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The Vancouver Sun from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada • Page 86
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The Vancouver Sun from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada • Page 86

The Vancouver Suni
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Issue Date:
Extracted Article Text (OCR)

COVER DESIGN. STAN WHITE. PICTURES: BILL KEAY TELEVISION SOCIETY nearlng its ultimate? PREACHING TO THE UNCONVERTED By SCOTT MACRAE You don't have to buy a converter. When you get that rate-increase message from your friendly cable company, you can pay the extra 75 cents a month and watch fewer and fewer channels. Never mind that your rich friends will receive the Leave It to Beavers, the Star Treks and the Steve Aliens from Taco-ma's Ch.

11 or the benefits of "specialized weather bulletins." It'll be pretty lonely later on, because you'll need a converter once the weak resolve of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission finally caves in to pressure from the pable companies, heirs to the untold riches of pay-TV. Of course, the cable companies will make it difficult for you to resist. They will try to suck you into buying a converter by next November. That is when the cable companies will reassign one U.S. station to make way for the CBC French-language station on the "prime" VHF channels.

The CRTC requires cable companies to allocate the prime channels on a Canada-first basis. The cable companies now carry the CBC French station on Chs. 2 and 8, both of which are said to be "impaired" because the air signal and the cable signal conflict with one another. The result is ghosting. There are a finite number of prime channels and some are more prime, because of the impairment problems, than others.

All this channel-juggling can't go on forever; soon, with the addition of a CBC Victoria station, a possible provincial education channel and the inevitable introduction of pay-TV, even the impaired channels will no longer accommodate the demand. What about all those UHF channels? Forget them: cable lines can't carry their higher frequencies. That, quite apart from the Canada-first policy, is why the cable companies carry Vancouver's two UHF stations, CKVU and CBUFT, on the VHF dial. The solution is more channels and greater use of the existing ones. How? With a converter.

The converter, as we will come to know and no doubt love it, is two hunks of gadgetry, each the size of, say, a clock radio. The cable line runs into one of the boxes, which then connects to where the cable line normally enters the television set. The other hunk is a channel-changer with an on-off switch and a fine-tuning wheel. For less, models without on-off switches are available but, because dealer profits are commensurately less, they are not as available as the other models. Converters are designed to act as remote-control units.

Disregarding the channel-expansion and pay-TV aspects of converters the rich man's global-village theory or the smorgasbord of dreck theory or the sociology of infokill converter use is going to have enormous implications. Think of it: no getting up from the relaxa-lounger to change channels! Add a conveyor belt from the fridge (admittedly, the waste-disposal problem is tricky) and you have a TV Nation undreamed of by even the most cynical critic. The Partici-paction Canada budget should be increased tenfold immediately. The converter does a couple of things. Firstly, it opens up a number of channels in the so-called mid-band.

The mid-band frequencies lie between Chs. 6 and 7 and the channels become available when encoding device tacked on to the converter.) We got a frosty reception when we called Phil Hamlin In Seattle. Hamlin says he Invented the converter in 1966 for a Manhattan cable company and claims to have sold one million of his converters through the Seattle-based Hamlin International Corp. Hamlin had just put the phone down after explaining to another Vancou-verite why he could not purchase a converter from Hamlin; there are no private sales of converters in the U.S. (This, according to Jim Hurd, director of cable communications a regulatory agency for the city of Seattle, is for the convenience of the cable companies and the converter manufacturers, not for legal reasons.

Sale to, and use by, individuals is not illegal. It is the same situation as with telephone companies; the crime is "theft of service," not possession of the equipment. (Almost as an aside to the question of deletion of U.S. channels to implement the Canada-first policy, Hurd said that in the mid-'60s Seattle broadcasters pressured the U.S. Federal Communications Commission the CRTC counterpart to require that cable companies delete Canadian stations in the Seattle area.

Only cable companies already carrying the Canadian stations before-the regulation went into effect those in the city of Seattle were able to continue the service. The regulation has been challenged by community-interest groups in some suburban areas, although some cable companies are still prohibited from offering Canadian stations.) Hamlin, figuring he had a return call from the same Vancouver bargain-hunter, was testy. "Where and why I manufacture my converters is my business and I'm not interested in going over that with you." He calmed down when we assured him, in equally forceful terms, of the nature of our call. He said the converters were manufactured in Mexico and Japan and that the design was basically the same for all brands. Hamlin said the cost, to a cable company (naturally) for one to 10 converters would be $60 per unit.

Import duties, transportation and taxes make up the difference in Canada, Hamlin said. (The import duty component would add a maximum of 17 per cent.) "I'll tell you," Hamlin said, "we're just tickled to death to be retailing in Canada." When we told cable-company regulator Hurd the retail prices of converters in Canada, he exploded: "My God! Let's you and I go into business. I mean, if you are renting one here and you break it, they only charge you $40 to replace it. When the cable companies buy them in quatities of thousands from the manufacturers, you know what they pay? Twenty-seven ninety-five! I'll bet it costs the manufacturer $1 0 to make the thing." delivered by cable. When television was first introduced, there was no cable to carry it.

Without cable, there were too many distortion problems involved in ceiving mid-band signals through the normal television tuner. So the set manufacturers simply left out the means to receive them. Cable technology opened up the use of some of those channels some had been reserved for government and military communications but the television set manufacturers chose not to include them. (Possibly because broadcasters, ever the champions of free enterprise, didn't really want the competition of all those extra channels?) Another thing the converter does is allow better reception of impaired channels, supposedly because it blocks out the air signal more efficiently than regular tuners. Also, the converter is itself tuned to Ch.

3, a clear channel. There are basically two converters on the Vancouver market, the Hamlin $99.95 plus tax and the Jerrold at $104.95 plus tax. Both offer a potential 36 channels. The differences appear to be cosmetic. The Hamlin changes channels by means of a sliding dial, the Jerrold by means of pushbuttons.

(Wireless converters with calculator-type pushbuttons will shortly be available in the 160 range.) Hamlin, distributed and serviced in Canada by Eiectrohome, appears to have the most aggressive marketing policy here, and they are being sold by most department stores. Jerrold is being sold here by some suburban cable companies. Vancouver Cablevision has kept its word not to market or rent converters, although a majority of the cable subscribers in Toronto are offered converters for sale or rent by their cable companies. Converters have been sold for about three years in the Toronto area. Significantly, the prices have not fallen noticeably in that time.

For instance, Metro Cable TV of Toronto is selling the same Jerrold model as that available here for only slightly less than you'd pay here, $99.95 plus tax. (Their spokesman de clined, however, to say how many the company has sold; the figure is Metro also rents them for $3.50 per month, plus a $15 "service charge." Rogers Telecommunications of Toronto offers the same deal, except that theirs is an "installation" charge. Bob Short, president of Rogers, which has been making a takeover bid for Premier (Vancouver) Cablevision, said Rogers would market and rent converters if it controlled Vancouver Cablevision. Bath Metro and Rogers say their involvement in sales and rentals is "merely for the convenience of the customer." Toronto-area department stores report similar prices for Hamlin converters. The lowest price we could find was for a Hamlin at $89.95 plus tax at Danforth Radio in Toronto, although a salesperson said he had seen them for as low as $75 on clearance.

Why aren't the prices coming down as more units are sold? What about simple economies of scale? They don't seem to apply to the converter business. One reason may have something to do with the peculiarities of the American market for converters. For starters, there is no consumer market for converters in the U.S. because of a sweetheart deal worked out between the converter manufacturers and the cable companies. You cannot buy a converter in the U.S.

unless you are a cable company. The reason is pay-TV. In order to offer pay-TV, the cable company must first have a a method of ensuring that only those who pay for the service get that service. Now, since most of the territories that offer pay-, TV are in the urban areas where the dial is already jammed with existing channels, the converter is needed for a pay-TV setup. And it would be handy, would it not, if the converter were handed out on a rental basis (or, in some areas, for nothing but a damage deposit) by the cable companies, so that only those with a converter could receive the pay programming.

(In Canada, where converters are already in the hands of individuals, the cable companies will have to go for a more expensive hard" security system, involving some sort of scrambling and 2A THE VANCOUVER SUN: FEBRUARY 18, 1977.

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