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.