CBC jumps into semantic nightmare with “ICI” debacle

I thought nothing short of an alien invasion would unite the country. Heck, even then I’m sure the PQ would blame the federal government. But the CBC managed to do so last week when it announced that it was rebranding all its French-language services as “ICI”.

But the move has been so universally condemned, from the left, from the right, from its enemies and its friends, that I feel the urge to play contrarian and find some reason to support it. But I can’t.

The reasons to dislike it just pile up:

  • It’s confusing. Are they changing the name Radio-Canada? No. Except yes. They’re not changing their name, but just adopting a new “brand identity”, or using a “term”, or “denominator”. Just the list of synonyms for the word “name” they used (including the word “name” itself) created needless confusion. Even CBC and Radio-Canada journalists couldn’t figure out what “ICI” was, exactly.
  • It’s expensive. This rebranding exercise cost $400,000. You can see that as a tiny part of the corporation’s $1-billion annual subsidy from the Canadian government, or you could see that as a handful of well-paid full-time jobs for a year. Rebranding is an expensive endeavour that does little to further the CBC’s mandate.
  • It’s unnecessary. The closest thing I got to a reason for this whole thing in the first place is a video (now deleted) in which someone put a confused look on their face when explained that “Radio-Canada” means both radio and television. I get that, in a sense. You’ll recall that Télé-Québec used to be called Radio-Québec. But is this really a problem for a brand that’s existed for 75 years? Does anyone who lives in Canada and speaks French actually get confused?
  • It’s consultantism at its finest. The CBC loves consultants. People who tell them that newscasts have to look a certain way, or that Peter Mansbridge should stand at all times. Some consulting is good. You want to focus-group television shows or expensive concepts before putting them into motion. But consultants are also good at convincing people to buy things they don’t need. I don’t know if that happened in this case, but it certainly gives that impression.
  • It’s abandoning a strong brand. Rebranding is something you do when your brand isn’t working. Maybe you’re involved in a scandal, or your name doesn’t reflect what you do anymore, or it’s not politically correct. But Radio-Canada is a very strong brand. People know what it is and expect good things from it. Why would you mess with that? Even the federal government got involved to complain.
  • It’s anti-patriotic. Fuelling the exaggerated notion that Radio-Canada is filled with separatists (as if half of Quebec wasn’t), cutting “Radio-Canada” in favour of “ICI” has been seized by some in English Canada has a political move. “ICI” is also being seen as reinforcing the Quebec-centric view of Radio-Canada by groups that feel the corporation all but ignores francophones in the rest of Canada.
  • It’s a generic word with little meaning. The Abbott and Costello routine from Jean Lapierre and Mario Dumont might be a caricature of the problem, but there’s a very serious lack of meaning in the term “ici”. It’s a generic word, an adverb, and they’re trying to use it as a noun. “ICI” has been the name of a bunch of things, including a weekly alternative newspaper in Montreal. “ICI Montréal” was even registered as a trademark by Télé-Métropole, which is now TVA, in 1985.

But the biggest problem with this rebrand is this: It’s screwing the little guy.

Sam Norouzi


Here’s that little guy. His name is Sam Nowrouzzahrai, but he does business as Sam Norouzi because he wants to save people the trouble of always looking up how to spell and pronounce his name. He’s the man behind a new ethnic television station in Montreal. It’s a mom-and-pop shop, owned by his family and run as a producers’ cooperative. He’s not looking to get rich off of this, just find work for some ethnic broadcasters and bring local ethnic television back to one of Canada’s most diverse cities.

He wanted to call the station International Channel/Canal International, or “ICI” for short.

As I explain in this story in The Gazette, Norouzi did his homework, applying for a registered trademark and waiting for it to get approved as the CRTC application process followed its course. Now, weeks before the station is set to go on the air, he has to deal with the CBC’s lawyers who are trying to take his name from him. And while he has a legal team to deal with that, it’s taking up a lot of his time too. “There’s not a day that goes by that there’s not an issue I have to deal with” involving the case, he said.

I first wrote about this story in March, but now Norouzi has decided he’s ready to play offence in his David-vs-Goliath battle. Articles in the Journal de Montréal, La Pressethe Globe and Mail, the National Post, even the New York Times. An interview on CBC Radio’s As it Happens. An angry column from Sophie Durocher. And while he told me back in March that he didn’t have the funds to take this matter to court, he now says he’s ready to fight.

“We have full rights to go forward with the name and we intend to do so,” Norouzi told me. “We will defend ourselves. For us it’s really a question of principle.”

CBC by a technicality

So what kind of case does the CBC have here? Can they really force Norouzi to give up his name?

Companies don’t have to register their trademarks for them to be legal. They just have to use them. Same thing with government bodies and their “official marks” according to the Trade-marks Act. But it helps. And Norouzi’s application for ICI came a year before CBC’s 31 applications for ICI-branded services. (The only CBC mark that predates Norouzi’s is one from 1969 for “Éditions Ici Radio-Canada”.)

I spoke with Pascal Lauzon, a lawyer and trademark agent with BCF. He said most of the case is “very debatable on both sides.” He pointed out that the registrar of trademarks looks through the database when a trademark is applied for. The process also includes a two-month waiting period so opponents can file oppositions to proposed registrations.

But Lauzon also said that there’s a five-year period during which someone can apply to the federal court to expunge a trademark.

Obviously not in a position to prejudge a case like this, Lauzon said the CBC has a strong case, not so much because it can prove it used the name first, but because of what amounts to a technicality.

Part of the trademark registration process is the filing of what’s called a “declaration of use.” This tells the Canadian Intellectual Property Office that you have actually used the trademark you’ve applied for on a good or in connection with a service. Norouzi filed this on Aug. 20, 2012. But his station wasn’t on the air at that time. We didn’t even know it existed because the application for it wasn’t published until a month later.

The CBC alleges in its lawsuit that, because Norouzi did not appear to be actually using the trademark, his declaration of use was “materially false.”

That, Lauzon said, is enough to have the entire trademark registration thrown out. If that happens, Norouzi would have to file for a new one, but that would put his application behind those 31 marks of CBC-Radio-Canada, and would weaken his case considerably.

“He should have waited” until the station was on the air, Lauzon said. He had three years to file a declaration of use, and waiting would not have made his initial filing date of August 2011 any less valid. “If he had waited, he would be in a much better position,” Lauzon said.

An amicable solution is the best solution

There is another way for this to end: The CBC could see the error of its ways and abandon the whole “ICI” plan entirely. Or it could offer to pay the costs associated with Norouzi’s station taking another name. I don’t know if either of those are likely.

Norouzi tells me he has had no communication with the CBC other than through its lawyers, who first contacted him last November complaining about possible confusion. (Norouzi dismissed those claims since they came long before anyone had any idea that Radio-Canada would be rebranding.) The CBC won’t comment except through written communication that goes through its legal department. Which means I didn’t get a response from them by press time. (I’ll update this post with what I hear back.)

The CBC has already started to back away from ICI. On Monday, president Hubert Lacroix apologized for the “confusion” and announced that some services, including the main TV and radio networks, would retain the Radio-Canada name. You can see a full list here (PDF). Names like “ICI Radio-Canada Télé” and “ICI Radio-Canada Première” sound like awful compromises, taking names that were long and making them even longer.

This backtrack was after days of trying to re-explain a move that should have been self-explanatory.

It hurts to throw away a $400,000 project. But sticking with a bad idea isn’t a better option.

UPDATE: I asked for additional comment from CBC about this case. Hours after the request, I was asked to submit written questions. Almost 24 hours later, I finally got this as a response from Radio-Canada’s Marc Pichette:

In response to your questions sent yesterday (and I apologize for the delay), the term “ICI” has been closely tied to Radio-Canada’s identity for over 75 years. That it has risen to increased prominence recently is only a reflection of the close association our audience makes between that word and our brand.

Confusion is in no one’s interest. That’s why the matter to which you refer is part of an ongoing legal process which is before the Federal Court. I hope you will understand that I cannot comment on the specifics.

13 thoughts on “CBC jumps into semantic nightmare with “ICI” debacle

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Does Sam Norouzi’s station have a logo and website domain name yet?

      Not that I’m aware of. Online isn’t an immediate priority for the station, which is focused on things like setting up its transmitter and developing a programming schedule.

  1. Dilbert

    I think the long term goal here is to remove the “Canada” from the name, in order to make the product more sellable to the pure laine seperatist types who wouldn’t watch it strictly because it’s a “Canada” thing. I am sure some consultant has a nice report that says 14.5% (or whatever) of Quebecois don’t watch because of this issue, so for a measly 400,000$, they can “fix” this issue and let the old Rad-can turn into something hip, unique, and “here and now”.

    However, the backtracking means that it’s half hearted, they got caught at it and now they have to squirm away.

  2. MtlCan

    “The CBC could see the error of its ways …”

    Are you kidding me??? I have worked with government employees for years. Admitting mistakes is not in their DNA.

  3. Kevin

    I am reminded of a story a former CBC employee told me.
    He was a cameraman and needed to shoot a guest sitting on a sofa on the set, but the sofa was in the wrong place. He called the guy whose job it is to move the sofa, and the guy said he would be right there.
    After ten minutes of waiting, the cameraman and the guy asking the questions moved the sofa 2 metres. Did their shoot with the guest. Escorted the guest from the building. Went to editing suite to begin looking at what they had.
    About 2 hours later, when editing is almost done, the guy whose job it is to move sofas comes up to them and says he is now ready to move the sofa.

    Sofa mover then spends the next 8 hours (on OT, naturally) writing up a grievance report.

    Management then meets cameraman. Says next time, move the sofa back and let sofa-moving guy have his pride.

    1. Sheldon

      That’s the way it is in union shops. I was a guest many years back on Daybreak on CBC Montreal. I went to move the microphone a little closer to me and was immediately told that I wasn’t allowed to touch the microphone. A guy from the control room, sitting on a chair at the back of the room doing nothing, got up and came into the studio to adjust the mic for me. He returned to the control room and took his place again on his chair, presumably waiting for the next time a microphone needed moving. The host of the show wasn’t even allowed to adjust his own microphone!

      1. Dilbert

        The CBC is like any other heavily unionized, old company – they have reached a point where the rules make it very difficult to work or move ahead.

        CBC is pretty much on par with the car builders in the US, who ran solidly in to the wall in the last few years, and big part of that was all that they had given to the unions over the years, every sweet deal, every addition to the future pensions, and so on… and of course, all those wonderful work rules that make things so hard to do.

        I remember a story a few years back about what it took for the CBC to produce an in studio news review show. Just trying to shoot a single person in a studio took something like a team of 20 – 30 people, from lighting, sound and cameras to the unionized floor sweepers and craft service people on site to get the job done. Then add in all the office staff the writers the directors, the property management and all that other stuff, and there was literally hundreds of expensive hours to shoot something so incredibly simple that most of us would have done with 2 or 3 people.

        The CBC will only really get fixed when the CBC is closed down completely, and replaced from the ground up by a new organization with new goals and new methods. Until then, it will grind inevitably only, getting more and more expensive for each hour of programming produced, getting less and less effecient and more and more trapped by it’s own people, until it becomes too painful for anyone to support anymore.

        1. GHG

          I can only speak for CBC radio, English, in Vancouver and Toronto, but things are not like this at all. Producers and technical people all pitch in to do what’s needed. They have to – there is very little “fat” left in the system.

  4. Jonathan

    Je suis d’accord, Steve, avec ce que tu soutiens à propos de la force de la marque: Radio-Canada est une marque forte, qui n’a pas besoin de remplacement. Tout comme Tou.TV. Ou ARTV. Même Explora, à la limite.

    Ce que le consommateur, l’utilisateur final, le citoyen désire, c’est un service, pas une marque. Et il se crisse royalement de qui est derrière tout ça. Bon Dieu que j’en ai rien à battre de qui est derrière Tou.TV. Tant que j’ai des bonnes émissions sur-demande. Rien à foutre de qui paie le panel de C’est juste de la TV, ça joue à ARTV, alright, c’est tout ce dont j’ai besoin.

    Et honnêtement? ICI? Vraiment? Quelle marque de marde. Et mélanger d’la marde avec du bonbon, ça donne du bonbon à la marde. Bref, ça empeste sur le reste. icitou.tv ? WTF! iciartv? euh…

    Et dans leur changement-sur-changement, le Radio-Canada qui devient ICI-Radio-Canada-Télé? J’ai une idée. On va renommer TVA en Patate-TVA-Télévision tant qu’à y être…

    Encore une fois, d’accord avec toi Steve, 400K pour chier une mauvaise idée ça fait mal, mais garder la mauvaise idée juste parce qu’on a dépensé 400K, ça frole la débilité.

  5. Michel (Londres)

    There was good sense in attempting the rebrand in the first place (Radio de Radio-Canada does sound unwieldy), trying to brand all services the same, but the execution failed completely.

    If three letters are needed as a common denominator here, why not revisit “SRC”? It was quietly trialled in the mid-90s. You could have SRC Télé, SRC Première, SRC Info…

    Personally I would have gone the other way and created stronger sub-brands, like how Bandeapart and Tou.tv are currently. English services need a unified corporate look as they compete with 400+ channels, Radio-Canada in a smaller market, on the other hand have enough goodwill and cache to extend themselves with sub-brands.

    Either way, the ICI saga, together with the CBC failing to check whether they had a CRTC licence to launch a breakfast show in Saskatoon before launching it, shows a unacceptable lack of planning and common sense in decision making.

    “Ici, on voit mal en tabarn***…”

  6. Pingback: ICI launches, giving Montreal its 10th local television station | Fagstein

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