Category Archives: TV

How a simple change to NAFTA could dramatically change how Canadians view television

One of the consequences of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States is that now Canada, the U.S. and Mexico are meeting to discuss amendments to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has threatened to pull out of entirely if he doesn’t get his way.

Canada has made clear that it plans to keep cultural exceptions to the free trade agreement, allowing it to continue to protect its cultural institutions from its much larger neighbour. So it might be tempting to think there won’t be any change here.

But there is one change being proposed that could make a huge difference to the Canadian television industry, and its one that proponents on both sides of the border would argue strengthens rather than weakens cultural protection.

It’s called retransmission consent.

CUSFTA, NAFTA and copyright law

When it comes to broadcasting law, NAFTA defers to the earlier Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, whose text is posted online in a PDF. Article 2006 of the CUSFTA lays out requirements and exceptions to copyright law when it comes to retransmission of distant television signals. Under its rules, each country must prohibit non-simultaneous retransmission, or altered retransmission, of signals that aren’t meant for over-the-air broadcast, without the consent of the copyright owner.

But the rules intentionally leave a big hole for simultaneous transmission of over-the-air stations without that consent. As a result, Canadian television distributors can distribute U.S. over-the-air stations (CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox and PBS) without those stations’ consent or compensation to them, following only the rules set by the CRTC.

This exception to copyright law dates back to the early days of cable TV, when providers picked up the cross-border stations over the air and distributed them to their customers. The rules have been codified since then (generally, providers can distribute two sets of what are called 4+1 stations — PBS is the +1 — and choose to take a group of Eastern time zone stations and a group in the Western time zone) but the essence remains in place to this day, enshrined as section 31 of the Copyright Act.

Some people want to change that, on both sides of the border.

Cross-border unity

On the Canadian side is Bell, which owns CTV stations. Appearing before a parliamentary committee hearing on Sept. 20, Rob Malcolmson, Senior Vice-President, Regulatory Affairs, suggested eliminating section 31 of the Copyright Act entirely, which would mean television providers would need to negotiate carriage of distant signals both Canadian and American. CTV and CTV Two stations being carried outside their markets would get some compensation as a result. (Current copyright law requires TV providers distributing distant stations to compensate rights holders, both Canadian and American, through a fund that taxes them at about $1 per subscriber per month, but that compensates the creators of the programming, not the stations broadcasting them, and it’s not optional.)

Requiring retransmission consent would change a lot for U.S. border stations. Giving them negotiation power would mean they too could get compensated, and just as important, they could set conditions on carriage, which could include things like blackouts for programs they don’t have the Canadian rights to. A content provider (like, say, the NFL) could make this a condition for being broadcast on border stations, and those border stations could make it a requirement for being rebroadcast in Canada.

Or the U.S. stations could simply decide not to be carried in Canada. And that’s exactly what some of them want.

Some U.S. border stations carried in Canada have formed the U.S. TV Coalition, a group that has been actively lobbying the Canadian government to change its laws so those stations have bargaining power or can take themselves out of Canada entirely. Its members include WXYZ-TV and WDIV-TV in Detroit, WIVB-TV and WNLO-TV in Buffalo, and KSTP-TV in Minneapolis.

KSTP in 2015 tried to ask the CRTC to remove its station from the list of those authorized for rebroadcast in Canada. The CRTC refused, saying their consent isn’t needed.

Making simsub moot

So what would happen if this simple but substantial change went through? It’s hard to say exactly, because the Canadian television system has been so reliant on the current scheme. But here are some things that could happen.

First, some U.S. stations could refuse to be carried in Canada, either because they don’t want to deal with getting Canadian rights to programming or because they don’t think they’re being compensated enough. Canadian TV providers would probably find others that would be game for replacing them, since for many U.S. markets (like Burlington/Plattsburgh or Buffalo), the Canadian market is a big source of their audience.

Then, U.S. rights-holders, probably starting with major sports leagues, could start demanding that signals be blacked out in Canada during their programming to protect the rights of their Canadian broadcast partners. The U.S. stations, which now have bargaining power, could impose this requirement on cable companies carrying their stations.

As new carriage agreements are signed with U.S. stations, they could demand direct fees for carriage (which would undoubtedly depend on whether their programming is subject to blackouts). Those fees would be passed on to the consumer, and the days of TV providers including U.S. stations for free in basic cable packages would be gone.

This doesn’t get much attention in Canada, but as Cartt.ca points out, there are also U.S. border communities where Canadian stations are carried on cable TV. Canadian stations could start making similar demands of U.S. cable providers.

If blackouts take hold during primetime series and sporting events, Canada’s simultaneous substitution system becomes moot. (Though an alternative would be to expand simsub so Canadian ads are seen on U.S. stations regardless of when the program airs or where.) If simsub is no longer a major factor in Canadian TV stations’ revenue, they suddenly get a lot more programming flexibility. Rather than CTV, CTV Two, Global and City building their schedules around having as many simultaneously broadcast U.S. network shows as possible, they could schedule their shows whenever they want.

Original Canadian series would no longer get bounced around the schedule. Programs that follow live sports (like NFL games) would no longer have to be delayed so they sync up with the U.S. network’s delay. Sports programming carried on U.S. network stations (particularly NFL games) could be moved to TSN or Sportsnet so local stations could continue to carry local news. Conversely, Canadian sports like the CFL’s Grey Cup could be moved to local stations because the Canadian over-the-air networks would no longer be reserved for simsubbable programming.

It could be a seismic shift in how English Canadians watch television, giving a lot more power and flexibility to Canadian TV networks.

Don’t hold your breath

Or maybe it won’t. Neither government has indicated it wants to press this as an issue, and though the U.S. TV coalition is pushing it, there isn’t much public support.

The reality is that Canadians like being able to watch ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and PBS, and any move that would risk taking those channels away (or subjecting them to blackouts) would be deeply unpopular, no matter how much it might benefit the Canadian system. And it’s not like Canadians are desperate to make the lives and bottom lines of Bell, Corus and Rogers any better.

So this is more of an academic exercise than anything else. Realistically, the system will mostly stay the same until the point where Internet-based video consumption takes over from regulated TV distribution as the main source for popular video content. And the Internet has a separate scheme for ensuring that video doesn’t cross the border when a producer or broadcaster wants to protect their rights.

Corus agrees to sell Séries+ and Historia to Bell Media for $200 million

Bell Media, Canada’s largest television broadcaster, is getting even bigger by acquiring two French-language services from its closest English-language competitor.

Bell and Corus Entertainment announced Tuesday that they have a deal whereby Bell acquires Séries+ and Historia for a price Corus values at about $200 million, subject to closing costs.

The deal requires approval by the Competition Bureau and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

That could be difficult, because of the history of the two services. The two were launched in 2000 as a joint venture between Astral Media and Alliance Atlantis. Alliance was then bought by Canwest, then Canwest’s television assets were bought by Shaw. Astral held on to its half of the ownership stake until it was bought by Bell in 2013. As part of its (second) proposal for the acquisition, Bell and Shaw each agreed to sell their half of Séries+ and Historia to Corus.

Now Bell wants to buy it all back. And at a discount, too. When Corus bought them in 2013, each half was valued at about $140 million, for a total price of $280 million. This transaction would be a savings of 29%. PBIT earnings for Historia and Séries+ were $29,881,221 in 2013 and $21,427,553, or a 28% decrease. The change was due mainly to a sudden surge in Séries+’s programming expenses in 2015-16 and a slow decline in ad revenue for both channels.

Corus is selling primarily to cut down its debt, as it says in its statement, but also because the channels are “not core to advancing Corus’s strategic priorities at this time.” The main reason for that is language. Other than these channels, Corus’s only French-language assets are the bilingual channels Teletoon and Disney.

“In the 18 months since Corus acquired Shaw Media, we have demonstrated a resolute commitment to de-lever our balance sheet to 3.5 times net debt to segment profit by the end of fiscal 2017 and 3.0 times by the end of fiscal 2018,” said Doug Murphy, President and Chief Executive Officer. “We have successfully accomplished the first step in our journey through the disciplined execution of our integration plan and ongoing advancement of our strategic priorities in fiscal 2017.  As we reviewed our portfolio of assets this year, we determined that while Historia and Séries+ are excellent channels, they are not core to advancing Corus’ strategic priorities at this time. Furthermore, the increased financial flexibility this transaction provides will enable Corus to accelerate our transformation into an industry-leading integrated media and content company.

Corus was embroiled in controversy recently after news came out that Séries+ and Historia would no longer be commissioning original series. It’s unclear if that decision was made in anticipation of this announcement (La Presse first reported on Corus negotiating this deal back in May 2016). Corus remains in control of the channels until the deal is closed, which Bell predicts will happen in mid-2018.

From Bell’s statement:

“The addition of Séries+ and Historia perfectly complements our broad slate of French-language channels, further enhancing our competitiveness in the vibrant Québec media landscape,” said Randy Lennox, President, Bell Media. “We look forward to taking Séries+ and Historia further than ever before, reinforcing our commitment to invest and grow in Québec, and deliver even more opportunities for francophone viewers, producers, and advertisers.”

“Bell Media has had a proven track record of investing in original French-language production, commissioning over 530 original productions from more than 70 francophone producers, and representing nearly 2,700 hours of new programming,” said Gerry Frappier, Bell Media’s President, French-language TV and RDS. “Now with the addition of Séries+ and Historia, we look forward to bolstering our commitment to both francophone viewers and the Québec television production community even more.”

The CRTC’s common ownership policy says generally that deals where a company gets control of more than 35% of the viewing share will be reviewed to determine if it’s in the public interest, and anything higher than 45% would generally be denied. According to the CRTC’s latest Communications Monitoring Report, Bell’s English-language services represent about 37% of viewing hours outside Quebec’s francophone market, and 21% in the Quebec francophone market. Corus’s French-language services (which also include Teletoon) represent only 0.4% of Quebec francophone viewing share. So mathematically, the deal would seem to meet the CRTC’s criteria for approval.

But expect those who came out against the Bell-Astral deal, particularly Quebecor, Cogeco and Telus, to argue that this deal calls into question the integrity of the CRTC’s 2013 decision and that it should be denied as being against the public interest.

Since this is a change in ownership, the deal would also be subject to the CRTC’s tangible benefits policy, which requires 10% of the value of television ownership transactions be spent on funds and projects that benefit the broadcasting system. Under this policy, Bell would be expected to spend $20 million on new projects over the next seven years. No tangible benefits proposal has been released yet, but will become public when the CRTC publishes the application for change in ownership.

What TSN broadcast tonight instead of the Canadiens’ home opener pregame show

The Canadiens aren’t the best hockey team in the world. After losing most of their preseason games and all but one* of their regular season games so far, that much is obvious. But where the team excels is in its ceremonies. And the biggest one of those (at least when there’s no obituary or jersey retirement) is the home opener.

TSN, in the first year of its five-year regional rights deal and only the second broadcast under this deal, had a great few minutes of go-Habs-go content they didn’t even have to produce.

Except they didn’t air any of it. A couple of short clips of two player introductions (one without audio) and the national anthems. I’m not sure if there was a technical problem (more on that later), but there were 10 minutes of player introductions that didn’t make it to air. Instead, here’s what TSN2 showed tonight:

7:00-7:30 pm: An episode of TSN’s That’s Hockey. Mostly panel discussions, but includes some pregame hits from reporter John Lu, including a quick chat with Karl Alzner. Ends with a 20-second wide view of the Bell Centre with no audio — instead we hear host Gino Reda saying the Canadiens game is next.

7:30: Promo IDs, intro montage and intro theme.

7:31: Tessa Bonhomme begins the regional broadcast over video of players in the dressing room and introduces Pierre LeBrun.

(Meanwhile, pregame ceremony at Bell Centre begins with introduction of Canadiens staff.)

7:32: TSN airs pre-recorded discussion with the broadcast team of John Bartlett and Dave Poulin.

7:34: Bonhomme presents graphic showing Canadiens lineup.

(Pregame ceremony introduces head coach Claude Julien.)

7:35: Prerecorded video of Lu interviewing Claude Julien.

(Pregame ceremony begins introducing players.)

7:36: More discussion between Bonhomme and LeBrun in studio.

7:38: Bumper to commercial break with five-second video of Charles Hudon coming onto the ice during player introductions as Bonhomme mentions puck drop coming next. Ads.

(Pregame ceremony ends with introduction of captain Max Pacioretty.)

7:40: Return from commercial break with 25-second video of Jonathan Drouin being introduced “just moments ago”. Video switches to live shot of Bell Centre as Bonhomme awkwardly throws it to Poulin. What follows is 25 seconds of no one speaking until Brigitte Boisjoli begins singing the national anthems. (There’s no graphic or announcer statement to identify her to TSN’s audience, just muffled audio of arena announcer Michel Lacroix.)

7:41: This.

The audio switches a few times between sources that are obviously not in sync, resulting in echoes and jumps during both anthems. Throughout it all you hear booth audio, including some breathing sounds.

7:43: Starting goaltender introductions, listing of officials.

7:44: Puck drop.

Considering what happened with the anthems, maybe it was a technical issue that prevented TSN from getting proper audio from the ceremony. But either way, we expect better from TSN. A lot better.

RDS, of course, broadcast the entire ceremony.

*Correction: I forgot about their win against Buffalo. The Canadiens are 1-3, not 0-4.

How would you schedule Hockey Night in Canada?

Hockey Night in Canada begins its 2017-18 season tonight. And that means another 26 Saturday nights where fans complain about what channel their team’s game is being shown on.

When Rogers acquired national rights to the NHL in 2014, the plan was to give Canadians more choice on Saturday nights, to make use of the multiple Sportsnet channels as well as CBC and City to let a Canadiens fan in Moose Jaw, a Leafs fan in Corner Brook and a Flames fan in Sarnia watch their team’s games. This differed from the previous system, where CBC split its network geographically and decided for each station which NHL team it wanted viewers to see.

The downside to this new system is that not all games are free. With as many as seven Canadian teams playing on a Saturday night (though the HNIC schedule never has more than five games on any night this season), only three broadcasts are on free over-the-air channels: early games on CBC and City, and a late game on CBC. And generally Rogers respects a pecking order: Leafs almost always get priority on CBC, and the Canucks generally get the 10pm game if they’re playing then.

Though it has in the past put Habs games on Sportsnet to try to drive subscriptions, so far this season it looks like the Canadiens are headed to City on Saturdays, except when they’re playing the Leafs. Mind you, Sportsnet is busy with baseball playoffs, so it may not be an entirely altruistic move. But even if it stays that way, that means the Senators and Jets get moved to Sportsnet channels, along with the Oilers and Flames.

Scheduling Saturday nights is so delicate that Rogers doesn’t pick channel assignments before the season except for the first month. Instead, the assignments are chosen a week or two in advance. That way, a team that is getting popular later in the season, or faces a highly anticipated matchup, might get a more prominent channel than one that’s fading.

So, confident in the knowledge that you know better than they do, how would you schedule Hockey Night in Canada? Give it a shot below.

The rules

Create your own procedure for scheduling Hockey Night in Canada games. The rules have to involve all seven Canadian teams, and should be applicable to as many as three early games (7pm) and two late games (10pm).

The rules are subject to the following technical abilities and limitations:

  • The CBC network can be split geographically, but only with 14 stations: Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Fredericton, Charlottetown Halifax, St. John’s and Yellowknife. If you split the network, assign a game to each station.
  • The City network can also be split geographically, with stations in each Canadian NHL market except Ottawa, which is a retransmitter of City Toronto and can’t carry a different game.
  • OMNI, which carries Hockey Night in Punjabi, has stations in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. If you ask nicely maybe you can convince Montreal’s ICI to join.
  • Most people don’t get out-of-market CBC, City and OMNI stations, or if they do, it’s not in high definition.
  • Sportsnet can be split up between East (Montreal, Ottawa), Ontario (Toronto), West (Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton) and Pacific (Vancouver). Most people now do get the four channels, but some still only have their local one, or just the local one in HD.
  • Sportsnet can’t always be monopolized for hockey. The baseball playoffs are on right now, and the main Sportsnet channels are showing that tonight, so they’re not usable for HNIC. There are also Toronto Raptors games to consider.
  • Sportsnet 360 and Sportsnet One are also available, but can’t be split geographically. They have fewer subscribers than the main Sportsnet channels.
  • The Sportsnet One overflow channels, Sportsnet Vancouver Hockey, Sportsnet Flames and Sportsnet Oilers are also available, though they’re not distributed outside their teams’ regions and not everyone gets them inside their regions either.
  • FX Canada is available (Rogers’s original plan was to use it for a U.S. team matchup), but it doesn’t have many subscribers and its audience doesn’t overlap with sports lovers very much.
  • Any channel with both an early game and a late game has to have a plan in case the early game goes past 10pm. Do you stick with the early game and join the late in progress? Do you start the late game on a backup channel?

There are also economic considerations to take into account:

  • Like it or not, the Maple Leafs are the biggest draw on English TV. Your biggest ad revenue will come from the Leafs game.
  • As someone who spent $5.2 billion on NHL rights, you want to drive subscriptions to Sportsnet, particularly for teams like Ottawa, Winnipeg and Montreal where you don’t have the regional rights to those teams’ games.

And finally, you need to keep it relatively simple. If you split the CBC, City and Sportsnet networks and what channel a team’s game is on varies by city, you risk making it so complicated for people to watch that they just give up.

So how would you make it work?

My suggestion

Here’s one plan I would offer for consideration:

  • Go back to splitting the CBC network geographically. All seven NHL markets get their local NHL team. The other seven stations could have viewers decide which team they want. (Windsor getting the Red Wings would be great if possible.) Markets where the local team plays at 10pm ET get an early Leafs or Canadiens game but cut to the local team when their game begins.
  • Put the Canadiens on City coast to coast. Just cuz. Consider putting a late game on City, too, if there’s more than one that night.
  • Split Sportsnet: Senators on Sportsnet East, Leafs on Sportsnet Ontario, Flames, Oilers or Jets on Sportsnet West and Canucks on Sportsnet Pacific. Offer local pregame and postgame shows on those channels.
  • Sorry, Jets, you get bumped to Sportsnet One if there aren’t any free channels up the food chain.
  • If you don’t need it to show a full game, turn Sportsnet 360 into an on-the-fly channel checking in on various games at key moments. Maybe even do split-screen. See what works. It can also be used for pregame and postgame shows while the other channels are showing early and late games.
  • Use the Canucks/Flames/Oilers SN1 channels for alternative feeds of some sort when those teams are in action. Star cam, goalie cam, shaky ref cam? Go nuts.
  • Keep HNIC Punjabi going, but don’t limit it to Leafs and Canucks games. Mix it up a bit. Consider translating into other languages (Mandarin, Italian, Arabic) through partnerships with Canadian broadcasters in those languages.

So for tonight, it would work out like this:

  • CBC 7pm: Leafs, Canadiens or Senators, split regionally. 10pm: Oilers/Canucks or Jets/Flames, split regionally.
  • City 7pm: Canadiens. 10pm: Jets/Flames.
  • OMNI 7pm: Leafs. 10pm: Oilers/Canucks.
  • Sportsnet: MLB playoffs.
  • Sportsnet One: Leafs, followed by Oilers/Canucks.
  • Sportsnet 360: Senators, followed by combined Sens/Leafs/Habs postgame show.

If Sportsnet were available, it would be this:

  • CBC 7pm: Leafs, Canadiens or Senators, split regionally. 10pm: Oilers/Canucks or Jets/Flames, split regionally.
  • City 7pm: Canadiens. 10pm: Jets/Flames.
  • Sportsnet East: Senators, followed by Senators postgame
  • Sportsnet Ontario: Leafs, followed by Leafs postgame
  • Sportsnet West: Jets/Flames pregame, game and postgame
  • Sportsnet Pacific: Oilers/Canucks pregame, game and postgame
  • Sportsnet One: Other programming until 9:30pm, followed by Montreal postgame
  • Sportsnet 360: Live look-ins across the league

The big advantage is that every market gets their local team. The big disadvantage is that it’s more complex, and there’s duplication. (Montreal gets the Habs on both CBC and City, for example.) I’m not sure it’s much better than Rogers’s current system for anyone living outside their local team’s market.

But maybe you have a better solution. Go ahead and try. Offer your suggestions in the comments below.

Videotron customers can finally livestream TSN and RDS

The day we’ve been waiting years for has finally arrived: Videotron customers can finally stream TSN and RDS online and on mobile apps.

The news was just announced via text message. Not only can people watch both Bell Media services through the Videotron website and Illico app, but Videotron customers can also login through TSN.ca and watch the network there. And it’s available through the RDS Go app.

Both of these systems are authenticated, which means you need to be a subscriber to the channels you want to watch, and whether you’re watching through a Videotron platform or a TSN/RDS one, you need to login with your Videotron username and password when prompted. But otherwise there’s no additional fee for watching them online or on mobile (except mobile data charges if you’re using mobile networks).

But it means if you want to watch the Canadiens this season (and what a coincidence, their season starts tonight), you can finally do so on the go legally as a Videotron subscriber.

(For whatever reason, Videotron is offering livestreaming of only TSN2 and TSN5 through its platforms, but all TSN’s Canadiens games are on TSN2.)

Unfortunately, the deal doesn’t include Sportsnet, which still isn’t available this way. Maybe someday…

Options for watching TSN and RDS live

MAtv season begins with new interview series Montrealers

In the spring of 2016, a young eager TV producer named Leah Balass asked me out to coffee to pick my brain about finding a way to sell a series she was working on that featured long-form interviews with interesting people. It was called Curiosity Craves.

Unfortunately there aren’t too many places to sell those things to these days. Local commercial television stations don’t commission local TV series for local broadcast anymore (City’s short-lived Only in Montreal was the last series done this way). So I suggested, since her interview subjects were in Montreal, that she try going to community television, either Videotron’s MAtv or Bell’s TV1, which have budgets for local community productions.

More than a year later, her project has been repackaged as Montrealers, an eight-episode half-hour series that debuts today on MAtv. (Its first broadcast was actually this morning, but its advertised debut is at 7:30pm).

Here’s what the official description of the show says:

MONTREALERS focuses on the art of conversation, creating an environment of open dialogue; for both the interviewee and the interviewer. With characters from an array of backgrounds, including Greek, Indian, Brazilian, Japanese, Egyptian, Iranian, and French – MONTREALERS is an all-inclusive show that gives all voices meaning. In this intimate interview series, the most inspiring stories can be found in the lives of everyday people. Leah Balass sits down with Montreal’s most colorful personalities to uncover their captivating life stories and to celebrate the various cultures that make up this unique city. Each episode features personal stories on immigration, love, identity, struggle, culture  and tradition.

The series is well shot and the interview subjects interesting. (One of the people featured in the first episode, Dave Arnold aka Mr. Sign, was also featured on an episode of Only in Montreal.) It goes for being touching and uplifting with calm sit-down interviews.

Mike Cohen at the Suburban talked with Balass and co-producer Christos Sourligas.

Also this fall are new episodes of Urban Nations by Lachlan Madill and CityLife hosted by Richard Dagenais. Returning in December is Culture Zone, a bilingual program featuring stories produced by volunteers, and an English version of the magazine show Ma curieuse cité (My Curious City).

The programming for this year, which also includes existing series Studios, Lofts & Jam Spaces, The Street Speaks and Jazz Yoga Ayurveda, doesn’t change the linguistic balance of the station, which is 21% anglophone.

But with a 25% budget cut, it means less money overall, and the Montrealers-making-a-difference series Montreal Billboard had to pay the price for that.

 

TSN to air 50 Habs games on TSN2, hires John Bartlett for play-by-play

With just three days to go until the first preseason game, TSN has finally announced broadcasting details for the Canadiens this season, the first after re-acquiring regional rights from Sportsnet.

TSN will air five of the eight preseason games, and all 50 regular-season games it has rights to, on TSN2*, which solves the issue of possible scheduling conflicts on TSN5, which is the main channel in the shared region of the Senators and Canadiens.

The remaining 32 regular-season games, including all Saturday night games, are national games that will air on Sportsnet-controlled channels.

TSN2 is a good solution to scheduling, offering a consistent channel without having to expand to a sixth feed. It does mean that anyone in eastern Canada who only has one TSN channel won’t see the games, though the number of people in that situation is pretty small these days. And it means TSN2 will be blacked out in the rest of Canada for 56 three-hour periods of the season, mainly in primetime on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but that’s not the end of the world. TSN has four other channels and the Jets, Leafs and Senators won’t all be playing at the same time very often.

*Two of those preseason games are against the Senators, and will air on TSN5 instead for both markets.

Bartlett is back

After spending weeks, even months, choosing not to comment about his future, even after stripping Sportsnet from his Twitter profile, John Bartlett can finally announce he will continue to be the voice of the Canadiens on television. Bartlett, who used to be the voice of the Habs on TSN 690 until he was hired by Sportsnet, goes back to TSN to call its regional games this season.

Assisting Bartlett are three analysts:

  • Dave Poulin, former NHL player for the Flyers, Bruins and Capitals, and former VP of Hockey Operations for the Maple Leafs
  • Mike Johnson, a one-season Canadiens player and analyst who was one of the cuts at Sportsnet last year
  • Craig Button, a Montrealer and veteran TSN and NHL Network hockey analyst

The broadcasts will be hosted by Tessa Bonhomme, star women’s hockey player and TSN broadcaster, and Glenn Schiiler, host of TSN’s That’s Hockey 2night.

The full schedule is here.

Also announced today are the regional schedules for TSN’s other teams. TSN will broadcast:

First look: CTV News Montreal at 5

For the past two weeks, CTV Montreal has had an additional hour of local news on weekdays. First announced in June, the new newscasts precede the usual 6pm news on most CTV stations, including Montreal’s.

Two weeks after they launched on Aug. 28, I’ve watched several of them and can start to piece together a picture of what they generally look like, and the strengths and weaknesses of the format.

Continue reading

How the CRTC screwed over community television to save local news

It’s a new dawn in local television. CTV Montreal has a new 5pm weekday newscast, City Montreal is preparing to launch evening news at 6pm and 11pm, and ICI is getting an infusion of cash thanks to OMNI’s successful bid for mandatory distribution at 12 cents per month per subscriber.

It’s a big enough change that I was asked to write about it for the Montreal Gazette. That story leads Saturday’s Culture section.

But while the new investments are great news for people who like local television (and, indirectly, people like me who like writing about it), there’s a big loser in this that isn’t getting discussed much: community television. The additional money going into local news is coming straight out of their pockets.

Let’s not talk TV

When the CRTC announced it was undertaking a long consultation process it called Let’s Talk TV, proponents of non-profit community television were excited about the prospect of finally bringing their issues to the forefront. A complaint from the independent group ICTV against Videotron’s community channel was in progress (the commission would later find that MAtv had failed to respect its licence conditions in terms of giving enough access to people from the community). And there was a growing opinion that community channels were not fulfilling their mandate.

The Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations and other groups filed complaints about other television providers that they felt were doing the same things to their community channels, ignoring their commitments to community access and using their funds to produce professional broadcasts and give side jobs to people affiliated with the company.

But the Let’s Talk TV process didn’t talk much about community television, and when it led to its first decisions in January 2015, the commission decided to kick the can down the road on community television, announcing it would begin a separate process to consider that. And that process would also include discussions of local news.

As expected, a review of the community television process was hijacked by discussions of local commercial television. People were more concerned about whether their local station would stay on the air or how long their local newscast would be than how their local Rogers TV or Shaw TV would be funded.

And the complaints about community channels still haven’t been properly evaluated, years later. That will happen at a hearing on the renewals of their licences, scheduled for October.

Provider TV

Let’s step back a bit and look at what community television is and has become in Canada.

Since 1971, the CRTC has required cable television providers to support community channels. Back then, television equipment was very expensive, very large and hard to obtain and operate. Community access was the only way many people could see themselves on television and communicate with the public through video. Cable companies would set up studios at their head ends and let people from the community broadcast on a special channel they set up.

Since the turn of the millennium, the situation has changed. Getting access to equipment isn’t the biggest problem — as the CRTC says, “many Canadians now carry an HD camera in their pocket in the form of their smartphone” — editing can be done on a home computer, and distribution is much easier thanks to YouTube and other free online services.

Instead, over the past decade, the issue has been more about money.

All cable television providers are required to spend 5% of their gross revenues on Canadian programming, but most are allowed to redirect some of that money to a community channel rather than simply hand it over to a fund like the Canada Media Fund. Most large terrestrial television providers do this because it allows them to keep control of that money, create a service that’s seen to do a public good, and provide added value for subscribers.

Critics might point out some other benefits, such as billing yourself for Internet access and providing side jobs for your employees. (The CRTC limits such overhead costs, but there isn’t a bright line that says you can’t be a supplier to your own community channel.)

Since 1991, the amount of money allowed to be redirected to community channels has been capped at 2% of gross revenues. Though there were many exceptions (small cable companies could devote the full 5% to a community channel, and companies that offered community channels in each official language could devote 2% to each one).

It might not seem like much, but when you have more than a million subscribers paying more than $50 a month, that’s a million dollars a month right there going to community TV.

As budgets for community TV grew, and technology advanced, they started to get more ambitious in terms of programming. Some even started broadcasting professional sports until the CRTC put a stop to that. (The ban doesn’t affect junior sports, and many junior hockey league matches are still broadcast on community channels.)

Community television is in an odd place because on the one hand it’s supposed to be volunteer-driven but on the other hand it’s required to spend money on programming. The pressure has always been there to keep the cable-access stuff to a minimum so more popular professional-looking programming can entice people to buy or keep their cable subscriptions.

And there was the added benefit of using community channel money to benefit related productions and personalities. Bell’s TV1 had shows linked to The Amazing Race Canada, the Much Music Video Awards, the Montreal Canadiens, The Social and eTalk. Videotron’s MAtv had side projects for such Quebecor personalities as Sophie Durocher, Louise Deschâtelets and Dominic Arpin.

This is a big part of the reason why CACTUS and others wanted community television taken out of the hands of big cable providers and put into the hands of non-profit community groups. But the CRTC has repeatedly resisted that effort, believing that the cable companies have the best resources available to provide high-quality community programming on a sustainable basis.

“Flexibility”

In 2010, the commission decided to freeze contributions to community channels. It found that the amount of money going to community television had almost doubled in a decade, and “although the Commission acknowledges that various metrics can be used to evaluate the success of community channels, it nonetheless considers that overall viewing to community channels remains modest relative to the growth in contributions to this sector.” Rather than cut the funding down, though, it decided to freeze it. Existing television providers would be capped at their 2010 levels until those dropped to 1.5% of revenues, and then they would stay at 1.5%.

In June 2016, the CRTC released its new policy on local and community television. There, it cut the contribution from 2% to 1.5%.

But the bigger blow was their decision to allow distributors the “flexibility” to redirect funds from community channels to their affiliated local stations to spend on local programming. For Canada’s five largest cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton), that redirection could be 100%, since the CRTC believed that people in those areas “have access to many media sources on television and radio, as well as online and in print, that provide community reflection.” For smaller areas, at least 50% of that money would still need to be spent on community television.

By the CRTC’s estimate, $65 million a year could be redirected from community channels to local stations owned by the major vertically integrated companies.

But what about independent stations? Where do they get additional money?

To help out most of them, there was already a fund called the Small Market Local Production Fund, funded by Canada’s satellite TV providers. The CRTC transformed that into the Independent Local News Fund, adjusted its admission criteria to include larger-market stations like CHCH in Hamilton and the V stations in Quebec and Montreal (while excluding small-market stations owned by the media giants), and required cable companies to contribute into the fund. Everyone kicks in 0.3% of revenues to support independent stations.

So in the end, all independent stations get extra money from this fund, and non-independent stations get funded through TV providers who share the same owner.

News pro quo

In exchange for the extra money, there were new requirements for local stations:

  • In addition to the amount of local programming they have to air each week (still set at 14 hours for major-market stations and 7 hours for smaller ones, with some exceptions), they must air a certain amount of locally reflective news programming as well — six hours in large markets, three in smaller ones.
  • There’s also a financial requirement for investment in local news: 11% of gross revenues for local television stations must be devoted to locally reflective news. (This number, proposed by the three English networks, is based on previous spending on local news.)

For community stations, even though they got less money, there were stricter regulations imposed to ensure that the money they did get was spent correctly:

  • Starting this year, cable companies must spend 60% of their community channel allocations on direct programming expenses. That rises in increments and reaches 75% after 2020.
  • Diverse citizen advisory committees are required in Canada’s five largest markets.
  • Rules on what qualifies as access programming have been tightened to stress that the community member that initiates a project must have creative control, and “is neither employed by a (TV provider) nor a media professional who is known to the public or who already has access to the broadcasting system.” They also can’t profit from the show (by turning it into a de facto infomercial for their business, for example).

The changes took effect on Sept. 1 after being formally approved as amendments to the regulations and enshrined in TV stations’ conditions of licence.

But most companies didn’t wait that long to make major changes:

  • Rogers closed some Rogers TV community stations and cut back at others in the greater Toronto area.
  • Shaw closed Shaw TV in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, eliminating 70 positions and sending $10 million to Global TV stations.
  • Videotron cut the budget of MAtv by 25%, reflecting the drop of the maximum deduction from 2% to 1.5%. (There hasn’t been an announcement of any redirection of funds to TVA stations.) The cuts meant the cancellation of Montreal Billboard, a weekly series featuring interviews with local community groups. MAtv director Steve Desgagné told me the decision to cut that program was strictly budgetary.
  • Bell made serious cuts at its TV1 community channels, which operate in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. It declined to provide specifics when I asked.

The result

It’s hard to evaluate the impact on community television by looking at programming, because much of that programming is short-term projects. But you can expect less programming, and especially less of the non-access local programming produced directly by the cable companies, particularly in the larger markets, as a result of these changes.

On the TV side, Bell’s CTV and Rogers’s City have both announced new expansions of local news, both to make use of these new funds and to meet the new locally reflective news requirements. Global has been non-specific about how it’s using the additional money.

What definitely won’t change is the strongly held belief among supporters of community television that cable access needs to be less cable and more access.

Sportsnet Central Montreal reborn as Montreal Sports Weekly?

Montreal Sports Weekly on ICI.

I had two things waiting on my PVR this morning: A notification that future episodes of Sportsnet Central Montreal have been deleted from the City Montreal schedule, and a recording of Montreal Sports Weekly, a show I happened to notice on the ICI Television schedule as I was looking for information about its new arrangement with OMNI.

You can imagine my surprise when I hit play.

Montreal Sports Weekly is a half-hour local sports panel discussion show hosted by Elias Makos with local journalists sitting in high chairs in the City Montreal studio.

Sounds kind of familiar.

Makos hasn’t said anything publicly about this show, and his panelists — SN Central Montreal regulars Jeremy Filosa and Sean Farrell — haven’t talked about it either, which seems odd, so I’m not entirely sure what the deal is (the credits say only “COPYRIGHT 2017”). It could mean an announcement is coming, or it could mean that this is just a pilot or something and no one wants to get anyone’s hopes up.

Even the description of the show on the electronic program guide — “takes audiences beyond the game highlights for an in-depth look at the city’s professional and amateur teams, along with athlete profiles and feature stories” — is identical to the one first announced for Montreal Connected in 2013, with the exception that it’s described as an “English-language program” for clarity.

ICI’s business model involves working with independent producers who buy airtime and create shows that they can sell their own advertising for.

The first airing at 9am Saturday featured the same public service announcements and ICI house ads that generally fill the airtime. If this is really a project with a future, the show is going to need sponsors if it’s going to survive. So if you were upset that Sportsnet Central Montreal was cancelled, now is the time to get people to start advertising and supporting this.

This isn’t the first time someone has tried an English local Montreal sports talk show on ICI. Adam Reid had a show called Reid Between the Lines, an episode of which can be seen here. He’s since moved on to The Lineup, a sports game show on WatchMojo, which features some local media celebrities.

I’ll update this as I get more information about this show, assuming it doesn’t disappear as mysteriously and suddenly as it appeared.

Montreal Sports Weekly airs Saturdays at 9am and 6pm, Mondays at 2:30pm, Tuesdays at 11am, Wednesdays at 4pm, and Thursdays at 3pm and 9pm on ICI.

City cancels Sportsnet Central Montreal

Sportsnet Central Montreal, hosted by Elias Makos, centre.

Sportsnet Central Montreal, the weekly half-hour sports panel discussion show on City Montreal, has been cancelled by Rogers Media. Thursday’s show will be its last.

(UPDATE: It looks like there’s a project to try to revive the show on ICI.)

Host Elias Makos dropped the first hint of the cancellation during last week’s show, describing it as the “penultimate” one. Rogers confirmed to me today that it has decided to end the show. It sent me this statement:

Rogers Media is evolving its local strategy to better serve the Montreal community. In doing this we’re deepening our commitment to local news with the launch of daily newscast CityNews in Winter 2018.   As a result of this re-focused strategy, SN Central will have its last broadcast this Thursday, August 31 at 6:30 p.m. We’d like to thank Elias Makos and all of our contributors for their smart and entertaining commentary on Montreal’s sports scene.

City will continue to provide coverage of Montreal sports teams and events on Breakfast Television, featuring Joanne Vrakas, Derick Fage, Catherine Verdon Diamond, Elias Makos and Domenic Fazioli as well as through our new CityNews newscast, launching Winter 2018.

Makos remains with City, as the new media producer and occasional fill-in host or weather presenter on Breakfast Television.

The last show will be broadcast mere hours before the condition of licence requiring the station to broadcast the show expires. As of Sept. 1, City Montreal (CJNT-DT) has standard conditions of licence regarding local programming.

The cancellation of the show makes sense since the new evening newscasts would take over all three of its timeslots. But that won’t happen until next winter.

Continue reading

CBC’s Absolutely Quebec begins another six weeks of local documentary

I was worried that it had been cancelled or something, because normally it starts earlier in the summer, but CBC has finally opened the curtain on its yearly Absolutely Quebec series of regional specials.

As in previous years, the series of six one-hour episodes, produced by Carrie Haber, runs Saturdays at 7pm, each hour a different documentary based in Quebec.

The first, called Cities Held Hostage, stars former Montreal Gazette columnist Henry Aubin and discusses the very topical issue of real estate and housing prices in an urban environment. While Montreal hasn’t gone insane like Vancouver and Toronto, it is part of a system, and this documentary explores that system.

The remaining documentaries are as follows:

The Gardener (Sept. 2): A documentary reflecting on a spiritual and creative approach to gardening. A highly experiential program profiling one of Quebec’s prolific landscape artists, Frank Cabot.

Napagunnaqullusi — So that you can stand (Sept. 9): The story of the 11 Inuit signatories of the James Bay Agreement as they took on the Quebec government to protect their land and their children’s future in the early 1970s.

I’m Still Your child (Sept. 16): Jessy, Sarah and Von are all familiar with the “ups and downs” of living with a parent who suffers from mental illness. I’m Still Your Child immerses us in a bewildering, yet hopeful, world through the stories of three compelling subjects.

Abu (Sept. 23): As a gay man, Filmmaker Arshad Khan explores his troubled relationship with his devout, Muslim, Pakistani father Abu.

Studios, Lofts and Jam Spaces (Sept. 30): Follows musician and visual artist Little Scream (Laurel Sprengelmeyer) and fashion designer Jennifer Glasgow as they launch their works into the world.

The last episode in this series is based on a series by the same name that aired as 10 episodes on community channel MAtv earlier this year.

Details of the Absolutely Quebec season, and trailers for some of the docs, can be found on CBC’s website.

Absolutely Quebec airs Saturdays from 7 to 8 pm from Aug. 26 to Sept. 30.

The dream of Frissons TV

I first spoke with Sylvain Gagné on May 6, 2014. It was shortly after he sent out a press release about the upcoming launch of Terror TV, a specialty television channel devoted to horror movies. A French version called Frissons TV had just been approved by the CRTC.

The channels, one each in French and English, were set to launch that fall.

They didn’t.

I sat down with Gagné at the Gazette restaurant in Old Montreal (which was named after the newspaper I work for and is in the building it once occupied). We had a long chat, about how he couldn’t understand the decision by Corus to pull the plug on the Dusk channel (formerly Scream TV), how the financial information it disclosed to the CRTC showed it to be healthy, and how the data he’s seen on video-on-demand consumption of horror films makes such a channel a no-brainer.

But I never ended up writing the article, and the channel never launched. Until now.

After signing a distribution deal with Videotron, Frissons TV (in French only for now) will launch on Sept. 1, with a free preview for Videotron customers until Nov. 18.

I spoke to Gagné again, and wrote about what to expect from the channel in this story at Cartt.ca. For those without a Cartt subscription, here are the details to know:

  • The channel will be commercial-free (Gagné said it makes no financial sense to put in the effort to sell ads that people won’t want to see anyway).
  • The channel will be available in HD only on Videotron, Channel 799.
  • After the free preview, the channel will be available on Videotron’s custom packages, and will be added to the Mega package that has all the non-premium channels. It will also be available individually as of December for $5 a month.
  • Videotron will have some of Frissons TV’s content available on demand for subscribers.
  • There will be three original series launching over the next year, one of which will feature shorts.
  • Negotiations are continuing with other providers, particularly Bell. Videotron is the launch provider but the channel will be available to others in October. There hasn’t been much effort to sell the channel to non-Quebec providers like Rogers.
  • An English version of the channel is in the future plans, but only once the French version gets off the ground.

The channel has its schedule for the first week. The list of films it’s showing is here. For more details you can check out the channel’s Facebook page.

CTV Montreal cancels local sportscasts, lays off Randy Tieman, Brian Wilde, Sean Coleman

Last updated July 2 with videos of Tieman and Wilde from Impact game.

Staff at CTV Montreal were informed this morning that there will be no more locally-produced sportscasts at the station, and that long-time anchor Randy Tieman, reporter Brian Wilde and weekend anchor Sean Coleman have been laid off, effective immediately.

“We can confirm we’ve made an editorial decision to transition sports coverage from sportscasters to news anchors in response to evolving viewer behaviour. As a result, three positions have been impacted at CTV Montreal. Our viewers can continue to rely on CTV News to keep them informed about local and professional sports,” reads the statement from Bell Media.

According to Stéphane Giroux, who heads the station’s union local, the staff were informed of the cut at 11am Tuesday, an hour after Coleman and Tieman were informed of the decision in a brief, matter-of-fact meeting with HR. (Wilde was on the road and was informed by telephone.) There was no sports at noon on Tuesday, and there wasn’t one at 6pm either. Paul Karwatsky broke the news to viewers during the 6pm newscast (the 30-minute mark of the video, or 40 minutes into the newscast on TV):

Welcome back. Now a note to share with you tonight about our newscast and how we’ll be covering sports from now on. We’ll still be reporting on the sports beat with stories from Montreal and beyond. But we’ll now be doing it as part of our overall news coverage, in other words we’ll no longer have a separate sportscast. This was announced today and this also means very, very unfortunately that Randy Tieman, Brian Wilde and Sean Coleman are no longer with CTV. We want to thank them of course for their dedication and their excellent contribution to this station and this community that will of course be very sorely missed.

Lori Graham and Paul Karwatsky pay tribute to their former sports colleagues at the end of Tuesday’s newscast.

Karwatsky and Lori Graham also paid tribute to their departed colleagues at the end of the newscast:

Karwatsky: I guess we should address it, it hasn’t been an amazing day here at CTV Montreal. In fact all across the network sportscasts have been cancelled and that means unfortunately, very unfortunately we’re losing Randy, Brian and Sean. And we just wanted to take some time to tell you guys how much you’ll be missed.

Graham: That’s right. We’d like to definitely honour our colleagues, Randy Tieman, Brian Wilde and Sean Coleman. Not only were they great to work with, but they are really great guys, and we’re definitely going to miss your talent, we’re going to miss your wit and your humour and we wish you all the best.

Karwatsky: In the meantime we’ll carry on and we hope you continue tuning in.

Karwatsky gave a slightly shorter version of the announcement during the late-night newscast around 11:55pm (18-minute mark in the video).

Similar cuts to local sports have happened at other CTV stations (Barrie, Kitchener, London, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Victoria and Windsor have all been reported) to the point where the national Unifor union blew the whistle on the cuts to local news.

So Giroux said the union saw this one coming, but they were still surprised that such a popular newscast would cut such popular on-air personalities, describing Tieman and Wilde as “living legends” and Coleman as “such a promising sportscaster”.

“It made us realize nothing is untouchable in this business,” he said.

CTV Montreal news director Jed Kahane declined to comment, referring me to Bell Media.

Continue reading

It’s official: Canadiens regional games move to TSN

Two weeks after rumours began spreading, TSN and the Canadiens have confirmed that the Bell-owned broadcaster has picked up the team’s regional English-language television rights from Sportsnet as of the 2017-18 season.

The team has also renewed its English-language radio deal with TSN 690. According to the station, that deal is for five years.

The press releases about TSN’s deal are intentionally vague on details. They speak of “a slate” of games, so it’s unclear if it will be broadcasting all the games it’s entitled to or if, like in the days of the “TSN Habs” channel, it will only broadcast a selection. On one hand, every other Canadian team has all 82 games a year broadcast in English, and the Sportsnet/NHL deal caused TSN to invest far more in regional broadcast rights. On the other hand, Canadiens games are also broadcast on RDS, so not every game needs to be broadcast in English.

The press releases also don’t specify how long the TV deal is for. I’ve asked TSN for specifics and will update if I hear back.

Also unanswered so far is what channel the games will air on. TSN5 is used by the Ottawa Senators, so some sort of overflow channel will need to be used when both the Senators and Canadiens are playing, at the very least. (By my count, there are 15 regular-season games that the two teams play simultaneously — but not against each other — that aren’t part of the Sportsnet national windows.) That, and on-air hirings, will be answered closer to the start of the season.

The deal will give TSN TV rights to all Canadiens preseason games, and up to 50 of the team’s regular-season games, mostly those that don’t air Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday nights. Saturday night games, special games like outdoor games, and all playoff games stay with Sportsnet.

The deal will also mean far fewer nationally-broadcast Habs games, limited to only Sportsnet’s national broadcast windows. All TSN Habs games will be blacked out outside the Canadiens broadcast region.

UPDATE: Sportsnet has released its national schedule, which includes 32 Canadiens games. That’s 10 more than TVA Sports gets for some reason. Sportsnet’s picks include:

  • 4/4 games vs. Toronto
  • 3/4 games vs. Ottawa, including the “NHL 100 Classic” game on Dec. 16
  • 1/2 games vs. Winnipeg
  • 2/2 games vs. Edmonton
  • 0/2 games vs. Calgary
  • 1/2 games vs. Vancouver
  • 4/4 games vs. Boston
  • 2/2 games vs. Nashville
  • The first ever Canadiens game in Las Vegas
  • All playoff games

That leaves TSN with:

  • All preseason games
  • The Canadiens’ season opener
  • The Canadiens’ home opener
  • A game each against Ottawa, Winnipeg and Vancouver
  • Both games against Calgary
  • The Vegas Golden Knights’ visit to the Bell Centre

UPDATE (Sept. 15): TSN has announced its Habs broadcast schedule and broadcast team.