As radio stations that were supposed to launch in 2013 seek delays in whole or in part because of technical problems, an independent startup television station has managed to get on the air just under a year after getting a licence from the CRTC.
ICI began airing regular programming on Wednesday morning, launching on Videotron at the same time. (Apparently on Bell Fibe it’s still “coming soon”.) And so I’ve written about it in this story, which appears in Wednesday’s Gazette, and this story, from a more technical and business angle, for Cartt.ca.
As I’ve been watching the channel on and off on Wednesday, I notice it’s been lacking a bit of regularity right out of the gate. There were long awkward seconds of dead air, at one point a single ad or video aired three times in a row, leading to eight minutes between actual programming.
The station has very little advertising to start with, limited to some ads that look more like sponsorship messages, including one from Mike FM, whose parent company CHCR produces the Greek program. As a result, commercial breaks are only a few seconds long, enough for a station ID, and the hour is backfilled with music videos or other short-form programming.
For the quality of the actual programming, I’ll wait until they’ve had a chance to air more of it (and even then I can’t comment much on content because I can’t understand the language most of the time), but my first impression is that it’s uneven. Some of it looks like the kind of long-form talking-head shows that fit the stereotype of low-budget ethnic TV. The only thing that’s different is that it’s in a green-screen set and in high-definition, and has flashier computerized graphics (though not quite as well produced as the stuff you’ll find on the big national broadcasters). The shows are better when they take their cameras out in the field, which they do and want to do more (at least when the weather is nice).
It’s considered a soft launch, without a major marketing push behind it, and it’s being run by a group of people who, while they have experience in television production, don’t have much experience running television stations.
The station hasn’t published a schedule yet, mainly because it’s still being tweaked by the station’s manager, Sam Nowrouzzahrai (who conducts business under the name Sam Norouzi). But in basic terms, the programming runs under a regular weekly schedule whose main content is independently-produced local ethnic programming that for most communities is a weekly show that’s repeated several times.
Here are the local weekly shows currently in the system:
|Lusaq TV||Portuguese||Portuguese/Brazilian||1:00||Hosted by Ludmila Aguiar and Carlos do Rio. Produced by Norberto Aguiar|
|Sportivi 360||Italian||Italian||1:00||Sports show hosted by Marco Luciani Castiglia and Piero Facchin, produced by Rete Montreal|
|Metropoli||Italian||Italian||1:00||Cultural show hosted by Marco Luciani Castiglia and Piero Facchin, produced by Rete Montreal|
|Télé du Grand Maghreb Arabe||Arabic, Berber||Moroccan, Mauritanian, Algerian, Tunisian, Libyan||2:00||Magazine show hosted and produced by Hamadi Tounsi|
|Mabuhay Montreal TV||Tagalog, English||Filipino||0:30||News show hosted by Tenne Rose Dayandante and Derwin Collantes. Produced by Zenaida Kharroubi|
|Hay Horizon||Armenian||Armenian||0:30||Magazine show produced by Tamar Poladian|
|La Mesa de Maria||Spanish||Latino||0:30||Cooking show hosted by Maria Sanz|
|M Cultura||Spanish||Latino||0:30||Cultural magazine hosted by Maria Sanz|
|Pagini TV||Romanian||Romanian||1:00||Magazie show produced by the Centre Roumain d’Affaires de Montréal|
|Afromonde||French||Sub-Saharan African||1:00||Magazine hosted by Henry Ngaka, who hosted a similar show for CJNT|
|La Voix Hellenique||Greek||Greek||1:00||Hosted by Dimitra Gramozi and Lamprini Leri. Produced by CHCR, the company behind ethnic radio stations CKDG and CKIN|
|Humsafar TV||Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali||South Asian||1:00||Information and music show, hosted by Jasvir Sandhu. Produced by Radio Humsafar|
|Bangla TV||Bengali||South Asian||0:30||Culture and interview show hosted and produced by Dilip Chowdhury|
More programs are expected in the new year: Chai Montreal (a Jewish show in English), Montreal Irish Show (also in English), Mosaique TV (an Arabic show for the Syrian community), ParsVision (an Iranian show in Farsi) and Haiti 3D (a Haitian show in Creole).
And Norouzi wants to see more. “We would love to have Ukrainians or the Polish community,” he said. He expects now that the station is actually on the air that he’ll start hearing from more people.
The channel does not have any live programming for the moment (at least no live local programming). That may come eventually, but for now it’s more magazine shows that are either shot outside and edited or done live-to-tape in the studio. Much of the programs are now months old, and some are already out of date. (An episode of Afromonde that aired on Wednesday night included interviews shot outside in the summer, and included a segment discussing Nelson Mandela’s declining health.)
A family of producers
The business model of ICI is based on offloading responsibility and risk to producers, but don’t pretend that Norouzi doesn’t care if they succeed or fail. He’s doing what he can to make sure they work. He believes everyone should have a good chance to make their shows work. And his experience 30 years ago with his father is the reason why.
“Thirty years ago, when my father started the Persian program in Montreal, he was looking at what was then called TEQ, Télévision Ethnique du Québec. He was thinking ‘Oh there’s all these languages, they all have a window to showcase their culture and their language and so on and so forth and there’s nothing for Iranians.”
So he decided to start his own show.
“My dad had no experience in television. My dad was an engineer,” Norouzi said. “But because he had this passion and he wanted to have a voice for the Persian community in Montreal, he inquired. He went and found out how he could do it. Then he acquired the knowledge.”
“He didn’t have the technical know-how of putting a show together. So he hired an external editing facility. But he learned by watching.”
Norouzi has made it clear that those who want to make television but lack technical abilities will get help from the station and Norouzi’s production company Mi-Cam Communications.
“If someone has the passion and wants to do something, that wants to have a voice for their community,” he said, “knowledge gets acquired easily. We have a team of professionals that can help them.”
Norouzi described it as a “family of producers” who will have regular meetings so they can learn from each other. “It’s an atmosphere of mutual sharing of information and helping each other to be successful.”
“The willingness to do something, that’s what’s important.”
I was curious how the producers feel about all this. I talked briefly with one, Henry Ngaka, who hosts Afromonde, a show that was also on CJNT. He has been in the Montreal ethnic TV scene for 20 years now, and he had been involved in the project to bring back ethnic TV almost since Day 1.
He’s very enthusiastic about ICI. Like many of CJNT’s personalities, he had to endure years of the station broadcasting laughably out-of-date repeats after everyone was thrown out of a job in 2009. He even said he was a bit nervous when the station went to the CRTC.
“I’m very happy to meet the public that is waiting for us for four years,” he said. He condemned the “void” created when CJNT stopped producing programming. People from his region of the world, he said, aren’t seen much on Quebec TV, even though they speak French. And when they’re invited on news or magazine programs, it’s to talk about violence or political upheaval, not culture.
But Ngaka is also realistic. He says that while ICI’s business model is “by far better” than CJNT’s, it’s still unproven, and it remains to be seen if advertising revenue from the various communities will be enough to keep it going.
A bit of OMNI
Unlike OMNI stations or CJNT as it existed under Canwest, there are no American primetime network series being used to subsidize the ethnic programs. Instead, the acquired shows are limited to Spanish and Portuguese soap operas, and the following programs from OMNI:
- OMNI News in Mandarin (4 days a week at last report)
- OMNI News in Cantonese (4 days a week at last report)
- Entertainment show Bollywood Boulevard
- Cooking show South Asian Veggie Table
As part of Rogers’s purchase of CJNT, it promised to provide ICI with 200 hours a year of OMNI programming, or just under four hours a week, for five years.
The broken and re-broken antenna
Twelve months might seem like a tight timeframe to start up a television station from scratch, but in fact it was going to be even faster than that at first.
The station came to the CRTC with an agreement from Bell to install a broadcast antenna on a Bell-owned tower on Mount Royal, near the large CBC tower where everything else broadcasts from. The Bell tower is on Remembrance Rd., next to the police station. It’s the same tower that CFCF broadcast their first digital signal from temporarily while the analog signal was still running in 2011.
With the CRTC licence in hand, Norouzi acquired a broadcasting antenna from Germany, and in early summer were set to install it.
“Finally the day arrived where we were going to get everything installed,” Norouzi told me in an interview last week. “I think it was the second or third day I got a call: ‘There’s been an accident. They dropped your antenna.’ Four of the six panels were destroyed.”
“That was challenging obstacle number one. And it fell right at the time in August when Europeans go on vacation.”
So Norouzi had to scramble. He found four new panels from a supplier in the U.S. and had them shipped over. He received them, only to discover a hole in the box that looked like someone had rammed a forklift fork through it. Two of the panels were damaged to the point of being unusable.
Norouzi called back the German company that sold him the antenna. Their manufacturing plant was closed, but their business office wasn’t, and they happened to have a couple of panels.
It was a delay of a few weeks in total, but it was enough to push the installation from early summer to late summer.
He called up the construction crew, which came down from Trois-Rivières, and on Aug. 21, the antenna was installed and his mother had the honour of pushing the button to begin transmitting.
It was supposed to be a three-week testing run, which would have meant starting officially broadcasting in late September or early October.
Then he got another phone call.
“I think it was two or three days (into testing), we got a call from Bell Mobility Radio,” Norouzi said. ”Our antenna was interfering with theirs. We had to shut it down immediately.”
The problem, they would eventually discover, was that the transmissions were causing intermodulation interference (basically when two strong radio signals on different frequencies interact to form a third on another frequency) to a radio system used by the Sûreté du Québec, whose antenna was at the same height as theirs.
“We hired an engineering firm to find a solution.” They tried installing a filter, but that didn’t work.
“Ultimately what ended up happening was Bell Mobility Radio had a spare antenna that they weren’t using.” So the affected system was moved slightly higher up, solving the problem.
It seems simple in retrospect, but it took weeks to figure it out and put it together, having to coordinate each move between ICI, its engineers, Bell, the site manager, the SQ and the construction crew that actually did the work on the tower.
Finally, on Nov. 26, the transmitter was turned back on, and the testing period resumed. Within days the launch date was set.
The signal is going out, and those who receive it well enough get a crystal clear image. But there are still some issues:
- Some people picking the station up over antenna have complained of audio problems. The problem appears to be the audio encoding that the transmitter uses, which some TVs cannot decode.
- There’s no electronic program guide, either on the over-the-air signal or through service providers or other means.
- There’s no closed captioning. Closed captioning is required for all English and French programming, but not for programming in other languages.
ICI’s offices are a small space on the second floor of a bland two-storey industrial office building on Christophe-Colomb Ave. in Ahuntsic. It really has a low-budget startup feel to it. But a lot of what’s inside has changed in the past year. Its cameras have been replaced with new HD cameras, its studio has been redone so it’s all green-screen. And it has new editing rooms and a new control room.
For those who want to geek out on models, the control room system is a top-of-the-line Tricaster 8000. Its two editing suites are running Avid Media Composer 7, its three studio cameras are fully automated Sony PMW500s, and its two field cameras are PMW200s.
The green-screen studio allows virtual sets to be created behind anchors. This is a cheap way to create different looks for each show. But the system isn’t perfect. Even the desk is simulated, so the people in studio sit on stools and have no place to put anything they might have with them, whether it’s a script or something they’re demonstrating. And while the virtual set has some cute touches like having simulated reflections on the shiny desk surface, all it takes is looking at an anchor’s feet and asking why that person doesn’t cast a shadow to realize this isn’t real.
Norouzi said he wants to encourage as much stuff out in the field as possible. Though he acknowledges that stuff will be done more often indoors at first, particularly during winter.
I’ll start this off by noting that Norouzi answered all of my questions. There was no refusal to comment, no statements about things being confidential. He was very open about a lot of stuff that other media would keep to themselves.
ICI’s business model is based on selling airtime to producers, and those producers in turn selling ads against their programs. But ICI is also getting a lot of help from Rogers and Channel Zero for the first five years.
As part of the deal that offloaded ethnic programming responsibilities from CJNT so it could become an English station, Channel Zero agreed to offer a loan of up to $1 million to ICI for startup costs. Of that, $250,000 was for equipment and the other $750,000 was to become available 10 days after launch (so Dec. 21).
“Do I foresee needing it right now? I don’t want to say yes or no,” Norouzi said. “I want to be able to stay on my own two feet. If I don’t need to use it, I won’t.”
Channel Zero is also providing free master control services for five years. So ICI uploads content to Channel Zero’s servers in Toronto and decides on the schedule, and Channel Zero outputs the stream to the transmitter.
This deal happened before Rogers agreed to buy CJNT from Channel Zero. And apparently they were unaware of Channel Zero’s deal with ICI at the time, and were hoping to just have City Montreal be a slightly less ethnic station during primetime. Having it be fully English was a big plus, so they sweetened the deal. Because 10% of the purchase price of a television station has to go to “tangible benefits” that help the broadcasting system as a whole, Rogers decided to spend all that money to help ICI with its programming. That worked out to $1.067 million, which is being given to ICI over five years.
“We have subsidized a lot of costs for producers by using some of that money,” Norouzi said. By creating computer graphics, for example. They aren’t Pixar, but they go a good way toward making things look more professional and giving each show its own feel.
Rogers also threw in 200 hours of free OMNI content a year for five years. And both companies promised to help with intangible things like offering advice.
That’s a lot of stuff being given for free, but Norouzi says even without it the station is doing well financially.
“We’re good. We scaled back some of the stuff, but through efficient management of our costs we’ve been able to minimize expenditures to the maximum. When we did our forecasts and projections with the CRTC, we said Tear 1 would be a loss of $300,000. If there’s a loss, it’s going to be a minimal loss.”
“My dad is so efficient with running a tight ship.”
By Year 2, he said, they should break even on operational costs, “if things go the way they’re going” — in other words, if there are no surprises.
The CBC thing
I asked Norouzi about the CBC trademark dispute. The public broadcaster is trying to get ICI’s trademark declared invalid, arguing that they’ve used “Ici Radio-Canada” for decades and that the word has been associated with them.
The dispute didn’t make much sense until the CBC announced it was rebranding all of its Radio-Canada services as “ICI”, a move that backfired with the public (who thought it was both a waste of money and a bad idea), and while president Hubert Lacroix partially backtracked, giving us ridiculously long 10-syllable names like “Ici Radio-Canada Télé” and “Ici Radio-Canada Première” (part of the reason for rebranding was that the names were too long, and now they’ve made them longer), the legal battle continues.
A date hasn’t been set for a hearing into the dispute. A trademark lawyer I spoke to this summer says that Norouzi has a strong case, since his trademark precedes Radio-Canada’s by a year, but might lose on the technicality that he claimed it was in use before anyone even knew of ICI’s existence. (Norouzi said he had conducted business as ICI, and that the trademark office told him that was sufficient to claim it as in use.)
Ngaka also called the dispute ridiculous, pointing out that his father listened to shortwave radio for years, and that broadcasters around the world identify themselves saying “ici X”. “For me, it was always an international descriptor,” he said.
One thing that always bugged me about ethnic broadcasters in general: How do you monitor a program in a language you don’t understand?
Norouzi points out that many people on his staff speak multiple languages. But he says a lot of it is based on trusting producers he’s known for decades. They’re all in this together, and the responsibility is shared among all of them.
Besides, he said, they’re mainly cultural magazines and don’t get into the kind of politically-charged stuff that normally draws complaints over content.
It’s at this point that I remind him that the World Cup starts in June.
I asked Norouzi why he does this. Even if it’s successful, ICI won’t be a big cash cow. And it took four years just to get it started. Why go through all the trouble?
“I see it as continuing something my father first started,” he said. “Ultimately it’s a passion. I grew up in this. I was 13 or 14 years old and my dad put a camera on his shoulder and said ‘go shoot for me.’ Ultimately it’s the heritage that was given to me by my father. As we come here from another country, we have no choice but to succeed.”
His eyes water up a bit as he discussed his father.
“Ultimately I just want to make him proud.”
I didn’t ask his father about it later. Just seemed kind of awkward with his son there too. But I could see it in his face. Sam has nothing to worry about there.