Calgary Delay Centres

“Half an hour later in Newfoundland….?” Yes, but why?
Canadian Television and Six Time Zones

Well before the end of the Twentieth Century, it had become commonplace for television signals to be instantly and simultaneously available across Canada’s six time zones, and in the remotest areas of our vast country, thanks to the existence of space satellites. A receiving dish anywhere in the country, pointed at an invisible piece of hardware in the sky, can now pull in signals from vast distances, without the benefit of cables or telephone lines, just as long as a generator is available to power up the receiving system.

But it was not always like that. Before the advent of satellites, network television programs which needed to be sent beyond the range of a local transmitter had to be leapfrogged from an originating microwave transmitter, usually in Toronto, to a receiving antenna, which had to be in line of sight to receive them, and then be transmitted onward in similar fashion to their final destination. And as transcontinental microwave systems were very expensive to build and operate, only CBC had the luxury of a back-up system; CTV existed with only one, and had to rent additional facilities from the telephone companies as necessary.

So how was, say, the 11pm CTV National News seen at 11pm over the transmitters of CTV affiliates in each of Canada’s six time zones? Well, for a start, it wasn’t, east of Quebec. The 11pm News was fed by microwave into the Maritimes, where it played at midnight, and the same feed gave Newfoundlanders their News at 12:30am.

That same telecast was seen at 11pm in Quebec and Ontario. One hour later, at midnight Eastern Time, it was re-fed west via microwave, where it was seen at 11pm local time in the Central Time Zone – Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The same signal went on to Alberta, where it was recorded at the Calgary Delay Centre at 10pm local time. The Delay Centre then played back the CTV News an hour later for Alberta stations, which were in the Mountain Time Zone, and re-fed an hour later to British Columbia, so that the program played at 11pm in their Pacific Time Zone.

There was another wrinkle, too. Saskatchewan is the one province that stays on standard time all year round, so when the rest of Canada went on Daylight Saving Time for six months, Saskatchewan stations received the CTV News on a backfeed from Calgary Delay at 11pm Mountain Daylight Time, which was then the same as Central Standard Time.

Both CBC and CTV handled this time zone problem by setting up their own Delay Centres in Calgary. As in most other aspects of television programming in Canada, the CBC was the pioneer. On July 1st 1958 the Corporation opened a Delay Centre in the old Alberta Government Telephone building downtown. In 1960, it was moved to an addition to the existing CBC Radio Building on Westmount Boulevard, on the north bank of the Bow River. It had eight Ampex 2″ videotape recorders and three telecine chains, all black and white. The Delay Centre was upgraded to colour in 1966.

The CTV Network started its service in October 1961. For more than a year, CTV effected a one-time delivery of network programs by rented Bell microwave right across the country, and stations in time zones other than Eastern Time were responsible for effecting their own delays by recording the incoming programs for later playback. This proved a less than satisfactory arrangement, and after a brief period during which CTV’s Calgary affiliate station CFCN-TV handled delays to the Mountain and Pacific time zones, CTV eventually followed the CBC example and opened their own Delay Centre in the Alberta Government Telephones (AGT) building in Calgary in July 1963.

CTV also converted to colour in 1966, and a few years later the delay service was expanded beyond the network’s own programs, to also deliver those programs that were owned by the affiliates rather than by CTV.

The limitations of microwave delivery were at their most evident when the networks had to deliver live events simultaneously across the country. Major sports events, and live coverage of newsworthy happenings in Canada and abroad, often played havoc with regular microwave feeds, and highly complicated pre-feed schedules had to be developed, to ensure that a live event three hours earlier didn’t mean that viewers in the Pacific Time Zone were deprived of their favourite prime time series or daytime soaps.

The advent of satellites opened up a whole new world of delivery. CBC were first again; the Network signed up with Telsat in 1973 to use the Anik 1 satellite to deliver its Frontier Coverage Packages to the Canadian North for the first time, and by the early eighties it had discontinued its microwave service in favour of a satellite service which could deliver programs to each time zone at their locally scheduled times.

CTV followed suit in 1988, using their coverage of the Calgary Winter Olympic Games in February of that year to launch their own satellite service to deliver network programming. Later, when Baton Broadcasting acquired control and then ownership of CTV, virtually all programming for CTV-owned affiliates across the country began to be delivered by satellite out of Toronto.

Yet Newfoundland still gets everything half-an-hour later on the clock, thanks to its own time-zone oddity of being just a half-hour ahead of the Atlantic Time Zone. To continue the example used earlier, CTV News (which is also seen live on CTV Newsnet) now goes east out of Toronto at 10pm to be seen at 11pm in the Maritimes, and the same feed is taken live by Newfoundland at 11.30pm local time.

Nowadays, viewers in Canada take it for granted that they can see live coverage of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Sydney, or Carnaval in Rio, or Royal weddings in London, just by switching on their television sets. But it’s not that long ago that they would have to have waited a day or two to see such events, and their access to those, and to live pictures from on their own continent but outside their own time zones, was entirely dependent on all those hundreds of microwave towers, which for a long time constituted the only way of distributing television signals from coast to coast.

Pip Wedge – April, 2004
(with special thanks to Martin Greenwood, Marie Baccari and John C. Lee)