I have two stories in Wednesday's Gazette, explaining to readers the two proposals for new television stations related to the proposed Rogers acquisition of CJNT. The first discusses the plan for CJNT itself, to convert it to an English Citytv station that would air the Citytv schedule and a new local morning show. The second talks to the family behind an application for a new station called ICI that would essentially bring back CJNT's predecessor Télévision Ethnique du Québec, in which producers acted independently in a cooperative and sell advertising for their own shows.
While the Gazette stories are long and contain a lot of information, there were a bunch of other little facts that I couldn't cram in there that would probably be of more interest to people who follow local media a bit more closely. So here are some answers:
Why didn't Rogers just apply for a new licence?
This was my main question to Rogers President of Broadcast Scott Moore. Since the net result is the addition of an English station, why go through this two-step process?
"That process of applying for a new licence is not a certain process," he told me. "We would be going into it not sure if they would award a licence. We felt there would be more certainty in buying an existing station."
Of course, there's no guarantee the CRTC will agree with Rogers's plan and accept turning CJNT into an English station either. But Moore also pointed out that buying CJNT eliminates it as a possible intervenor.
"We know full well that if we went in for an English-only licence, the person it would affect most is CJNT," he said, because CJNT is the weakest player in English-language commercial television here. Bringing in Citytv would create more competition for the third-rate U.S. shows that CTV and Global don't claim (though there wasn't really any overlap between programs bought by Channel Zero and those bought by Citytv).
The other main reason is timing. A new television station takes a while to get running. But with the related affiliation agreement there was Citytv programming on CJNT within days of the announcement. "One way or the other, we have Citytv primetime programming on in Montreal," Moore said.
Why does Rogers want to bring Citytv here if it would lose so much money?
Not only does the all-English Citytv plan lose money, but it would lose even more money than an ethnic station plan because of the local morning show. It would lose $6 million or $7 million a year. But for Moore, it's important to look at the larger picture.
"We're doing it to expand the Citytv national footprint," he said. As it stands, Citytv is considered a regional player rather than a national network like CTV and Global. He wants Citytv to become a true national player, which will open doors to national advertisers, those big spenders like car companies. Even the federal government doesn't advertise on Citytv as much as it does the other networks because it doesn't have a national reach, Moore said.
So while CJNT as a Citytv station would lose money on paper, the benefit to the national network as a whole might make it worthwhile. "Citytv as a system has been by far the least profitable of the major networks," Moore said, and establishing a base in Montreal is a big step toward changing that.
Is Rogers planning to bring Citytv to Atlantic Canada too?
It's something I asked in the spring, and I asked Moore again when I spoke to him last week. "It's something we're considering," he said. But there aren't many stations up for grabs east of Quebec. A few low-power community stations, and the stations belonging to CTV and Global. The only independent commercial station is CJON in St. John's, which airs both Global and CTV programming, but Citytv scooping up that station is unlikely.
I told Moore I had scanned the list of television stations in Atlantic Canada looking for one to buy. He laughed and said if I found one I should let him know.
What about applying for a new licence? They haven't ruled out that possibility, he said.
What would a Citytv Montreal morning show look like?
I watched an episode of Breakfast Television Toronto to try to get an idea. It's mostly just like any other morning show on TV, though with a stronger emphasis on news, traffic and weather. But Moore warned that they're "not going to do a cookie-cutter show."
"If you go across the country and see your breakfast shows, they're not all alike," he said.
Citytv won't have the same resources in Montreal than it does in Toronto, but expect a morning show that is a mix of news, information and lifestyle and other segments that are of particular interest to women, as most morning shows are. It would also be something that reflects Montreal's "vibrant cultural community," which Moore said they would try to showcase.
Moore also emphasized that he'll be looking for people from here to staff the station and be its on-air personalities.
Will there be opposition to bringing Citytv to Montreal?
The short answer is: We'll see in a few days. Neither Shaw Media nor CTV would say anything about the potential for new competition in this market. The big players usually file comments to the CRTC at the last minute so that by the time others read it it's past the deadline. Shaw Media is apparently preparing a submission, but it's not clear whether it's in support, against, or just commenting on the application.
The last time a new English station came to Montreal, in 1997, it was for the creation of Global Quebec, and there was fierce opposition to it from CFCF, saying the market could not sustain another station and that there would be huge cuts to jobs and local programming at CFCF if Global was allowed to come in. Sure enough, CFCF shortly thereafter gutted its local non-news programming, though whether that was because of real market forces or whether it used the arrival of Global as an excuse is a good question.
It would be hypocritical of both Bell Media and Shaw Media to oppose this application, considering how much both have been trying to convince the CRTC of the power of the free market. As Rogers also points out, there are markets smaller than the English Montreal market that have more commercial stations, including one each from the big three networks.
"Anyone arguing that there's not enough people in this market is not being realistic," Moore said. Though he admitted that "if the shoe was on the other foot, of course I would oppose (another station coming into my market)."
What do Rogers and Channel Zero think of the ICI proposal?
Both Moore an Cal Millar, the president of Channel Zero, said they liked the business model of the proposed ethnic station, calling it "elegant." Both companies are prepared to put $1 million in funding toward the new station - Rogers as additional funding, part of the tangible benefits package it is required to pay out to acquire CJNT, and Channel Zero as a loan (if ICI doesn't bring in financing of its own).
Millar said he thinks ICI will find plenty of funding, possibly enough that Channel Zero wouldn't have to give it a loan. "It's very difficult to get commitments on funding until you have a licence in hand," Millar said, and it's very difficult to get a licence without funding. The Channel Zero commitment is mainly meant to get around this Catch 22.
But Millar believes the model is sound. "We're prepared to backstop their venture because we think that will work," he said.
What would Channel Zero have done with CJNT if it wasn't sold?
Before Rogers came along with an offer Channel Zero couldn't refuse, the ICI plan had already been solidified. In fact, ICI's first application to the CRTC came before the Rogers deal was announced. Originally it was Channel Zero that would have applied to turn CJNT into an all-English station, filed jointly with ICI's application to create a new ethnic station. "They wanted what we didn't, and we wanted what they didn't," Millar said in reference to the split between mainstream English and third-language ethnic programs.
Channel Zero's plan for an English CJNT would have been based on local programming. "We would have proceeded on a very similar model to CHCH," he said. At CHCH, which Channel Zero bought from Canwest with CJNT for a total of $12 in 2009, Channel Zero turned the station around by getting rid of its expensive fourth-rate imported programming and greatly expanding local news. The station now airs original local programming, most of it news and information, from 4am to 7pm on weekdays, plus an 11pm local newscast. That's 15 straight hours a day of original local programs when CRTC regulations call for 14 hours a week of local programming. And astonishingly, Millar says this works for them, because they've become Hamilton's local station and they've become more connected with the community while spending less money on imported programming.
(The company has relented slightly on U.S. primetime shows. Originally it planned to air movies during primetime, but eventually decided to acquire some U.S. programming and take advantage of simultaneous substitution to make a bit of money off the U.S. networks.)
The plan for CJNT wouldn't be quite so ambitious as it was for CHCH, but Millar said they would have started with 20 to 30 hours a week of local programs (mostly news), then slowly ramping it up.
As a fan of local programming, and as someone impressed with what happened at CHCH, I must say it intrigues me to think of what Channel Zero would have done with an English station in Montreal. Could we have seen a daytime news alternative to CBC News Network and CTV News Channel, something that would have focused on Montreal-related news the way LCN does in French? We may never know.
Why did Channel Zero buy CJNT if it didn't want an ethnic station?
It was suggested to me that Canwest forced Channel Zero to buy CJNT in order to get CHCH, and that the company agreed, not knowing what it would do with an ethnic television station.
Millar said that Canwest's goal when dismantling the CH/E! network was to "keep as many stations as possible on the air" but that it's too simplistic to say it forced CJNT on Channel Zero.
"It's difficult to say that they forced it on us or we took it. It's not quite as clear-cut as that," he said. Rather, there were multiple proposals as Channel Zero and Canwest went back and forth, and they decided they would try CJNT, thinking they could make it work with cheap foreign programming like third-language music videos.
That didn't work out so well. Rather than breathe life into a station that was suffering financially, Channel Zero shut down all local ethnic programming, airing it as reruns for the next three years - which was noticeable because these were news and information shows, and many promoted upcoming events that were now years past. I spotted last year a show about Haiti, produced in 2009. You can imagine why that would have been oddly out of date.
CJNT's only local program was (and still is) Metro Debut, a show that is more like a music radio station with a TV camera than it is a television show. It features a single anchor giving traffic, news and weather in between music clips, and its production values are so low it sounds like it's being rebroadcast through a tin can. To top it all off, it's shot in Toronto. (Though Millar said if it wasn't for the Rogers deal they would have moved production to Montreal by now.)
There were also other strange programs like Bossbens Show (above) and AMET.TV, which now have no home.
When I spoke to Millar in the spring, and again last week, he seemed convinced that the conditions of licence for CJNT call for 14 hours of local programming, but do not require that programming to be ethnic in nature.
The CRTC decision calls it a "commitment", not strictly a condition of licence, so I'll leave it to regulatory experts to decide whether Channel Zero could break it, but it was pretty clear:
The licensee will broadcast 14 hours of original local ethnic programming each week.
Since 2009, it clearly had not done so.
But Millar does make one important point about CJNT: If it wasn't for Channel Zero stepping in, the station would almost certainly have been shut down. Of the five former CH/E! stations, only one could be converted to a Global station (the rest were in markets close enough to existing Global stations that the CRTC forbid them from carrying the same programming). Three were sold (the other was CHEK in Victoria) and the remaining one, CHCA in Red Deer, Alta., was shut down.
Still, the Channel Zero ownership of CJNT will be seen as one that started with a lot of promise but ended with great disappointment.
What will Channel Zero do with the $10.3 million?
The application suggested that Channel Zero would use the money it got from CJNT to improve CHCH, but Millar said the company plans to expand in the west, by buying or creating television stations.
Millar believes that the CHCH model can be exported to other stations, and while the might not make tons of money, they can still be profitable by pushing local news hard.
There aren't too many independent TV stations in medium and large markets in western Canada either. So unless CTV puts the CTV Two network up for sale or Channel Zero wants to steal some small-market private affiliates away from CBC and CTV, it'll have to start new stations.
Channel Zero is also expanding overseas. It applied for eight licences for local stations in the U.K., across England and Scotland but outside of London, where most of the big media there is based. Millar said the concept of local television with any significance is practically foreign to people there, and he thinks the company can find success by introducing millions of people to the power of local TV.
What happens to Evan Arppe?
CJNT's only real on-air personality right now, the whitest man on television remains an employee of Channel Zero, and is still doing the morning show on CJNT right now as the application for purchase by Rogers is pending. Millar said the deal includes no staff, so Arppe would remain with Channel Zero unless there's a separate arrangement for him to leave the company and work for Rogers.
Arppe worked at Channel Zero's Movieola channel before taking on the Metro Debut host job in September 2011, so I would expect they would find some role for him in the ever-growing company. (Channel Zero is planning to move Movieola online, replacing its cable channel with a classic movies channel to launch Dec. 1.)
Where will ICI be based?
Right now the plan is to base the station at a small (but growing) office space on Christophe-Colomb Ave. near Louvain St. in Ahuntsic. The drab, unmarked office building is the home of Mi-Cam Communications, whose owners are behind ICI. They have a small studio with an interview set on one side and a green screen on the other, plus a couple of small control rooms and editing rooms. All will be upgraded with new equipment so the station can produce all this programming in high definition.
What will ICI's shows look like?
Norouzi is clear that he doesn't want to replicate the drab sets and poor production quality of CJNT and its predecessor public access channel Télévision Ethnique du Québec. Not only does he want the production values to be better, but he wants to have more field reports, and even some live remote programming eventually. He said they would still be mainly news and information, but with a mix of entertainment as well. There's no limit to the possibilities in terms of programming, particularly because of how inexpensive it has become to purchase high-quality broadcast equipment, Norouzi said. "The only constraint is your imagination."
Can ICI really build an audience having so many different languages?
Norouzi believes it can, though Channel Zero's Millar has been more skeptical of the way the CRTC licences ethnic stations, calling the many-languages formula "an anachronism of 30 years ago."
Norouzi said it's true that people will turn away if they don't understand the language, but he said that's true as well of programming in their language that they don't like. And in that sense, it's no different from any other television station. So they face the same challenges as conventional TV.
Will ICI put its programs online?
Not at first, Norouzi said, because they want to focus on building the foundation first. But eventually he wants to be available online, on mobile TV and on tablets, he said.
Will ICI's programs be live or pretaped/edited?
At first, Norouzi expects most programs will be edited or live-to-tape. But he wants to see live programs where warranted.
Will ICI air programs from OMNI like CJNT does now?
The proposed schedule for ICI didn't include any OMNI programming, mainly because the proposal predates the arrival of Rogers into this whole deal. Rogers said it would be happy to partner with ICI (if it succeeds in turning CJNT into an English station) and offer OMNI programming. Norouzi said he hasn't closed the door to buying OMNI programs to fill out the schedule. He's also looking at sourcing some programs internationally, so he can provide a mix of local ethnic programming and programs from people's homelands.
Will ICI air any non-ethnic programs?
"I don't have any plans to do that right away," Norouzi said, explaining that he wants to focus on ethnic programming. That might change a few years down the line, though.
Will the ethnic TV show producers sign on to this model?
Since the success of ICI depends so much on producers taking initiative and assuming risk, it stands to reason that one of the big challenges would be to ensure enough of them stay with the station and buy airtime. Norouzi said the producers from various communities were incredibly excited about this proposal, and the letters included in the application support this. Whether they'll be able to find enough to get all the shows on the air is a good question, but there's definitely some support for this model from some of these communities.
Is ICI really prepared to launch if CJNT remains an ethnic station?
Norouzi said having two ethnic stations competing with each other would not be "ideal", but ICI is prepared to respect whatever decision the CRTC makes, and they are prepared to make a go of it either way.
Realistically, I doubt the CRTC would decide in such a way as to leave Montreal with two ethnic TV stations. The English market is much more viable than the ethnic one commercially.
Any more questions? Ask me in the comments and I'll see if I can answer. The deadline for comments about the two applications is Friday at 8pm ET. You can read the applications and comment on them at the CRTC website.