Saturday in The Gazette, I profile Global Montreal (CKMI), the station with Montreal’s third most popular local English-language TV newscast. With that piece is another about ratings for the local newscasts. Despite the generous space devoted to the stories in the paper, there’s plenty of detail I gathered over the past few weeks that didn’t end up in the story. Most is probably only of interest to people who really care about such things anyway.
So as a bonus for my blog readers, some things from my notebook and some meta-discussion about the story:
I have, in the past, been accused of bashing the local Global station, particularly by people who follow me on Twitter.
It’s true. I often use Twitter in particular to point out the errors of others. Not so much out of maliciousness, but out of interest. … Okay, sometimes out of maliciousness. But only when it really deserves it.
But I don’t have any particular beef with Global. I’m an equal-opportunity critic (except maybe when it comes to my employer). I’ve been accused of having crushes on the people I profile and having hate-ons for those I criticize. But my goal is to make everyone better, by recognizing hard work and making sure mistakes don’t go by unnoticed.
I first visited Global Montreal in the summer of 2009, shortly after it moved in to its new offices on the seventh floor of the Dorchester Square building that also houses The Gazette. Global is on the seventh floor (which was once used by The Gazette), The Gazette is on the second and third. The two were under common ownership at the time, and they invited us to a special open house. I went with my camera and had a look around.
I thought I would be incognito, and I was. (My blog was less than half the age it is now.) But near the end Jamie Orchard spotted me and engaged me in conversation, explaining the hard work she and her team do to put together a daily newscast. The things I had said about the station previously on my blog, about its plan to outsource local news production and use fake sets inserted via chroma key, weren’t particularly flattering. Not that it’s easy to sugarcoat when an organization fires three quarters of its staff.
What struck me about our conversation was that they didn’t think I understood the work they do on the daily basis, or might have thought I was blaming them for the quality of their newscast.
I don’t think Global offers Montreal’s best newscast, as the ads say. But that’s not the fault of the staff. The reporters are of high quality, and Orchard is a good anchor. Even Bill Haugland and a staff of Brian Britts couldn’t make a top-notch newscast with such few resources. My criticisms are directed at Global and its owners, who want to spend the bare minimum (I would argue less than that) on local programming so it doesn’t cut too much into the lazy profit it makes from rebroadcasting House, Family Guy and other popular American shows.
Considering the blog post I wrote after my last visit, I wasn’t sure if they’d agree to another one, this one to do a formal profile for The Gazette. I wanted to write something about them because of all the attention paid to their competitors recently, with CFCF getting its new studio and anchor, and CBMT announcing the coming arrival of weekend newscasts.
But Karen Macdonald, CKMI’s station manager, eagerly agreed, and in February I sat down with her in her little corner office for an hour to talk about stuff. After that, I was invited into the tiny studio (it’s about the size of two apartment bedrooms) to witness the broadcast of the half-hour evening news program live, with Jamie Orchard in the anchor chair.
It was a while until I could get the story done, partly because I had to track down a few people to interview, and partly because I had my actual job to do quite a bit.
Reaction to the published story has been positive so far. Jamie Orchard and Anne Leclair seem to think it’s positive, but I was more flattered when the latter referred to it as “accurate”. My goal was to give people a picture of what goes on there, and both sides of the argument about outsourcing production jobs.
I could have gone on for a few hundred words about the early history of this station, but most of that is on the public record and you can read it on the Wikipedia page. CKMI used to be a privately-owned CBC affiliate in Quebec City known as MI5 (shockingly, video evidence of this exists, and is on YouTube). It struggled as the only anglophone television station in a city that was almost entirely francophone. In 1997, in a $4.9-million deal, the station was sold to a company that had Canwest as a controlling partner and TVA as a minority partner. The deal was approved by the CRTC (over the strong objections of CFCF), and Global Quebec was created. Retransmitters were set up in Montreal and Sherbrooke, hired staff to create local programming, and Global Quebec was born in the fall of 1997.
The pre-Global history of CKMI explains two things: First of all, the transmitter on Mount Royal is technically CKMI-TV-1 (now CKMI-DT-1, with “DT” being the standard suffix for digital television). CKMI-DT remains the callsign for the Quebec City transmitter, and CKMI-DT-2 is the one in Sherbrooke.
Secondly, the union representing the station’s employees is SCFP Local 4502, part of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, while the unions at all the other Global stations (as well as former Canwest stations CHCH and CHEK) are represented by CEP Media One, part of the Communications Energy and Paperworkers union of Canada. Leclair, the local union president, explained that’s because they inherited the union from the pre-Global days and there was no pressing need to re-affiliate. Nevertheless, the local union and CEP have regular discussions.
Part of the license amendment that put CKMI under Global turned it into a regional broadcaster (hence “Global Quebec”), which is kind of unusual. (Global Ontario, based near Toronto, was similarly licensed.) The biggest downside to it is that it can solicit no local advertising. But it has to broadcast regional programming. The CRTC set a minimum of 18 hours a week in regional programming, which includes news and other programs.
In the late 1990s, the station experimented with various kinds of regional programming, with newscasts at different times and for different lengths. Though I recall vaguely the excitement about a Global station coming to Quebec in 1997 (and remember tuning my father’s tiny black-and-white TV to channel 46 to watch what was being transmitted over the air before the station was added to cable), I don’t remember much about local programming from back then. A few videos have been posted to YouTube, where you can see the faces of people like Gary Arpin (he moved to TQS in 2000 and now works at National PR) and Raymond Fillion (now Ottawa bureau chief at TVA) hosting newscasts.
Probably the most successful regional program aside from news was This Morning Live, a three-hour morning show with hosts that included Tracey McKee, Andrew Peplowski, Richard Dagenais and Gelareh Darabi. But it was cancelled in February 2008 due to budget cuts. There are a few YouTube videos posted online, mainly by interview subjects who recorded their own appearances.
It was about this time that Canwest went ahead with its plan to centralize local news operations at its stations. Rather than have control rooms for each of its stations across the country, it would move most technical jobs – the people who direct, cue video and graphics, adjust sound levels – into four super control rooms, which just happen to be at its biggest local stations – Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. Local stations would still have local newsrooms and local people would still be able to make editorial decisions (albeit with one hand tied behind their back), but the newscast would be produced with a local anchor sitting in front of a green wall facing robotic cameras and a virtual set digitally added in another city and sent back to the station for transmission.
The staff in these four centralized control rooms would handle multiple newscasts in different cities in one day, taking advantage of time zone differences.
It was a controversial decision, not just because it meant firing three quarters of Global Quebec’s staff, turning its former offices at the TVA building into what Leclair described to the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph (and to me) as a “funeral home”. I’ve been very critical both of the outsourcing of production jobs and of the green-screen set, mostly because of how dishonest it seems.
For one thing, Global Montreal doesn’t have anyone to do weather. Despite Global’s assurances that “local anchors” would still be used, the local weather was quickly outsourced as well, and is now done by the weather people from Global Toronto, chiefly Anthony Farnell. But they never make this clear on the air.
For another, it’s not clear what would happen in the case of local news important enough to break into regular programming. There hasn’t been such an event since the change, though I’m assured that this could be done if necessary. Global Montreal doesn’t do much in the way of special local programming. It aired the last two Alouettes Grey Cup victory parades live, but even during local and provincial elections it prefers to run American programming during primetime and pick up the story at 11pm.
Their new virtual set (with day and night skyline backdrops courtesy of Gazette photographer Phil Carpenter) is very nice and looks spacious. And I could even see it being used for news. But if you watch something like the weekly Focus Montreal program, it becomes clear how cheap it looks. There’s lots of shimmering and other distractions when things create shadows or reflect light.
And, you know, it’s fake. It bothers me when an illusion is created in the presentation of news, even if TV news tends to be nothing but that.
Another thing that bothers me about Global Montreal is its local programming. Since the cancellation of This Morning Live, which provided 15 hours a week of local programming, there’s been far less than what one would expect based on the minimum they have to meet to satisfy the CRTC. They brought back News Final at 11pm, which was eventually shortened to a half hour. Now the station produces 7.5 hours of original local programming a week (two half-hour newscasts every day plus the half-hour Focus Montreal). How does it make up for the rest? By repeating both evening newscasts the next day at 6am. It’s clear from that choice of programming that Global doesn’t expect anyone to actually watch the programs at that time.
I asked Troy Reeb, vice-president of Shaw Media and responsible for Global News, about this decision. His response was that I should ask CTV about that, because they do the same thing in markets across the country.
He’s right. Even CFCF, which produces about 16 hours of news a week, has used this technique in the past when special events have pre-empted enough local news to cause them to drop below their minimum requirements.
But that doesn’t make it right.
Really, the fault here is with the CRTC, which doesn’t distinguish between original local programming and repeated local programming in setting minimums for TV stations. CJNT also exploits this loophole, running programming that is now three years old. (I’ll have more on them in a future story.)
How a newscast works
One thing I really wanted to express with this story is that despite the criticisms they would deserve for the corners they’ve cut in producing local programming, Global Montreal is still a dedicated staff who are doing the best they can to produce quality news on a daily basis. It’s easy to paint the station with a broad brush and say everyone who works there is incompetent. But I’m impressed so few people can put out so much work every day. The stories themselves are pretty well on par with what you’d see at CFCF, but they don’t have the budget to spend on fancy sets and can’t spare the time to work on big special reports (not that they’d have the money to advertise it anyway).
Just before 6pm, you’ll find Jamie Orchard in the studio (after having applied her own makeup), going over her script and talking to producers in Edmonton about any last-minute changes. I wasn’t hooked up to an earpiece, so I could only hear half the conversation, but I got the idea.
There’s a two-second delay between the time something happens in Montreal and the time it is returned from Edmonton as part of the newscast. Orchard and other anchors have worked around this so there aren’t awkward delays. They’re cued two seconds in advance, so it can seem to someone standing in the room as if they’re talking over the end of a packaged story.
Otherwise, it’s like any other newscast. The studio is quiet, the anchor keeps busy while packaged reports are running, and the last little bit of the newscast is filled so it can end at the half-hour mark. Since Orchard is alone, there’s no weather person or sports person to chat with at the end like you’ll see on CFCF, but she can kill a few seconds by telling people to tune in to News Final at 11. Usually, a few seconds is all she needs anyway.
The morning show
Assuming you’re liberal about what qualifies as a news hook, there are a few things happening at Global Montreal. They started broadcasting parts of their newscast in HD (so now their anchors have to use new makeup, a process Richard Dagenais describes in a blog post), they’re turning 15 this fall (no announced plans to celebrate it yet), and their over-the-air signal has improved in the past few weeks as its transmitter was hooked up to their new permanent antenna (shared with CBMT and CBFT) at the top of the Mount Royal tower.
But the big thing happening this year is a new morning show coming this fall. This is quite a long time coming, having been promised as part of the tangible benefits plan with the CRTC that was approved when Shaw purchased Global in October 2010. Among the $180 million in promises to invest in the industry (the CRTC expects such promises of 10% of the purchase price for any such changes in ownership), Shaw promised to launch morning shows in Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. All have since launched except Montreal and Halifax, which will start this fall.
A lot of details are still up in the air, even though fall is just six months away. The show will be a minimum of two hours (that was the promise to the CRTC), but could be three if the market supports that. The difference will be what kind of viewership they can expect between 6am and 7am (which is when they’re currently repeating their previous night’s newscast). The morning show will be from 7-9am or 6-9am depending on how long it is.
The set is also an issue. It’s not clear yet if a new set would be built for Global Montreal’s morning show or if they would use their existing single-desk-in-a-green-room setup as is used on newscasts. Global Toronto has a very nice storefront set. Regina and Saskatoon use very simple but real sets. Winnipeg is done by chroma key. Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, which already had morning shows, also use real sets.
Either way, it looks unlikely that a control room would be rebuilt in Montreal. Global News head Troy Reeb said new technology will allow their existing control rooms to handle morning shows across the country.
Global has budgeted $5 million for the Montreal morning news out of that $180 million benefits package, and is committed to doing it for at least six years.
Reeb said “we are 100% committed to launching a morning show this fall.”
What’s most frustrating about Global Montreal is how it compares to other Global stations. Even though they face more competitors, stations in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto put out much more local programming and have many more resources. Winnipeg, whose market size is comparable to English Montreal, just got a news helicopter. Montreal doesn’t even have its own weather man.
The situation is similar in Halifax, where Global is also a very weak station. “I don’t understand why the Halifax weather is produced in Calgary,” said Peter Murdoch, CEP vice-president. (That has since changed, see “CRTC obligations” below.)
Montreal “has traditionally been a tougher market for Global,” Reeb said in a rather dramatic understatement. “Audience has been slower to grow in the market than we would have liked.”
It’s a chicken-and-the-egg situation. After 35 years of CFCF, Global had a lot of catchup to do. But it didn’t have the money to make a serious, sustained push to increase ratings for its local programming. Combined with some awful mistakes at CBMT during rounds of budget cuts (particularly that Canada Now ridiculousness), CFCF’s market dominance has never seriously been challenged.
The low ratings mean low ad revenue for the local newscast, which results in small budgets, which results in a poor product, which results in low ratings.
“Canwest lost more than $20 million doing news at Global Montreal,” Reeb said. The goal now under Shaw is not to let that repeat, by being more prudent in investments.
“We know when we invest in the market we do it carefully,” he said. “We’re doing research in the market now to see what kind of morning show it would support. We want a show that would be a success with audiences and financially as well.”
That’s the hope, anyway. At least during the morning there isn’t any competition. CFCF cancelled its morning newscast in 2009, and unless you count Metro Debut on CJNT as local programming, the field is wide open.
Of course, if it’s successful, that might convince CFCF to make a move of its own in mornings. Right now all it does is put local headlines in a ticker that runs below Canada AM.
Moving the newscast
I asked Karen Macdonald about having local news at 6pm, and why they don’t move it to, say, 7pm when there wouldn’t be any competition. Counter-programming has been used successfully elsewhere. French Quebec’s third-place network V adopted a counter-programming strategy, putting entertainment shows at 6pm and 10pm when Radio-Canada and TVA have newscasts. While they don’t have shows attracting million-plus audiences, they have gotten good numbers for some shows in these timeslots, notably Un souper presque parfait at 6:30pm.
“In the first five years of Global (Quebec), there was lots of experimenting with timeslots,” Macdonald said. “So they did kind of try it. My personal opinion is that they didn’t try it for long enough. I don’t think you change habits overnight.
“We haven’t talked about it recently. There might be more opportunity to do that now, so that’s a good suggestion.”
If they move their newscast, you can thank me for the idea.
Macdonald said if there was going to be a move, it would more likely be to 5:30pm. I think 7pm would be better (more people are getting home later, and they wouldn’t be competing with CBC), but Global’s 7pm hour has Entertainment Tonight and ET Canada, which are big ratings draws.
BBM Canada, the company that does ratings for TV and radio, is a mysterious beast, in that it releases very little information directly. But its members (it’s a non-profit member-owned organization) regularly use data to advertise themselves.
Robert Langlois, BBM Canada’s vice-president for the Eastern region, explained that some information is given to the media, and some posted on its website, but most is confidential for the simple reason that if it were publicly available nobody would pay membership fees.
CKMI is a member of BBM and gets ratings information, but has had a few complaints about ratings measurements. Some I heard during my last visit to the station in 2009, about how francophones weren’t surveyed and how CKMI wasn’t available on Bell satellite at the time (it is now, but only in standard definition). During this visit, Macdonald said she suspects many viewers who are watching Global are incorrectly reporting that they’re watching CTV, because CTV has much higher brand recognition in Montreal.
“There’s so much anecdotal evidence to support our theory. Jamie, every time she goes to a public event, people say to her ‘I love seeing you on CTV.’ She hasn’t worked for CTV in 15 years,” Macdonald said.
Part of the problem is that English Montreal television is measured using written diaries, meaning that survey takers write down what they watch. English radio and French television and radio use Portable People Meters, which are pager-like devices that listen for encoded signals and report accurately what people are watching (or listening to), and for how long. Because it’s done automatically, there’s very little error (so long as you’re wearing the PPM – they have to be charged so there are times where they’re separated from their assignments). The move from diaries to PPMs has resulted in big changes in reported ratings that everyone seems to agree is more accurate.
Langlois explained that BBM acts on the demands of its members, and there hasn’t been a move to use PPMs for English television in Montreal. One big reason, he says, is that because of cost. With diaries, BBM can choose which weeks to survey, but with PPMs the minimum survey period is much longer. The two are about the same on a per-week basis, but because PPMs require more of a commitment, English TV here hasn’t moved to it yet.
He said there are no plans in the short term to switch.
As for errors in diaries, Langlois said BBM asks for the name, callsign and channel number of each station entered into a diary. And if something isn’t clear, they call the person and ask. He said they don’t have statistics about error rates. (It would be hard to find out, in any case, without going to people’s homes and watching TV with them.)
Errors aside, Macdonald isn’t delusional. She knows no matter how they’re counted Global isn’t going to beat CTV, though she thinks they would be a bit closer.
I asked reporter Anne Leclair about the ratings, and about the perception that she works for a newscast nobody watches.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating because you know not many people are going to watch it,” she said. “I’m used to it. It’s always in the back of your mind.”
But being in such a busy newsroom doesn’t leave much time to reflect on such things, she said. “We don’t waste time thinking about it.”
Global’s poor ratings in Montreal may have had something to do with why they wouldn’t tell me how big their audience is. CFCF and CBC happily provided the information, but Global’s Chris McDowall cited its agreement with BBM for not giving out numbers.
Shaw Media’s advertising website does provide estimates for audience numbers in various demographics. McDowall cautioned that these are just “estimates” and not accurate figures, but since he won’t give me accurate figures I’ll compare based on those.
The master planner for CKMI (PDF) shows the Global News block (5:30-7pm, which also includes Global National and Ricardo and Friends) has a market share of 0.5% and a total audience of 6,700 on average, seven days a week. BBM said the actual audience is slightly less than this for that block. But if looking at just the local newscast, the numbers may be higher.
At 11pm, the master planner offers a rating of 0.2 and a total audience of 1,900. (BBM said the actual rating was slightly higher than that.) That block is the full hour, so the actual number for News Final might be different, probably higher.
McDowall did provide these ratings highlights (which are all relative to previous ratings), which I’ll put here in their entirety:
– Global Montreal experienced ratings gains in both the evening and late newscasts
– Against A25-54, Global’s evening news increased by 150% vs Fall’10 and 67% vs Spr’11
– Global Montreal’s News Hour Final experienced significant gains achieving A25-54 ratings 5 times that of last Fall
– With the gains in ratings, Global experienced increased share of viewing in these time periods with A25-54 shares more than doubling in both time periods
I have no numbers for Focus Montreal, but I imagine they aren’t good.
CRTC obligations and hope for change
There’s a lingering question over whether Global’s centralization of control rooms affects whether it’s meeting its CRTC obligations for local programming. Global obviously doesn’t think so, but the CEP union complained to the CRTC during the station’s next license renewal.
Rather than definitively rule one way or the other, the CRTC ruled in 2009 that “there is insufficient evidence on the public record of this hearing to conclude that the licensee was operating in non-compliance with the terms and conditions of its licences during the last licence term.”
“However,” it continued, “the Commission will continue to monitor the situation.”
That was almost three years ago, but no updates since.
For Murdoch, the CEP media vice-president, the battle is far from over. The CRTC has called a hearing for April 16 to discuss the Local Programming Improvement Fund, a fund that was started as a compromise in the “save local TV/stop the TV tax” campaign. Cable and satellite subscribers pay a surtax of 1.5% that goes into this fund of more than $100 million a year, which helps support local programming in small markets (Montreal isn’t one of them, in either language).
LPIF is credited for Global’s decision to bring a weather person back to Global Maritimes in 2010. The station’s LPIF report reads:
Having weather specialists in Halifax for the station’s weekday and weekend shows has significantly improved daily weather coverage. Weather coverage is an integral part of any local news station’s programming, particularly in the Maritimes where a significant number of residents make their living on or near the sea.
The Global Maritimes sportscaster is still based in Edmonton.
Global Montreal, which isn’t eligible for LPIF funding, still relies on Anthony Farnell at Global Toronto to do its weather. It doesn’t have a sports department, but relied on a B.C.-based sportscaster during the brief time when News Final was an hour long.
“I’m not going to give up the ghost,” Murdoch said.
He believes that technical jobs – studio camera operators, directors, graphics creators – should also be local, both because they have knowledge of the community and because “people shouldn’t have to go to Toronto to get a job.”
Anne Leclair, the local union head (which isn’t under CEP) said they’ve “accepted that the control rooms have been centralized” and the war is over for jobs lost four years ago.
It’s unclear at this point whether the CRTC will make the centralization of control rooms an issue during its LPIF hearings. CEP didn’t focus on it in its intervention.
Life under Shaw
I asked people what it’s like now that Global is owned by Shaw, rather than Canwest. As you might expect, finances are a big change. Shaw isn’t on the verge of bankruptcy.
But Shaw hasn’t really been making it rain money either. Global Montreal has added only one new employee, a web producer, since the change in ownership. Reeb mentioned that Shaw is really trying to push a digital-first strategy, and that requires at least one person updating the station’s website. Unfortunately it looks like only one so far.
Leclair said “it feels safer” under Shaw, and that “upper management is much more transparent than Canwest ever was.”
But she pointed out that Shaw has made promises that they haven’t seen yet.
For Macdonald, the big change is management style.
“Shaw really trusts their people,” she said. “They’ll take a look at what’s going on, ask questions, do their due diligence and say ‘you’re doing a good job, keep doing that job’.
“What’s fun with Shaw is that there’s a lot more interaction. There’s a lot more working together, projects of a national scope that we have a chance to be involved in. That didn’t really happen with Canwest.”
I asked Macdonald what the most frustrating part of her job is. She points out election campaigns, which Quebec might be facing shortly. Not only are they expensive to cover, with reporters following each of the campaigns as they tour the province, but they don’t get much extra money for it, because Quebec politicians don’t advertise in English. Anglos in Quebec vote Liberal, so why waste money on TV campaign ads?
Of course, with François Legault’s Coalition avenir Québec courting the anglo vote, that might change this time around.
I also asked Macdonald about how much of her job is administrative versus newsgathering. While other stations might have a station manager, a news director, an executive producer and a bunch of other jobs, Macdonald is really the only boss at Global Montreal. She estimated about 75% of her job is news, and 25% everything else. She credits Shaw, which centralizes a lot of the paperwork and leaves her free to do the things that really matter.
For Macdonald, there are silver linings to the whole centralization thing. “We’re their client,” she says of the production centre in Edmonton. If she wants something, she asks for it and she gets it. There’s no debate, no discussion like you might have had in the old days.
Perhaps the one thing that surprised me most about Global Montreal is how everyone is still working there. Since the layoffs in 2008, turnover has been little and poaching by CBC and CTV nonexistent. Recently it lost reporter Mike Le Couteur to an Ottawa-based job at Global National, and assistant news director Alexandra Henderson to Global Toronto.
Orchard has no plans to leave, at least not for a job in broadcasting. She mused briefly about the prospect of taking a job that would give her more free time with her family (her husband works at CFCF), should she eventually decide that the fast-paced news business isn’t for her. But she said she wouldn’t leave for a job at another network or for a national job at Global. She’s staying here for the foreseeable future.
It’s not like there isn’t good reason to want to offer jobs to Global Montreal employees. People like Tim Sargeant, Leclair and Domenic Fazioli do solid work with few means. Of particular interest to CFCF should be Caroline Plante, Global’s Quebec City bureau chief. CTV hasn’t had a bureau chief in the provincial capital since Kai Nagata left last July (you might recall Nagata himself was poached from a job at CBC Montreal).
Everyone I spoke to at the station gave a simple answer to why this is: Despite its limited resources and the constant frustration of a small audience, it’s a good place to work.
“We may not have the most viewers,” Leclair said, “but we have the best team spirit.”
I don’t know if that makes them “Montreal’s best newscast”, but it’s a nice feeling to end this on.