It’s one of those channels you’ve probably skipped over dozens of times. On Videotron digital cable, it’s channel 49, just between a French pay-per-view barker channel and one of the PBS stations. On Bell Fibe, it’s channel 142, between the French rerun channel Prise 2 and the National Assembly channel. If you’ve ever tuned to it, accidentally or on purpose, you’ve noticed that much of its schedule is slides showing people who are missing or wanted by police.
Avis de recherche seems like a simple channel with a tiny budget and no viewers, and it is. But for president Vincent Géracitano, it’s been his life for the past decade, and he sees it as a mission of public service to keep it going.
Which makes the CRTC’s recent decision to cut the service’s mandatory distribution in Quebec even more perplexing for him.
On Aug. 8, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission came to decisions on requests from existing and proposed TV services for mandatory distribution, a rare and powerful status that requires all television providers to both distribute the service and pay a regulated per-subscriber rate for it. For the most part, it maintained the status quo: most services that had the status already kept it, and most that didn’t were denied. There were a few exceptions: TV5 got its mandatory distribution in exchange for a second channel that targets francophone Canadians outside Quebec; AMI TV got mandatory distribution for a French version of the video description channel; the territories get their legislative channel on satellite (with no subscriber fee) and ARTV gets mandatory carriage (but not on basic).
And there was ADR, the only service that had mandatory distribution whose status wasn’t renewed. A proposed English version of the channel, All Points Bulletin, was denied a request for mandatory distribution.
Even Géracitano admits that without an obligatory per-subscriber fee, Avis de recherche has little hope of survival. Its negligible audience means it has virtually no advertising revenue. And its unpopularity means people aren’t likely to choose to subscribe to it, and cable providers are unlikely to want to continue carrying the channel.
Géracitano has two years to figure out what to do. “In light of the laudable objectives advanced by the service,” the CRTC wrote in its decision, “the Commission will phase out the mandatory distribution requirement over the next two broadcast years (i.e. by 31 August 2015) to allow the licensee time to adapt its business plan in light of this change.”
Despite that cushion, Géracitano told me unless the CRTC changes its mind, the channel will probably just have to shut down by that date. In fact, he’s had to make some tough decisions already. As Christopher Curtis reports in The Gazette, Avis de recherche has already had to lay off 10 of its 16 employees so that it can break even by the time it shuts down.
And Géracitano is mad at the CRTC, convinced that there are nefarious reasons why the project he has worked on for more than a decade is being forced to walk the plank.
As Curtis writes in the Gazette story, and I wrote in this story for Cartt.ca in August, Géracitano got the idea for Avis de recherche in 1999 when he caught would-be robbers on video and had no way to get that video out to the public. Local news wasn’t interested in airing it unless the crime was major. And the police didn’t have a direct outlet to the public at the time.
In 2002, the CRTC granted Géracitano a licence for the service, which would broadcast information to help law enforcement. And unlike the local news, which might put a photo of a suspect in a major crime up on the screen during one news cycle, Avis de recherche would keep running it for days, weeks, even years if necessary.
The channel finally launched on Oct. 21, 2004, so it’ll be celebrating its ninth birthday next week. Unlike most specialty services, which collect a per-subscriber fee from the cable provider, Géracitano paid Videotron so it would distribute the channel to all its subscribers.
Géracitano’s business plan was that revenue would come from businesses sponsoring public service programming.
As it turns out, they didn’t want to do that. Not only were ADR’s ratings so small that they wouldn’t register on BBM’s ratings measurement system (and as a result, it does not subscribe to BBM and we don’t know how many people watch it), but companies didn’t want to see their logos next to pictures of wanted criminals.
In 2007, the CRTC handed ADR a lifeline. It ruled that ADR should be among the services granted mandatory distribution “because the programming broadcast on Avis de Recherche serves the public interest by safeguarding Canada’s social fabric through the promotion of crime prevention and public safety” and was therefore “of exceptional importance” to fulfilling the needs of the Broadcasting Act. A similar application for an unlaunched English-language channel All Points Bulletin was denied, with the CRTC arguing that a national English feed from coast to coast would be less useful since crimes and searches tend to be local or regional in nature.
The government asked the CRTC to reconsider its decision, and it reaffirmed it. As of Jan. 24, 2008, instead of paying Videotron $0.05 per subscriber per month, ADR was receiving $0.06 per subscriber per month, from Videotron and all other digital cable providers in Quebec. The guaranteed revenue has given ADR revenue going from $1 million a year to $1.7 million a year since mandatory distribution was imposed. This permitted the service to add more programming, including a daily live show from a studio, and edited featurettes on public safety.
Measures of success
So if the CRTC thought the channel was worth forcing people to pay for it in 2007, what changed in 2013?
In its decision, the commission says this:
The Commission notes that Canadians now have access to a whole new set of broadband-based technologies that did not exist when Avis de Recherche obtained mandatory distribution in 2007. These new technologies allow Canadians to assist law enforcement agencies in solving various crimes, including murder and missing people cases, in a more effective and efficient manner than a linear television channel. The Commission considers that little evidence was provided that the programming provided by Avis de Recherche is unique and complementary to existing programming in the Canadian broadcasting system. In addition, the Commission notes that Avis de recherche failed to demonstrate that mandatory distribution of its channel resulted in concrete success indicators such as increased security of Canadian communities. The Commission therefore can no longer conclude that Avis de Recherche is of exceptional importance in fulfilling section 3(1)(d)(i) of the Act by safeguarding Canada’s social fabric through the promotion of crime prevention and public safety.
In essence, the decision points out two reasons for the reversal: technological change has meant a channel like ADR is no longer as necessary as it was in 2007, and ADR hasn’t shown it’s been successful at its goal of improving public safety.
There’s an argument to be made on the first point. YouTube launched in 2005, and though by 2007 it was a huge success (and had already been acquired by Google), it wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it is now. Many business owners with security camera footage of minor crimes have posted video to YouTube and other video sharing sites as a way to do what Géracitano couldn’t do himself in 1999: provide his video directly to the public.
But Géracitano says ADR is needed because it provides information to the public instead of hoping that the public goes out to seek it. And he points out that the same argument could be used against the Weather Network (which got mandatory distribution in exchange for setting up a public emergency alert system) or just about any other public service channel.
The second point, about the service’s success over the past five years, is also arguable. CRTC vice-chair Tom Pentefountas argued during a hearing in April that ADR isn’t useful if people aren’t watching it, and everything seems to point to nobody watching this service.
Géracitano disagrees. He says ADR isn’t a channel he expects people to watch for hours on end. He just wants a few minutes of people’s time every day to look at some pictures and hear some descriptions of wanted suspects or missing kids and call if they can help. He likens his service to CPAC, the channel that provides broadcasts of the House of Commons and other activities of the federal government, and has very low ratings to show for it. Or to a community channel that provides a public service but isn’t expected to get high ratings.
But how does one measure the success of ADR?
An easy way would be to look at how many cases have been solved as a result of its activities. But that’s hard to do. ADR doesn’t collect tips from the public. Instead, it puts the numbers of the police departments and other organizations directly on the screen. It has no way of knowing that a tip has come from someone watching unless that person or the police force tells them. And the police forces haven’t been that forthcoming with statistics.
When I asked Géracitano about cases that ADR is aware it had a hand in, he gave me a few examples:
- There was Diego Königsthal, a one-year-old boy who went missing in 2007. The broadcast of this case on ADR prompted the child’s mother to come forward (she had gone with the boy to Mexico), and the father was able to see him again and bring the custody battle to court
- There was Yohanna Cyr, whose disappearance in 1978 was reopened by the police after ADR publicized it. The case got another media boost on its 35th anniversary, but remains unsolved.
- There was a 70-year-old man whose dead body was discovered in 2011 in Cowansville, that the police could not identify. The police created a sketch of his face and it was broadcast on ADR. A viewer recognized him and was able to tell the police his name.
- There was a series of vehicle robberies in L’Assomption in 2012. The suspect, a man in his 20s, was identified by an ADR viewer.
- And there was Lee Gordon Lessard, a 28-year-old wanted in a series of bank robberies in Montreal, Laval and Longueuil in 2011. A viewer on the south shore called police after seeing the suspect’s photo on the air.
That’s not a lot of cases. But it’s not zero either. While it’s hard to extrapolate based on such a small sample how useful ADR actually is in stopping crimes or bringing criminals to justice, we still have to ask ourselves whether this is worth the price being paid for it.
The biggest piece of evidence Géracitano used in his defence at the CRTC hearing was an email from the RCMP in February. He told the commission that 34 per cent of RCMP cases that aired on ADR were solved.
Pentefountas was skeptical about that statistic. And it may have come out as a result of a misunderstanding. Géracitano forwarded me the email, from Sgt. Yvan Lapierre. It said the following:
Depuis 2009, on dénombrent 168 dossiers d’informations provenant de canal Avis de recherche (via Info- Crime). Sur les 168 dossiers 57 d’entre-eux ont généré des renseignements pertinent qui nous ont soit donner des pistes d’enquêtes ou qui nous ont permis de procéder à l’arrestation de sujets en liberté illégale. Donc cela nous fait un taux de succès d’environ 34%. Malheureusement cela ne tient pas compte des appels du public qui sont effectué de façon confidentiel et qui ne sont pas comptabilisés. On peut cependant conclure qu’il est évident que les émissions, les fiches ainsi que le site internet d’avis de recherche est un apport considérable dans nos enquêtes.
As I understand this, Lapierre says 168 tips came in from Avis de recherche viewers, and 57 of those (34%) provided enough information to either investigate new leads or make arrests. I asked Lapierre to confirm my interpretation, but he never responded to my email.
Nevertheless, 57 cases is still not zero.
Géracitano compares ADR to a smoke detector: it’s completely useless until you really need it. Most people don’t care about this channel, but when it’s their loved one who’s gone missing, suddenly it becomes very important to them. And there are more than 5,000 children a year that go missing in Quebec (64% are runaways, most others disappear for unknown reasons).
Géracitano hasn’t given up hope. He told The Gazette he plans to appeal the CRTC’s decision, though that’s unlikely to be successful. The commission suggested alternative sources of funding, like government grants or asking the police departments themselves to contribute. But Géracitano said that wouldn’t work. Police departments (particularly Montreal’s) are solidly behind ADR, but they don’t have money to spare.
So the response has been to lay off more than half the staff. On Aug. 31, 2015, the channel will probably go dark, unless some white knight with lots of money steps in.
I don’t hold out much hope for that either.
It’s hard not to want to root for Géracitano and hope he finds a solution. ADR is a lean operation, with 10 of its 16 employees being journalists. It has a modest office in a building at Langelier Blvd. and Highway 40. Géracitano himself did everything from string ethernet cables through the ceiling to take out the garbage. And whether it’s successful or not, there’s no arguing that ADR is trying its best to improve public safety.
The question is whether a 24/7 cable channel with what can charitably be called modest viewership is the best way to go about this.
Géracitano has just under two years to figure that out.
Francophone media haven’t talked about Avis de recherche, except for a few one-sentence mentions when the decision came out. I’ll add links here if they start.
UPDATE: A group called Cold Cases Media has started a petition asking the federal government to force the CRTC to renew the mandatory distribution order. The Regroupement des communicateurs d’urgence, an association of media relations people of Quebec emergency services, has also condemned the CRTC’s decision.
UPDATE (Feb. 17, 2014): Guy Fournier has a column in the Journal de Montréal on ADR. It doesn’t present any new information, but makes the argument that the channel is necessary.