CRTC seeks speedier digital transition

Exec asks for a government-wide initiative

OTTAWA -- Canada's TV watchdog on Monday urged the federal government to intervene to speed up the country's transition to digital TV, which already lags far behind the U.S. switchover in 2009.

"We're way behind as a country. We need government involvement. We need to act fast, otherwise folks will go without their programming," Scott Hutton, executive director of broadcasting at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, said at the Canadian Association of Broadcasters convention in Ottawa.

Canada is set to go digital-only on Aug. 31, 2011, more than two years after the analog shut-off by U.S. TV stations.

Hutton said that the conversion requires a "government-wide initiative" to ensure the Canadian switchover does not leave behind TV viewers who are cable or satellite subscribers.

Digital penetration in Canada remains low, at about 60%, compared with nearly 80% in the U.K. market.

In addition, Canadian broadcasters face major costs to bring TV viewers into the digital era just as they face a growing advertising slump brought about by a threatened economic recession.

Hutton's warning on the digital transition comes as Canadian broadcasters in Ottawa grapple with a worsening market climate and, specifically, last week's CRTC decision to reject their call for new carriage fees from cable and satellite TV operators.

CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein told the broadcasters that they made a compelling case for why the new fees were needed, but did not answer how that new money will help improve the Canadian TV system.

"What we heard was a clear-cut case that there's a financial need. We heard conventional TV is in serious decline," von Finckenstein told CAB delegates, recalling public hearings last April on the future of Canadian TV.

"But the second part, how the fees would contribute to the system, we didn't hear that," he continued.

Canadian over-the-air broadcasters unsuccessfully sought the same subscriber fees that domestic cable channels already collect because they are regarded as discretionary services.

The CAB convention wraps Tuesday.
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