CTV Montreal making final push toward HD newscasts

CFCF HD camera

One of the HD field cameras being used by CTV Montreal cameramen.

After what has seemed like eons since its competitors made the switch, CTV Montreal has announced that it’s making its final push toward launching a high-definition broadcast, which should begin in the spring or early summer. But it’s not all good news – technological change will mean a slight reduction in the number of technical staff at the station, management and its union have confirmed.

The station issued an update via its Facebook page last week, explaining that it had just put new HD studio cameras in place (viewers might notice a slight difference in colours or crispness in the studio shots during newscasts), and is building a new control room that will be HD-capable.

Other steps toward the conversion had already been taken earlier. New field cameras have been acquired, new editing suites installed, an upgrade to digital storage completed, and a new studio has been constructed that has the proper wiring and the level of detail necessary to work right in HD.

CBC and Global made the upgrade a long time ago. Both first moved to a 16:9 upconverted SD system, which masked the fact that they weren’t yet HD. CTV did not make a similar move due to a company policy that HD not be faked like that. CBC Montreal went through an upgrade that cost around $1 million that made it the first English CBC station in Canada to be fully in HD. Global’s conversion was a lot easier because it doesn’t have a control room – Global Montreal’s newscast is directed and controlled from Edmonton, leaving only the field cameras, studio cameras, edit suites and high-speed data connections to upgrade.

The "Feed and Play" room at CTV Montreal is getting an upgrade as HD equipment is installed.

The “Feed and Play” room at CTV Montreal is getting an upgrade as HD equipment is installed, replacing all this now-antiquated stuff.

Two control rooms

The trickiest part of the upgrade is that they can’t shut everything down while they do it. So a new control room must be built while the old one is still in operation. A secondary control room called Feed and Play, which handles incoming feeds, also must be upgraded while still running.

So far, the plan is to finish the upgrade by March, but CTV Montreal general manager Louis Douville said “we’re not committing to a date yet.” The launch of HD could happen in the spring, or maybe June, depending on how things go. The two control rooms will mean that the station can deal with any kinks or delays that might creep up before they make the launch.

(CTV Montreal had a similar problem while it was constructing its new studio in the summer of 2011 at the same time as RDS was constructing new studios in its former space. From July to September, the newscasts were done from a small desk installed in the newsroom, which only had room for one anchor.)

Pressure from viewers

Viewers have been complaining that the newscast isn’t HD for a while now. “There was certainly a demand from our viewers,” Douville said. Though I’m guessing many care more about the 16:9 aspect ratio than the actual resolution of the picture.

I’m assured by plenty of people at CFCF that patience will be rewarded when the HD newscast goes live. The lighting and design of the studio were done with HD in mind, and nothing in this building is done half-assed on a technical level.

The last step toward an HD upgrade is remote trucks. CTV Montreal has two of them, and Douville says at least one will be upgraded to HD (the other will depend on budget).

New system, fewer people

While the control room is being upgraded, the station will be installing a new automated production control system, OverDrive by Ross Video. The software system will allow much of the control room operation to be automated, which means there will be need for fewer staff. CTV Montreal is one of the few TV stations in Canada not to move to such a system yet.

Currently, jobs in the control room include the director (who barks orders on what to do), the technical director (who actually pushes the buttons), the production assistant (who handles timing and cues live on-air staff), and a graphics person who uses a system called Inscriber to prepare and cue on-screen graphics. With OverDrive, these four jobs would be merged into one or two.

In fact, they could eliminate more positions with this system. But CTV has decided to keep an audio technician as well as a studio robotic camera operator.

“We’re still working out the details on what the final model is going to look like,” Douville said.

The change might lead to some job losses once the transition is complete, which probably won’t be until summer. Management informed the union last week that it expects to cut the number of technical staff at the station. Douville said it was “in the neighbourhood of four – five at most.”

Doug Kelly, a technical director and president of the union local representing CTV Montreal employees, said they were told there would be a reduction of 3.8 jobs, but details are still to be worked out. Employees have been informed that their jobs would be affected (including Kelly’s), but layoff notices have not gone out. Union rules here allow for employees to train for other jobs they might be suited to, so those whose positions are eliminated might find work in other functions. (It’s unclear at this point whether new control room jobs could be filled with employees who did other jobs under the current system, or if new people would need to be hired to work the automated control room.)

“Some people would be in a position where they can take early retirement,” Kelly said, and could perhaps be convinced to leave voluntarily with a buyout, though he added that it’s too early to gauge firm interest of his members.

Both Kelly and Douville agree that this is a small number of jobs being affected. CTV Montreal has more than 100 technical staff, including control room technicians, cameramen and editors.

Kelly did express worry that the reduction of humans in the control room could have an impact on quality. “There are certain things that will be difficult for one person to coordinate,” he said. “But the company’s working very hard so it doesn’t show on air.”

Before you start speculating, the kind of automation being installed here isn’t going to do with CTV Montreal what was done with Global Montreal – outsourcing the production of local programming to another city. CTV is investing far too much money upgrading its facilities here to not make use of them.

Still, for a small number of CTV Montreal employees, the technological changes happening at their station could be cause for more worry than excitement.

25 thoughts on “CTV Montreal making final push toward HD newscasts

  1. Alex H

    Bell makes a billion a year in profits, and drags their feet slower than anyone to make it to HD. It’s truly a sad thing. The CRTC really should have mandated this change at the same time as the transmitter was switched.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Bell makes a billion a year in profits, and drags their feet slower than anyone to make it to HD. It’s truly a sad thing.

      Since the only thing CTV doesn’t broadcast in HD is the local news, I think I can find better things to be sad about.

      Reply
      1. Alex H

        Not sad as in “I am sad” but “sad” as in disappointing and sort of ironic, I guess. Bell was one of the big players in the “local stations matter” BS, but then they are about the slowest to actually keep their stations up to date. Worse yet, their local stations don’t actually produce much in the way of non-news local content anyway. It’s sad (in the disappointing and ironic way) that the old CRTC didn’t have a problem with this half assed conversion to HD from the most profitable media company in Canada.

        Yeah, sad.

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          Bell was one of the big players in the “local stations matter” BS

          Actually, it wasn’t. Bell was part of the other side of that argument, the “Stop the TV Tax” group. Then Bell bought CTV and suddenly Bell was in favour of cable companies giving money to local TV stations.

          It’s sad (in the disappointing and ironic way) that the old CRTC didn’t have a problem with this half assed conversion to HD from the most profitable media company in Canada.

          The CRTC can’t force someone a company to change its equipment because it doesn’t look cool enough on screen. CTV could have simply upconverted SD signals to 16:9 like CBC and Global did and nobody would have been able to tell the difference. The commission believed that the market would push broadcasters to upgrade to HD, and it’s working because they’re all upgrading, albeit slower than some people want.

          There’s nothing in CTV’s licences that requires local news be in HD, and so the CRTC has no reason to complain that their upgrades aren’t fast enough.

          Reply
          1. Alex H

            Yes, as I said, Bell was one of the big players in the “local matters”‘ thing in the end. Yet local doesn’t matter when it comes to quality of the image, I guess.

            “The commission believed that the market would push broadcasters to upgrade to HD, and it’s working because they’re all upgrading, albeit slower than some people want.”

            The old CRTC panel also seemed to believe in unicorns and pixie dust. Safe to say that the current board has already made more smart choices in a short period of time, compared to the previous panels entire run. We are now well over a year past the HD conversion time, and really more than 3 and half years past the US’s own extended conversion date, and still Bell is slowly plodding along like there is nothing going on.

            Even after the current conversions, Bell will still have plenty of local stations is SD.

            The costs to convert to HD in studio are not that huge, certainly not an issue for a company that clears a billion in profits a year. There is no reason to dawdle, except that the change won’t improve their bottom line much. So instead, they seem to be following the pattern of using their existing equipment until it reaches it’s natural EOL and then replacing it only when forced.

            That Stever is sad. Do you think you would have the same problem if the stations were owned locally and still producing their own shows? No way, they would be incredibly motivated to make content they can use in the future, and to make it in HD. Local matter, but only when it’s owned locally. Otherwise, it’s just another tax to make companies like Bell richer.

            Reply
            1. Fagstein Post author

              The old CRTC panel also seemed to believe in unicorns and pixie dust. Safe to say that the current board has already made more smart choices in a short period of time, compared to the previous panels entire run.

              I’m not sure what you mean by “panel” here. The CRTC doesn’t replace all its commissioners at once. Of the 10 current CRTC commissioners, seven have been there since 2008 or earlier. So when you say “the previous panel”, do you mean people there before 2008?

              We are now well over a year past the HD conversion time, and really more than 3 and half years past the US’s own extended conversion date, and still Bell is slowly plodding along like there is nothing going on.

              What HD conversion time? You appear to be confusing digital television with HD. Governments mandated a conversion do DTV, but neither has made any requirement as far as high definition.

              The costs to convert to HD in studio are not that huge, certainly not an issue for a company that clears a billion in profits a year.

              I’m not going to defend Bell’s profits here, but CTV Montreal isn’t exactly the biggest part of Bell. And the cost of an upgrade is in the order of a million dollars, which is a pretty big sum for a local station.

              So instead, they seem to be following the pattern of using their existing equipment until it reaches it’s natural EOL and then replacing it only when forced.

              I don’t think that strategy makes too much sense in this context. Converting to HD isn’t just a question of swapping out equipment. Everything has to be redone. They’re building a new control room because they can’t do this by gradually replacing individual parts.

              Do you think you would have the same problem if the stations were owned locally and still producing their own shows?

              Probably not, because they’d be bankrupt.

              Kidding aside, there’s some evidence that local ownership does improve investment. TVA stations that aren’t owned by Quebecor made the switch to digital broadcasting even though they were in markets the CRTC didn’t mandate a switch for. And WCAX and WFFF/WVNY across the border produce shows in HD.

              But the bottom line is this: For CTV Montreal’s audience, the key wasn’t whether it was 480-line NTSC or 1080i HDTV, but the quality of the information they were getting from watching it. And the proof is that a year after competitors became fully HD, CTV Montreal still has a huge market dominance in the ratings.

              Shouldn’t a victory of substance over style be something to be happy about?

              Reply
              1. Alex H

                “But the bottom line is this: For CTV Montreal’s audience, the key wasn’t whether it was 480-line NTSC or 1080i HDTV, but the quality of the information they were getting from watching it. And the proof is that a year after competitors became fully HD, CTV Montreal still has a huge market dominance in the ratings.

                Shouldn’t a victory of substance over style be something to be happy about?”

                Not really. You need to go look at the demographics of the marketplace to understand the problem. It’s pretty similar to why Anglos generally vote liberal in Quebec, even if they have a third rate leader and no hope of forming a government. It’s the same demographic that tunes into CFCF even though it’s honestly not that great – I found myself over the years more likely to watch TVA or SRC… says a lot, no?

                (note: decision on move to digital, and by implication was mandated before 2008, and it’s only with the new chair that the CRTC has suddenly grown some brass ones. Otherwise they have let the media players pretty much dictate the game, which is really quite silly. There is little reason to go digital without going to HD.

                I understand the implications of going HD (I can pretty much draw you out the diagram of everything needed from memory, including the switching and stuff). The costs are just not that high. What is more costly is having no ability to locally produce content in HD, and not being able to re-use that content later. Even at a million, it’s a very cheap investment for a company like Bell, especially if they had any real intention of having their local stations be anything other than network rebroadcasters. But clearly the costs involved in doing the news (even as the top station in Montreal) far exceeds their ability to pay for the equipment. As a side note, most local market stations in the US make their big money on the news. How odd that it doesn’t work in Canada. Perhaps you can draw your own conclusion as to why. For that matter, you can try to explain why small market stations like WCAX could make the switch but big rich Bell couldn’t manage. It’s pitiful, really.

              2. Fagstein Post author

                It’s the same demographic that tunes into CFCF even though it’s honestly not that great – I found myself over the years more likely to watch TVA or SRC… says a lot, no?

                It’s hard to make a comparison because TVA and Radio-Canada are based in Montreal, while CTV is based in Toronto.

                it’s only with the new chair that the CRTC has suddenly grown some brass ones. Otherwise they have let the media players pretty much dictate the game, which is really quite silly.

                I don’t know if I agree with that. The CRTC stopped CTV from acquiring the Citytv network when it bought CHUM. It also issued plenty of decisions on the telecom side (where the media players really make their money) that they weren’t happy with.

                There is little reason to go digital without going to HD.

                The CRTC’s mandate covered only the transmitter. And it’s true that just about every digital transmitter is capable of transmitting HD. But for the actual programming to change, everything from the camera that captures the image to the transmission line that takes it to the transmitter has to be upgraded. If it was easy, it would have been done already across the country.

              3. Alex H

                “It’s hard to make a comparison because TVA and Radio-Canada are based in Montreal, while CTV is based in Toronto.”

                I was talking for news and local programming. Are you suggesting that neither of these things happen at the Bell owned stations in Montreal?

                “I don’t know if I agree with that. The CRTC stopped CTV from acquiring the Citytv network when it bought CHUM. It also issued plenty of decisions on the telecom side (where the media players really make their money) that they weren’t happy with.”

                They only stopped them on City because it was over the top, and would have put them in a place of holding way too many of the cards at the table – especially in Toronto! The Telecom side is quite different, because they don’t have the same leverage. The CRTC has also been vigilant in general over a long, long period when it comes to telephones and such, much more so than in the broadcast arena.

                “The CRTC’s mandate covered only the transmitter. And it’s true that just about every digital transmitter is capable of transmitting HD. But for the actual programming to change, everything from the camera that captures the image to the transmission line that takes it to the transmitter has to be upgraded. If it was easy, it would have been done already across the country.”

                The CRTC’s mandate extends to such thing as content, and from a purely technical standpoint, they also deal with the manner in which a signal is broadcast. It is very much dancing on the head of a pin to say that they cannot mandate HD or set a timetable in relationship to a licensing renewal in this area. As for the technical, I order and assemble the whole thing for you if you like. I understand the requirements, but I also understand that Bell could have easily financed (through bond offerings or similar public financing) to convert every one of their stations and spread the costs over a long period of time. They chose not to, because they have little or no pressure. Part of that problem is that Bell seems very focused on NOT allowing their local stations to produce much of anything past the news.

                As you said earlier, Bell could have use upconversion – and they probably should have. Instead, they are still pushing a little square box in the middle of the screen for news, which seems silly. This isn’t some poor underfunded hanging on by a thread affiliate, this is the largest media company in Canada dragging their heels.

                You get what you are willing to accept. Here’s to hoping that the CRTC continues to have the brass ones to tell the slackers at Bell that they cannot buy their way into a monopoly position anymore.

              4. Fagstein Post author

                I was talking for news and local programming.

                Right. But RadCan and TVA are based in Montreal. Their national newsrooms are here. So just like CTV and CBC are all over Toronto-based stories, RDI and LCN will be all over stories based in Montreal.

                As for local programming, how much local programming do Radio-Canada and TVA produce? It’s actually not that much. In fact, French television stations have lower local programming requirements than English stations do.

                It is very much dancing on the head of a pin to say that they cannot mandate HD or set a timetable in relationship to a licensing renewal in this area.

                They can do whatever they want, but they’ve decided to let the market dictate the transition to HD. And it is, slowly. (In fact, the commission thought at first that a push toward HD would be what prompted broadcasters to switch to digital transmitters. But the market drive to HD wasn’t as high as previously anticipated.)

                As for the technical, I order and assemble the whole thing for you if you like.

                I invite you to go to CTV Montreal’s building and tell their general manager you’ll do their HD transition for free. You’ll save them a lot of money with your magic.

                I also understand that Bell could have easily financed (through bond offerings or similar public financing) to convert every one of their stations and spread the costs over a long period of time.

                It’s not just a question of money, keep in mind. It makes sense for a company like Bell to make the switch one station at a time, so it can use human resources effectively.

                They chose not to, because they have little or no pressure.

                They have some pressure from viewers. But why should they hurry for something that is very expensive and that few people really care about?

                As you said earlier, Bell could have use upconversion – and they probably should have. Instead, they are still pushing a little square box in the middle of the screen for news, which seems silly.

                Technically, they are upconverting their signal. They’re just not changing the aspect ratio. Silly, perhaps, but should the CRTC intervene to require Bell make their local newscasts 16:9 as a condition of licence? That seems even more silly.

              5. Alex H

                “I invite you to go to CTV Montreal’s building and tell their general manager you’ll do their HD transition for free. You’ll save them a lot of money with your magic.”

                Steve, in all fairness, you know I didn’t say I can convert them for free, only that I understand what is involved.

                I guess your attitude here ends the discussion.

  2. R.

    Are they the last CTV market to get HD? They do have the best broadcast, but it’s like watching footage from the 90s…

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Are they the last CTV market to get HD?

      Not even close. Local newscasts are in HD in Toronto, B.C. (Vancouver), Calgary and Edmonton (in order of launch). That leaves more than a dozen CTV owned-and-operated stations, plus the CTV Two network.

      Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Why? Edmonton is a competitive market. CFCF get literally ten times as many viewers as the competition.

      More like five. But yeah, there isn’t really much competition. That said, the upgrade is a way to protect its market dominance.

      Reply
  3. Alex

    I miss good old CFCF 12. Remember all the cool double and triple feature on Cinema 12? So much cool movies for fans of horror, action and sometimes just plain bizarre, obscure flicks. Now Late Night is boring infomercials on boring CTV. CFCF had personality. Sorry for the ‘cranky old man’ rant ;-)

    Reply
    1. Apple IIGS

      I miss good old CFCF 12. Remember all the cool double and triple feature on Cinema 12? So much cool movies for fans of horror, action and sometimes just plain bizarre, obscure flicks. Now Late Night is boring infomercials on boring CTV. CFCF had personality. Sorry for the ‘cranky old man’ rant ;-)

      Remember this bumper…? :)
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=goYSrRL3GX8

      Ahh, I fondly remember Cinema 12. As a kid, especially during the summer months, my brother and I would stay up late and religiously watch Cinema 12. Hah, CFCF became so synonymous with movies, we offended referred to b-movies and obscure films as “Channel 11 movies” (11 being the position it was found on analog cable for years). As a matter of fact, to this day we still do!

      It was a station with lots of uniqueness and personality. Sadly, it’s now just a repeater of CTV Toronto.

      Reply
  4. Stephen Sartori

    Any news on this yet ? Are they still planning
    To Have HD Local News Before September ?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Any news on this yet ? Are they still planning To Have HD Local News Before September ?

      Some time in the summer is the latest word (like, as of about 12 hours ago).

      Reply
  5. Stephen Sartori

    Wow ! – These guys are incredible – Originally it was going to be last year . Then in December it was going to be in the spring – Now it’s going to be some time this summer.
    I think they’re waiting for Rodgers Montreal to be up & Running with their local news programs &
    then they’ll pull the trigger to sidecar the new station.
    Just seems pathetically late to be playing games.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      These guys are incredible – Originally it was going to be last year . Then in December it was going to be in the spring – Now it’s going to be some time this summer.

      When I first asked in 2011, it was 1-2 years. In December, it was some time in spring or summer of 2013, but no date set yet. Now it’s should be done by mid-summer, possibly before. I don’t see these statements as incompatible.

      I think they’re waiting for…

      They’re waiting for the work to be done, for testing to be complete and for staff to be retrained. They don’t have a hard deadline and don’t know how long this will take, which is why no date has been set. I have no reason to believe they’re intentionally slowing down this process for any reason. And besides, because the Citytv station’s main local program is a morning show, it’s hard to say it competes significantly with CTV Montreal’s local newscasts.

      Reply
  6. Stephen Sartori

    As a viewer & an advertiser I don’t find it admirable or even reasonably acceptable that they will have their local news in HD by the end of
    this summer even if it’s within the end of the parameters they gave you in 2011.
    They are by far the number one local Anglo Station. If they continue to act and invest as if they’re last , they will eventually occupy the position that matches the lack of investment and
    effort. It’s not necessary, It’s not professional, but
    it is embarrassing .

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      They are by far the number one local Anglo Station. If they continue to act and invest as if they’re last , they will eventually occupy the position that matches the lack of investment and effort.

      It will take a while for that to happen. CTV Montreal’s local news is still the highest-rated show in the market, period. And its share among local newscasts is above 80%.

      Reply

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