Category Archives: TV

Global Montreal’s Morning News turns 5, and Corus will keep it going

Laura Casella and Kim Sullivan on a recent episode of Global News Morning

As recently as 2012, Montreal did not have a local English-language morning show on television. Now we have two — three if you include the radio-on-the-TV Daybreak broadcast on CBC. Global Montreal was first out of the gate on Jan. 28, 2013, and so today celebrates its fifth anniversary.

Or it would if today wasn’t Sunday.

Nevertheless, there’s cause for celebration, because Global’s parent company Corus Entertainment is keeping the show on the air past its original mandate, even though it’s under no obligation to.

Creating local morning news shows in markets that didn’t already have them was a promise made by Shaw Communications in 2010 when it acquired Global and the other Canwest television assets from the bankrupt company (that also used to be my employer). As part of its $180 million “tangible benefits” commitment to get the deal approved by the CRTC, Shaw promised $45 million toward adding local programming in the mornings — above the requirements in its standard licence conditions — in six markets: Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatoon. Toronto would get the largest slice of that pie, but Montreal was promised $5 million — or about a million dollars a year.

It took a while to get the Montreal show off the ground — the premiere two years and three months after the acquisition was approved. And even then it had some glitches, with a minimal technical staff, two anchors and a weather presenter.

The original Global Montreal morning show cast, from left: Richard Dagenais, Jessica Laventure, Camille Ross. All three have since moved on to other jobs (Dagenais is at MAtv, Laventure works at Club Med and Ross is an instructor and consultant in London, Ont.)

Tangible benefits are spread out over seven years, which means they should have been all paid out by Aug. 31, 2017. We don’t have Global’s financial report for that year yet, but the 2016 report showed $1,234,800 in spending remaining from that $5 million fund for the 2016-17 year, the largest pool of money remaining for a market.

With the expiry of the tangible benefits, the obligation of Shaw (now Corus) to continue Morning News in Montreal and the other markets ceased. If they could meet their local programming and local news requirements with remaining programming, they could shut the morning shows down.

But they haven’t.

“We’re proud of our morning show in Montreal, which continues to do well and is providing improved results in the market,” Corus told me in a statement. “We also produce more local news content (above our condition of license) above our English language competitors.”

Shaw had told the CRTC in 2010 that it expected the morning shows to keep going past the end of the commitment. Troy Reeb, VP of news for Shaw Media and now head of local news for TV and radio for Corus, told me the same at the time, saying they were striving for a sustainable model.

But it’s nice to see that they’re actually following through with the commitment, at least for now.

Global Montreal’s Morning News doesn’t have a huge audience. According to the 2016-17 season average that Corus is using to tell advertisers what to expect, the show has an average minute audience of 5,500. That’s higher than the 3,500 that City’s Breakfast Television is reporting, or the 1,000 that CBC is reporting for Daybreak on TV.

And then there’s the fact that it’s not all that local. The middle segment of every half hour comes out of Toronto, which continues to give viewers the idea that they’re watching two programs switching back and forth.

The nationalization of local news was also applied to late-night and weekend newscasts, which are anchored out of Toronto. But Global Montreal also added a local noon-hour news, becoming the first station to try challenging CTV Montreal’s noon newscast.

It’s a mixed bag. We can be furious that Global is cutting so many corners and passing off nationally-produced programming as local news, or we can be happy that making such broadcasts as lean as possible has kept them on the air.

As much as I think Morning News isn’t as good as it could be with more resources, I’d rather that than nothing.

So happy birthday.

UPDATE: Morning News marked its anniversary on the air on Monday.

Rogers pulls the plug on Viceland

The news was a long time coming, but was finally made official today: Rogers is ending its $100-million content deal with Vice Media and shutting down the Viceland television channel on March 31.

Vice, though it will regain control of its content, will face layoffs as a result. The recently formed union isn’t sure how many.

Vice still has other deals, notably with Rogers competitor Bell Media for Vice News Tonight on HBO and Much and a documentary deal with CTV’s W5. And of course it still has its online content.

Viceland Canada, formerly the Biography Channel, required significant startup investment after it launched on Feb. 29, 2016, which led to a $2.5-million loss in the 2015-16 broadcast year. In financial projections filed with the CRTC, Rogers expected a further $8-9 million loss each year for the next three years.

Presumably this means the licence for the channel would be turned in (that’s what Rogers is telling Cartt.ca), though Vice is suggesting that Viceland could continue. Another possibility might be that Bell decides to take over the rights to Viceland and rebrand one of its zombie channels like Book Television or incorporate it into a related channel like Much or MTV/MTV2. Or someone could ask the CRTC for permission to allow the American Viceland to be distributed in Canada.

More coverage from the Globe and Mail and CBC News.

UPDATE (Jan. 27): The end of the Rogers-Vice deal means job losses. The Canadian Media Guild says 23 people were given layoff notices. The fact that they’re now in a union means they have some protections.

Nirvanna the Band the Show, one of the Canadian Viceland originals, will still be produced because its deal with Vice is still valid.

Meanwhile, InfoPresse asked V about its plans for a French Viceland. V has abandoned the idea of a full-time channel, but will still produce content with Vice.

UPDATE (Feb. 15): Rogers has indeed requested the CRTC revoke the licence for Viceland.

Review: CTV’s The Launch is an interesting concept with some implementation issues

Contestant Logan Staats with mentor Shania Twain (photo: Bell Media)

If you haven’t heard about this new music competition series on CTV called The Launch, then there are some heartbroken people at Bell Media, because they’ve been pulling out all the stops promoting it.

The six-episode series (with a special seventh episode added to revisit the artists) tries something new with the singing competition format that has been tried and toyed with a dozen times. Rather than just having singers compete against each other for a record contract at the end of the series, each episode ends with a contestant’s career being launched with a new single (that’s available for download or streaming, and gets generous airtime on Bell-owned radio stations).

Based on the first episode, which aired on Wednesday, the show is divided into three roughly equal parts: the auditions, in which five artists compete to be among the two selected to record a song; the recording, in which the two finalists record a sure-to-be-a-hit pop song provided to them by a guest writer/producer; and the performance, in which both finalists perform the song live in front of an audience, and one is selected to launch with that song.

Julia Tomlinson’s audition was cut from the first episode of The Launch. (photo: Bell Media)

Those who paid attention during the first episode might be asking themselves why I said “five” above, since they only saw three auditions. Two artists, Julia Tomlinson and Alex Zaichkowski (aka Havelin), had their entire auditions cut from the episode (presumably for time), which really really sucks for them. They’re on the website, listed among the artists, and the post-episode press release even says they were in the episode, but all you saw of them was a 10-second voiceover during which it’s explained that they didn’t make it through. Their auditions are posted online at the links above if you want to see them.

In these kinds of shows, at least you can say the artists that don’t make it got some national television exposure. These two didn’t even get that.

UPDATE: I asked Bell Media about the cuts, and whether we should expect the same for future episodes. The answer, unfortunately, is yes:

THE LAUNCH is an entirely new format that has been evolving since it was greenlit. During the editing process which began after the show was shot in August, September, and October, it became obvious to our original production team that there was so much amazing footage we knew it would not fit into a conventional hour-long TV show. But we still wanted to showcase and promote all of the talent who were chosen for the series. So we made the decision to make the show a full 360 experience with audition footage of each episode’s five artists featured on ctv.ca and on YouTube and in the extended cut on CraveTV.

Alex Zaichkowski, who performs under the name Havelin (Photo: Bell Media)

Laura Heath Potter, Director of Communications for CTV, said the affected artists were advised prior to broadcast. She also noted that all the artists got to promote themselves as they promoted the series:

Bell Media has supported all 30 artists that participated in the series through interviews on national, local and radio outlets, as well as in our on air promotion campaign and digital extras on ctv.ca and paid digital promo over the past few months. We are building a new format and are grateful to have 30 Canadian artists act as ambassadors to the series and what it is attempting to accomplish — creating new original singles by Canadian artists that resonate with music fans and viewers.

Episodes are still being edited and finalized, but for all the upcoming episodes that have been through a final cut, each of the artists that have auditions being offered exclusively as part of the extended directors’ cut and separately on ctv.ca and YouTube have been informed already.

The song

One of the strengths of this series is that you see how the sausage is made. Not all pop stars write and compose their own songs. Many of them have the music and lyrics handed to them and just add their voice for a producer to mix together. That’s the case here — the song is written and ready before the panel even meets the contestant at the audition. The discussion afterward is about whether the producer can make the song work with that artist. And they have 48 hours to do so.

The song for the first episode is called The Lucky Ones, and you hear it throughout the episode so it gets stuck in your head by the end. It’s a pop song, with uninspiring lyrics like “close your eyes and hold me close tonight” (to say nothing about the misogynistic objectifying parts like “I never want to see your heart happy with another”), and a melody that doesn’t really set it apart from anything else you’ll hear on Virgin Radio. It has six writers and four producers listed for it, and … well, it sounds like a song created by committee.

As much as I’m critical of the song, it might have been good if the episode spent some more time actually introducing us to it. All we got was 15 seconds of producer busbee saying it’s about how much he loves his wife as we listened to a production demo performed by an unnamed artist.

The experts

The series has lined up a long list of music industry professionals to help the artists through the process, and each episode has its own mentor (Fergie, Alessia Cara and Boy George are among the others) and producer (most of which are Grammy … nominated). The constant presence is Scott Borchetta, one of the executive producers of the show, whose claim to fame is having discovered Taylor Swift. Having real experts gives the series some authenticity. Unfortunately Borchetta is a bit stiff on camera.

Though there’s no Simon-Cowell-type bad guy, the feedback from the panel is interesting and productive. Particularly in the middle segment in the studio, you get to see a real producer working with real artists, making sure they have the tempo right, that they’re on the right note, that they make sure to pronounce the lyrics well. It’s played up a bit for drama, but it’s interesting to watch.

The narration

Hopefully it’s just a first-episode-introduction thing, but the hour was overly narrated by a voice we’re not introduced to. (If she sounds familiar, that’s because it’s former Virgin Radio 96 announcer Andrea Collins.) There’s a lot of stating-the-obvious and repetition here that could be considerably cut down, and the narration is done in an announcer’s tone that works for a 10-second TV promo but less so for a full hour.

The format

The Launch doesn’t have gimmicks. There are no swivelling chairs, no coloured lights to indicate success or failure, there isn’t even an audience vote component. The experts choose who gets to record the song, and they choose which artist to launch at the end of the episode. (The live performance is in front of an audience, which looks odd because not one of them is holding a cellphone.) This is good for people who want to see a show about music and artists, and works to The Launch’s advantage. It’s not as glitzy and expensive as The Voice, America’s Got Talent or American Idol, but it owns that.

The editing (less oh-gosh-who-do-we-pick and more studio time and performance) and narration could use a bit of work, and the songs could be a bit more original, though these things don’t prevent us from enjoying the show.

But for goodness sake, if you’re a show about respecting artists, don’t cut entire artists out of it and make them feel stupid for promoting the episode that has so unceremoniously cut them out of it.

The Launch is an original format, and one of the big ways Bell Media head Randy Lennox has made his musical mark on CTV. I think it has some potential as a format that could be exportable elsewhere, despite its flaws. And I’ll be tuning in for the rest of the season.

The Launch airs Wednesdays at 9pm on CTV and can be watched on demand at ctv.ca.

Videotron decides AMC isn’t worth the cost

UPDATE (Feb. 9): Videotron has reached a last-minute deal to keep the channel.

It didn’t take long after Videotron started informing clients that it was dropping AMC as of Feb. 12 for those clients to start complaining.

I contacted Videotron and asked them why they’re dropping the channel, and their response was about what I expected: They just can’t meet AMC’s carriage demands.

I wrote a short story about the decision for Cartt.ca. For non-subscribers, the previous sentence summarizes Videotron’s reasoning.

It’s too expensive, AMC’s carriage demands (which aren’t just about the per-subscriber fee) are too onerous, and all this for a channel that most of its clients aren’t interested in and whose viewership has been trending downward.

We don’t know exactly what AMC’s demands are, because negotiations and carriage contracts are secret, but it’s likely there was something along the lines of a minimum penetration guarantee or penetration-based rate card, which effectively force a provider to make sure a large number of its clients subscribe to the channel.

For national providers like Bell (Videotron’s main competitor), Rogers and Shaw, AMC’s demands may be more acceptable (though I doubt any of them are happy with the conditions). But for Videotron, which operates in Quebec and has mainly a francophone audience, it looks like it just became too much.

We’ve been here before. Before Videotron finally added AMC in 2013, it was among the most requested channels by subscribers. This was back in the day when AMC’s original series were very hot: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead. Because of AMC’s contract requirements, Videotron had to add it to its most popular large packages — Anglo, Telemax and Mega — despite its high cost.

Five years later, AMC’s biggest shows are The Walking Dead, a Breaking Bad spinoff and Mad Men reruns. Not terribly impressive.

Does it make sense for Videotron to jump through so many hoops to keep this channel in their lineup?

For some customers, this will no doubt be a deal-breaker. Combined with the usual price hikes, they’ll jump ship to Bell, which still carries AMC. Videotron has taken that into account with its decision, and it still makes more sense to let AMC go.

And don’t think this is some negotiation tactic, either. AMC has all the power in this relationship, with a billion dollars in annual revenue and more than 90 million subscribers to its flagship channel in the U.S. It won’t care that much about losing a few thousand subscribers in Quebec. And besides, subscribers will blame Videotron for this, not AMC, unless Videotron says exactly what AMC was demanding, which it can’t because of confidentiality agreements.

Ideally, it wouldn’t have to be this way. In 2015, with its Wholesale Code, the CRTC made it illegal for broadcasters to impose abusive penetration-based rates or minimum revenue guarantees. But AMC is an American channel, and doesn’t have to answer to the CRTC. Though the commission said it “expects” foreign channels to abide by the same rules, and said it could use its powers to, for example, make authorization for distribution in Canada conditional upon accepting the same rules, it has yet to step in when it comes to a foreign channel’s distribution agreement.

(AMC Networks also owns IFC and the Sundance channel, but the versions of those distributed in Canada are actually Canadian channels owned by Corus, which must follow the CRTC’s rules.)

It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this. We’ll see if other Canadian providers decide they too are fed up with AMC. The same year Videotron finally added AMC, Telus was so annoyed by their negotiation tactics that it sued in a U.S. court, and negotiations with Rogers got so bad that AMC started a campaign aimed at Rogers customers. If enough of them reject it, and AMC risks being shut out of Canada, it might change its demands. But what are the chances of enough Canadian providers being willing to alienate their own customers?

CTV Montreal lays off executive producer Barry Wilson, CHOM drops Picard

Updated Nov. 16 with comment from Wilson, and news of other cuts.

Barry Wilson (CTV photo)

Barry Wilson is no longer an employee of Bell Media.

The executive producer of CTV Montreal, who viewers saw once a week during his Postscript opinion segments, has been with the station for decades, but his position has been eliminated, Bell Media confirmed to me today. Staff were told about the dismissal during the day.

“The position was eliminated as a cost-saving measure,” explains Matthew Garrow, director of communications for news and local stations at Bell Media. “Barry’s executive producer responsibilities will be assumed by (news director) Jed Kahane.”

“I worked with some of the best people in the business and am thankful for that,” Wilson told me Thursday after what he described as a “strange week.”

“It’s been a good run. Who knows what the next step is but I am not retired.”

He similarly updated his Twitter bio to say “Thanks to everyone who supported my efforts over the years. Not done yet.”

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Review: Municipal election night on English-language TV

I was busy last Sunday night, helping the Montreal Gazette put together its coverage of the Montreal municipal election. But my PVR recorded the broadcasts of three English-language television stations in the city to see how they covered the evening. Below, I offer some thoughts on how well they did, based primarily on the actual information they provided.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m watching an election results show, I’m looking for election results. Analysts are great for filling time, but the more data you can show me, the more races you can announce, the better.

So below, you’ll see me focus less on the in-studio analysts, who were all fine, and more on what someone would have actually learned watching the broadcast.

CBC Montreal

11:00-11:30pm (9:45-11:30pm on Facebook)

Anchor: Debra Arbec

In-studio analysts:

  • Reporter Jonathan Montpetit
  • Social media editor Molly Kohli
  • Reporter Sean Henry with results

Reporters:

  • Simon Nakonechny at Plante HQ
  • Ainslie MacLellan at Coderre HQ
  • Sabrina Marandola in Westmount
  • Kate McKenna in Pointe-Claire (Facebook broadcast only)
  • Marika Wheeler in Quebec City (Facebook broadcast only)

Reported results — ticker (top three candidates, party, vote count, polls reporting):

  • Montreal mayor
  • All Montreal borough mayors
  • All Montreal city councillors

Reported results — graphic (top 2-4 candidates, party, vote count, lead):

  • Dollard-des-Ormeaux mayor
  • Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce mayor
  • Ahuntsic-Cartierville mayor
  • Lachine mayor
  • Sud-Ouest mayor
  • Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension mayor
  • Plateau-Mont-Royal mayor
  • Montreal city council standings (leading, elected, total)
  • Dorval mayor
  • Côte-Saint-Luc mayor
  • Pointe-Claire mayor
  • Westmount mayor

The public broadcaster clearly won in the graphics department, and was the only English-language network with a lower-third ticker with live results. The ticker showed only results from the city of Montreal, but it did not only the city mayor but also borough mayors and all borough councillor races. It took about nine minutes for the top of the ticker to do the rounds of all 64 elected city council seats, so viewers got to see each race about three times.

While CBC was the only station to include Montreal city council results, it failed to include anything off the island of Montreal — no mention of Quebec City, Saguenay, or even Longueuil or Laval.

CBC was also the only one to include a live speech in their broadcast, carrying 10 uninterrupted (and untranslated) minutes of Valérie Plante’s acceptance speech to lead off the half-hour show (which had no commercial interruption).

The broadcast actually started on Facebook, where it went for an hour and 45 minutes, but still didn’t start early enough to get the Plante victory call on live. It did mention the Laval, Longueuil, Quebec City and Sherbrooke races, which didn’t get into the TV broadcast, and had live hits from Kate McKenna in Pointe-Claire and Marika Wheeler in Quebec City. And it carried Denis Coderre’s speech in full. My review here is based mainly on the television broadcast, but I’m adding this for the record.

For an election night broadcast with so many races to deal with, there was a lot of time devoted to analysis. And as much as I like listening to the soothing voice of Jonathan Montpetit, I didn’t learn much from him and Arbec repeating stuff that happened during the campaign, promises that were made and stuff that the candidates said in their speeches. Fortunately, they still managed to get a bunch of results into the broadcast, both on Facebook and TV.

Overall score: B+

CTV Montreal

11:30pm-12:04am

Anchor: Tarah Schwartz

In-studio analyst:

  • Former Westmount mayor Peter Trent

Reporters:

  • Cindy Sherwin at Plante HQ
  • Rob Lurie at Coderre HQ
  • Kelly Greig in Westmount (also reporting on Côte-St-Luc race)

Reported results (winner only unless otherwise noted):

  • Montreal mayor (with popular vote of top two)
  • Laval mayor
  • Westmount mayor
  • Côte-St-Luc mayor
  • Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce mayor
  • Pointe-Claire mayor
  • Montreal city council makeup by party
  • Beaconsfield mayor
  • Brossard mayor
  • Dollard-des-Ormeaux mayor
  • Quebec City mayor
  • Dorval mayor
  • Longueuil mayor

CTV Montreal is the market leader. It has the most journalists, the largest audience, the most history. So it should be expected that they would slay election night coverage.

Which makes it all the more disappointing how little actual data was provided to viewers. Not only was there no ticker, but the individual race graphics didn’t even provide vote totals or party names. Instead, they just had names and photos and a checkmark next to the winner.

Only for the Montreal mayor’s race was any vote total given in an on-screen graphic. For the rest, well you’ll just have to guess.

This is the reason people tune in to election night broadcasts, and CTV’s viewers were left horribly underserved when it came to actual data.

It was the shortest of the three broadcasts, since it had four commercial breaks, and the last to start at 11:30pm. And CTV didn’t even think it was worth bringing in one of the two main anchors on a weekend shift, leaving the duties to regular weekend anchor Tarah Schwartz.

It had the fewest live reporters, which is surprising, and just about everything about this seemed like it was phoned in.

Still, CTV’s prestige meant it got the first live interview with the mayor-elect, right at the beginning at 11:30. And its reporters were more experienced and seemed to provide more useful information.

But overall, it should be embarrassing for CTV how poorly it did compared to its competitors.

Overall score: C-

Global Montreal

11:00pm-11:57pm

Anchor: Jamie Orchard

In-studio analysts:

  • Montreal Gazette columnist Celine Cooper
  • Former city councillor Karim Boulos

Reporters:

  • Amanda Jelowicki at Plante HQ
  • Tim Sargeant at Coderre HQ (also reporting on Pointe-Claire and Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue mayor’s races)
  • Elysia Bryan-Baynes in Westmount
  • Felicia Parillo in Côte-St-Luc

Reported results (vote totals for top 2-4 candidates, percentage of vote for each, percentage of polls reporting, and indication of incumbent):

  • Montreal mayor (x4)
  • Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce mayor (x2)
  • Pierrefonds-Roxboro mayor (x2)
  • Westmount mayor (x5)
  • Beaconsfield mayor (x2)
  • Dollard-des-Ormeaux mayor (x2)
  • Côte-St-Luc mayor (x4)
  • Dorval mayor (x2)
  • Pointe-Claire mayor (x2)
  • Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue mayor
  • Senneville mayor (x2)
  • Vaudreuil-Dorion mayor (x2)
  • Montreal-West mayor (x2)
  • Brossard mayor (x2)
  • Longueuil mayor (x2)
  • Saint-Lambert mayor (x2)
  • Saint-Lazare mayor
  • Laval mayor
  • Anjou mayor

There are always two ways to judge Global Montreal when compared to its competitors: judge the quality alone, as a viewer probably would, or judge how well Global did with its limited resources.

By either measure, the station did well on this night. It extended its TV broadcast to a full hour, had informative graphics, and updated results through the night, though like its competitors it focused a lot on the island of Montreal and areas immediately adjacent.

The graphics weren’t as flashy as CBC, and there was no ticker, but you got vote totals, percentages, and an indication of who the incumbent was and the amount of polls reporting. Just missing the party affiliations.

Global also conducted an interview with Plante (just after CTV’s), and made good use of analysts and reporters.

They get extra points for being the longest broadcast, having a special “Decision 2017” opening theme, and putting in the extra effort. But it would have been nice for the only station that still has transmitters in Quebec City and Sherbrooke to actually mention the mayor’s races in those cities. I know it’s not Global Quebec anymore, but I’m sure viewers there would have appreciated it.

Overall score: B+

City Montreal

No election night special. We’ll see if that changes when they start having local newscast next year. They have four years to prepare for the next municipal election (and one year to prepare for the next provincial one).

Overall score: F

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.