Analogue Television Shutdown – The End of an Era for CBC/Radio-Canada

John Lee

John Lee is CBC/Radio-Canada’s Executive Director, Media Technology Services. He has held this position since 2009, following an eight-year stint as Director, Broadcast and Telecom Networks, CBC Technology.

July 31, 2012 will mark a watershed event for CBC/Radio-Canada: the end of over-the-air analogue television broadcasting in both English and French across the country.

Many European countries have already made the transition to Digital Television (DTV) and shut down their analogue systems, following the lead of the Netherlands in 2006. The European Commission has recommended that its members complete the transition to DTV by January 2012. The U.S. ended analogue television service in June 2009, although some low-power stations have been permitted to continue to operate.

The long road leading to this point has had many twists and turns over almost sixty years. In September 1952, CBFT-Montreal began broadcasting as a bilingual station at the same time as CBLT-Toronto as an English station, followed the next year by the first private television station, CKSO-TV Sudbury. CBMT-Montreal debuted in 1953, allowing CBFT to provide a full slate of French language programming. By 1955, fully 66% of all Canadians could receive over-the-air black and white television service. CBC/Radio-Canada created the first trans-national microwave network at this time, enabling shared experiences like Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) for all Canadians. Colour television was introduced in 1966. CBC/Radio-Canada was the host broadcaster for Expo 67 in Montreal as well as the Pan-Am Games held in Winnipeg that same year.

Winlaw, British Columbia

Furthermore, 1967 also witnessed the introduction of Frontier Coverage Packages, providing standalone TV transmitters fed by videotaped programmes shipped to twenty-one Northern communities. The need to provide better service to the North, as well as across Canada, took a step forward in 1972 with the leasing of three transponders on the first of Telesat’s satellites, Anik A1. Broadcasting of live television to the North commenced in February 1973. CBC/Radio-Canada received a Pioneering Emmy award in 1999 for its role as the first broadcaster to use satellite for the permanent distribution of television signals.

Recognising that there were hundreds of communities across the country without either television or radio services, and with no other technical means available to provide these services, in 1974, the Federal government dedicated funding for the introduction of CBC/Radio-Canada’s multi-year Accelerated Coverage Plan (ACP). Communities with 500 or more official language mother tongue speakers could qualify for the construction of a new television or radio rebroadcast transmitter station in their language within their community. All ACP investment was directed solely to coverage extension, as no supplementary funds were allocated for additional production or production facilities.

Under the ACP, which was in place from 1974 to 1984, the CBC/Radio-Canada ramped up its Engineering activities, which involved the hiring of many new staff members, making bulk purchases of equipment, as well as the planning and design of new television and radio transmitters in remote and Northern areas across the country. Most of these transmitters were fed by C-band satellite earth stations and analogue satellite receivers. Transmitter design began with map studies, followed by coverage design, site selection, detailed estimates, technical briefs, and then installation, commissioning, and testing. Full on-air operations quickly followed.

In many locations, project logistics were defined by local terrain and weather:

  • Site access was sometimes by barge, helicopter, or ice roads.
  • Sites were predominantly powered by hydro; however, in some very small installations, diesel, solar, or propane systems were used.
  • In some high-wind locations, both the tower and building were guyed; in others, the buildings were equipped with rooftop exits in the event of high snow accumulation.

In the end, over 600 additional television and radio transmitters were put on the air in these ACP communities, with over 100 in the North, finally linking them to the rest of Canada. Analogue over-the-air broadcasting was the prime vehicle for the delivery of CBC/Radio-Canada television programming to its audiences.

Workers Ste. Adelme, Quebec

During these years, cable penetration nearly doubled in Canada, starting at approximately 35% in 1974 and reaching 60% in 1984. Competition to over-the-air television services began in earnest with the licensing of Canadian Satellite Communications (CANCOM) in 1981. CANCOM began to deliver southern Canadian and, subsequently, American radio and television services to remote and Northern communities for retransmission on their local cable systems. Canadians across the country were offered choices in the services that they could consume.

After a few miscues, Direct-to Home (DTH) TV services began in Canada in 1997 with the launch of the Nimiq DBS satellites owned by Bell ExpressVu, now rebranded as BellTV. Shaw’s StarChoice, rebranded as ShawDirect, began operations at about the same time, using the Anik satellite series. There were now satellite competitors to cable and over-the-air broadcasting. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) formally inaugurated the DTV era in Canada with its 2002-311 notice, followed by 2003-612. The end of analogue broadcasting in Canada was forecast, but not defined until the publication of 2007-533, which defined analogue shutdown as August 31, 2011.

After many years of planning, in 2011 and 2012, CBC/Radio-Canada completed the construction of 27 DTV transmitters in the major Canadian markets where it is licensed to create original programming, and thereby reaching over 80% of the Canadian population. The resultant 19.2 Mbps over-the-air DTV service provides pristine video quality with multi-channel sound, and is far more robust than its analogue television predecessor.

Murdochville, Quebec

Today, Canadians consume Television services in a variety of ways. Cable remains the largest source at approximately 55%, with satellite DTH/DBS at 26%, IPTV at 8%, and off-air at approximately 5%, with a balance of approximately 6% with no TV service. Broadcasters must now programme for four screens: large HD home systems, tablets, PCs, and smartphones. The goal of connecting Canadians with relevant content when and where they want it necessitates broadcasters programming for multiple platforms.

Over-the-air analogue television services once fulfilled the need to connect Canadians with each other and help them participate in a national dialogue. Today, that dialogue is a much richer experience, taking place on multiple delivery platforms, in social media, and in a variety of other fora. The least relevant system at this point is over-the-air analogue television delivery.

This system will now be turned off and retired, but it will be remembered by those who built it, maintained it, and relied on it during its years of service to Canadians.




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