canada also sell us cable and satellite subscriptions. These companies have a clear interest in supporting their distribution. In the U.S. there’s more independents so you have a more vibrant over-the-air scene.
How does offering more over-the-air channels benefit people?
What’s happening right now in Canada is that a lot of people are cutting the cord on cable and satellite, and they are opting out of the Canadian broadcasting system altogether. That has political repercussions. We have citizens who are not engaged, at the local level, with the broadcasting system. Particularly the younger generation, they’re not getting cable subscriptions and they’re not using over-the-air — because there isn’t really enough there. We have to offer them something to keep them engaged.
You can’t make people watch it, but you can ensure that they have access to it.
We can have a rich range of television right now, coming through the internet, through cable, through some of the options like Bell’s Fibe and satellite. Make over-the-air part of it! And just have more opportunities for how we access our TV.
What do you think the future of television is, and where does over-the-air fit in that?
Some people will say everything is going online. But if you take a look at viewership numbers, they’ve actually remained stable over the last 10 years.
We’ve seen music fall off a cliff, we’ve seen books stores closing down all over the place. Right now, cable and satellite companies are healthy and totally fine.
To me, the future is certainly far less linear than over-the-air offers. It will be a smaller part of the market, I have no illusions that way. But I still think it serves a purpose.
I teach at university now, and the students do not have cable and they’re never going to get cable. Obviously, online is their main source. But if over-the-air television is available to them, they might consider putting up an antenna and being able to get some of those channels.
So I think it’s important that we have the opportunity for these different groups in our society. And that’s not mentioning the poor, who just simply can’t afford cable bills that go up seemingly unpredictably. We have to ensure that these people are not cut out of the system.
The system has to be available to citizens, not just consumers.
It seems like the battles around access to information — net neutrality, over-the-air television — are being waged by academics, students and activists. Why hasn’t the cause been taken up by more people?
I really hope that the CRTC’s decision, particularly Ben Klass’s case for net neutrality that he brought forward, demonstrates that the citizens have a voice here.
Why hasn’t it been that way? To go into the policy arena, means that you go in as an individual against companies that come in with teams of lawyers. It’s very intimidating.
But when Industry Canada had a call to the public two years ago on Canada’s digital future, they had more than 2,000 citizens submit issues. And the CRTC had 13,000 submit to “Let’s Talk TV.”
Canadians are interested and do want to have a voice, so I think it’s important that people pay attention and realize that the system isn’t just made for the companies, it’s made for the citizens as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.