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?