Friday, December 11, 2009

Canwest just an example of the media mess

Not enough has been written about the media crisis (because most of the country's major media are too conflicted to report it). Check out this first in a series of articles by former CBC producer Nick Fillmore. His piece -- at -- examines the depressing state of the industry and begins to look at some ways out of the mess we find ourselves in.

Friday, November 20, 2009

CMG at the CRTC today: a voice for local and free TV

The Canadian Media Guild brings its campaign to preserve local over-the-air TV after 2011 to the CRTC today. [Follow the proceedings live all day today. CMG is expected up after the lunch break at about 2 p.m. ET.] We’re the little guy in a room full of broadcast executives who appear in packs before the commission, arguing that they can’t possibly afford to pay to convert over-the-air transmitters to digital in smaller cities and towns across the country.

Instead, they argue that when the signal goes dark to 11 million Canadians in 2011, it’s OK to expect them to pay for so-called “skinny” or low-cost cable and satellite packages if they want to get any TV at all. Their option to get free TV over-the-air with rabbit ears will be cut off.

The CMG has taken a different approach to this issue for the past couple of years. We discovered a cost-effective approach for broadcasters to make the switch to digital, called “multiplexing” – several broadcasters sharing a single transmitter. It would actually provide more choice to people who rely on over-the-air TV.

Our view is that local news operations will become ever-more imperiled if they have to rely on cable and satellite to beam them into viewers’ homes and that over-the-air is still the best way to deliver local same-time TV.

So here we are. Read our remarks. With Big Broadcasters and Big Cable and Satellite “with access to a lot of capital engaged in death match” to paraphrase CRTC commissioner Tim Danton today, CMG is bringing forth a third option – one that is rooted in ensuring that Canadians from coast to coast enjoy the same access to TV, one that understands that local news is the very root of our information system—and to make the case for special funding for broadcasters who produce and air Canadian programming of all kinds in prime time.

Wish us luck.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Why Ottawa's museum workers need our support

About a month ago, four hundred employees who work at the Museum of Civilization and the War Museum in Ottawa went on strike.

Unless you live in Ottawa, you may not be aware of this. But we should be -- because the issues are remarkably similar to those at the centre of the CBC lockout in 2005 and those we continue to fight today.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada which represents the workers, says that only 6 out of 55 museum guides are permanent. Employees go from contract to contract and lose traction in seniority and wage advancement every time they do. Sound familiar?

Online comments to various news sites about the strike indicate that some members of the public may not take the museum workers’ issues seriously because they are seen to be transient – doing this work until they figure out their “real” future.

This is a really dangerous assumption to make, as anyone in our business knows. People in the culture industry are often taken less seriously than other workers because of the “glamorous” perception of this work and the availability of part-time cyclical work that tends to attract students. Of course, these views are exploited by managements who want to pay their workers less. And we’ve got to stop this, wherever and whenever it happens.

Then there’s the big issue of the public funding of our cultural sector. Last year, the Conservative government subjected the Museum of Civilization to the same “strategic review” that the CBC is undergoing this year. The Museum lost $400,000 in that process. The CBC stands to lose about $50 million.

The Museums’ CEO Victor Rabinovitch hasn’t been vocal about this cut – just like his brother, Robert Rabinovitch who as CEO of the CBC refused to ask the federal government for more money for the Corporation.

This is bigger than a single dispute in the nation’s capital. The strike highlights the need to pull all kinds of workers and citizens together to fight for the overall health of our culture industry. In fact, as I write this, I'm at a conference where people are discussing more unity among everyone in the broader knowledge industry -- which includes academics. That means working together to achieve collective agreements that make real careers possible, and proper funding for our cherished institutions so they can survive without undercutting their own employees.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Canwest quietly gets another break

In between meetings this week about Canwest’s bankruptcy protection and how it will affect its various employee groups, imagine my surprise when I found out that none other than Canwest has been granted yet another TV license.

You couldn’t make this stuff up. Check out the CRTC notice of October 14, giving Canwest a license for a new Reality TV channel (I kid you not). What could the CRTC commissioners have been thinking as they considered the application and actually approved it -- just one week after the company announced it’s seeking protection under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA)? Hasn’t the CRTC learned anything from approving Canwest’s grand plans?

Makes one wonder whether Canwest plans to set up cameras inside its own newsrooms at Global TV to shoot what happens to these folks next? It’ll sure be gripping television to watch the anger of former employees on severance payments whose pay is about to be stopped, shot alongside the executives who’ve been given rich bonuses to stay on. Upstairs, Downstairs meet 30 Rock. Only without the humour.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

For the price of a cup of coffee

So who's covering the big picture on what's happening with local TV, including the fire sale of a series of small-market TV stations across Canada over the last six months by conglomerates Canwest and CTVglobemedia? Who suggests the shuttering of the Red Deer station, which found no bargain-basement buyer, and the resulting loss of local news in rich Alberta's third largest city, is like Sherbrooke, Quebec, suddenly losing its local news coverage?

Le Devoir. It happens to be one of the only large-city daily newspapers in Canada that is not owned by a media conglomerate.

The "local TV matters" campaign - run by the major networks who have been using their local stations, including the ill-fated one in Red Deer, as bargaining chips to get access to cable fee revenues - is only mentioned toward the end of the article.

Meanwhile, the networks' "campaign" was the story earlier this week in many of the country's major daily newspapers. The ones that are connected through their media conglomerate owners to the those same campaigning networks.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Celebrating the survival of CHEK in Victoria

A big note of congratulations to employees of CHEK in Victoria for surviving Week One after leading the effort to buy the station and rescue it from closure.

CHEK’s story of survival against all odds is another glaring example of how the media is doing a lousy job of covering its own crisis. And this one needs to be told, because there are lessons in it for many of us.

CHEK is one of five E! stations that Canwest put up for sale in February. By July, Canwest claimed it couldn’t find a buyer and CHEK would go off the air by the end of August.

While Canada’s media owners spent the spring and summer complaining that local news was no longer viable, we know a lot of prospective buyers weren’t listening. They knew they could improve on the E! model for local TV, which we know is deadly. For example, the E! station in Hamilton, CHCH, was charged more than $51M by Canwest for airing a package of mostly American shows. Compare that to the $8M spent on local news and sports. Revenue for 2009 was projected to be $44M. That’s respectable but not if you’re footing the bill for expensive Hollywood stuff. (Those figures were gleaned from Channel Zero’s successful application to the CRTC to buy CHCH.)

You can bet the figures for CHEK were similarly onerous.

Investors who thought they could improve on the model couldn’t get negotiations going with Canwest, and the competing groups of U.S. bondholders that appear to be running it. Things looked like they were going to stall.

So a group of employees dug in and began their rescue. Station manager John Pollard was the first to get the ball rolling and work on an employee purchase. “If he had put the Canwest corporate interest in front of the station’s interest, we would not be here today,” says assignment editor Richard Konwick who’s also president of CEP local 815M. Lesson #1.

“Virtually all” of CHEK’s 45 employees bought shares worth $15K each. CEP put up $105K in interest-free loans which worked out to $3,500 per employee to offset their cost of buying the shares.

Strings were pulled – by local MP Gary Lunn, who happens to be Sports Minister in the Harper cabinet. Levi Sampson, president of the Harmac pulp mill in Nanaimo, which was saved from closing by a similar model, helped rally local investors raise more money. Lesson #2. It's good to have friends in high places.

Many twists and turns later, the deal got done a week ago today. The employee group and local investors raised about $2.5 million to cover the first bit of operating costs and Canwest announced it was selling the station for $2.

The employees make up the 2nd largest single investor group and while the corporate structure of the new station hasn’t been worked out, Konwick says the intent is to have an employee representative on the Board of Directors.

Further, he says the deal would have been impossible if the station had not been unionized, because “you need some kind of structure to be able to pull this off”. Lesson #3.

Who says local news is dead? CHEK is a proof that people in communities know there’s real value in local news – as long as it’s freed from conglomerate structures that make no sense.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Hope is still alive for Victoria’s oldest TV station

The group bidding to take over CHEK-TV in Victoria is still negotiating with Canwest to keep the station open. It was slated to be closed last night by the debt-hobbled media conglomerate – along with the Red Deer’s CHCA-TV, which unfortunately did go dark. However, CHEK stayed on the air today and was to take it day by day until a deal can be reached.

CHEK-TV employees and local investors launched a campaign this summer to keep the station on the air, reportedly raising $2.5 million. On the weekend, Canwest turned down an offer from the group, claiming it didn’t want to be on the hook for operating losses until the sale was granted the necessary CRTC approval.

Late Monday, on what they thought was the last newscast, CHEK reported that the deadline had been extended. Canwest reportedly hopes a deal can be made by Friday.

Given the local interest in the station, it would have been an outrage if CHEK had been allowed to close yesterday. We’ll keep our fingers crossed this week for the employees and the local viewers.

Meanwhile, Channel Zero’s purchase of two other Canwest stations – CHCH-TV in Hamilton and CJNT-TV in Montreal – was approved last Friday. The new owners got everything they were looking for from the CRTC: a seven-year licence, no requirements to show Canadian priority programming in prime time and no requirement to spend on tangible benefits from the deal. They will be called to a public hearing in 2012 to review their approach to programming.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

CBC: Layoffs + News Renewal = Upheaval and Resignation

At CBC News, these may look like quiet summer days…but they are days of complete upheaval. As if the layoffs weren’t bad enough to implement, there’s the process known as News Renewal, a massive reorganization of how the work gets done, and who does what.

For dozens of people, both behind-the-scenes and on-air, News Renewal means being reassigned – sometimes to a job that seems reasonable and interesting, and other times, to a job that’s not any of those things. Sometimes by nice conversation and other times, through curt and dismissive meetings. It’s disorienting for many people to be told that their views of what constitutes career progression are an illusion.

News Renewal is supposed to be in the name of making CBC News truly 24/7 on television, radio and online, national and local. I think most people understand and laud that intent. But then it collided head-on with the financial shortfall and the layoffs, which, among other things, led to greater uncertainty and varying degrees of pressure on senior employees to take voluntary retirement packages or simply resign.

The result: a feeling of deep hurt and resentment by those who weren’t quite ready to go, those who dared ask questions about the “multi-platform” 24/7 universe. They weren’t "laid off", but found they had no choice. They are people who gave years of valuable service, but who couldn’t relate to what they were now being asked to do.

How they feel is well expressed in a goodbye note from Dave Anderson of CBC Radio – which is contained in Jeffrey Dvorkin’s blog. Dvorkin is the former chief journalist at CBC radio and now distinguished visiting professior at Ryerson University.

What about the loss of all this talent? How do we address that? Who’s taking stock of who’s gone, beyond name and position? One way is a new section of the Guild’s web site – where we’re asking for people laid off this year to post their profiles so we know more about those losing their jobs. I’ll write more about this project later. But it’s only a small way to start documenting all this.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of hurt, a lot of disillusionment and a lot of anger.

Friday, July 31, 2009

CBC local news: good idea, bad time

Check out this very interesting insider blog post about the CBC-TV schedule changes that are going to affect local news, and the "logic" behind them.

In case you haven't heard, local evening TV news is growing from 60 to 90 minutes. But there's a hitch. It'll start at 5 pm and be over by 6:30 pm to make way for the blockbuster lineup of Coronation Street, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, a detail that was buried in the announcement touting the change.

Good on Howard Bernstein, a former Executive Producer of the Toronto CBC local TV news show in the 1980s, when local news was a serious commitment, for providing another forum for discussions like this.

Please feel free to submit comments or guest blogs here (anonymous or otherwise) about the changes coming to CBC and other media this fall.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Two-tier TV service is an unpopular idea

There is evidence out of Kamloops that the CRTC's ruling to mandate free TV signals in only 29 Canadian cities, and leave Canadians in the rest of the country pay for cable or satellite after the transition to digital, is not popular. In fact, 84% of residents say it's not fair.

The CMG commissioned the mid-July poll in Kamloops - a BC town of nearly 100,000 people and one of the hundreds of communities that will be deprived of free TV signals if the broadcasters and the CRTC stick to the current plan for the 2011 transition. Some 11 million Canadians will no longer have the option of watching TV for free, over the air.

What appears to be fairly popular, especially for the under-35 crowd, is the idea of having six free channels in Kamloops ... up from the 3 that are available right now. If people could get six channels - the local Pattison affiliate CFJC (soon to be affiliated with Rogers), Global BC, CBC, French-language CBC, CTV and the Knowledge Network - one-third of residents would chose rabbit ears or antennas over paying for cable or satellite, up from the 6% in Kamloops who currently watch over the air. And 42% of people under 35 say they would choose the free option if the six channels were available.

The thing is, it's quite feasible to make that happen if the broadcasters get on board. The six could share a single digital transmitter, which our research shows would cost around $90,000. Shared six ways, that's a mere $15,000 each. The move would probably boost viewership since those stations would become the channels of choice for more viewers, assuming some people do drop the cable in favour of the free TV, as they seem to be doing in other parts of the country where there's a decent choice of free channels.

The CRTC "encourages broadcasters to ... take advantage of multiplexing opportunities - multiple broadcasters sharing one digital transmitter to deliver programming services - as a means of reducing or delaying the infrastructure investments related to the digital transition." So there's no reason the broadcasters couldn't do it, from a regulatory point of view.

All viewers would need is a converter box, if they have an analogue TV (which costs $60 to $80) or a relatively new TV with a digital tuner, as well as rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Canwest can't stop causing pain

There’s news today that should send shivers down the spine of every Canwest employee – as if they need more stuff to be worried about.

Canwest has told a group of retirees at CHCH-TV that it will be winding up the CHCH pension effective August 31, 2009. That’s the closing date of the sale of the station to Channel Zero..

Like many pensions, the plan has an “unfunded windup deficiency”. It’s not clear whether that’s because of the market and/or low interest rates or because Canwest hasn’t been meeting its pension payments. No matter the cause, the retirees have been told that Canwest has no plans to fund the deficiency.

This means the 108 pensioners of CHCH are left in the cold, with pensions reduced by an amount Canwest, not surprisingly, is not revealing. They are the newest faces of the damage a debt-ridden media conglomerate can do….and why we need to make sure another Canwest doesn’t rise from the ashes anywhere else.

For Canwest employees everywhere who’ve been waiting for word on whether the company will file for bankruptcy protection, this is sobering news indeed. They need to start asking some tough questions about their own pensions.

The reality is that while many companies are grappling with the effect of last year’s market crash on their pensions, and with outdated pension regulations, the better ones are taking on these massive problems in conjunction with their employees and/or unions. For example, the pension plan at Canadian Press has been restructured jointly with my union, the Canadian Media Guild.

It’s good to see that the retirees group at CHCH is using one of the best lawyers in the pension field, Hugh O’Reilly of Cavalluzzo Hayes. He certainly helped our members at the Canadian Press. But unfortunately, Canwest left this pension problem until the last possible moment. It’s quite possible that the only hope for the pensioners is relief from the federal government – which is dealing with beleaguered companies from coast to coast.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Victoria and Red Deer to lose local TV stations

[Guest post by karenatcmg]

CHEK-TV in Victoria and CHCA-TV in Red Deer will close on August 31. However, Canwest says it will keep its Kelowna station open under the Global TV banner.

These are the last of the five E! network stations. CHCH-TV in Hamilton and CJNT-TV in Montreal are being sold to Channel Zero.

As a result of the closure of the two stations, 80 people will reportedly lose their jobs.

Not a great day for local TV in Canada.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How Channel Zero plans to make a go of CHCH-TV

[Guest post from karenatcmg]

The buyer of CHCH-TV in Hamilton figures they can start making money at the station by 2011 by running local programming all day and "popular movies" in prime time.

"It would be exceedingly naïve, if not arrogant, for our company to assume that we can succeed where Canwest did not with the same strategy. Canwest is an experienced broadcaster dealing with the same systemic issues facing all OTA broadcasters that the Commission is well aware of," says Channel Zero's application to the CRTC.

That application finally provides a little peak into the local station's financial affairs. Channel Zero's projection suggests that CHCH will spend about $8 million this year on local news and sports programming. However, it will be charged more than $51 million by Canwest for the (mostly Hollywood) programming that airs across the E! network, including on CHCH. The station will also be charged more than $4 million for "broadcast network support" provided by Canwest (master control, sales support, programming ops). With a forecast of only $44 million in revenue for the year, you can see why the local station was no longer able to prop up both the network's Hollywood shopping spree *and* local programming. There's your broken model: the station is expected to be $32.7 million in the red at the end of the year.

But, starting next year, Channel Zero plans to boost the budget for local news and sports to about $9 million with the help of the CRTC's new Local Program Improvement Fund. On the other hand, the budget for buying shows will be slashed to $2 million. And the new owner will provide its own "broadcast network support services" at a cost of about $1.3 million, or one-third of what Canwest is apparently charging CHCH for the same services. They do forecast a sharp drop in revenue for next year to about $18 million, but an overall loss of only $3.2 million. By 2011, they forecast net income after tax to be nearly $1.8 million.

The Channel Zero proposal means as much or more local programming as is now broadcast on CHCH. In fact, the programming grid in their application suggests they will broadcast 85.5 hours of local programming per week next year. However, they only say they are "likely" to broadcast more than the 36.5 hours per week that used to be a condition of licence for CHCH. It appears to depend on whether the CRTC lets them off the hook on another key condition of licence.

"[W]e would be prepared to accept ... the same license conditions as currently apply... It is our view, however, that such terms of approval would hinder our plans to revitalize and focus the stations [CHCH and CJNT in Montreal], as we have outlined in our application. Among other things our ability to provide the extent of local programming that we have contemplated in our application, and to provide long-term employment for the existing complement of staff at CHCH and CJNT could well be jeopardized." (Emphasis added.)

What licence condition do they want eliminated in Hamilton? The requirement to broadcast Canadian drama, variety, documentary and/or entertainment magazine shows in prime time. And the jobs of the existing staff are the bargaining chips.

Another hitch is that they want to be exempt from paying any monetary benefits from the purchase of the station, which are typically set at 10% of the value of the transaction and often get spent on the production of original Canadian programming. (Channel Zero claims the deal is worth $500,000 and the benefits, if they had to pay them, would therefore be $50,000.) The company argues that keeping the station open, the existing staff in place and the local programming on the air is a very tangible benefit of this deal and that having to pay out fifty grand would hamper their efforts.

The CRTC will hold a hearing on the purchase starting on August 24. Channel Zero has asked for the green light by August 31.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Go boldly where Shaw refused to go

[Guest post from karenatcmg]

Somebody does want Brandon's CKX-TV for a dollar. All appeared to be lost after CTV made a terse announcement at 5:11 pm on June 30 (yep, minutes into the July 1 holiday) that Shaw would not be buying CKX and the Windsor and Wingham stations. You may recall the offer was made in a Shaw ad published in CTVglobemedia's Globe and Mail newspaper in the middle of the CRTC hearings in early May. The offer was accepted by CTV in an adjoining ad.

As suspected, it was all theatre. Shaw was trying to make the point that local TV is viable even without money from cable and satellite companies. Perhaps the lame exit from the deal emboldened the CRTC, which announced days later that it is increasing the funding from cable and satellite companies (yeah, that's you Shaw) going to the Local Program Improvement Fund from 1% of the companies' revenue to 1.5%.

Since the CRTC announced its bailout (more LPIF money, low standards for local programming) CTV announced it would keep the Windsor station open another year.

The latest successful bidder for CKX-TV is Bluepoint, an investment firm run by ad guy Bruce Claassen. Bluepoint wants to become a "significant media player in North America." Apparently, they think the boosted Local Program Improvement Fund is all they need to make a go of it. Perhaps it's not totally nuts. After all, Izzy Asper started his media empire from a single Manitoba TV station (albeit in Winnipeg, not Brandon). And Bluepoint's only in for $1.

They are probably busy looking for a new affiliation agreement for CKX-TV since CBC did not renew past August. Perhaps they will go the route of the Pattison Group out west, which just signed with Rogers for stations in Kamloops, Prince George and Medicine Hat. Pattison had to do something since their current affiliation with Canwest's E! network was doomed. Canwest didn't buy any programming for E! for next season and plans to shut the E! stations it can't sell. So far, only CHCH in Hamilton and CJNT in Montreal have a buyer. That leaves the stations in Red Deer, Kelowna and Victoria, as well as the CTV station in Wingham, in a very precarious situation.

We wish Bluepoint all the best in its Brandon venture. The 39 employees at CKX-TV can hopefully now take a deep breath and enjoy the rest of their summer.

Friday, July 10, 2009

CRTC draws line in the sand on free digital TV

[Guest post from karenatcmg]

This week, the CRTC issued new policy on TV broadcasting. You likely heard about the apparent green light for fee-for-carriage, sorry, for broadcasters to get "fair market value" from cable and satellite companies in return for their channels being offered in the lineup. If not, there is coverage here, here and here. Headline: broadcasters rub hands in glee as cable co's cry foul.

What you may not have heard is that the CRTC also issued the list of Canadian cities where broadcasters must put up digital transmitters by August 2011. That's when the existing 1,000+ analogue transmitters across the country will be shut off.

And at 29, the list of cities is pretty short. It includes those with populations greater than 300,000 and the provincial/territorial capitals. Here's a very small sample of the places *not* on the list: Kingston, Sudbury, Kamloops and Kelowna.

Check out the CMG website for the CRTC list.

To recap the issue, Canadians living in major cities and close to the US border already enjoy a smorgasbord of free, great quality digital TV. That's because US broadcasters and many - CBC, CTV, Global, Citytv, Radio-Canada - in the biggest Canadian cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver) have already put up digital transmitters. The channels are available for free to viewers with a new-ish TV equipped with digital receiver or a $60 converter box for (older) analogue sets.

Those Canadian broadcasters are not much interested in putting up any more digital transmitters than absolutely necessary. If you don't happen to live within range of a digital transmitter site, any TV not hooked up to cable, satellite or IPTV stands to go dark in August 2011.

The CRTC is accepting comments until August 10 ahead of a fall public hearing that will deal some more with over-the-air TV and the transition to digital. But note that issues related to the transition could easily be drowned out by the continued battle between TV networks and the cable/satellite companies, which is also on the agenda.

So: if you're being left out of free, digital TV, this is the time to speak up and send a comment to the CRTC. You should also let your MP know how you feel.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

CHCH has a buyer!

Toronto's Channel Zero will buy Canwest's CHCH-TV in Hamilton and and CJNT-TV in Montreal, assuming the company gets the green light from the CRTC.

Channel Zero owns Moveiola and Silver Screen Classics, a couple of digital specialty channels, as well as some "adult entertainment" channels.

There's apparently no buyer yet for the other three local TV stations Canwest is trying to unload by the end of this summer in Red Deer, Kelowna and Victoria.

In Hamilton, it looks like they plan to keep on the existing staff and run news all day until 8 pm, after which they will show familiar, if not first-run, movies. Think Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey.
It sounds quite a bit like the proposal originally floated by CHCH employees interested in mounting a community bid for the station. In fact, in an article in, Channel Zero says they will be relying on the existing CHCH crew to pull off the new format.

In Montreal, where the licence is for a multicultural channel, they are talking about running foreign movies and "multicultural music videos."

Channel Zero seems bullish about local TV. At least somebody is. Funny that we haven't heard another word out of Shaw since they announced they were paying $1 to CTVglobemedia for the local stations in Windsor and Brandon.

Today's sale also seems to represent a move away from big media conglomerates.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A tale of two Globes and their attack on employees on both sides of the border

Dear Media Employees Everywhere (especially those at the Globe and Mail ... our thoughts are with you this crucial weekend):

Don’t be bullied – and that’s what’s happening to you as I write this. Unionized workers at Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, are just the latest in this industry to be intimidated beyond belief into deeply concessionary discussions.

Like media employers everywhere, Globe management (CTVglobemedia Inc.) is using the economic and media crises to claim they “need” a huge list of concessions, whether or not those concessions relate to the problem at hand. In the forced “final offer” delivered today to unionized employees after talks broke down, management says it intends to move to a two-tiered pension system: current employees have a choice between the good pension they’re in (defined benefit) or move to a defined contribution (RRSP-like) plan. New hires would have no choice: they get stuck with the DC plan. There are cuts to salary scales for new employees and a freeze on pay for two years.

My advice: don't buy it. Say no to the management offer. This kind of systematic pillorying of media employees will do nothing to save our industry. It’s eroding what content still exists and will likely drive the best and brightest away. It’s also selling out our next generation of employees (possibly your own kids, siblings, cousins) if yet another defined benefit pension is bargained away. Don’t make long-term/permanent concessions in a climate of day-to-day uncertainty. The climate will change, one way or the other, and you won’t be able to get back what you’ve lost.

Our Guild colleagues at the Boston Globe said no. The owners (New York Times Co.) threatened to *shut the newspaper down* if employees didn’t accept deep, deep concessions – to the tune of $20M. The Guild was the only Boston Globe unions to defy the threat when members narrowly rejected the first deal put to them, which would have cut salaries by 8.3%

Did the world end or the paper close? No.

The threat to close the paper was withdrawn. But in true bully style, the Boston Globe then imposed a 23% wage cut, yet another tactic to wear the employees down. Union and management went back to the table, and management announced the Globe is up for sale. Read the letter sent by Dan Totten, the Guild’s president, upon that news. Since then, another deal has been reached. The good news is that it’s slightly better: wage cuts of only 5.94%. But overall concessions are still in the $10M range.

What a brutal way to position the paper for the market, instead of working together on the changing media environment in a civilized way. As Totten said in another letter, “sharing the pain is not the New York Times way”.

The Boston Globe case is not a good-news story. But it is a demonstration that people can say no, and they should…sometimes over and over again. The future of this industry is at stake.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Newspaper finds new life under local ownership

From south of the border comes a hopeful story of a newspaper emerging from the depths of conglomerate ownership, debt and thinning content.It's the Portland Press Herald in Maine, where a new chapter is unfolding.

When former owners Blethen Maine Newspapers put the paper up for sale a year and a half ago, employees thought the paper would be added to the list of US newspaper closures.

Then along came Richard Connor, from Bangor Maine. He bought the paper and bucked a trend, opting not to drop sections, stop Sunday papers or make other cuts to content the way so many media owners are dealing with this economy and the changing media environment.

Connor and the union that represents employees at the newspaper, the Portland Newspaper Guild, sat down and worked out a new arrangement over the past few weeks under what is known as Employee Stock Ownership Plan. Employees agreed to take a 10 percent pay cut in return for a 15 percent stake in the company. And they get two seats on the company Board.

Last week, just before Guild delegates from across North America met in Washington, the "new" Herald tribune hit the stands.And here's the really good news. The paper has *added* sections and editorial pages, says Guild president Tom Bell. That's a result of the greater degree of consultation between management and employees, because of the ESOP agreement.

I hope this is the beginning of a new way of doing business in our industry: local ownership, emphasis on content despite a tough economy, and a partnership between union and management.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The cuts are sinking in, Part II

In a follow-up to the post that appeared here on May 27, I've written a longer piece for the Guild's newsletter G-Force about the impact of the cuts across our union. No job classification has been spared. It is really not clear how the continuing work will be done once the dust settles. What is clear is that our media employers are losing lots of bright lights: both those whose skills and creativity built the industry and those just starting out whose energy and enthusiasm might be lost to us forever.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Free TV: CTV gets it wrong

I shouldn't be, but I am surprised at how badly some journalists cover our own industry. I know some are "edited" by their corporate bosses. On Friday night, CTV got the story of the U-S transition from analog to digital TV all wrong. And in this case, you have to wonder if there's a reason why.

Reporter Tom Walters’ piece left people with the impression that the switch from analog to digital TV broadcasting in the United States means the end of antennas and over-the-air television. He called it the End of an Era.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth – at least in the United States. There, all the major broadcasters have invested in making the switch to digital, and signals are still being beamed to TV sets right across the country, for free. The only difference is they’re digital signals now, which means they’re clearer and sharper signals. All you need is a converter box to receive them (which the U-S government helped people buy, by handing out millions of dollars worth of coupons), or a new TV. And a good antenna really helps.

So, in the United States, you can still get a wide range of TV signals in most places, for free.

In this country, broadcasters are refusing to make the transition, which is due to take place officially in 2011. Only the biggest cities west of New Brunswick can get digital TV over the air. And broadcasters have no plans to change that.

There’s a great story on that gives an overview of the transition in the U-S and the lack of transition in this country. Now, any wonder why CTV, which has already written off the idea of providing free over-the-air digital TV, would air such an incomplete story?

By the way, my union, the Canadian Media Guild, thinks all Canadians should have access to free TV, even after the digital conversion in 2011 and has provided original research about this to the CRTC. It’s been an uphill struggle.

Walters ended his piece with the Canadian broadcasters’ line (read: excuse): that only 10% of Canadians rely on over-the-air signals for their television, while the rest get cable and satellite, so the digital conversion will mean nothing. He didn’t mention that up to 10 million Canadians will be cut off from having the option of getting free TV in Canada after 2011, because of decisions that CTV and other broadcasters are making now. Would have been a better story, don’t you think?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Shakin' all over

Former CBC producer (and Guild member) Nick Fillmore has written a good piece on the shake-up at the Globe and Mail for . In case you haven't heard, Editor in Chief Edward Greenspon got the boot last month in favour of John Stackhouse, who had been editor of the paper's Report on Business section.

It's not clear why the change was made, but Fillmore makes a case for what needs to change (but probably won't) in terms of how the Globe covers the news.

Now we wait a few more days to see if there will be a shake-up in the executive suites at Canwest.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Another wedgie for the CBC

The CBC is a classic wedge issue for the Conservatives. Even talk of privatizing it is a morsel of red meat to throw to the hungry base. It's an easy stunt to try to shore up that deep blue Conservative brand in the heartland, especially when polling suggests the brand is starting to fade. It also deflects attention and energy from the growing national consensus that the public broadcaster is under-funded and should receive more money each year from Ottawa to provide the kinds of media services that simply don't get offered by commercial media.

So it's not that surprising that the National Post is reporting today that CBC is indeed on the list of assets the government might sell off:

CBC, Via Rail flagged for possible sale
The federal Department of Finance has flagged several prominent Crown corporations as "not self-sustaining," including the CBC, Via Rail and the National Arts Centre, and has identified them as entities that could be sold as part of the government's asset review, newly released documents show.
In its fiscal update last November, the government announced that it would launch a review of its Crown assets, including so-called nterprise Crown corporations, real estate and "other holdings." Finance Department documents, obtained by Canwest News Service under the Access to Information Act, reveal that the review will focus on enterprise Crown corporations, which are not financially dependent on parliamentary subsidies.
Such corporations include the Royal Canadian Mint and Ridley Terminals, which is a coal-shipping terminal in Prince Rupert, B. C.
But the documents also reveal that the government will consider privatizing Crown corporations that require public subsidies to stay afloat. "The reviews will also examine other holdings in which the government competes directly with private enterprises, earn income from property or performs a commercial activity," states a Finance briefing note dated Dec. 2, 2008. "It includes Crown corporations that are not self-sustaining even though they are of a commercial nature."
In the briefing note, the Finance Department identifies nine Crown corporations that fall in that category, including Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the CBC and Via Rail.

What's not yet clear is if there's anything more to the story than the boost it provides for the Conservative fundraising machine. Has anyone heard anything more substantive

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The CBC cuts are sinking in

Today’s the day the impact is starting to sink in from one of the biggest round of job losses in the media in this country. It’s the day people at the public broadcaster have been dreading since CBC president Hubert Lacroix announced the cut in March. Now we know there’s going to be a total of 350 frontline CBC and Radio-Canada positions eliminated outside Quebec (the people represented by my union) and another roughly equal number lost in Quebec.

Let’s keep in mind what the 350 represents: 100 of those are contract employees who’ve been “non-renewed” (one of the most bizarre of the CBC expressions). Many of them worked on Steven and Chris or the Living shows on TV. They’re also reporters, researchers, producers and administrative support staff on programs throughout the CBC. For the most part, there were no grand announcements about them because, by definition, contract employment allows for simple termination.

158 are permanent employees who will receive redundancy notices and they have rights, including bumping in certain cases. But that won’t ease the shock. Anyone who’s ever received a “redundancy notice” never forgets what it feels like.

Another 73 people are taking a voluntary retirement incentive (VRIP), and their positions are being abolished. Among that list are Newsworld’s Don Newman, John McGrath, the radio legislative reporter based in Toronto, and Steve Finkelman, the radio political reporter in Edmonton, and one of the six who will retire this summer in that city. There is producer Mark Bulgutch, a thirty-year veteran and dean of TV news specials at the CBC. There are long-time network cameramen Mark Parkman and Richard Furlong who’ve been everywhere and shot it all. Because of the nature of the VRIP approach, these 73 people are among the CBC’s most experienced, knowledgeable and recognizable employees.

And then there are the many, many people affected by this cut who are just starting careers at CBC. It is the loss of these people, and the work that they’ve been doing, that makes me anxious for the future of the public broadcaster. We know that half of the people creating radio programming in Sudbury are losing their jobs, for example. These are keen young journalists who should have had the opportunity to become the veterans of the future. We know there are people being cut from Radio 2 in locations big and small who do the type of work that doesn’t get done by any other radio station.

Overall, we are experiencing a huge loss of talent, energy and commitment from the CBC. It is a loss for the media industry as a whole. And in this climate, it’s possible it will be gone forever.

Please comment with your own sense of the impact of the cuts.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Sandbox feud detracts from real issue: they’re killing local TV

There’s a cute little feud going on between media giants. In one corner, CTV, which last week launched a totally cynical “campaign” to save local news. Give me a break. They have a website, but I don’t even want to link to it here for fear you’ll visit and increase their click count.

In the opposite corner, Rogers, Bell, Telus and Cogeco, who today launched a complaint at the CRTC against CTV’s “one-sided and unbalanced coverage” of the subject of the feud … whether CTV can get access to cable and satellite subscriber fees.

In an annoying spot that CTV seems to run at least every half hour in prime time, the network blames its threat of killing local television on the fact that it doesn’t get money directly from cable and satellite subscribers. No, they don’t put it that way, exactly. Apparently there were also “reports” about the campaign on local newscasts. Tomorrow, they’re planning rallies at their local stations and trying to get people to pressure their MPs on the network’s behalf. Is this is advocacy journalism, 21st century style??

(Can you imagine the reaction if CBC did something like this?)

The cable guys are no angels, of course. They raise subscriber fees any time for any reason. Now they’re saying that if they have to raise fees to pay the conventional networks, it’ll hurt their business. Whatever.

Meanwhile, three CTV stations are still in limbo. CTV said it will close stations in Brandon, Windsor and Wingham on August 31.

Then Shaw (another cable guy) ran an ad in CTV’s own newspaper (the Globe and Mail) on May 1 – in the midst of CRTC licence hearings where the spat hit the headlines – saying it would buy the stations for $1 each. Curiously, we’ve heard no more from Shaw on this since then.

If CTV really wanted to “save local TV”, would it really hang these stations, these employees, these communities out to dry while they negotiate a better deal with Ottawa?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Petty media games in the hallways of power

There’s a lot going on in the broadcast industry these days: a crisis in local news, fights between broadcasters and cable and satellite providers about who’s going to pay to make sure local programming survives, the 800 job losses at the CBC and hundreds of other job losses at other media organizations.

So you have to wonder why the Quebecor-owned SunMedia chain ran a piece yesterday rehashing a month-old story. On March 25, CBC president Hubert Lacroix said Corporation managers are going to get their performance bonuses slashed by 20% to 50%, for a saving of $4 million, as part of his speech to staff about the 800 layoffs. All the information in the top three paragraphs of the SunMedia article was in Lacroix’s speech to staff that day; a speech that was heavily covered in the media.

The only new element is that two Conservative MPs, (Shelley Glover and Rod Bruinooge) used their time in a parliamentary committee meeting on the crisis in local television on Monday to grill Lacroix about the bonuses. And though nothing new was revealed by Lacroix that wasn’t known a month ago, the story ran today with a prominent headline (“CBC to give perks and pink slips” ) in the Edmonton Sun and under a variety of other headlines throughout the chain.

It goes without saying that I’m not a fan of every executive decision made at the CBC in the past few years. And I know that reading about money spent on hotels and dinners has a deflating effect on Guild members. But it’s no coincidence the story about expenses just happened to be filed days before Lacroix’s scheduled appearance before the committee and just as the government is weighing whether any program to help the broadcasters cope with the crisis in the industry will include the public broadcaster.

One thing is for sure: rehashing old bonus news, and celebrating expenses filed three years ago just doesn’t seem too relevant when people are talking about the very survival of the news business and the future of conventional television.

You’d think Glover and Bruinooge would be concerned about the bigger-picture stuff. Both happen to come from the Winnipeg area, home of Canwest, which is spending these days teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and in desperate need of government help.

Monday, April 27, 2009

CBC's Real Estate King has left the building

It was a classic Friday announcement – unnoticed until late in the day. But it was a big one. The head of CBC’s real estate division, Michel St-Cyr is leaving. He’s “accepted an offer in the private sector,” according to CBC CEO Hubert Lacroix, who implies this is part of a new direction. Let's hope so.

“Michel’s departure gives me the chance to push forward with my review of the structure, roles and responsibilities of the Senior Executive Team,” according to Lacroix’s note.

St-Cyr was a creation of former CBC CEO Robert Rabinovitch. And what a creation he was! Within months of his arrival, a whole real estate division at CBC sprouted (needless to say, the public broadcaster had never had a real estate division) and grew until it had a staff of 50 and its own communications director.

St-Cyr reported directly to Rabinovitch as “president” of the Real Estate division, bypassing the VPs of the media divisions. Real Estate was the Power!!!

The impact of the Real Estate grip on CBC decision-making and the mantra of “monetizing” the public broadcaster’s space cannot be underestimated.

Desks were measured with a view to squashing as many people as possible into some newly leased space too small for the numbers (look at CBC Ottawa, Edmonton). Real Estate staffers were shocked when we dared to suggest that media employees needed different types of space than the cookie-cutter call-centre model. The idea seemed alien to these designers and architects who no doubt had workspace appropriate for their needs.

Real Estate Power precipitated the layoff two years ago of 80 people who made sets, costumes and other elements of TV production at CBC Toronto. They happened to work in what was then considered valuable and large basement space in the heart of the city. Needless to say, the space still sits empty and producers of CBC programs have to get their sets built by outside contractors. The Real Estate folks? They're still on payroll, of course.

Further, there are many who believe Real Estate was the real catalyst for radio-TV integration because of the compression of workspace that would come with it. The idea was uttered at a corporate real estate conference several years ago. Couldn’t be true, could it???

Some people credit St-Cyr and Rabinovitch for creating a cash flow for the CBC when it needed it. But while the Real Estate empire was growing, the real crisis facing the CBC was being masked by the rush of Real Estate cash: no one was screaming about the woeful underfunding of the public broadcaster as a whole, not while the “quarter billion dollars in value” was being created. (It’s never been clear whether that value credited to St-Cyr was one-time value or ongoing money that can be counted on.)

In any case, here we are eight years after the creation of the Real Estate Power, with a $171M shortfall that Real Estate can’t fix, 800 layoffs on the horizon, and an unleased partly empty building in Toronto. There’s no word on whether St-Cyr will be replaced, but if Lacroix wants to send a real signal to his employees and to Ottawa that he's trying to renew the public broadcaster, let's hope St-Cyr's position is "monetized" in order to save a few of the jobs slated for layoff.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

CBC: Now more than ever

Canadians should be appalled at how the Harper government has handled the CBC file. It’s brought on a crisis in the media and culture industries that didn’t have to be. There’s not a lot of money at stake. In that way, it’s very similar to the furor caused by the $45M in arts cuts announced last summer.

In this case, the solutions are even there for all to see. They can be found in an all-party parliamentary committee report of last year. Let’s get Harper to listen to them.

The CMG and its allies are launching a campaign to help Canadians get the message to the leaders in Parliament that we need the CBC now more than ever.

Click here to send a letter to the Prime Minister and the leaders of the opposition parties urging them to:
§ increase CBC's annual parliamentary allocation by $7 per Canadian by the end of this year;
§ develop a 7-year contract with the CBC that sets expectations and guarantees funding indexed to inflation; and
§ provide immediate bridge financing to reduce the cuts this spring.

Click here to find out more about the campaign.

Let's consider this the Arts Cuts, Round 2.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The CBC cuts and the $1.1B: one has real impact and the other is meaningless

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly two weeks since the first word of the cut at the CBC…and my last post. Most days I felt so overwhelmed and saddened by the news it was hard to know where to start … so I stopped (for a while).

The more we learn, the more about this CBC cut is just wrong. The degree of impact on communities across the country is so much greater than the relatively small amount of money it would cost to prevent the cut. Take Sudbury as an example, where hundreds of people turned up at a rally Sunday. It’s about to lose half its radio staff. Less than half a million dollars would save these jobs. But without them, places such as North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins -- not to mention the entire James Bay coast won’t get covered.

The sheer value of information and culture the CBC provides in places like Sudbury are impossible to measure and track and that applying dollar signs to this type of public service is simply impossible and meaningless.

That’s what irks me so much about the way the Harper government, through Heritage Minister James Moore, has responded to this cut. His approach has been all about placing a distorted value on a single dollar figure by suggesting the $1.1B that has been budgeted for the CBC is some crazy amount of money, that’s it’s even a mark of generosity, a financial line in the sand. It's even unprecedented, according to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The truth is the CBC got $1.1B as far back as 1992. The figure dipped down in the late 90s, and was up over $1B every year since 2002. The CBC’s budget has had no increase for inflation in all that time. Put another way, if the CBC was granted the budget it got in 1992 in real dollars today…that would be $1.5B (and it would mean none of these cuts would be necessary and CBC radio could move into under-served areas such as Hamilton, Red Deer and Kelowna).

To further put the $1.1B figure in context, take a look at Canwest Global’s operating budget for 2008. It’s $1.7B. That pays for newspapers, television and the web site --in one language. Compare that to CBC’s radio, TV and internet programming of nearly all Canadian original material in both languages, the Northern radio service in 8 Aboriginal languages and the international service. Does $1.1B for all that seem as “substantial” as Moore would have you believe?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Another layoff day at CBC: so sad and so inconclusive

It all seems so familiar. Waiting for the CBC job cut announcement that’s been looming for weeks, and then hearing it, for yet another time, another year. But this year's version somehow seems so ... hollow.

We know that taking 800 jobs out of the CBC will have immense consequences, yet we have no faces or programs to attach to those job losses. In most cases, people are going home tonight not knowing how or if their own show or their own workplace will be affected. At Radio-Canada, we did learn that weekend news shows are being scrapped except for the one in Ottawa, the TV noon shows in Ottawa, Quebec and Moncton are gone, and the morning radio show in Windsor is being cancelled. But the details are coming out painfully, one piece at a time.

We don’t who will leave or even whether it will be by their choice or by layoff. Will the CBC be permitted to offer voluntary incentive packages to people who have the so-called 85 formula (years of service plus the years of age equaling 85 or more)? It’s up to the Heritage Minister to grant permission for that, according to CBC CEO Hubert Lacroix. And we don’t know when that permission may or may not come.

It was a day all about numbers; the $171 million needed to balance the budget, the $125 million that may come from a sale of assets, TV’s share of the cut (83%), radio’s share of the cut (17%). A lot of numbers, dissected many ways.

Yet at the end of the day, we know very little except the CBC is once again not being supported by the government, for no reason other than straight politics being played by Harper’s PMO. Stephen Harper mused about privatizing English TV as far back as 2004 and we all know about last year’s culture cuts. He’s been able to defend not providing the bridge financing by calling the base $1.1B allocation “record financing”, when even his Heritage Minister James Moore has acknowledged it’s not actually the most ever. On Friday, Moore more properly used the word “straight financing”. (As far back as 1990-91, the CBC was getting just under $1.1B which in today’s dollars would be $1.5B. So much for record financing.)

The numbers obfuscate so much. Tomorrow, we will learn details about program cuts. We are sad tonight, but I know we'll get mad tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Harper government game-playing and the media crisis

So let’s get this straight. Seems CanWest hired a former senior advisor to Stephen Harper to help with its lobbying efforts to stave off bankruptcy.

This is only reported after Heritage Minister James Moore says he’s considering ways to help private broadcasters weather the economic storm.

Meanwhile, CBC management dutifully meets with Moore to look for what little help a crown corporation can seek, since it can’t get loans or other financial breaks. Let’s remember the government and parliament are directly responsible for the CBC and as Heritage Minister, this job falls to Moore. But what happens?

Somebody leaks the fact and content of the CBC-Moore meetings to a SunMedia columnist, part of the Quebecor chain which takes every opportunity to slam what it considers to be a media rival, especially in Quebec. The Sun piece ridicules the idea that the CBC should be seeking help from the government.

Greg Weston’s most recent column uses indirect quotes to provide unsubstantiated information about the CBC, its budget crisis, the potential number of layoffs and the minister’s support for the Corporation.

Someone’s playing games here and they should stop.

Now the minister would be wise to move on to the real business of funding the CBC appropriately according to recommendations of the all-party Heritage committee of a year ago, before completely violating the arm's length relationship between the government and the public broadcaster. See our open letter to the minister about this.

More on the government’s plans for looser regulations for the private broadcasters once we have the details. Should have lots to say.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A troubled employer and the Conservatives are laughing????

Word in just now that when Liberal Culture Critic Pablo Rodriguez asked a question in today’s Question Period about CBC funding, government MPs applauded and laughed in sync.

Hey, this is an employer that is about to make cuts and announce layoffs because the government of the day has decided not to find a relatively small sum to loan it. And that’s funny??? In today’s economy?

This is political partisanship at its very lowest. This government, through the actions of its MPs in the House, is openly mocking our public broadcaster, and dismissing the importance of more Canadians potentially losing their jobs.

Every Canadian should be outraged at this infantile display, whether or not they support the CBC getting a few million dollars of bridge financing.

Friday, March 6, 2009

CRTC fund gives hope to distressed local TV

The CRTC's proposed fund to improve local TV programming in small markets is the key to saving local news. The Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF), announced last year and still under development, could be devoted to supporting initiatives to save local TV stations that are being abandoned by the big media conglomerates, such as the one at CHCH in Hamilton.

It is exactly the right thing at the right time. And it is more important than ever that the fund maintain those original principles of helping small market stations – both publicly- and privately-owned – improve local programming, and especially news.

The money for the fund will come from a percentage of cable and satellite revenues and is expected to amount to $60 million in the first year. Of the total, $40 million will be devoted to English-language markets and $20 million to French-language markets of less than one million.

In proposing the fund, the CRTC denied the TV networks access to cable and satellite fees with no strings attached. We note that Canwest’s most recent submission to the CRTC, made public this week, now asks that the fund simply be handed over to the conventional stations in all markets “to help subsidize local news” at a diminished level, which would negate the purpose of the fund. Canwest announced in February that it is trying to sell the E! network stations, including CHCH, and will shut them if new owners can’t be found.

The structure of the big media companies has not been friendly to local programming and there's no good reason that new money from cable and satellite should continue to prop up a model that hasn’t worked for local TV.

I urge other communities with stations at risk develop action plans that involve the use of this fund.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The fight to save local news is on

People are fighting back to save their local news.

First, the employees and community of Hamilton got together in a move to buy CHCH in the Canwest firesale and return it to local ownership. It's a wonderful effort I'll write much more about later.

Now at least one city council is stepping up to sound the alarm. Not surprisingly, it's Windsor, which knows what it's like to lose a station (CBC in 1991 -- it returned in 1994). Now it's losing CTV's A Channel at the end of August. And because of the government-CBC budget dispute, there’s concern about the future of the CBC in Windsor too.

Last night, Windsor City Council adopted a resolution that calls on Council and the Mayor to petition the CRTC and the government to do a comprehensive review of the crisis in conventional TV and do what it takes to focus on policies that will guarantee Canadian media content in markets such as Windsor.

Here’s what it says:

Whereas the citizens of Windsor and Essex County want and deserve a strong local and Canadian television presence; and
Whereas Windsor-Essex is located with 1000 yards of a major American media shadow; and
Whereas Windsor-Essex is a unique region with regards to the impact of local issues and how they have profound provincial and national impact in areas such as the U.S. Canadian border, International Trade and the Auto Industry, to name a few; and
Whereas the CRTC has announced that later this year a review of the crisis in conventional television will take place;
Therefore, be it resolved that Council and the Mayor, for the City of Windsor, Ontario, petition the CRTC and the Government of Canada to undertake the following:

Without further delay, immediately commence a comprehensive review of the crisis in conventional television; and
That this review look at all policy framework with the intent of creating new, and/or enhancing existing policies in order to guarantee Canadian media content in unique markets such as Windsor-Essex, by way of special designations, recognizing the close proximity of major U.S. media; and
During this review, interim measures be immediately instituted in order to protect markets such as Windsor-Essex, and any other media markets, currently at risk of not having their broadcast license renewed by the current license holders.

Percy Hatfield, a former CBC Windsor reporter, is now a Windsor councillor and just happens to be at a meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities this week. Let’s hope he spreads his Windsor zeal to every community in this country.

The CBC budget: a political show no one should have to watch

It’s budget time for the CBC --- and this year, it’s become so painful to watch that I’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t really have a public broadcaster. What we have is a broadcaster that is funded with taxpayer dollars in such a partisan and short-sighted way that the public aspect is missing entirely.

Every year we watch the same play. CBC executives are forced to make their case in serious meetings behind close doors, they wait, they are given vague promises. Then they wait some more. They want to be diplomatic and respectful of the process. Valuable planning time goes by. Decisions are delayed. As time goes by, more scenarios unfold in case the money is not granted and in some cases, the scenarios get worse as more time goes by. Then when the CBC seeks some conclusion to the whole thing – after all the new fiscal year begins in THREE weeks, it’s accused of “begging” or “whining “for money in public.

“The CBC cannot be insulated from all market realities,” said Kory Teneycke, a spokesperson for the prime minister, said last week. That was a cue things were not going well. This forced CBC CEO Hubert Lacroix to go to the public, make the case, and let it be known what’s at stake. Given what CBC does and where it spends its money, what’s at stake always comes down to programming. The made-in-Canada stuff – plus the news and information the CBC delivers in communities from coast to coast to coast. You know. The stuff the private sector is abandoning.

The truth is there’s not a lot of wiggle room in CBC budget setting, certainly not enough to justify all this hand-wringing.

It has been getting the same base parliamentary appropriation of just over $1B for the past 15 years or so. Sometimes there’s a discretionary $60M for programming that the government always calls “one-time” and dangles like a piece of red meat. And this year, the CBC is asking for bridge financing – a loan – to get it over this ad revenue freefall.

So why all the drama over a relatively small amount of money? The only answer is pure partisan politics. When Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tells reporters the CBC gets "substantial financing", he is inferring that $1B is overly generous. (It sounds like a lot until you learn that Canwest spent $1.7B last year.) He is doing this to play to his party’s base.

Last year, the parliamentary Heritage Committee recommended that the CBC and the government enter into a seven-year deal or “memorandum of understanding” so there would be more stability in decision-making and not so much room for political interference.

It’s time. The annual rerun of this show is destructive to the CBC and everything it stands for. It creates a nasty government-as-boss dynamic. Meanwhile, as employees, all we can do is watch…and wait.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Breaking news: the sky is falling

Timing is everything, and don’t the networks know it. Can it be a coincidence that Canwest and CTV have chosen the same few days to complain about losing so much money that massive job cuts are absolutely the only way out? In today’s roundup of announcements, CTV says it’s cutting 118 jobs in its A Channel newsrooms in Ottawa, London and Barrie, in addition to closing stations in Windsor and Wingham, Ontario (announced last week).

This happens to be the very day the CRTC planned to go public with the networks’ various license applications – the submissions in which they tell Canadians what they intend to do in exchange for access to our public airwaves. This is when all the pre-CRTC hearing lobbying begins. What better way to make your case that you need new relaxed rules than to eliminate service to the public and lay people off?

Only last Friday, CTV’s chief executive officer Ivan Fecan said the company would at least try to make a go of it with the A Channels. “We’re merely trying to keep the As open until regulatory restructuring for the entire sector can take place. While we welcome the new, year-long CRTC process and while we can’t guarantee the survival of the As until that time, together we will do our best.”

What changed in three days? Perhaps a peak at other broadcasters’ filings? Why do more than your competitors? A cursory read of the hundreds of pages that we all have to read in less than a month is eyeopening.

For example, we learned today that even though Canwest is abandoning at least five local markets, it wants more breaks. It wants to do fewer hours of local television on the stations it decides are profitable enough to keep. And it wants permission from the CRTC to be able to continue to do simultaneous substitution of lucrative U.S. shows (of course!) and get “priority carriage” on cable and satellite…but it doesn’t want to have to bother actually being a broadcaster. It’s asking for these privileges even if it doesn’t send out its signal free over-the-air – just directly to cable and satellite.

Not only is this an attack on local television, it’s an attack on free television. Oh, and did we remind you how horrible it is for conventional broadcasters right now? We trust the CRTC will demand to see those numbers, station by station, and release them to the public.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The sands are shifting under our feet

It must be a relief for private media outlets to splash CBC’s troubles on the front page. There was an avalanche of news about the public broadcaster’s financial woes and the CMG officially responded to it here.

But it’s actually make or break day for Canwest. Today’s the day for the conglomerate’s creditors to decide whether they will continue to put up much-needed cash to continue operations at the TV stations and newspapers.

Torstar is going through an upheaval of its own.

And CTV, the author of some of Torstar’s despair, has taken the interesting step of making its licence renewal application public ahead of the CRTC making it public. Ivan Fecan sent a memo to staff today saying that “the situation with the CTV stations is alarming (and) the situation with the 'A's is grave.” And CHUM, which CTV owns, says it is eliminating 40 jobs.

In explaining the closing down of three stations and the abandoning of 45 rebroadcast transmitters that bring free access to CTV programming to dozens of communities, Fecan noted: “We are a private broadcaster. We are not the CBC. We are here because we make a profit from the service we provide.”

We who work on the front lines of this crisis probably have some of the best ideas to save the services we provide to our audiences and readers. That’s certainly true of the folks at Canwest’s CHCH Hamilton station, who are spearheading an effort to hold on to their station and provide even better local coverage.

If you have any ideas, or know of any that are floating around, please don’t be shy. Share.

I’m doing some research on the topic myself and hope to share what I find in future posts.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It’s a race to the bottom for Canadian broadcasting

The CBC has been sucked into a whirlwind of partisan politicking just at the time of year the public broadcaster is forced to beg for its annual allotment of federal cash.

Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty made it clear today that he is rejecting a perfectly reasonable bridge financing plan to get CBC through the next year of economic turmoil that has already hammered ad revenue.

And the question of whether the CBC will receive the same base parliamentary allocation for 2009-10 as it did for the current year, which ends March 31, is still up in the air.

The Flaherty quote used today by the Canadian Press is ambiguous. Yes, the $1 billion is apparently in the budget. But, the vital $60 million fund for Canadian programming that has been in the budget every year since 2001 appears to be in doubt. In today’s scrum, he spoke of it in historical terms as an extra.

If $60 million is not in the coming year’s allocation, then the government will have made a very clear statement on its commitment to Canadian programming.

The Conservatives are pointing to Canwest and CTV and apparently looking for similar evidence of cuts and closures from the CBC. Today, CTV was obliging enough to announce the closure of two more small stations, this time in Windsor and Wingham. Is a race to the bottom for Canadian broadcasters really in our best interests as Canadians?

CBC president Hubert T. Lacroix speaks tomorrow at the Empire Club in Toronto. It’ll probably be the speech of his life and I wish him well.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The failed local TV experiment and why it shouldn't be used to change the rules

By guest blogger karenatcmg

Le Devoir reported this week that Quebec private TV network TQS is cancelling the last of the three magazine-style (read: cheap and cheerful) shows launched after the new owners canned local news last summer. The report says ratings were hardly registering for morning show Deux Laits, Un Sucre. Turns out the weekend evening news that TQS buys from an outside company is pulling a respectable 223,000 or so. So guess what? The network’s owners are looking to get back into early evening news on weekdays.

Let’s just hope it’s not too late to make sure the failed experiment, green-lighted by the CRTC last year, doesn’t come back to haunt us during the round of TV licence renewals coming in April. That’s what Commissioner Michel Morin feared when he dissented on the decision to give TQS what it wanted. [Scroll down to find Morin’s dissenting opinion.]

We have good reason to be fearful. After all, CTVglobemedia and Canwest are upping the ante ahead of those renewals by threatening to let their small market stations die.

CTV announced yesterday it wants to dump CKX-TV in Brandon, which has the only local TV news broadcast in the area. If CTV doesn’t find a buyer, the company will simply let the station go dark. CBC, which has an affiliation agreement with CKX until August 31, has already turned down the opportunity to buy it. Whether the station survives or not, it looks like local viewers will have to pay for cable or satellite to watch their public broadcaster starting in September.

Some analyst told The Canadian Press that small market TV stations “are costly to run and maintain and were having difficulty providing a decent return on investment even in good times."

Define decent. Apparently nobody but the networks themselves and (perhaps) the CRTC actually knows how individual TV stations are really doing. Have a read of the latest Canwest Global Communications earnings reports and you get the idea the newspaper and TV operations are doing ok. It’s the debt and the foreign exchange losses that are killing them. And yet four Canwest small market stations are also facing extinction in Hamilton, Red Deer, Kelowna and Victoria.

For the local viewers of any station that’s threatened, you’ve got to wonder if a small return on investment – or simply the ability to cover costs and pay decent wages – works just fine if it means putting some quality local news on the air.

And don’t worry … Lise will return.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Slowly, quietly, behind closed doors

In the last few days, my worst suspicions were confirmed about how the Canadian TV industry is dealing with the move to digital: slowly, quietly and behind closed doors. It’s almost as if there is stuff they don’t what us to know.

The CRTC set a date of August 31, 2011 to shut off analogue TV transmitters that provide free, over-the-air TV signals. As the deadline looms, it is less and less clear whether Canadians will still have free TV in a couple of years.

As I’ve mentioned before, broadcasters seem to be doing everything they can to miss the boat on free, over-the-air digital TV in Canada – unlike their counterparts in the U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world. The U.S. is poised to go fully digital in June and TV viewers with the right equipment can already pick up dozens of channels for free in U.S. cities as broadcasters use the additional capacity of the digital transmitters to create multiple free channels using a single frequency. [It’s called multiplexing and you can find out a bit more about it here; and check here to find out how multiplexing is being used in the UK to provide lots of free, over-the-air TV.]

Because we’re one of the only organizations paying attention to this issue in this country, we thought it might be a good idea to meet with CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein to talk about how the transition will affect regular viewers and access to Canadian programming. We wanted to suggest a broad transition working group that could both represent the interests of viewers (and not just the industry), and also figure out how best communicate the coming changes to them. After all, even industry watchers seem to think the only problem in Canada is the lack of a program to provide coupons for digital converter boxes for people with analogue TV sets. [If there’s no digital transmission, there’s no need for a converter box to pick up the non-existent signals.]

No dice on the meeting.

We’ve found out that there is a working group on the digital TV transition, apparently working under the auspices of the CRTC, and that it will issue a report in the next few weeks. Who’s in the group? Only the broadcasters, the ones that Konrad worried last June “might not be ready” for the transition.

Yesterday, we got a nice letter from Konrad, blowing off our request for a meeting. He thanked us in advance for our participation in the public hearing scheduled to begin April 27 that will deal with the broadcasters’ report on digital TV, among other (equally important) issues, such as how much local programming the broadcasters will have to provide. So we’re limited to ten minutes of face time with CRTC commissioners to raise a unique perspective of public interest. Meanwhile, broadcasters have been holding private meetings with the commission for months.

I expect the broadcasters’ report to confirm our worst fears about the digital transition in Canada: they will want to bypass it and leave us with no alternative to buy increasingly pricey cable and satellite subscriptions to watch television.

But no matter what the report says, the CRTC will not make decisions on the broadcasters’ plans for the digital transition until after a full licence renewal hearing in the spring of 2010, barely one year before the planned shut-off of analogue transmitters. Not exactly the kind of timing that instills confidence in the regulator’s commitment to free, over-the-air TV.

When the time comes (around the middle of March), we will be sure to let you know where to send your comments to the CRTC on this vital issue.

Friday, February 13, 2009


The CRTC said today it would issue one-year licence renewals to permit hearings in 2010 on how television broadcasters serve Canadians.

The announcement poses an immediate threat to local programming in Canada and should raise fears across the country about the future of free, over-the-air television after the conversion to digital delivery in 2011.

Broadcasters have had an unprecedented number of closed-door meetings with the CRTC. This fast-tracking of the process is going to circumvent real discussion about the future of local programming and over-the-air television. Broadcasters have been using a weak economy to seek permanent changes to their licence obligations.

The Guild wants the CRTC to guarantee that it will seek the widest possible input before making major permanent changes to the way broadcasters serve the public.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Want a future for local news? Call your MP...

I was invited on to CHCH Hamilton's Live@5:30 show for a mini debate with S-VOX executive Peter Miller on the future of local news. We agree on the fact that local TV has a future. Where we disagree is on the way to fix it, and on the role of the CRTC.

What do you think will save local TV, and local news in particular?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Are Canadian broadcasters missing the boat?

In an article in the latest Broadcast Dialogue magazine, consultant (and former CBC executive) Michael McEwen says that Canadians left the transition from analogue to digital TV production and transmission up to the market “and the marketplace has failed to date.” Of the thousands of over-the-air transmitters in this country, only twenty are digital, and digital production facilities only exist in the “network centres.”

That means that only those of us in the big cities (where the few digital transmitters are) can now get picture-perfect digital TV for free, over the air. Everywhere else in the country, you have to pay for the privilege.

And the digital divide is only going to grow if the broadcasters are allowed to give up on over-the-air transmission in much of the country after August 31, 2011. That is the date the CRTC has chosen to shut down analogue transmitters to free up that spectrum to sell for some other use. It is quite possible that millions of Canadians will be left with no free option for TV, and will have to pay for satellite, cable or IPTV service to get any channels at all.

This is one of the issues that hangs in the balance of the CRTC’s move to narrow the scope of the private TV licence renewal hearings slated for April. We are due to hear more about that early next week.

Canadian broadcasters would have us believe that over-the-air is going the way of the dinosaurs. But broadcasters are taking a different approach in the U.S., where analogue transmitters will be shut down in June of this year and where thousands of digital transmitters are already in operation. McEwen points out:

Like their Canadian counterparts, U.S. broadcasters are also losing audiences to cable and satellite distributors, not quite to the same degree but certainly pointed in the same direction. However, the U.S. broadcaster holds to the belief that their transmitter gives them independence and the right to control their core delivery platform, one they hope to evolve into a multi-platform delivery service [eg. by transmitting directly to wireless devices, for example – Lise]. It is this kind of innovative thinking that has always been associated with broadcasting, but sadly seems to have been lost in Canada.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Fire sale

Canwest is looking for a buyer for its E! television network. Calling the network “non-core,” Canwest has hired RBC Capital Markets to help unload the five stations in Montreal, Hamilton, Red Deer, Kelowna and Victoria.

They could be sold as a group or as individual stations.

“These stations have proud histories of serving their communities with strong independent voices,” says Leonard Asper in the Canwest release.

Apparently, Canwest was never able to square its strategy of using the stations to dump excess Hollywood programming it had to buy to get the stuff it really wanted for the Global schedule with that proud local history.

The word is the stations could be sold for a song, if only to save Canwest the costs of winding them down. Is there an investor out there who is actually interested in reviving some proud local history in one or all of the stations? Or is it time for the good people of Montreal, Hamilton, Red Deer, Kelowna and Victoria to find another way to save their local TV stations?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What are we, chopped liver?

Seems reports are surfacing that the CRTC has been very busy over the past months meeting with private broadcasters …just when those same private broadcasters want to back out of doing things like local news, blaming economic woes.

As we know, it looks like all the meetings paid off. On Friday, the CRTC announced that it will “review the scope” of the upcoming license hearings, the ones in which the broadcasters are accountable to the public through the CRTC every seven years or so.

Can’t help but note that during the same time the private broadcasters were lobbying extensively to get out of pesky things like local news and ensuring Canadians get free (over-the-air) TV after the digital conversion in 2011, our December letter seeking a meeting with the CRTC chair never even got a reply.

Maybe he’ll read it here. Here’s most of what I wrote to CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein last December 22:

I am writing to request a meeting with you concerning the transition to digital TV in Canada. As you may be aware, the Canadian Media Guild has taken a keen interest in the transition, particularly from the point of view of maintaining free, over-the-air TV in communities across Canada after 2011.

We have commissioned research on cost-effective options for implementing digital over-the-air TV in smaller markets, through the sharing of transmitters and the use of digital multiplexing, which allows for the transmission of more than one channel on a single transmitter and frequency. This option is much less expensive than many of the cost projections associated with the digital conversion. We shared this research with a group of CRTC staff last August. We plan to put this research on the public record ahead of the private broadcasting licence renewal hearings in April.

We are concerned about the way the transition is going - or not going - in Canada. We wonder if a broad industry and stakeholder group should be formed as soon as possible to steer the transition in Canada and to make sure that Canadians know what is happening. Our experience is that many, many people - even those who work in the industry - are very poorly informed about the transition and what it means to them as TV viewers. Some of this will be cleared up in the coming months thanks to increased communication from the U.S. in advance of their February shut off date. However, that will not provide any answers about what will happen in Canada in 2011.

That question is the subject of considerable mystery, even to people who follow the issue very closely. It appears to us that the local broadcasters are skirting the question.

As you may know, the Guild represents about 5,000 media workers – many at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It was in our work representing the interests of transmission technicians that we stumbled upon the multiplexing research and we realized very quickly how it could turn the digital transition into something truly exciting for smaller communities.

As it stands now, because the CMG has information on the transition on our website, we receive about one inquiry a week from Canadians in small communities wondering how the conversion will affect them and whether they need a digital converter box. While we try to answer as best we can, we are probably not the best ones to be providing information to Canadians.

We understand that you have taken a direct interest in this issue and we submit that a meeting soon in the new year might provide an opportunity to exchange ideas and allow us to do our work more productively.

Still waiting for a reply from Mr. von Finckenstein…

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Is the CRTC getting ready to roll over for Canwest, CTV and TVA?

There’s something very disturbing about this notice, issued by the CRTC on a wintry Friday. The CRTC is reviewing the “scope” of the upcoming licence renewal hearings for the big private broadcast groups “in light of the concerns raised by conventional broadcasters about the challenges of the broadcasting environment, as well as the current economic climate.”

As you may know, in early January the private networks submitted their renewal applications for their local TV licences. As reported in the Globe and Mail on January 22 (not available online), Canwest and CTV then speculated that they might have to drop their second-tier networks (E! and A, respectively) claiming a soft market for local TV and bemoaning the costs of local programming. It was suggested that this was a bargaining chip.

We warned back in November that the big networks would try to use the economic crisis to get out of their programming obligations. The CRTC notice, the likes of which one industry watcher told us he had never seen before, does not bode well for local programming, or perhaps Canadian programming in general.

Licence renewals are the one occasion, generally every seven years, for the public to weigh in on how our airwaves are being used. This round, which was already delayed for two years, is supposed to deal with the usual programming and spending obligations, as well as with the broadcasters’ plans for the transition to digital TV. On that score, they already told the CRTC in 2006 that they are not interested in replacing all of their analogue transmitters with digital ones. That would leave Canadians in smaller cities and rural areas with no alternative to paying for cable, satellite or IPTV. Will we be denied the opportunity to weigh in on those plans, then?