Is Canada ready for the HD switchover?

The projected number of HDTVs in the Canadian marketplace by 2010 - a year after the analog shutoff date in the U.S. - is 11 million.

The projected number of HDTVs in the Canadian marketplace by 2010 – a year after the analog shutoff date in the U.S. – is 11 million. CTV is ramping up for HD broadcasts of the 2010 Olympics, while CBC has plans to double its HD coverage of the NHL playoffs starting in April, and will unveil its flagship news program The National in HD by the end of 2007.

But given that degree of consumer penetration and the growing bandwidth competition from south of the border, will we be ready for a global HD broadcast world?

In anticipation of Playback’s March 8 Production Innovations Forum 2007, we sought a state of the union from CTV president Rick Brace; Fred Mattocks, executive director of production and resources at CBC; and Michael McEwen, director of Media Asset Capital, and former head of now-defunct Canadian Digital Television.

The CRTC declined to participate, likely deferring comment on all things HD until the end of the summer, giving it time to assess the material gathered at the television policy hearings in Gatineau last November.

Where are we right now in the transition to HD?

MM: We’re still in what we call a marketplace rollout. There are no rules, except the licensing framework, and there are no timelines or requirements. We’re one of the few countries in the Western world that doesn’t have a framework for transition with milestones. Virtually every other country that I can think of that has embarked on this process has a government-industry relationship to make it happen, along with an end-date. We have yet to have that.

RB: As an industry, conventional broadcasters – CHUM, CanWest and [CTV] – have converted most of our primetime schedules to high definition. Scripted dramas in Canada are virtually all being done in high definition. If we look at 8 o’clock onwards in the CTV schedule, Monday to Sunday, we’re high definition right through to the national news. That’s a long way from where we were just a couple of years ago.

FM: We’re probably halfway along the path. Maybe not quite halfway. We’ve got HD programming available by cable or satellite right across the country. And we’re hearing from [BDUs] that the take-up is very fast. So that’s all good news.

The bad news is that it’s hard to find the business case for HD. We know consumers want it. We know they have an expectation of quality. We know they enjoy the experiences, and we believe it actually changes their viewing habits. But at the end of the day, there’s not a dime more revenue that comes to a broadcaster, BDU or a producer for HD.

Is the CRTC doing enough to push high definition?

MM: If you look at the licensing framework for over-the-air broadcasters, and the carriage framework for conventional, pay and specialty broadcasters, they’ve been very supportive of high definition. But it’s been supportive without any teeth.

It’ll be interesting to see what [the CRTC] comments are coming out of the television review. Government departments like Industry Canada and Heritage are starting to think that in order to focus the mind we’re going to need some kind of analog shutoff date.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a consensus from the government of 2011. That’s in keeping with our ‘two years behind the Americans.’

It will force the discussion about our obligation to build out a transmitter network or not. If we’re not going to do that, it’s going to force the issue for fee-for-carriage for conventional networks as a way to put extra revenue in their pockets.

FM: Unlike the United States or Britain, this country has no defined plan in terms of switching the broadcast system from the 50-year-old analog to HD. What that means for broadcasters and people with big infrastructures is that you can’t plan the transition because you don’t know when it’s going to be.

When we sit and look at our transmitter network – and we’ve got probably 500 to 600 transmitters across the country just for English television alone – we can’t say we’re going to put an HD transmitter into ‘that city’ because we’re going to be shutting down an analog transmitter. We don’t know when we’ll be able to shut [them] down.

RB: It’s moving forward. There’s a huge desire on the part of the CRTC, who are very critical of the Canadian broadcasters and their take-up on high definition.

Broadcasters in this country have delivered a lot of HD programming, and there are a good number of distributors out there who aren’t simulcasting. Here we are delivering the goods, and now we need the support of the distributors to make sure not only that these programs get distributed broadly, but that they fulfill their obligation of simultaneous substitution where American shows are concerned.

The transmitter cost is something, and that was part of the policy review. The average cost of upgrading a transmitter is something like $1 million per. Industry-wide that’s like a half a billion dollars. It’s a huge cost, and how is that money most efficiently spent? We can spend it upgrading transmitters, or you could spend that money retrofitting clients and also producing more original programming.

Are we lagging too far behind the U.S.?

RB: It’s great to set milestones and deadlines, but I’m seeing it as a natural evolution here in Canada, where the take-up is accelerating. And the need of broadcasters to compete [with the U.S.] is going to drive it.

I don’t think we’re lagging behind at all. What is always forgotten in this debate is that in the U.S. they don’t have distant signals. Therefore, in any given market in the U.S., you’re more restricted in what you’re able to achieve. In Canada, you can watch a number of services across the spectrum – and eventually they’ll be HD.

Where we are lagging is in the non-scripted programming like news. If you look at the average number of hours, and you go to a U.S. station that does its news in HD, it provides a tremendous number of hours to that average. But in terms of primetime, we’re there. We’re virtually on the same level.

MM: What we’ve seen in the United States is the broadcasters and distributors playing with that spectrum and trying to get better use out of it – trying to provide different kinds of services to viewers – including targeted advertising, which you can do in a digital world. People like NBC Universal and other major media organizations in the U.S. are looking at those solutions.

While I don’t expect that there’s the resource in Canada necessarily to do a lot of the developmental work here, it’s awfully shortsighted to give up their spectrum and say ‘We’re just going to become this kind of service. And we’re not going to make that investment in the future.’

FM: I think we are [lagging]. Our strategy made a lot of sense when it was first created back in the early ’90s. But the day when the Americans finally picked a shutoff date, we needed to do so, too. And we still haven’t.

The American broadcast industry can move its investments around much more quickly and effectively. The danger we face is that there won’t be enough Canadian HD content available for enough consumers in enough different ways that people will watch Canadian sources.

It’ll become de facto that if you want high-quality television, you want American television. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but we need to help ourselves here. If we don’t, that’s a risk we run.

There are those who say consumers aren’t ready for HD…

MM: I think that’s bullshit. I suppose the argument goes that if you’ve never seen programming in high definition, you never miss it. But certainly once you see it, and once people start to experience that kind of service, they’re loath to go back to a standard-definition world.

FM: We have an established consumer preference for high-quality program experiences – and HD is one way to get that. And we’ve got three million Canadians or more who have invested amounts of money [in HDTVs] that nobody would have predicted 10 years ago.

RB: Were consumers ready for color? It was a 10-year transition way back then. The decision now when you walk in to buy your new TV is not whether you’re going to get one with a 4:3 ratio. You want the widescreen, even if it’s for viewing DVDs. And they all have the ability to integrate with high-definition boxes. We’re seeing our subscriber take-up with HD double. We’re on the curve of a hockey stick.