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CBC abandoning remote northern viewers

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CRANBERRY PORTAGE -- One thought crosses my mind as I revisit the campground where I spent much of my pre-teen summers: it's a lot smaller than I remember.

Still, it's familiar enough. That ancient tree still towers near the fireplace. The glorified outhouse remains visible across the gravel road. And, off in the distance, I can almost hear the familiar play-by-play of Hockey Night in Canada.

Suddenly, another thought arises. If I am to bring my own children here some day, those spring and summer nights under the stars just won't be the same given a recent announcement by CBC.

The People's Network will soon become The Certain People's Network, pledging to shut down its analog television transmitters in all rural and smaller urban centres effective July 31.

The move will impact the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who still pick up CBC with rabbit ears on the nearly obsolete analog system rather than the digital system available in cities.

Such a decision by a publicly funded broadcaster raises obvious questions of equality. That's particularly true in northern Manitoba, which, according to the Conference Board of Canada, has three of Canada's five lowest median income regions.

Since low-income earners are less likely than other Canadians to have cable or satellite, a vast swathe of northern Manitoba is about to be cut off from television meant to unite our country across geographical and cultural boundaries.

CBC argues that the move is necessary given a relatively minor budget cut being imposed by the federal government and the fact that the vast majority of Canadians already have pay TV.

For her part, Churchill NDP MP Niki Ashton has pledged to do what she can to reverse the decision. Regrettably, though, she has politicized the issue, blaming the belt-tightening Harper government rather than the arms-length CBC bureaucrats who decide precisely how to prune costs.

CBC will, over the next three years, lose $115 million of its $1.1-billion federal subsidy. The corporation expects to save $10 million a year from shutting down its analog transmitters.

Some perspective: Cutting off rural Canada will save CBC eight per cent of the annual amount it is losing. And it will equate to just one per cent of the broadcaster's post-cut budget. Surely there are better ways to trim the fat within an organization that reportedly pays Don Cherry about $800,000 a year.

By shutting down the transmitters, CBC will leave most of northern Manitoba with no gratis television of any sort. Thompson, The Pas, Flin Flon and Snow Lake will continue to receive one over-the-air channel, CTV.

Of course there's the risk that CBC may set a precedent. Will CTV, accountable to shareholders, eventually see the public broadcaster's abandonment of rural residents as a chance to follow suit?

Northern and rural areas won't be the only parts of Manitoba impacted by the decision. Indeed, all viewers outside of Winnipeg, including those in Brandon, will stare at blank TV screens come midsummer.

Up north, the effect will be felt beyond low-income folks. Many northerners, content with tranquility, forego pay TV as part of their lifestyle. Others hook up portable TV sets at the abundant cottages and campgrounds that dot the regional map.

All of them have a basic right to tune into a public service they are already funding without bearing the added cost of cable or satellite.

At least that's how Karin Mosell McNichol feels. Born and raised here in Cranberry Portage, sandwiched between The Pas and Flin Flon, she and her family gave up cable some 15 years ago, content with one channel.

"CBC is high-quality viewing and if that's not available, I would be disappointed," says the physiotherapist.

Mosell McNichol has contacted both MP Ashton and Heritage Minister James Moore to voice her disapproval and is hopeful enough people will speak out to turn the tide.

"If you don't say anything, how can you expect things to happen?" she says.

Unfortunately, media coverage of CBC's plan has been limited here. Mosell McNichol happened to learn about it through a friend. Many others appear destined to find out only after seeing snow on their screens where Peter Mansbridge used to be.

By then it will be too late. Northerners who care about parity from our public broadcaster must speak up. MPs like Ashton must push politics aside and acknowledge that CBC, at least on this issue, requires more oversight from its political bosses.

It's not about me watching hockey under the stars. It's about fairness.

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2012 A12

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