Sunday, November 23, 2008

on the first November without a Grey Cup

It's Grey Cup Sunday, and although Canada's biggest single-day sporting event is already under way, I won't be watching it on TV. Not because I wouldn't like to, but because I can't. The problem is that the Canadian Football League has sold its TV broadcast to TSN, a sports specialty channel available only on cable or satellite. I don't subscribe to either; I have good old fashioned rabbit ears on my TV.

It used to be the case that Canada's two largest broadcasters, CBC and CTV, would both air the Grey Cup, each with its own commentators. Up until last year, the game was carried by at least one of the main, freely available networks. But, TSN ponied up more money than the main networks, and so now you have to incur a cable bill of at least $30-40 per month for the privilege of watching the game. That's assuming you live in an urban or suburban area where cable TV access is possible; in much of rural Canada it isn't. I am not entirely sure what satellite TV subscriptions run these days, but I doubt it's cheaper than cable. The point being is that much of rural Canada, where mast aerials and rabbit ears are still fairly common, and low income households that aren't able to afford to pay $500 a year to watch TV, are now left out of one of the few uniquely Canadian sporting events.

The removal of the Grey Cup from public airwaves is but one small moment in a worrisome trend in Canada. A bigger step will occur early in 2009, when the broadcasting of TV signals switches from analog to digital. Good-old rabbit ears won't work anymore, although I am told there is an electrical-powered converter available in electronics stores that will convert the digital signal back to analog. The movement of popular programming from regular networks to specialty cable networks and the end of analog broadcasting are essentially forcing ever more Canadians into the hands of Bell and Rogers Communications who, as much as they would like to think they own the airwaves (and charge prices like they do), do not. TV-watching in Canada used to be a virtually free pastime (once the TV and the rabbit ears were obtained); it is increasingly less so. I do not wish to overstate the matter, but it never fails to worry me when I see signs of formerly affordable, public goods undergoing de facto privatization. The outcome tends to benefit those already well off and to disadvantage those less so, especially the rural poor.

Perhaps it's not ironic, but if I had wanted to watch football today, CTV was broadcasting an NFL game that my rabbit ears could have pulled in. Instead I took my daughter skating.

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