Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ditching cable for rooftop antenna

Free over-the-air television signals making a comeback

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OTTAWA -- A spiny pack of near-extinct, multi-limbed creatures is turning up in cities across Canada, creeping up the sides of buildings and settling on urban rooftops -- TV antennas are making a tentative comeback.

Nobody in the broadcasting industry or the government seems to have a handle on how many Canadians are scrapping cable and satellite in favour of the old-school technology, but there is anecdotal evidence that a mini-boom is under way.

Ironically, it's all being fuelled by the high-tech switch by broadcasters from analog to digital and high-definition channels.

Viewers are discovering they can get over-the-air, digital television stations that proponents say come through even better than on cable and satellite, where signals are compressed.

"And the magic word is 'free,"' says Jon LeBlanc, Canada's antenna guru.

LeBlanc began an "over-the-air" discussion board on five years ago, where a few diehard antenna fans would pop by. Now he's the most popular forum on the site, with dozens of new people logging on each month to find out about getting hooked up.

LeBlanc himself gets 14 digital stations, including six from the U.S., with his rooftop antenna in Delta, B.C..

"If a person weeds through what they're actually watching, does the value-added provided by a cable company or a satellite company make any sense? In this financial environment, more and more people are saying 'no,'" says LeBlanc, a former high-tech worker.

"To my way of thinking, this is a renaissance of the over-the-air type of broadcasting, and I think the broadcasters, especially the private networks, are missing something here."

Conventional TV broadcasters say they're struggling to survive in a multi-channel universe with dwindling ad revenues. They are pushing the government to provide regulatory and financial relief, particularly when it comes to the cost of converting transmitters to digital by 2011. The industry has not publicly discussed the phenomenon of viewers willingly rejecting the 500-channel universe in favour of signals they can catch locally. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters says it's not something they have noted.

Only one would-be TV broadcaster, Toronto businessman John Bitove, pushed the CRTC last year to allow him to start a Canadian HD network with over-the-air viewers in mind. He was unsuccessful.

The number of Canadians who rely on over-the-air TV is pegged at nine per cent nationally, 16 per cent in Quebec. David Purdy, vice-president of Rogers Communications, predicts those numbers will decline once all stations convert to digital by August 2011. He points to the range of specialty channels, and now video-on-demand, that cable companies offer.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2009 A8

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