Friday, October 29, 2010

Cutting his way to being "digital first"

Funny how the media doesn't report on how it's decimating itself.

Both CBC and CTV reported today on how 42 Ottawa Citizen staffers are taking the buyout offered by new Postmedia owner Paul Godfrey last month. The Citizen itself was strangely silent about it. Ever wonder why big general buyouts are the staff-cut method of choice? So there's no noise. No "L" word, as in layoffs. But the positions are still lost; the expertise gone and there's no added value to anyone.

Trouble is, this is only the tip of the iceberg at Postmedia. The numbers of positions being lost across the whole former Southam/Canwest (Montreal Gazette, Regina Leader-Post, Vancouver Sun and Province, Victoria Times Colonist and others) chain are at least triple that number of 42 and there are plans to centralize the business and advertising operations in a single city. If you read one of these papers, your local newspaper will be local in name only. Godfrey talks about being "hyper local" in news content but beware. Unless there's evidence of hiring people to do local news...those are just cute words. The strategy appears to be to cut an already lean newspaper empire to its very core, go public next summer and sell it all for profit.

Forget the demographic deficit. We have an information deficit.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sign of hope for free TV in small-town Canada

Last Friday, when the CRTC approved the application by cable and satellite giant Shaw Communications to take over Canwest Global, it also took an important step to ensuring Canadians in smaller towns continue to have access to free, over-the-air TV after the switch to digital in 2011.

The CRTC told Shaw that, within the next five years, it must upgrade some 66 transmitters, mostly in the interior of BC, central and northern Ontario and Nova Scotia, serving smaller markets. It includes places like Sudbury ON, Kamloops and Kelowna BC, and Sydney NS that would have otherwise lost free TV signals after the transition. Previous owner Global had planned to shut down some of the existing analog transmitter in each of these 66 locations on August 31, 2011, and keep the others running only as long as they still worked.

The Guild has driven people crazy talking about the potential of free digital TV in smaller markets, using the ability of a single transmitter on a single frequency to send out up to six channels where an analog transmitter can only send out one. It's called digital multiplexing and, perhaps due to sheer repetition, or because the CRTC wants us to go away already, the Commission also said in the Shaw decision that it is "persuaded of the benefits of multiplexing with respect to the promotion of media diversity and access, and its potential to offset some of the negative impact resulting from media consolidation."

What multiplexing means concretely for the Sudburys, Kamloopses, Kelownas and Sydneys of the world is the potential for viewers to get more than just Global for free. Shaw has said it would consider multiplexing, and therefore sharing with other broadcasters, in some of these 66 locations. And perhaps what the CRTC is saying is that it would be good for media diversity if a new local TV service were launched in these places (perhaps a true community station?) that could piggy-back on the Shaw transmitter.

The ironies in this are delicious. First, that it's cable giant Shaw that is the first with a national TV network to commit to over-the-air TV in smaller communities in Canada. Way to go. Second that Shaw might well end up helping independent community TV. This may be a pay of patching things up with supporters of independent community TV after the scrap they had earlier this year over the country's community TV policy and where the $120 million in cable money that's supposed to be devoted to "local expression" is really being spent.

Over to you, mayors of smaller communities. You can bring several channels of free TV to your city. Any takers????

Meanwhile, there's a growing chorus of support for free, over-the-air TV, especially among those in major cities such as Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver and those who live along the US border who are already receiving the new high-quality digital signals for free. You can see the latest love letter to over-the-air TV here and an article about how to get free TV here.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Good news: Sun TV's straight talk takes a turn

Quebecor is retreating on its bid to force all Canadian cable subscribers to pay for its proposed Sun TV News ... aka Hard News, Straight Talk ... aka Fox News North.

This is a victory. The about-face comes after thousands of Canadians voiced their opposition through organizations such as OpenMedia.ca and Avaaz.org to what was perceived as a politically-connected corporation trying to get a special deal via the Conservative government. This appears to be a rare example of the public getting involved and forcing a shift in the broadcaster's plans.

The CRTC has been planning a hearing on the Sun TV News application (we'll soon see if that hearing goes ahead). The Guild made a written submission supporting the existence of the new channel, with conditions, and objecting to the request for the special treatment.

Among the conditions, we proposed that Quebecor commit to a base level of editorial staff for the new channel, based on concerns about Quebecor's recent commitment to news and journalism at its other outlets. The company has cut hundreds of newspaper jobs cut across the country in the last two years and yet says it will rely heavily on these print journalists to feed the all-news TV network. And then there's the way Quebecor values its newspaper operations in Quebec, where a lockout at the Journal de Montreal is now in month 20; a lockout at the Journal de Qu├ębec ended in 2008 after a year and a half.

The Guild also proposed that the CRTC hold a hearing on the definition of news programming. While news is clearly dear the CRTC - they set up that local program fund in 2008 to support it, and that's good - no definition of it exists in broadcast policy. That's dangerous when media owners such as Quebecor, with the Sun TV News application, and Corus, with the Local 1 application, cleary want to stretch the boundaries.