Book Television and the de-specialization of specialty channels

Updated below with CRTC decision.

These days, what little public attention is devoted to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is split between two major hearings taking place back to back: The mandatory carriage hearings, in which more than a dozen groups are trying to force themselves onto basic cable to get maximum audience or free money, or both; and the Bell takeover of Astral Media, which is heavily opposed by most of Bell’s competitors.

There’s another file open for public comment that’s much more minor, but much more representative of what’s happening to Canada’s television industry right now. Book Television, a specialty channel owned by Bell Media, has applied to the commission to modify its licence to allow for more fictional entertainment programs, like scripted dramas, sitcoms, feature films, sketch or standup comedy shows, and animated shows.

Its current licence limits these kinds of programs to 35% of their schedule over the week, and no more than 30% between 6pm and midnight. It wants to bring that up to 50%, and eliminate the separate limit on programming during prime time.

The reason is simple: Book Television wants to run more popular programs, and fewer programs that have to do with books.

Like all specialty television services, Book Television is tied to what’s called the “nature of service” clause in its licence. This is the clause that requires a specialty television channel to specialize in something. It sets its language and its topic. And all programming should fit its theme.

For Book Television, the licence says this: “The licensee shall provide a national English-language specialty Category A service that will feature magazines and talk shows, dramas and documentaries that are exclusively based upon printed and published works and offered with additional programming that provides an educational context and promotes reading.”

In other words, a channel about books, and about things based on books.

In the 2000 hearing where Book Television was first proposed to the CRTC (it was only one of several proposed book-themed channels, with Alliance Atlantis, Corus, Boxer Four Entertainment and Key Media also proposing channels based on books and literature), then-owner CHUM said “Book Television — The Channel will develop, over several years, shows on critics and criticism, kidlit, reading festivals and erotica, support for new writers with the WordFACT Foundation and more.”

CHUM wanted to expand on the offering of another channel it owned, Canadian Learning Television. That channel, since rebranded twice, got into its own trouble at the CRTC recently for straying from its purpose.

The idea was that drama programming would be presented in such a way as to educate viewers about books and encourage them to read.

The CRTC agreed, and awarded a licence for Book Television.

The forgotten channel

Tune over to Book Television these days, or look at its website, and you see a channel that time seems to have forgotten. Its website looks straight out of the 90s (its last redesign was in 2007 and its how-to-subscribe page references Bell ExpressVu and StarChoice). The last press release issued related to the channel is more than three years old. Its schedule is filled with episodes of Lois and Clark, Road to Avonlea, Mystery Ink (a show that lasted one season 10 years ago) and Word This Week (which appears to have stopped producing episodes in 2008). The CRTC’s file on the channel lists a staff of two.

Bell Media’s application to increase the amount of what’s called Category 7 programming (see the definition of categories here) will mean more of Lois and Clark, and other shows whose only connection to books is that their characters and concepts are based on books.

It might be a regrettable but inevitable move for a struggling cable channel near bankruptcy. But Book Television is nothing of the sort. According to the CRTC, the channel made a pre-tax profit of $2.7 million in 2012, and $7.7 million in the last five years. Its profit margin in 2012 was 60%, meaning more than half of subscriber fees for the channel (which represent more than 98% of its revenue) goes straight into the pockets of Bell.

So if it’s that profitable, what rationale does Bell use for the request to air more fictional programs? In its application, Bell says this:

Book has suffered from low ratings and has had difficulty growing its subscribers since the service first launched.  Book’s long-term success is contingent on its ability to increase the size of its subscriber base by offering more attractive programming and it is our hope that approval of these amendments will allow that to happen. Over the last few years, the number of subscribers to the service has steadily decreased. At the end of the 2010 calendar year, Book had approximately 988,000 subscribers. One year later that number dropped to 958,000 and as of 31 December 2012 the number of subscribers to the service stood at approximately 926,000, a loss of 62,000 subscribers in just two years.

It’s true that subscriptions to Book Television have been dropping, though its current number is still higher than it was in 2008. And its paltry $82,594 in ad revenue for 2012 certainly attests to how unattractive it is.

But one could argue that this has as much to do with how Bell has given up on programming and promoting it than it does its licence obligations.

Don’t worry, though, it says. Bell won’t be given carte blanche with this licence change:

If these proposed amendments are approved, Book’s other Conditions of Licence and nature of service will ensure that the service remains true to its genre. The nature of service definition specifies that the programming aired on the service must be exclusively based upon printed and published works.  We are not seeking to amend this definition but rather provide the service with increased flexibility with respect to the scheduling of drama programming based upon the printed word.

Book understands the important role that drama programming, in particular Canadian drama, plays in the broadcasting landscape. In Broadcasting Regulatory Policy 2010-167, A group-based approach to the licensing of private television services, the Commission noted that over 40% of all viewing to English-language television in Canada is to drama programs, making it the genre of programming that Canadians choose to watch more than all others. Moreover, the Commission has determined that this type of programming requires specific attention and support given the challenges associated with producing it. As a result, the Commission has designated it as one of the categories of programming considered “programming of national interest.” If approved, the amendments we are proposing will provide Book’s audience with more choice in the types of programming that the Commission’s own data confirms is the most popular with Canadian viewers.

Lastly, we do not feel that the Condition of Licence that restricts the broadcast of such to 30% between 6:00 p.m. and midnight benefits our audience in any way. Allowing Book to schedule Category 7 programming without restriction during those hours while working within the proposed 50% weekly maximum will not only benefit our current audience, but may also invite new viewers to try the service which might in turn lead to higher subscription uptake and increased revenues. Such revenues could then in turn be used to reinvest in Canadian programming, benefitting not only Book but the system as a whole.

Allowing Book Television to increase the amount of Category 7 programming from 35% to 50% of the broadcast week will be of benefit to Book’s audience by showcasing drama programs that they might not have access to anywhere else instead of giving them a program schedule that relies heavily on repeat broadcasts.

In addition, while these changes will not have a material financial impact on the service, approval of these amendments will provide Book Television with more scheduling flexibility and allow the service to remain competitive in an increasingly fragmented marketplace.

The bigger picture

Book Television isn’t an isolated case. Specialty channels all over the place are trying to cram in cheap and popular programs by tying them in even the most tenuous way with their nature of service.

A trivia game show on a science channel? Sure! Reality shows on the history channel? Why not? Sitcoms on the music channel? Go ahead! America’s Funniest Home Videos on the country music channel? That makes sense somehow. Murder mysteries on the religion channel? Yeah! Teen drama on the fashion channel? Well everyone wears clothes, right?

I could go on, listing just about the entire schedules of channels like OWN and Bold, but I imagine my point is made.

I’m not opposed to having generalist channels on TV. Nor am I opposed to specialty channels airing dramatic programming that directly relates to their nature. But if these specialty channels, most of which have protected status (meaning you can’t start up your own country music, fashion, food, comedy, animation, biography, travel or yes, even book channel unless you narrow its focus so it doesn’t directly compete with the existing ones), can find ways around their specialty for large chunks of their schedule, why not just deregulate them and let the free market decide whether I want to watch a book channel that presents decades-old reruns or one that, you know, actually talks about books.

What’s most infuriating about this application, though, is that Book Television stopped trying long ago, and Bell hasn’t even issued a press release in the channel’s name since it acquired it. Instead, it’s left the channel to be a zombie money-generator, relying almost entirely on the fact that it’s included in a bunch of people’s TV packages by default and paid for without their knowledge. And now, after years of doing nothing and making buckets of money doing nothing, this channel is coming to the CRTC asking for its help because the number of subscribers has gone down slightly over the past couple of years.

Make your voice heard

The application by Bell is being treated as a Part 1 application, which means the CRTC is not conducting a public hearing about it, but that could change if there are enough comments raising substantive policy issues that the commission decides it should seek public input. So far it has received three interventions, all from individuals, and all opposed to the application because they argue it will further separate Book Television from its purpose of talking about books:

From Keith Osmond of Cambridge, Ont.:

I am of the opinion that this would be detrimental to the genre and nature of service of the channel and the Canadian broadcasting system as a whole. BookTelevision provides a unique service unlike anything else on Canadian television. Books and literature in general is a genre that gets little attention on television, unless it is in the form of a feature film or television drama based on some form of literature. This type of programming is not a scarcity on television, but talk shows, documentaries, magazine-style series, etc., focusing on literature is. And as a category A service, with all of its protections in place such as genre protection and mandatory carriage, it has a duty to provide something unique to the Canadian broadcasting system which it currently does under its current framework. If Bell Media were allowed to broadcast half of its programming as dramas for instance, this would no longer be the case, and thus, the diversity to the system would be lessened.

I understand Bell Media’s frustration with the loss of subscribers for BookTelevision, however, simply saying it is due to BookTelevision’s inability to air drama or feature film programming is shortsighted. Bell Media in the past has shown it is not committed to literature and arts programming, as evident with its programming strategy with Bravo, another category A service who formerly focused on arts programming, including literature, however, it has since morphed into a full-time drama channel with no focus on the arts whatsoever any longer. BookTelevision’s inability to grow its subscriber base and ratings is not due the genre of programming it offers, but to the quality of programming it offers. BookTelevision relies heavily on years old programming from the early 2000s, such as Mystery Ink to fill its schedule, rather than investing in new, contemporary programming that will draw an audience.

I feel as though the approval of this application would allow Bell Media to move BookTeleviison into such a way that it would no longer resemble a television service based on the written word, and that would be detrimental to the Canadian broadcasting system and to legitimacy of the Commission’s licensing process.

I urge the Commission to disapprove this application. If Bell Media is no longer interested in operating a TV channel based on the written word, it should sell the service to someone who does. The Caandian broadcasting system is rampant with channels that look too much the same as all the others that are available. This is a service that is unique and provides something valuable to the system, and it should stay that way.

From Sam Jephcott of Toronto:

If, as I have always been led to believe, the airways are public property and access is controlled by licence then the CRTC has no justification to change the terms of the original licence. Book Television earned its place and the subscriptions of many by promising to serve a niche market.

That market is not served by claiming that any Hollywood movie that happened to based upon a literary work fulfills the obligation.

Unfortunately the CRTC has been hoodwinked to allow the Performing Arts channel, the Learning channel and even the History channel to use their own interpretation of the core programming, so now Book television would like to follow suite.

The CRTC has a choice – it can accept that the policy of the last decade or two has failed and that it should simply allow all applicants to negotiate their own terms with cable/satellite services for coverage and fees without any regard to content, even Canadian content, and allow new competitors to pay a license fee to join the fray.

Or the CRTC can accept that they are NOT the servants of the Programmers and Re-broadcasters but are the representatives of the consumers who fund the decisions with little voice.

The fact that the Canadian content is either decades old or new reality based upon non-Canadian formats and all-to-often filmed in other countries (albeit with some Canadian crew elements) is unfortunate. Perhaps one day the CRTC will have the courage to address the issue of what should constitute the ‘Canadian content’ element of its license conditions.

Meanwhile I’m sure that the well meaning folks seeking to bring their channel to the mainstream by downgrading the offerings, such as they are, that were the key to the license approval must accept the fact that in a regulated market the rules are not for them but for the consumers that have little choice but to pay the cable company.

From Ray Argyle of Kingston, Ont.:

Due to the scarcity of programming related to books, authors and literary issues on Book TV, I am not at the present time a subscriber to this service.

It is my understanding that the mission of Book TV is to provide, among other services, a comprehensive coverage of the written word through interviews with authors, publishers and others, profiles of writers, documentaries examining issues of literary significance, and similar programming.

It is my submission that Book TV’s broadcast of reruns of such currently advertised programs as “The Road to Avonlea,” and “Lois and Clarke: The New Adventures of Superman” fails to contribute to the fulfilllment of this mission.

The application of BCE to eliminate restrictions on its broadcast of such Category 7 programming during evening hours would, if allowed, further undermine Book TV’s already unsatisfactory performance. While it is understandable that BCE seeks a larger audience for this channel, it is problematical as to how the duplication of programming available on other channels would encourage viewers such as myself to sign on to the service.

I therefore urge the Commission to reject this application, and to advise BCE that if it wishes to enlarge the audience for Book TV, it should seek to do so through unique and original programming enhancements that would be more in accordance with the intent of its license.

The CRTC is accepting comments on Bell’s Book Television application until Friday at 8pm ET (5pm PT). Click here and follow the instructions. Note that all information you provide (including contact information) goes on the public record.

UPDATE: Three more interventions have been filed, from the Canadian Media Production Association, the Writers Guild of Canada and Rogers. All of them point out that Bell asked for a similar change to Book TV’s licence in 2011 and was denied. Rogers says if the CRTC is going to make a change for Book TV to make it more of a generalist channel, it should do the same for everyone else.

Further reading:

UPDATE (July 17): The CRTC has issued a decision denying this application by Bell Media, finding that there’s no pressing financial need for a channel with a 60% profit margin to get more flexibility in programming, and that allowing more drama would make it directly competitive with other channels specifically designed for that purpose. The Globe and Mail has a report on the decision, for which Bell Media did not comment.

5 thoughts on “Book Television and the de-specialization of specialty channels

  1. Karine76

    Wow, Book TV is still on the air? I remember I used to watch a show hosted by Daniel Richler there. Sometimes I look at cable package and wonder why I bother. I pick stations based on what I think they sell then they do a bait and switch.

    Off topic: why don’t cable providers offer all of their stations in HD? I pay an extra 3$ a month to get them with Videotron and I’m stuck watching Vikings on the low res version of History [and I’m back on topic].

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Off topic: why don’t cable providers offer all of their stations in HD?

      They want to offer as many as possible, but are limited mainly by bandwidth. Cable has about 130 or so 6 MHz channels to cram stuff into. And that includes analog cable (about 55 channels, less in some areas), channels to send video on demand, channels for cable internet, and then digital cable television channels. They’re constantly trying to find room for more HD channels, but that means either compressing them more (which annoys consumers) or reducing the number of analog channels (which annoys people who have analog cable).

      I pay an extra 3$ a month to get them with Videotron and I’m stuck watching Vikings on the low res version of History [and I’m back on topic].

      Videotron’s $3 fee is more of an access fee than a fee for the HD channels. It’s a flat fee and doesn’t change based on the number of HD channels. Videotron has actually worked hard to eliminate the need to charge extra for HD versions of channels (it managed to eliminate the fee for HD sports channels only recently after signing new contracts with them). Mostly fees and packaging are a mix of the choices of the providers and the elements of the contracts those providers sign with the broadcasters.

      1. Yann

        Learn the business and the costs involved. HD might be cheap for the consumer but not the broadcaster. It takes up to 9 times more server space just for storage. Not to mention the transmission costs.

  2. Ephraim

    Sometimes I just wish that the CRTC would reply by reopening the bidding for that specialty channel, instead of simply giving in at all. Let several companies come back with a new proposals, including some small companies and take the best offer for a licence of x years.

    In other words, you don’t like the contract, that’s fine, let’s let everyone else see if they can do it profitably instead. No one should think that they have a right to be licenced and if it isn’t profitable, close shop, give up your space on the dial and let someone else who can do it better take over the virtual space.


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