Stefanie Cleland is a self-described television addict.
She watches a lot of TV. Sometimes she and her husband will inadvertently record over one another’s shows. She’d like to order on-demand movies or pay-per-view MMA fights.
But Cleland is one of a handful of subscribers to the digital version Dawson City’s municipally-run cable television system. She used to get satellite TV, which offered simple PVR recording as well as pay-per-view and on-demand services.
Then she moved across the street, into the shadow of the Dome, the giant hill that rises above Dawson and blocks satellite signals from a large swath of town. She had to switch to the city’s cable service, which lacks many of the features modern TV subscribers take for granted.
“There is no way that this system, for the price that we pay, comes close to satellite,” she told a public meeting on the future of the cable system March 31.
Publicly-owned and mostly analog, Dawson’s municipally-run cable system seems like a relic from another era. It is the more legitimate descendant of a scheme launched by the town’s former mayor, Peter Jenkins, who subscribed to satellite feeds using the names of dead pioneers, then broadcast the signal locally.
That arrangement was replaced in 1998 with a legitimate, municipally-run cable service that today has more than 300 subscribers, including a handful of subscriptions to a digital service that was launched in 2012. The fibre-optic-based service is especially important because a large swath of Dawson households can’t get satellite TV, thanks to surrounding mountains.
Mayor Wayne Potoroka lives in one of those households. “There’s a pretty distinct line that runs from northwest to southeast though the community. If you’re past that line and too close to the hill, satellite’s not an option for you.”
The system is facing the same technological and commercial realities as larger, private-sector cable providers everywhere. According to an analysis of the system prepared for council by Renner Associates Consulting, the profusion of options for satellite TV where it’s available attracts many viewers. Meanwhile, on-demand video services like Netflix continue to lure viewers away from traditional broadcast TV.
In her own report to council, senior finance officer Joanne Van Nostrand wrote that analog cable transmissions will end in five to six years. “Without substantial upgrades, the service provided by the city will be inadequate to meet the demands of the customers, upcoming regulations…. or be prepared for changes in transmission technology.”
The Renner report offers the town six options, including continuing to run the system with a full upgrade to digital, selling the service either before or after the switch, and possibly adding Internet and phone service before privatizing it. Another possibility is leasing the service out to a third-party operator.
Jeff Renaud, Dawson’s chief administrative officer, said the town has no choice but to make some kind of change to the system. “If the municipality is going to stay in this business, we’re going to have to invest to do it properly, or bring in someone who will,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any option that glows at this point.”
But the consultants’ report also warned that interest by private-sector operators in purchasing the Dawson system was “lukewarm” and that the profitability of TV services is declining as the cost to provide channels climbs.
The current system also includes three public access channels, including rolling local ads, an emergency channel and a camera view of the town. Resident Peter Menzies urged councillors to consider a small levy to fund those channels, and allow them to broadcast locally-produced programs.
“It’s hard to imagine the city getting out of the (cable) business,” Menzies said. “I see it as a public utility.”
Potoroka said the service is profitable and has amassed a $200,000 reserve fund (the 2015 budget projects revenues will fall around $100 short of expenses this year). But that’s well short of the estimated $500,000 it would cost to convert to an all-digital service. The town also needs to improve the computer system that keeps track of subscribers.
Potoroka said his own view is that the town should not be in the TV business, but council wants input from residents before it makes a decision. “There are a lot of obstacles in front of the town staying in the cable business,” he said.
The mayor said council will make a decision on changes soon, but any new regime wouldn’t be in place for more than a year. The current maintenance contract with technician Doug Cotter expires at the end of May, but will likely be extended by another year, Potoroka said.
Chris Windeyer is freelance writer in Dawson City.