One of the arguments used against conventional television broadcasters in Canada - CTVglobemedia and my corporate overlord Canwest especially - in this whole fee-for-carriage debate is that they're both giant megacorporations and own a slew of cash-cow specialty television channels.
The broadcasters counter that they can't take profits from one part of the business and subsidize another.
As much as the knee-jerk consumer reaction might be that this is exactly what they should do, they're right. It makes no business sense for a profit-generating enterprise to not be generating profit. If conventional television doesn't make money, then subsidy or no subsidy, it will eventually be shut down.
CTV and Canwest purchased their specialty arsenals knowing the conventional model was going down the toilet. If it came down to it, neither would have any trouble shutting down their entire conventional network and moving completely to specialty channels. But conventional TV is still making money (only just) and they're betting on a fee-for-carriage solution to get them more.
But as much as the broadcasters are arguing against subsidizing their own operations, they have no trouble demanding exactly that from cable and satellite broadcast distribution companies. Not only do they benefit directly from the new Local Programming Improvement Fund in small markets, but their expensive Canadian dramas and comedies get large subsidies from the Canadian Media Fund, formerly the Canadian Television Fund. Both of these funds get their income from cable and satellite companies.
And cross-subsidization is what the conventional broadcasters do for local programming. In fact, even though they constantly whine that the "model is broken", the basic premise of using profits from reselling U.S. programming to fund Canadian and local programming remains. This isn't done because CTV and Global have hearts of gold and see the value in homegrown television, it's because the CRTC forces them to air this kind of programming as conditions of license.
The result is that the broadcasters see a negative value in original programming. They juggle the schedule to just barely pass CRTC-imposed minimums. They match U.S. networks for as many popular shows as possible to take advantage of lucrative simultaneous substitution rules that put their ads over the U.S. feeds. Original Canadian programming is left to fill the less desirable holes. CTV's Flashpoint, considered a huge success in Canadian drama, is thrown into the TV dead zone of 10pm Fridays. Most other programming consists of cheap Canadian franchises of U.S. or other foreign formats (usually reality shows). ET Canada, Project Runway Canada, Cash Cab, So You Think You Can Dance Canada, Canadian Idol, Canada's Worst Driver/Handyman, the list goes on. They're cheap and low-risk and don't require any original thought.
For local programming, it's the same deal: cheap and formulaic. Most stations outside of the huge markets produce the absolute minimum of local programming, even at the recently reduced levels of 7 or 14 hours a week depending on market size. And in most markets, there is zero local programming outside of local newscasts.
In Montreal, Global's CKMI produces only 7.5 hours of local programming a week, all of it with an anchor in a small green room and computer-generated set. It adds 7 hours of repeats of local news to fill the rest of its mandate. CBC's CBMT isn't much better, with 500 minutes (8h 20min) of news each week (a 90-minute newscast that repeats the same stories over and over again, and a 10-minute late-night newscast that includes 75 seconds of advertising). CTV's CFCF has just over 16 hours a week of local programming, all of it newscasts.
It gets worse. Those local newscasts aren't all local. As I studied previously, much of the local newscasts for all three networks consist of prepackaged reports from national reporters in Ottawa, Toronto and elsewhere. Only about half an hour of an hour-long newscast is local news. That, combined with the fact that newscasts repeat the same story during the day, means each station might produce only a handful of stories each day (figues based on the same newscasts studied this summer):
- At CFCF, an average of 7-8 reporters producing about 15 minutes of local news packages a day
- At CBMT, 4-5 reporters producing about 10 minutes of local news packages a day
- At CKMI, 3-4 reporters producing about 8 minutes of local news packages a day
Perhaps these numbers are unfair. They don't include sit-down interviews during CFCF's news at noon. They don't include sports news and weather. They don't include special features on the weekend that CFCF used to replace Entertainment Spotlight and SportsNight 360. And they don't include CKMI's half-hour Focus Montreal show.
But let's set those aside for a moment (we'll get back to them). When we focus on the actual news part of those local newscasts, which we're told is the most important part of local TV (since it's the only thing they really have left), I'm tempted to ask: What would we lose if these stations simply disappeared from the airwaves?
What's at stake?
I watched the evening and late-night newscasts from all three networks on Friday night (flipping between them, so I might have missed a story or two), and I struggled to find any original journalism that would not have been done had it not been for that particular TV journalist. There were stories on swine flu and the Agence métropolitaine de transport, which are being heavily covered by all local media. There was the crime and justice reporting that everyone else has too. One story was clearly re-reported from the morning newspaper (without credit, of course).
It's not that the journalists are lazy, or that they're not doing their jobs. They all work very hard. Newspapers have no more claim to a government press release than the TV station does. More journalists means more voices, more eyes, hopefully more angles. And there is plenty you get from video that you can never get from audio or print.
But if the TV stations disappeared tomorrow, these stories would still get reported. We'd still find out how to get our swine flu vaccinations. We'd still find out what the weather is, or how the Habs did in their last game, or who's been arrested in what cold case. Exclusives on TV are few and far between (CFCF's special reports during sweeps notwithstanding). It's a direct result of the lack of editorial staff. There's just so much you can do with fewer than 10 reporters in a newsroom.
Those sit-down interviews, at least, are a bit more interesting. They're not as hard-hitting as a two-minute package done by a reporter on deadline, but sometimes you can learn something from them that the newspapers and radio might have missed.
But is that glimmer of information worth being forced to pay for? Is protecting this a national crisis that the CRTC has to step in to stop?
Local TV to care about
It's not that I want local TV to disappear. It's that I want the networks to care about them. And it's clear that they don't. No matter what happens, so long as local news is a negative-profit proposition, the networks will reduce their influence on the balance sheet as much as possible. This, I argue, is a broken model, and one the "Local TV Matters" proposal does nothing to fix.
Perhaps I'm being naive and idealistic, but I think something would come in and fill the gap if CFCF and CKMI were to shut down tomorrow. (I leave out CBC since it's not a private broadcaster and hence shouldn't be concerned with making money in the first place.) Print publications (which, as David Olive points out, don't get government subsidies) are increasingly using video to report stories that they think have a strong video angle. Most of those videos are God-awful, but they will start improving. Small independent video production houses could step up production and move into more serious journalism. And local cable access channels like VOX (which, by the way, are also subsidized by the cable companies) could become a destination for people looking for local news on television.
If the entrepreneurial spirit, instead of CRTC mandates, drove local news, we might see a lot of changes for the better. They might stop chasing the same stories that are being reported by everyone else and look to contribute something original to the conversation. They might value long-form original journalism over two-minute packages repeating what they read in the newspaper. They might have more interviews and less stock footage B-roll. And they might look seriously at having their product available on multiple platforms (neither of the three anglo stations have all their newscasts available for streaming online, none provide the choice between watching the entire newscast or individual stories, none have newscasts available for podcast download, and none are available on Videotron's video-on-demand service). They might see outside the constrictive box of what a newscast is supposed to look like. And they might try to produce inexpensive but watchable local programming.
Sure, it would suck balls at first. A lot of good TV reporters would be out of work (or forced to take low-paying jobs with no benefits or union protection), and the community would have a void of voices before someone stepped in to fill it (unless an existing station decided it really wanted to produce a local newscast for profit). A lot of the professionalism would be gone, replaced by young ambitious people with no clue what they're doing.
Maybe the result would look like VOX, a channel nobody watches. Maybe the result would be similar to the online local video productions that nobody watches either. Or maybe it might be interesting enough, different enough, to catch people's attention and make someone modestly rich.
In Hamilton, the new owners of CHCH are betting on the power of local news, expanding local newscasts far beyond what the CRTC requires. I certainly wouldn't put any good money on their chances of success (even if they are ultimately successful they're going to lose a lot of money at first), but even that slim chance of a workable business model is reason for hope, because if they do by some miracle turn a profit we could see that model quickly replicated across the country (and maybe around the world).
On the francophone side, Quebecor has its LCN all-news cable network, which is supported through subscriber fees and advertising, but is discretionary on digital cable and satellite. Though I'm sure TVA would protest otherwise, it's heavily focused on Montreal, the centre of the francophone media universe. And it obviously shares resources with the conventional TVA television network and news team. But it's a private enterprise, and one Quebecor thinks can make a profit.
Even under the best of scenarios, a deregulated local television landscape would probably have at most one local news operation, a reduction from the current three. But at least it would turn a profit, whether from advertising, subscriber fees or both, without any taxes, handouts or subsidies.
And we would care about it. And advertisers would care about it. And its journalists and producers would care about it. And its owners (and their shareholders) would care about it.
Because it would matter.