I walked into a Best Buy store in Toronto a few weeks ago, and asked a sales assistant: “How do I get all of the main US stations (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS) and the main Canadian ones for free, in HD?”
He told me you couldn’t. The only way to view High Definition television was with a Bell Satellite package, or a Rogers Cable package. Unfortunately, there is no “branded” body in Canada correcting this myth propagated for years by Bell, Rogers, and through their interests in selling subscriptions, retailers like Best Buy.
Here is a good article from 2009 explaining the situation. Last year marked the year most US urban areas switched to digital terrestrial television. Later this year, broadcasters in Canadian urban areas will be switching off their old analog system (the one that used to give you channels 2 to 13 with an indoor antenna), in favour of the same digital system as in the US.
Digital signals means they can fit a lot more through the airwaves; there is space for about 40 to 60 HDTV channels over the air (OTA). If you are in the Toronto or Vancouver area, all you need to watch High Definition Television with higher-quality video than Bell or Rogers can provide is:
- An indoor digital TV antenna ($30-$50) if all you care about is receiving Canadian channels in HD
- A rooftop digital TV antenna ($50-$100) if you want to get all the American networks and PBS too.
- A HDTV television with a built-in ATSC tuner (all TV’s sold over the past couple of years have them, unless they specifically say they don’t)
If you add a TiVo Premiere PVR (about $300 + a $300 lifetime subscription) you will also have a much nicer PVR experience than Rogers or Bell can ever dream of providing.
All for a $50 to $650 fixed cost investment, then it’s free forever.What’s the catch?
Catch number one is that you need a 3-foot high antenna on top of your house, pointing to Buffalo from Toronto or Seattle from Vancouver. Canadians from my generation aren’t comfortable with rooftop antennas.
Catch Number 2 is you can’t get TSN or any of the dedicated sports channels. Which is why you need a sports bar nearby, or a great streaming service.
The biggest brand problem I see is a lack of awareness of these possibilities by a TV-viewing public that has been lulled into thinking Rogers and Bell are the only way to get decent quality TV and PVRs.
When the UK began its switchover to digital television many years ago, a private company was allowed to try to profit from OTA television. Although a commercial flop, OnDigital succeeded in creating awareness, resulting in a wave of people ditching their indoor analog antennas in favour of outdoor digital antennas. When OnDigital and its rebrand, ITV digital failed, the BBC stepped in with some other players to create FreeView, which continued to publicise the wonders of OTA television as an alternative to cable and satellite.
In Canada, there is no private body with any interest in telling people about the simplicity, cost effectiveness, and quality of OTA. The CRTC (our version of the FCC) has a pathetic excuse for information on their website. There is perhaps something more nefarious afoot.
The CRTC seems to be very cosy with Rogers and Bell; read here about the controversial decision to require caps and pay-per-usage on internet data for all Internet providers in Canada. If there are suspicions about the suppression of information about OTA television, wouldn’t the Government of Canada’s excellent marketing department agree that the best way to eliminate suspicion is to create and execute a thorough awareness campaign, online and on television, in tandem with Canada’s digital switchover this summer?
Of course the answer should be yes. Creating a branded effort (like “Freeview”) to remind people of the simplicity and freeness, would be even better. After all, Canadians like to save money and talk about the money they saved. Certain duopolistic forces are afraid of just that.