Category Archives: Navel-gazing

It shouldn’t be this hard to watch the hockey games you want

Ever since the fall of 2014, when Rogers began a 12-year broadcasting rights deal with the National Hockey League, hockey fans (and Montreal Canadiens fans in particular) have been scratching their heads, pulling their hair out and engaging in other clichés trying to figure out how to watch their games.

There were several changes that took place all at the same time:

  • Rogers acquired national rights to NHL games, which includes Saturday night games (formerly CBC), Wednesday night games (formerly TSN) and Sunday night games (a new national window)
  • Rogers changed the way Hockey Night in Canada worked. Rather than split the CBC TV network and assign different stations different games, it used its multiple channels to make every broadcast national. On the plus side, it made it easier for people in Vancouver or Toronto to watch a Canadiens game, but on the minus side, it made it harder for the sometimes fan to catch their local team if that team wasn’t the Toronto Maple Leafs.
  • Rogers sub-licensed French-language national rights to TVA Sports, taking those rights away from RDS. For the first time in a decade, RDS did not have a monopoly on French-language NHL rights and would not broadcast all 82 Canadiens games.
  • Rather than let TVA Sports broadcast all Canadiens games, the team signed a separate regional rights deal with RDS, which meant the network would have to be blacked out outside the team’s region. Similarly for the Senators, which RDS also picked up regional rights to.
  • Some teams signed new regional rights deals. The Canadiens signed an English deal with Sportsnet, whereas before TSN had some regional games. The Senators went from Sportsnet to TSN for its regional rights. And the Maple Leafs had its regional rights split between TSN and Sportsnet, leaving Leafs TV without any games.
  • TSN went to five channels, ending part-time special regional channels for the Jets and Canadiens and making TSN3, TSN4 and TSN5 the main channel for regions served by the Jets, Leafs and Senators, respectively.
  • Rogers took control of NHL GameCentre Live, and made changes to that service.

To help people out, I wrote a story for the Montreal Gazette explaining the changes as best I could and included a full-page chart of every Canadiens game and what channels it would be available on.

A year later, there were enough demands from readers for another one that the sports editor asked me to repeat it.

And once again this year. Despite the situation being very similar to last year, the Gazette devoted another full page to the TV schedule and a story explaining what’s different. (I’ve also updated a story from last year for fans outside the Canadiens’ broadcast region.)

Don’t blame Rogers

Because these changes happened after Rogers took over as the national broadcaster, many fans blame the company for every blackout, complication or lack of availability of broadcasts. Some of that is earned, but most of it is not. It’s the National Hockey League, not Rogers, that sets the rules.

The anger is particularly high for Montreal Canadiens fans, who are used to seeing every game on RDS. The sub-licensing with TVA Sports meant that not only would Saturday night games move to the competing network, but RDS’s remaining games would have to be blacked out in most of Ontario and western Canada. The fact that Rogers made all 82 games available in English for the first time ever wasn’t enough to counteract that.

The NHL lets its teams sell rights to most of their games on a regional basis, meant to protect teams’ markets from competition for viewers. There are also games, usually on specific nights, where the league sells the rights on a national basis and there are no blackouts. It’s the same in Canada and the United States, and it also exists in other leagues (you think it’s complicated up here, look at the mess that is regional sports networks in the U.S.)

So I find myself spending a lot of time explaining to people how it works, that broadcasters don’t want to black out their channels, that it’s not just a money grab by Rogers, that it has nothing to do with the CRTC or whether a team has sold out a home game (that’s an NFL rule).

But knowing all that I do, there are some things that even I don’t understand, and that I think could be changed.

Do we need regional rights anymore?

The idea behind regional rights blackouts, whether it’s the NHL, MLB or the NFL, is to protect a sports team’s home market. If you’re starting a new Major League Baseball team in, say, Vermont or Connecticut, you want people in that area to be fans of your team. So you carve out an exclusive territory, and you make sure that other teams can’t broadcast all their games in that territory. You don’t want to make it as easy for people in your area to become Yankees fans.

But as fans here continually complain, that kind of thing won’t make them change allegiances, it’ll just frustrate them. A Habs fan in Toronto is going to stay a Habs fan, regardless of how many games are available to them on TV. And the regional rights blackouts don’t help when teams are close enough together that they can’t really have separate regions. (The Oilers and Flames share identical regions, as do the Canadiens and Senators, and many teams of different leagues in the New York area and southern California.)

What if we just eliminated them? Keep the split between rights sold by the league and those sold by individual teams, but end out-of-region blackouts.

The Canadian Football League doesn’t have regional blackouts. All games for all teams are national, and TSN holds the rights. And yet teams serving smaller markets, like the Ottawa Redblacks and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, aren’t complaining about people from their region being able to watch Toronto or Montreal games. And the Saskatchewan Roughriders are still crazy popular in that province.

In Canada, Major League Soccer splits game rights between national and team-sold broadcast deals. That’s why RDS (national) and TVA Sports (team-based) split the rights to Montreal Impact games. But there are no MLS regional blackouts in this country.

It’s too late to renegotiate existing agreements (mainly because too many parties are involved), but when the national deal comes up in 2026, Rogers (or Bell, or whoever) and the NHL should sit down and explore the possibility of lifting these blackouts in Canada.

Let me pay for it

An even more frustrating problem is for people who pay for services set up to watch out-of-market teams: NHL Centre Ice and NHL GameCentre Live. There, we have the reverse problem: Those broadcasts that are available on regular TV are blacked out in these services. (Though Rogers has made national games available in GCL and some in-region regional games as well.)

I get the need to protect regional rights holders. But if I’m paying $200 a year to watch NHL games, I should be able to watch everything. The NHL should either tell regional rights-holders to live with the competition, or come to some agreement whereby some of that $200 goes to compensate the regional rights-holder for the money they would otherwise get from a subscription to their TV channel. (And, of course, making sure that it’s their feed that’s used, ensuring that viewers see their ads.)

There’s progress being made. Making national games available on GCL is a big step forward. Making regional games available for authenticated subscribers is another, but Bell, Rogers and Quebecor need to sit down with each other and finally hammer out an agreement that allows their services to be fully available to each other’s TV subscribers. It only serves to annoy subscribers and alienate fans when Videotron subscribers can’t access Sportsnet Now and Bell subscribers can’t stream TVA Sports.

Other things can also be done, like linking GameCentre Live and NHL Centre Ice so you only have to pay for one of them to get both. Or creating new packages that make it easier and cheaper to follow a single team rather than the entire league.

More and more fans are saying screw it and watching pirated streams online. Some are even paying a few bucks a month for it, because it’s simple and reliable. As a recent Sportsnet Now ad showed, that’s the real competition here.

If people are willing to pay $200 a season to watch hockey, the least you could do is not make them jump through hoops on top of that.

This is your problem, NHL. Fix it before you lose even more fans and even more potential revenue.

Media News Digest: Michel Villeneuve fired, Terry Milewski retires, Kevin Gallagher moves to Ottawa

At the CRTC

News about news

News about people


  • Télé-Québec decided to make this year the year of Quebec music by replacing the theme songs of 23 of its series with Quebec songs. It has posted most of those online, along with links to buy the songs and the artists’ websites. Some of these work better than others. (Also, the inclusion of artists like Radio Radio and Lisa Leblanc is interesting, since Radio Radio are from Nova Scotia and Leblanc is from New Brunswick, though they’re now based in Montreal.)
  • CBC/Radio-Canada hosted the Public Broadcasters International conference last week in Montreal, and had two days of discussions about how broadcasters can attract younger audiences. I reported on it for (subscribers only, sorry), but if you want to watch all 14 hours of panel discussions and speeches, CBC streamed them on YouTube: Day 1, Day 2.
  • During the conference, CBC/Radio-Canada talked about, a project where it and fellow public broadcasters (Australia’s ABC and France Télévisions are on board) plan to create a marketplace where TV content can be bought and sold more easily by smaller players. Rather than giving up on a deal because the closing costs are too much compared to the purchase price, this website can streamline, standardize and automate the process. I wrote about that for as well. The first phase is expected to be up some time in 2017.
  • While anglos were watching the Emmys (or the World Cup of Hockey) on Sunday, Quebec francophones were watching the Gémeaux awards, honouring the best in television here. No big storylines coming out of the show, though the reviews are pretty good. Winners are listed here.
  • Speaking of Canadian TV: More Anne of Green Gables!
  • TV eh? is auctioning off a signed pilot script of the series X Company for charity.
  • Le Grand Costumier, the costume shop set up as a non-profit after Radio-Canada shut its costume shop down, has a website now.
  • Véronique Cloutier unveiled the programming for her branded channel on Radio-Canada’s Tou.TV. They include a documentary series produced by her husband’s company in which they talk about their careers.
  • Speaking of Louis Morissette, he told Eric Salvail on the air Monday night he’s working on a documentary about P.K. Subban’s summer off-season.
  • C’est Juste de la TV has a story that explains how the Vrak series Code F. is made.
  • It’s still very early, but Viceland UK didn’t explode out of the gate with the ratings on its first night.
  • The Hollywood Suite channels now have a streaming GO app.
  • Stingray announced on Friday it has closed the purchase of MuchRetro from Bell Media, completing its purchase of the Much sister channels. It had earlier acquired MuchLoud, MuchVibe and Juicebox because they had fewer than 200,000 subscribers and no longer required a CRTC licence, and without a licence the CRTC does not need to approve a change in ownership. MuchRetro had more than 200,000 subscribers, but dropped below that level after Videotron dropped it last month. The four channels have all been rebranded and won’t use the word “Much”.
  • CPAC changed its logo.


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Global Montreal picks Laura Casella, Kim Sullivan as morning news team

Laura Casella (right, with Derick Fage) is leaving Breakfast Television for Global Montreal's Morning News.

Laura Casella (right, with Derick Fage) is leaving Breakfast Television for Global Montreal’s Morning News.

Global Montreal has picked its new host and weather presenter for Morning News. The latter is no surprise — Kim Sullivan has been filling in there during the summer — but the host job is a bit of a head-turner: Laura Casella, the news reporter and temporary co-host at Breakfast Television.

Casella announced the news to her colleagues last week, which led to the news getting out to Mike Cohen at the Suburban. Global officially announced the two hires on Tuesday.

Poaching from a direct competitor isn’t that unusual. But what is unusual is that Casella hasn’t left BT yet. She still has another week there and is being allowed to continue co-hosting the show during that time.

Casella herself didn’t seem surprised by that when I talked to her, saying there’s “no animosity” between the two competitors. “I don’t think about it too much,” she said. “Everybody kind of knows everybody (in this market). I’ll still remain friends with everyone at BT.”

After she leaves the show, Casella goes into training at Global Montreal starting Sept. 26. Global tells me she’ll officially begin on Oct. 2.

Casella said it was Global Montreal station manager Karen Macdonald who approached her, asking if she’d be interested in the position. “So I said sure, and went in for a little screen test with Kim.” After that, she said, Global made her an offer and she accepted.

“It was a tough decision,” she said. “It’s hard to leave people you know. Even announcing it to the team last week…”

Finding Casella’s replacement won’t be hard: They don’t need to. Joanne Vrakas, who Casella has been replacing on the anchor desk at BT, returns from maternity leave on Sept. 26, the same day Casella starts her new job. (Casella says that’s a “complete random coincidence”.) Casella probably would have gone back to her former job as news reporter, but Domenic Fazioli (who BT picked up after he left Global Montreal) has been doing that job even though he was hired as a news producer.

Rogers Media tells me there are no plans at this time to replace Casella’s former position.

The departure means of the six personalities that started with Breakfast Television three years ago, only three are still there: Vrakas, weather presenter Catherine Verdon Diamond, and new media host Elias Makos.

Sullivan has two jobs

Kim Sullivan

Kim Sullivan

Kim Sullivan, who was let go from The Beat earlier this year but already had another project going with a show on MAtv, has eased into the weather presenter job at Global. Probably the biggest difference between her and her predecessor Jessica Laventure is height, which has already prompted a joke that the box that Laventure would sometimes have to stand on to interview guests will now need to be used by those guests.

“I never expected to love weather,” Sullivan told me. Her dream when she was younger was to host a TV travel show, but she’s quickly started nerding out on her new role, and because she’ll be out in the field three days a week, she’s excited to talk to people from community organizations in the city and in particular the West Island.

This won’t be Sullivan’s only job on local TV, though. MAtv announced on Wednesday that she’ll be taking over as host of Montreal Billboard, a talk show featuring local community organizations, non-profits and volunteers. She replaces Richard Dagenais, who moves over to host current affairs show CityLife, replacing Tina Tenneriello, who moves into a new role producing both shows. (Tenneriello will also contribute regularly to Montreal Billboard on air.)

Sullivan told me she put an inspirational message on her phone earlier this year saying “2016 is going to be your year.” It’s certainly been a transformational one for her, but the past few weeks have come together to make that message come true.

She said she’ll have no problem juggling both jobs (reminding me that when she started her career, she was doing radio overnight and teaching during the day). But it does mean she’ll have “one crazy day a week” where she starts at Global in the morning and spends her afternoon at MAtv shooting Montreal Billboard.

On Global Montreal’s Morning News, Casella and Sullivan will be joined on air by morning reporter Kelly Greig (who was one of several fill-in anchors this summer). They replace Camille Ross, who left to move to London, Ont. (she’s started up a media consulting business) and Laventure, who moved to Punta Cana to work at Club Med. (You can follow her adventures on her blog.)

(This story is also a brief that will appear in Thursday’s Gazette.)

TTP Media abandons 850 AM, shows no progress on other unlaunched stations

For the past five years, one of the most common questions I’ve been asked by people in the local broadcasting industry is what’s going on with TTP Media, a group of local businessmen who won CRTC licences to launch three AM talk radio stations in the city and had promised to revolutionize the market with big investments in quality programming.

Unfortunately, for years now the answer has been “nothing that I know of.” And unfortunately that continues today.

Since getting the licence for 850 AM in 2013, the group’s only on-the-record activity has been asking for extensions and technical changes from the CRTC, each time indicating that the stations were mere months from launch.

But now there’s finally some news, even though it’s not clear what it means. In June, the authorization from the CRTC to launch a French sports-talk station at 850 AM expired. Because the decision approving the station was published in 2013, and the first extension given last year, a second request for a final one-year extension should have been a matter of formality.

But that request was never issued. So on June 19, when the deadline was reached, the authority to launch the station expired.

According to the CRTC, the frequency is now available for anyone else to apply for.

I chronicle my attempts to seek comments from the partners in Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy Media in this story published by Paul Tietolman, whose father Jack founded the station that used to be on 850 AM in Montreal, was the only one who would talk to me, but he wouldn’t answer questions about the group’s plans, wanting to defer to his partners and not act as a company spokesperson.

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Elliott Price joins Sportsnet, kinda

Elliott Price, right, with co-host Grant Robinson in the CFMB studio.

Elliott Price, right, with co-host Grant Robinson in the CFMB studio.

It was a bit of a head-scratcher of an announcement: Elliott Price is now part of the Sportsnet Network. But what’s the Sportsnet Network?

I asked the parties involved for a story that appears in Monday’s Montreal Gazette, about what Price has been up to since he was let go from TSN Radio 690 last November.

Basically, it’s an agreement for cooperation. Price gets access to Sportsnet’s branding and personalities he can interview on his show, plus Sportsnet’s website hosts his podcast. On the flip side, Sportsnet’s radio stations in Toronto and Calgary get access to Price to give a Montreal perspective on sports stories, and Sportsnet has a “presence” in the market, a benefit that is less tangible.

I could not get them to either confirm nor deny that money is changing hands as part of this deal, but Dave Cadeau, program director of Sportsnet 590 The Fan in Toronto said the deal isn’t financial in nature. Price is not a Sportsnet employee, and he maintains his editorial independence. Price’s show (which has been renamed Sportsnet Tonight with Elliott Price) also carries some Sportsnet-related advertising, including spots for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey.

It was Price that got the ball moving on this deal, and he said he had been working on it since the beginning. Unlike TSN Radio, which has eight stations in five provinces (in every NHL and CFL market except Calgary and Regina), Sportsnet has only stations in Toronto and Calgary, and so needs some help to cover other major sports markets.

So does this mean we could see other deals like this in the future?

“Could I see it? Sure. Are we thinking about it? No,” Cadeau says. “This is all that is planned.”

Price’s situation is pretty unusual. CFMB is licensed as an ethnic radio station (it is required to broadcast programming in 16 languages for 16 ethnic groups, but there’s no particular limit on the amount of non-ethnic programming it can broadcast otherwise), and so is only sports for 10 hours a week.

The likelihood of Rogers starting a full-time all-sports station in Montreal is virtually zero while TSN 690 is on the air. Outside of Toronto, the market for sports-talk simply isn’t robust enough for more than one station. (Rogers did suggest it might be willing to buy TSN 690 during the Bell-Astral hearings, but it’s unclear how serious that offer was.)

So this represents the next best thing. Sportsnet gets a presence in the city that it doesn’t have to pay for, and Price gets to look a lot more professional and get lots of expert guests by associating himself with this big brand.

Price also is now a regular panelist on Sportsnet Central Montreal, the weekly sports talk show that airs on City Montreal.

Is Price’s show viable?

I asked Price whether he thinks he can get enough advertising to make his show break even. The initial response from advertisers has actually been quite impressive. Since it started as a one-day-a-week show on CFMB, the show has had several local sponsors. He said it was enough that the Sunday show paid for itself, but with the expansion to five days a week (making this a de facto full-time job for Price and co-host Grant Robinson), the advertising demands are greater. He guesses he’s about halfway there, though.

CFMB's main studio.

CFMB’s main studio.

This was my first visit to the new studios of CFMB since the Evanov Radio Group bought the station and moved it to new offices on Papineau Ave. in Rosemont. The building, which doesn’t have any exterior signage, has newly renovated offices on several floors (and half-floors). Upstairs are the studios of sister station AM 980.

The new studio is clean and reflects a the new reality of radio, and the big windows will expose hosts to a lot more natural light than the basement studios the station vacated in Westmount.

CFMB's ground-floor studio on Papineau Ave.

CFMB’s ground-floor studio on Papineau Ave.

UPDATE (Aug. 11): Price is interviewed on Breakfast Television Montreal about his new show.

The Beat drops Sarah Bartok

Sarah Bartok, left, and Kim Sullivan representing The Beat at this year's St. Patrick's Parade on March 20. The station has since told both of them it no longer requires their services.

Sarah Bartok, left, and Kim Sullivan representing The Beat at this year’s St. Patrick’s Parade on March 20. The station has since told both of them it no longer requires their services.

Seems the cost-cutting at 92.5 The Beat isn’t over.

Shortly after dropping program director Sam Zniber and afternoon drive co-host Kim Sullivan, the news dropped this morning of the highest-profile dismissal yet: Sarah Bartok, co-host of the morning show, is no longer at the station.

She made the announcement on Facebook in a since-deleted post.

Sarah Bartok won't be waving this flag any more.

Sarah Bartok won’t be waving this flag any more.

Her name was being scrubbed from the station’s website on Wednesday (I’m told by a source in the know that she’s still an employee until her contract ends at the end of August), but already fans are sending messages to the station on social media, outraged at the cut, with some vowing to boycott. (It would not be the first time people have made such a threat against a Montreal radio station for firing a well-liked host, and will probably have the same effect.)

I wrote a short story about the decision for the Montreal Gazette, which has prompted more than 100 comments on Facebook.

The Toronto-born Bartok joined the morning show six years ago, when the station was still The Q and her co-host was Aaron Rand. It was also after it dropped Tasso and Suzanne from its morning show, a decision that also prompted outrage.

Bartok was profiled last year by the Montreal Gazette’s Phil Carpenter as part of his Before Dawn series:

UPDATE (June 3):

Meanwhile, this is how The Beat is responding to dozens of angry posts on its Facebook page:

I don’t know what “circumstances outside our control” is supposed to mean.

UPDATE (July 25): Another Facebook post from Bartok:

UPDATE (Aug. 2): Bartok has moved back to Toronto and now has a website as she looks for her next gig.

10 things that might disappoint you about skinny basic and pick-and-pay TV

It’s March 1, 2016, which means the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s new rules about TV packaging take effect.

To explain it, I wrote this piece for Tuesday’s Gazette, which also lists exactly what you’ll find in a skinny basic package in Montreal.

But in hearing people talk about the new rules, it seems there are some misconceptions or assumptions that people have that will cause disappointments when they actually try to take advantage of the new rules. Here are the ones I can explain so far:

1. In Quebec, not much changes

Videotron, the market leader here, has offered a small basic package and build-your-own bundles for many years now. And until December, when it has to offer almost all channels à la carte, they really don’t have to change how they operate.

Videotron’s new $25 a month basic package is pretty similar to the old one, with a few exceptions:

  • RDI is not included. CBC News Network is, because of an order that news networks be distributed in minority language communities (at reduced prices). Outside Quebec, it’s the reverse: RDI is mandatory, CBCNN is not.
  • Stingray music channels are not included
  • Some out-of-market over-the-air channels are not included. The CRTC rules say stations from other cities can only be included if there are fewer than 10 local stations, and even then can be added to reach a total of no more than 10. That means Montreal’s basic package loses CJOH (CTV Ottawa, included for historical reasons because the station’s transmitter in Cornwall reached into western Quebec), Granby and Sherbrooke lose Canal Savoir, and Gatineau loses most Montreal stations. Videotron asked for special permission to keep these stations, but was denied.

2. The $25 maximum doesn’t include set-top box rental, installation fees or taxes

The CRTC is clear that the $25 price is for programming only. Renting a set-top box will cost between $5 and $10 a month depending on provider, and if you’re not already a customer you’ll need to pay extra for installation.

3. Providers aren’t offering special deals or discounts on skinny basic

It’s very clear that none of the major TV providers are really promoting this new package. CBC even found out about Bell ordering its customer service representatives not to discuss it unless asked, even though that’s a clear violation of the CRTC’s rules.

Other attempts to downplay are more subtle. Most providers list the package at the bottom of web pages. Shaw calls it “Limited TV”, Rogers calls it a “Starter package” as does Bell Fibe. Telus calls it “Lite”.

But even if the CRTC forces them to offer the same amount of visibility, they aren’t obligated to offer the same deals. Free equipment rental, new customer discounts, customer retention discounts, even bundle discounts don’t apply to this package (though Telus offers it at $5 off if you bundle with other services).

New IPTV providers are more aggressive, however. Zazeen, which is used by Distributel in Quebec, offers an Internet-based basic package for $10 a month if you prepay for 12 months. VMedia (which isn’t available here yet) offers it for $18 a month.

4. The channels you want to add will be the most expensive

If all you care about are TSN and Sportsnet, because everything else you can watch online, well I have bad news for you. The wholesale prices for those channels averaged $3 per subscriber per month in 2014, and they’re going up. Those costs are being passed on to you. To get them on Videotron you need at least the basic + 10 channels package, which is $50 a month. Shaw customers can add them for $8 each or $12 for both.

While the retail cost of the basic package is regulated at $25 a month, the cost of add-ons isn’t regulated at all. And nothing requires all channels to be offered at the same price. You could be charged $5 a channel or $20 for a pick-your-own package with a lot of exceptions.

5. No, you can’t get HBO for 1/5 the price of The Movie Network

While most channels will be available à la carte, in some cases there are multiple channels tied to a single licence. That’s the case for TSN, the four main Sportsnet channels, and The Movie Network. If you spend $15 a month for TMN and its five channels, you won’t be able to get just HBO Canada for $3 a month.

The CRTC is reviewing its rules for multiplexed channels and will remove the requirement that they be sold as one unit. But don’t expect HBO Canada to be offered anywhere near that cheaply.

6. It’ll probably be cheaper for you to keep your current package

If you’re interested in more than a couple of channels, chances are you’re better getting a big bundle, even if it might have some channels you don’t care about. It’s in the providers’ interest, and the broadcasters’, that as many people subscribe to as many channels as possible to spread the cost around. Simple economics will encourage you to buy more, just like a grocery store encourages you to buy in bulk.

7. Some channels will die

This is particularly true of independent channels like Vision, OUTtv and iChannel, that don’t have free advertising on CTV, Global or TVA. Some CRTC rules encourage providers to carry them, but if their number of subscribers goes down, they’re in big trouble financially.

8. Many channels will try to generate maximum demand at minimum cost

Consider a channel like AMC or FX. They’ve got some expensive must-watch shows during primetime, but the rest of their schedules are largely filler, with old movies or reruns. Expect a lot of channels to have one or two high-quality shows to get you to subscribe, but not much else for the other 22 hours of the day.

9. It’s competition, not regulation, that will really bring prices down

Part of the problem with TV service in this country is that because very few places have more than one incumbent cable company, there’s little competition (there’s satellite TV, but that has technical limitations). Bell and Telus are doing their part building up their fibre-optic networks to allow them to offer IPTV service.

But what would really make a difference are more independent third-party IPTV providers like Zazeen, VMedia and Those are still in their infancy and lack the kind of channel selection and quality the big guys have.

The CRTC has been doing a lot to make it easier for these guys to start up. New TV providers, even those operating in big urban centres, don’t need to have a licence until they reach a large enough subscriber base. Such exempt services also don’t have as many rules to follow. Plus they can use existing telecommunications infrastructure, similar to the way independent Internet providers do. And new rules about how the big broadcasters negotiate carriage will create less headaches for independent providers when signing carriage contracts.

But we’re still a while from these independents creating real competition for established TV providers.

10. No one really knows what the TV market will look like after this

We know that it will be more expensive to buy a set number of channels individually than in a bundle. We know that skinny basic will make less money for providers if they don’t have lots of add-ons. But how the economics will look exactly isn’t known.

Will we see channels go high-quality and expensive, like HBO, TSN and Sportsnet? Will they go cheap to maximize the number of subscribers? Will we see an explosion in the number of channels as the big guys try to maximize subscription revenue by splitting up their most in-demand programming? Will free previews be more or less common? Will this encourage more over-the-top offers for specialty channels wanting to bypass TV providers all together?

We’re not following the U.S. here, even though politicians there are trying to push for more consumer choice. So we’ll have to wait and see.

But it’s still a good idea

Skinny basic and packaging choice are good things. There are a lot of channels out there (*cough*BookTV*cough*) that survive almost solely on being included in large packages and have had nothing new to offer for years. Those deserve to reform or die.

But TV providers are going to do whatever they can to protect their bottom lines so long as they don’t have to worry about competition. So, unless you only want a few channels, and you don’t like sports, don’t expect to save too much under these new rules.

Instead, be happy that the money you pay is more likely to go toward channels and programming you care about than zombie services that profit from resistance to change.

UPDATE (March 1): I had a discussion with CBC Radio’s Q about the changes and what they mean for consumers.

Canada’s TV industry still needs to get its act together on streaming

Want to watch the Super Bowl tonight online or on mobile? No problem. You just have to prove you’re subscribed to CTV through a participating TV provider.

Now, that might sound a bit ridiculous, since CTV is a free-to-air television network and doesn’t collect subscription fees, but it’s nevertheless true. Bell Media is streaming the Super Bowl only on its CTV GO app, and that application works only if your TV provider has a contract with Bell Media to provide it.

Unfortunately, while English Canada’s big providers — Rogers, Shaw, Telus, Eastlink and of course Bell itself — are participating providers, Videotron and Cogeco are not. It doesn’t matter how many RDS or TSN channels you subscribe to, you can’t get mobile access to the Super Bowl or other Bell Media sports content until they make a deal. And there’s no word on when that’s going to happen.

I explore this frustration a bit in this business story, which appears in Saturday’s Montreal Gazette. It quotes Videotron saying they’re negotiating, and noting that they have Global GO, TMN GO and some other services, but that’s it.

There are gaps all across the compatibility chart. I can’t find one cable provider that offers all TV everywhere products, nor any broadcaster that’s available on all cable systems.

Quebecor seems to be the worst offender on both sides. Videotron subscribers don’t have access to most Bell Media, Rogers or Corus applications. Meanwhile TVA Sports has live streaming available only to Videotron and Cogeco subscribers.

Why is it like this? Because as Canada’s vertically integrated media companies get bigger, they’re more able to play hardball. Negotiations for carriage become more complicated, and a company like Quebecor trying to hold out for a better deal for itself and its customers ends up getting left out.

(Of course, since negotiations are secret, we have no idea which side is being unreasonable in its demands.)

Online streaming isn’t regulated directly by the CRTC, but vertically integrated companies have been told to play nice on TV everywhere products linked to licensed channels. The problem is that a deal can be considered “commercially reasonable” and still be a bad deal.

TV everywhere compatibility has gotten a lot better over the past few years, particularly as Bell, Rogers and Shaw signed deals to make their programming available on each others’ systems. But if the industry wants to show the CRTC and the government that the free market works better than government regulation, if it wants to show customers that cable is still better than over-the-top streaming, it needs to grow up, sit down together and make this work.

TV everywhere should work everywhere. If it doesn’t … well, just remember how easy piracy is these days.

Another sad day at Postmedia

I don’t have much to say about the announcement Tuesday that Postmedia is cutting more than 90 jobs, particularly in Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa, the three markets where it owns both subscription daily newspapers.

Not because it’s not important. But because (a) Postmedia is my employer, which puts me in a conflict of interest, (b) I don’t have anything really to add that hasn’t been written by the Globe and Mail and others, and (c) aside from the details, it’s the same story that has been written about double-digit and triple-digit layoffs at large media companies over the past decade.

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A community television renaissance in Montreal

You ever tried pitching a local TV show to a local commercial station?

Don’t bother.

It’s not that they wouldn’t love the idea. But over-the-air television isn’t what it used to be. Their audience isn’t as captive, their advertising revenue not as robust. Their owners keep them going by centralizing as much as possible, including programming, to keep costs down.

But there is a place that might accept your proposal. In fact, there are two. Both Videotron and Bell now run bilingual community television services in Montreal, offering money and resources to people who want to create shows that reflect the city and its various communities. A third independent community TV service was recently given a licence by the CRTC to operate on independent providers, and its plan is to offer some English programming too in a couple of years.

I wrote about these community TV services and the issue in general in a recent story for the Montreal Gazette. But I collected far more information than I could cram into that article, so here are some additional things I’ve learned.

MAtv (Videotron Channel 9/609)

Those of you following the MAtv saga might remember that it had planned to launch a separate English channel, and Videotron asked the CRTC to double the money it could deduct from its required payments for Canadian programming and redirect to community television. The CRTC said OK to the second channel, but no to the additional money (even though it said yes to a similar request from Bell). So Videotron decided to just add English programming to MAtv.

In September, it launched that programming: Five shows, of which two are English versions of MAtv-produced French shows (Montreal Billboard, hosted by former Global anchor Richard Dagenais, consists of interviews with people from local organizations, and is a French version of Montréalité; and City Life, hosted by former CJAD staffer Tina Tenneriello, is a current affairs show modelled after Mise à jour).

Of the other three shows, two are actually from the same group, though that fact is disguised a bit in the promotional material. There’s Living 2 Gether, a series hosted by Vahid Vidah that lets amateur filmmakers explore the social fabric of the city, and StartLine, hosted (kinda) by Henri Pardo, that profiles small businesses. StartLine was submitted by Gregory Vidah, Vahid’s brother.

To understand how they got involved in this, you have to learn about a guy I didn’t have room to talk about in the Gazette article: Ely Bonder.

Bonder worked at CFCF-12/CTV Montreal for 35 years as a video editor until he retired in January. But he’s had projects on the side for most of that time. In 1984, he was part of a group headed by Roger Price that proposed a youth-oriented television channel to the CRTC. It was later withdrawn because of a lack of funding, the CRTC decision says. In 1987, the commission would finally give a licence to a new specialty programming service called YTV.

Bonder went on to create an organization called Youth eMage Jeunesse, which helped young people, particularly those who are disadvantaged, get access to video equipment to create their own productions. It was one of several organizations to get financial benefits — $200,000 — from the transaction that saw Quebecor buy TVA in 2001.

Fast-forward to last year, and Bonder is at an event called Je vois MTL, which is designed to get people involved in proposing and launching innovative projects that make Montreal a better city. “There I met Vahid, who was coming up with a concept of empowering artists,” he said. “We put our heads together and talked.”

This is where I appear in the story. They came across articles I’d written about Videotron’s MYtv project. “Lo and behold the opportunity fell from the sky to do TV,” he said. They met with MAtv people, and “they suggested that we pitch a couple of shows.”

They came prepared, more so than MAtv anticipated. With the help of Collective Community Services, they reached out to volunteers, and got so many people interested they had to turn many of them away.

“You could tell there was a real sense of community that needed to be fulfilled,” Bonder said.

“We walked into the office of the general manager of MAtv and we wowed them,” Vidah explained. “They ate us like cupcakes.”

As a result, this group has two shows on the air, with a third slated for winter.

“I’m not a TV producer, I’m a musician and a social activist,” Vidah says. “I see myself as a social aggregator.”

Vidah, the son of an African father and French-Canadian mother, has a kind of hippie look at society, but that isn’t in any way insincere.

“We have so much things in common, that it’s kind of useless for us to focus on differences,” he says.

Bonder was so impressed by Vidah that he decided to give him the company. “I felt that he should actually own the entity that he was working for for free,” he said. “I got my freedom and he got the company.”

Vidah is resurrecting it as Zenzoo.TV.

The other independent production is The Street Speaks by Paul Shore. It’s an extension of a project he started online called Quelque Show (he changed the name Quelque Show was used by CBC Montreal back in the day and “I didn’t want the CBC to send me a cease and desist order”).

Ask him about the show and he’ll tell you that when he asked people on the street when was the last time a journalist asked their opinion about something, “97 out of 100 said never.”

The Street Speaks is a kind of everyman’s soapbox, in which people on the street give their opinions about issues. But unlike the man-on-the-street interviews you see on the nightly news, these discussions are more open-ended, about bigger issues than the divisive political issue of the day. “I don’t talk to people about news or pop culture, ever,” he explains. “I don’t have canned questions. I’m not looking for sound bites, I’m looking for people to have the opportunity to express themselves.”

Shore conducted long interviews with his subjects, and broke up their responses into themes to create 12 episodes of 28 minutes, with two themes per episode.

“It wasn’t that hard to get people to talk to me,” he explained. “I gave people the opportunity to express themselves even though they didn’t know they wanted one. Everyone has such rich stories to share.”

He does the interviews himself, without a production team. “It’s much easier for me to get really authentic interviews when I’m one on one with them,” he explains. The professional help comes in the postproduction process, particularly editing.

MAtv has changed a lot since the slap on the wrist from the CRTC. It makes much clearer now that it’s a place for people from the community to pitch programming, and airs a short intro before each episode of an access program pointing out where it came from. It has also launched a programming advisory committee, with input from many communities.

“I’m impressed with what we did over the past few months,” said Steve Desgagné, MAtv’s general manager, at the September programming launch. “We did the job and we’re really happy with the result.”

But there’s still a long way to go. The CRTC highlighted MAtv’s deficiency in presenting programming for an aboriginal audience. Desgagné said a project is in the works, but “we don’t know if it’s going to happen” yet. It all depends on the group that proposed it.

Even English programming was a bit hard to attract. He said they got “maybe 20 or so” submissions for English shows, while there are hundreds of proposals for French shows every year.

“We have to make more of an effort. The response was not what we expected,” he said. But “the projects we got are quality projects.”

The issues aren’t limited to programming, though. Videotron still faces a lawsuit from a group called ICTV that proposed its own grassroots community TV station to replace MAtv, which it successfully argued to the CRTC wasn’t respecting its mandate. In the meantime, ICTV isn’t proposing projects to MAtv, and MAtv hasn’t reached out to ICTV.

TV1 (Bell Channel 1)

Bell beat Videotron to the punch on English programming, mainly because Videotron’s application was stalled for a year by ICTV’s complaint.

Unlike MAtv, TV1, launched as Bell Local, is a video-on-demand channel instead of a linear one. Since Bell Fibe has no analog subscribers or other legacy issues to deal with, it can exploit the system’s technology to its full potential. This also means that episodes don’t have to fit into half-hour blocks.

Some of the shows it’s produced so far:

TV1 also has shows with obvious Bell Media tie-ins. A show about Amazing Race Canada auditions, an eTalk TIFF special, and a 24CH quiz show. Those don’t count as community access.

Discussing with Nicolas Poitras, VP Residential Services at Bell, who’s the big boss of TV1, the word “quality” came up a lot.

“There’s a perception that community TV is of lower quality,” he said. “Our desire was really quality. Our first preoccupation was to make sure that the quality was there.”

Poitras said Bell surveyed its customers and determined four broad themes that they wanted programming on: food, people, places and events. But if there’s quality stuff that doesn’t fit into those categories, they’ll still go for it.

“The only criteria is: Is it going to make interesting TV?”

While MAtv prefers series with 10 or 12 episodes, TV1 is much more flexible. Some are one-offs, some have just a few episodes, and others already have multiple seasons done. And because there’s no weekly schedule, deadlines aren’t as tight.

“We load assets when they’re ready, and people can consume them when they want,” Poitras said.

Another difference between Bell and Videotron is that the former gives more freedom to the producer to do what they want with the content. “We pay for the production and once we’ve aired it, the content is theirs, so they can broadcast the content on other channels,” Poitras said. Many producers have taken advantage of that to put their shows on YouTube (TV1 also puts stuff on YouTube, but it’s segments, not complete episodes.) MAtv, meanwhile, demands exclusivity for two years.

Both TV1 and MAtv are exclusive to their subscribers, and don’t offer full episodes online. That means for someone without a cable TV subscription, it’s easier to watch the latest episode of a hit U.S. drama than a community television show.

Télévision Communautaire Frontenac

There’s a third player in town. In August, Télévision Communautaire Frontenac was approved as Montreal’s first independent community television service. According to CRTC rules, all licensed terrestrial TV providers (cable or IPTV) must now offer TCF unless they have their own community channel.

So far this means only two small providers: Colba.Net and Distributel (Zazeen), both telecom companies that have recently added IPTV service in some areas of the city.

TCF dates back to 1995, and its home is in an office that was very clearly designed to be an apartment on the ground floor of the Tours Frontenac, a nonprofit housing complex across the street from the Frontenac metro station. It’s as bootstrappy low-budget as you can get, with only seven people on salary (not all of them full-time) but producing 200 hours a year of original content, soon going up to 300.

“We put money on the screen,” explains program director Louis-Martin McArdle.

Recently, an empty commercial space was given to the station to use as a studio, but before then it shot all its studio programs inside its cramped offices. For much of its life, TCF served only the towers of the complex, though that’s still about 800 units, or 2,000 people.

“There are community television services in Gaspésie that have fewer subscribers than there are people here,” McArdle said.

TCF eventually became the official community channel of VDN, a cable provider specializing in large apartment complexes. When VDN was bought by Bell, that came to an end, though there was an arrangement to share programming with Bell’s community channel.

TCF is distributed as an analog service inside the building (it’s watchable through cable boxes by choosing the channel reserved for building cameras), though it produces content in high definition and recently updated its editing equipment. It also posts content online.

McArdle said they hope to be running on Colba.Net and Zazeen in the coming weeks. The plan is to add English programming in the third year of operation, 2017-18.

A change in policy?

The fact that Videotron and Bell subscribers can’t access each other’s community programming is one of the things about the CRTC’s community television policy that irk independents.

Soon they’ll have an opportunity to change that. The CRTC is in the process of reviewing its community television policy, in a hearing to take place in January. Community TV, and certain aspects of local TV, were carved out of the recent Let’s Talk TV process so they could be dealt with separately.

Though the fact that community and local TV are being lumped in together also irks Cathy Edwards, executive director of the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations (CACTUS). She’s worried that community TV concerns will be overshadowed by debates over local commercial TV.

Edwards wants to take community TV away from the cable companies and give it to independent groups.

“Canada is the only country in the world that recognizes a community media sector where it’s not defined automatically by nonprofit citizen media ownership,” she told me earlier this year.

“I get complaints all across the country we can’t get on our community channel or our community channel is closed.”

The fact that community channels are tied to cable companies is more historical than anything else. Back when cable was analog and there was only one cable company for every region, that was the only technical way that made sense.

But now, distribution isn’t the problem. People can use YouTube for that. What matters more is access to equipment and funding. And besides, the introduction of new competitors to cable means there isn’t just one company offering pay TV anymore.

A grassroots system like Edwards has in mind would be a challenge to set up. Not every community has a group ready to take the reins of a TV station. And even with money from cable companies, it still requires a lot of volunteer work. But the CRTC could start by requiring community TV services in a local area be carried by all providers in that area, and breaking down the silos that limit community programs to the cable company that funded them.

Comments on the CRTC’s local and community television review are due by 8pm ET Nov. 5 Nov. 6 (it was extended again). More than 1,100 comments have already been filed. Comments can be filed here. Note that all information submitted, including contact info, will be made public.

Submissions for new programs on MAtv and TV1 are welcome. Start by going to their website and filling out a form.

14 quirks about the Canadiens’ schedule and NHL on TV and online

The Canadiens begin their 2015-16 regular season on Wednesday night. And I’m told that among the most requested things of the sports department is a schedule of what games will be on what TV channel during the season.

So in Wednesday’s paper, I’ve replicated a chart I did a year ago that lists all 82 regular-season games, and an accompanying story explaining to Quebecers how to watch the Canadiens on TV or online.

There’s also a separate story, online only, explaining to people who live outside the Canadiens’ broadcast region how they can see all 82 games.

I’ll let you read those stories to get all the details (if you have any more questions, let me know). The gist of it is that there haven’t been many major changes for this year — still 40 national Canadiens games in English and 22 in French, and you still need five channels in English and two in French to watch all of them.

In researching these stories, and through a series of emails with Rogers PR, I’ve learned a few bits of trivia about NHL TV rights and the Canadiens’ schedule in particular.

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CROP poll of how anglos and francos drink is garbage, based on sample of 30 people

Breakdown of results of CROP poll show sample size of 31 for anglo Montrealers.

Breakdown of results of CROP poll show sample size of 31 for non-francophone Montrealers.

This morning, Éduc’alcool, an organization devoted to moderation in alcohol consumption, released the results of a poll it commissioned from polling firm CROP related to how people in Quebec drink.

The results were offered to the media under embargo yesterday, and stories appear today in the Journal de Montréal, La Presse, Métro, Rouge FM, Radio-Canada, CJAD and elsewhere that focus on interesting results outlined in the organization’s press release: that there’s a significant difference in how francophones and non-francophones in Montreal drink. Francophones drink more and more often than the rest of the city.

You won’t find a story about this in the Montreal Gazette, despite how relevant this kind of information is to its readership. It’s not because there wasn’t a journalist to cover it — a story was written about it and was set to be given good play in today’s paper. But I had it killed last night.

Well, actually the city editor is the one who made the call, but I’m the reason why, and it sounds cooler to say “I had it killed” than “I noticed something and brought it up to an authority figure”.

The reason is simple: All that data about how non-francophones in Montreal drink is based on sample sizes of 30-40 people, which is laughably small for any survey. None of the conclusions on the difference between language groups could be taken seriously, and without that data there’s really no story here.

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That Weird Al concert was fantastic, despite the rain

Weird Al Yankovic performs Canadian Idiot (because obviously) at Place des Festivals on Tuesday night.

Weird Al Yankovic performs Canadian Idiot (because obviously) at Place des Festivals on Tuesday night.

(TL;DR version: I like Weird Al, and I reviewed his show for the Gazette.)

I was looking forward to Tuesday night’s concert before I knew it existed.

It’s no secret that Weird Al Yankovic is my favourite musical artist. By simple quantitative measure, I have more of his songs than songs by any other. And I enjoy listening to them.

So I was excited when he announced his Mandatory World Tour in January, until I looked through the list of tour dates and couldn’t find Montreal on it. Surely this is a mistake. He’s performing in London, Ont., and Halifax, and Burlington, Vt., but not Montreal?

Super sleuths noted that his schedule had some holes in it around late July and early August. Perhaps he was booked for Osheaga, whose lineup hadn’t been announced yet.

But then Osheaga unveiled its lineup, and he wasn’t on that either.

Maybe Just for Laughs? He’s been here before, and the timing would be about right. Maybe he’d host a gala, or have a solo show at one of the big theatres, or even the Bell Centre. I didn’t care how much it would cost, I’d be there. I’ve never seen this man perform live before (I missed his last appearance at JFL in 2011), and I was determined to do so this year.

So you can imagine my shock when Just for Laughs announced that not only is he coming here, he’s performing a free show at the Place des Festivals.

It might not seem so shocking to hear of a free show during festival season, but these are usually done for the Jazz Festival, or Francofolies, or Pop Montreal. Just for Laughs has outdoor activities, but not big international names.

But Weird Al is both a comedian and a musician, so if anyone’s well suited to this, it’s him.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from the entertainment editor at the Gazette. She asked me to review the show for the paper. I hesitated at first, because I’m not a music critic, and I’m hardly objective about Weird Al. But she wanted me because I’m a fan and I know his work.

Reviewing a concert for deadline is a challenge. The show started at 9pm, and the story for the early edition had to be filed by 9:30, only a couple of songs into it. Not nearly enough to provide a proper picture of what happened.

I spoke with Robbie Praw, the Just for Laughs vice-president of programming, to get an idea of why this was made into an outdoor show. His comments provided the bulk of the copy for the early edition. He said they wanted to make a “big statement” and create buzz for the festival. They were booking him for an indoor show, but decided the chance to put him outside was too big to pass up.

Praw said he didn’t lose any sleep over keeping me in suspense for several months about Weird Al coming here.

He also mentioned that his first involvement with Just for Laughs was seeing Al in concert at the Old Port in 1996. That was the last time he did a solo show here. (He came in 2011 to host a musical comedy show featuring other artists, but he only performed a few of his songs there.)

VIP treatment

A half hour before the show, I had to make a decision. I was hanging out with a couple of friends about 20 feet from the stage. The view was great from there, but the crowd was getting more dense. Would I seriously be able to sit down and write on my laptop in the middle of this concert with people dancing all around me?

On the other side of the plaza, a VIP section had been set up for JFL bigwigs, invited guests and media. From there, I was much further from the stage, but I could see the crowd, and I had a chair and a table. Even though part of the reason my friends came was to see me go nuts at a Weird Al concert, I had to abandon them for the sake of work.

It turned out to be the better decision, because a few minutes after I got to the table, the skies opened up. I cowered beneath my umbrella with my laptop, hoping it would pass.

Eventually the organizers set up a tent to shield us from the rain. We ended up watching the show with a partially obstructed view. But I can’t really complain, because I got to see Weird Al live for free from a VIP section.

(I’ve always resented VIP sections and other forms of special treatment. If I hadn’t been filing a story for deadline, I wouldn’t have taken advantage of it.)

Amazing Al

I don’t go to those big Bell Centre concerts, so I don’t know what the standard is for those things these days. I know Taylor Swift had that big elevated rotating stage thing during her show, and she and others have regular costume changes between songs.

Weird Al had those too, donning costumes similar or identical to those he used in the videos for them. He had a giant purple octopus costume for Perform This Way, a dark suit and sunglasses for Party at the CIA, a tool belt for Handy.

But it was his outfit for Fat, one of his first big hits, that impressed me most. Not only did he don the fat suit from the video, but he also had a prosthetic fat face on. I wasn’t close enough to really judge the quality of the makeup, but from a distance it looked incredible for something that was done in under five minutes.

Yankovic played his classic hits from the decades, and several songs from his latest album (but not Tacky?). You could tell which ones were the crowd favourites.

Speaking of which, the crowd wasn’t the biggest this town has ever seen for a free show (I’m guessing it would have been much, much larger had it not rained), but it was dedicated. Every downpour was met with a cheer and chants of “Weird Al” before the show. Many came in aluminum foil hats, referencing his Lorde parody Foil. Many came in garish Hawaiian shirts. One guy looked like he walked right out of a Weird Al lookalike contest.

But did I like it?

What impresses me most about Yankovic and his band is how versatile they are. They can perform rock songs, pop songs, country songs, rap songs, and of course polka, and they all sound good. Some songs are straight-up parodies with nearly identical music. Others are style parodies, that sound like a particular artist or style but don’t copy a particular song. And others are straight-up originals. And though they weren’t as present during the show, the more original songs are the ones I like the most.

I can’t say it was an ideal concert. The rain didn’t help matters as far as crowd enjoyment, and having to write a story was a distraction. But Yankovic himself was fantastic. He’s 55, and he can still kick over his head. His energy was infectious, even though he’s in the middle of a gruelling tour schedule that has shows almost every night.

My biggest complaint about the show, the one that left me actually disappointed emotionally, was that it ended. They could have done another half hour before they would have been forced to shut it down by the city. They could have performed more of my personal favourites.

And then Al and I could have chatted afterwards and become best friends.

Maybe that’s asking too much, though. I had a lot of fun, he put on a great show, and it didn’t cost me a nickel.

Thanks, Al. And come back soon.

Set list

(This is based off my notes, not any official source, so I may have missed a song or two)

  1. Now That’s What I Call Polka!
  2. Perform This Way
  3. Dare To Be Stupid
  4. Fat
  5. Foil
  6. Smells Like Nirvana
  7. Party In The CIA
  8. It’s All About the Pentiums
  9. Handy
  10. Bedrock Anthem
  11. Another One Rides the Bus
  12. Ode to a Superhero
  13. Gump
  14. Inactive
  15. eBay
  16. Canadian Idiot
  17. Eat It*
  18. I Lost on Jeopardy*
  19. I Love Rocky Road*
  20. Like a Surgeon*
  21. White and Nerdy
  22. Word Crimes
  23. Amish Paradise
  24. Yoda (encore)

* These songs were performed to the tune of other songs. Eat It was done to the tune of Eric Clapton’s Layla (the acoustic version). Others to a more jazz-y melody.

The difference 10 years makes

Did they know what they were getting into?

Did they know what they were getting into?

This week marks 10 years since I walked into an office building at 1010 Ste-Catherine St. W. and began a career as a professional journalist.

It was the day after the Journée nationale des patriotes, and I began an internship as a copy editor at The Gazette, a newspaper owned by the Canwest media empire.

Through the decade, the path hasn’t been easy or always positive. I was laid off three times, the second one resulting in more than a year of unemployment in which I tried doing some freelance writing and started a blog for fun. But thanks to hard work on my part, and some managers who for whatever reason thought I was worth it, they always brought me back. And now with a permanent job, I don’t have to worry (as much) that I’ll be let go because not enough people got pregnant.

In those 10 years, I’ve made many mistakes, and learned from them. I’ve grown, matured, relaxed, and become more of an adult. I went from someone who had only a passing knowledge of sports to someone who can talk with some insight about the latest news (even if I really have no opinion on what to do about the power play or what position Alex Galcheyuk should play). I went from a green newbie who had no idea of the paper’s history to one of those veterans who brings out a “Back in my day…” during intern season. Plus, of course, I have a lot more money than I did 10 years ago.

But my employer has changed, too, and in much more dramatic fashion.

The Gazette added the word “Montreal” to its name, its parent company is now Postmedia, and it has no relation to Global TV (though we still share the same building). The paper has been radically redesigned, it’s smaller in both page size and thickness, it publishes only six days a week, it has colour on every page, and some features and regular columnists have disappeared, with other new ones taking their place.

The website no longer looks like this. Instead of stories being posted automatically by a machine importing them from that morning’s paper, stories are written directly into WordPress and then copies are made for print.

A bunch of ideas were tried, some of which were successful, others not so much.

We went from editing pages in QuarkXPress 3.32 (which was already nine years old when I started) on a Power Macintosh G3 to editing stories in a web browser using brand-new MacBook Air (reporters) and MacBook Pro (editors) laptops, with a stop in between when we used PCs.

And the team is much smaller than it used to be. I took out a schedule from 10 years ago, and it listed 34 copy editors, including myself, on the news desk, and a further 13 on the features desk, or 47 total. And all of them worked for the print paper. Today, there are 20 copy editors split between four platforms. The person who first hired me no longer works there. Neither does my first boss. Or her boss. Or his boss. Or his boss. Or the CEO.

Many of the print jobs have since been centralized, as Canwest and then Postmedia decided it was more efficient for stories that appear in different papers across the chain to be edited once. Others — including the Gazette’s entire printing plant — were eliminated as the company decided to outsource various functions it considered non-core.

There are changes I agree with, and those I strongly disagree with. There are changes that made things better, and changes that made things worse. There are changes the union has fought (and is still fighting), and there are changes everyone has accepted or welcomed. I’ve heard all the complaints, and I agree with many of them. But I also know it’s a struggle to produce quality journalism when no one wants to pay for it. And if no one finds that magic business model that saves newspapers before it’s too late and they all die, then at least I’ll have done my part to keep its heart beating one more day. Because despite everything, newspapers like the Montreal Gazette expose stories that would not otherwise be exposed. And that’s something we need as a society.

Through it all, I remain grateful, to the organization and its employees past and present who helped me grow, who gave it their all even while they worried about their future or complained about things they didn’t like, and particularly those who thought this Steve Faguy guy was worth keeping around.


How local is Global’s plan for local news?

Shaw Media calls it innovative and transformative. Critics and the union calls it cost-cutting at the expense of local programming. What the CRTC calls it might become an issue.

Earlier this month, Global announced changes to the way it does local news across the country. The biggest one is that 11pm and weekend newscasts will no longer be anchored locally. Instead, an anchor or anchors in Toronto will produce local newscasts for the various local stations, customized for those stations and containing local news.

I get into the details of what’s changing in this story for the Montreal Gazette.

This is a step beyond what they did in 2008, when they centralized newscast control rooms in four broadcast centres (Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto) so that one team could produce several newscasts in a day instead of just one or two.

What we’re left with are newscasts that feature reports from local journalists and are presumably lined up by local staff, but where the anchor, weatherman, director and just about all technical staff are in another city. Can that really be considered local programming?

Morning show co-host Richard Dagenais is being let go from Global next month

Morning show co-host Richard Dagenais is being let go from Global next month. (File photo)

There are also changes to the morning show, which will soon feature eight-minute segments every half-hour produced nationally that will be identical for all markets. As a result, the morning show is losing three employees, including co-host Richard Dagenais.

The promises

The union representing Global Montreal employees isn’t happy. It sent out a press release last week (later corrected) that condemned the loss of local programming. Except for a couple of tweets, no one paid attention.

CUPE/SCFP tells me they will be watching the new shows with a stopwatch to see if Global is meeting its obligations to the CRTC, and will complain if they’re not.

Like all commercial television stations, Global Montreal has to ensure a minimum amount of local programming is aired. For stations in large markets like Montreal, that’s 14 hours a week.

Shaw also made a separate promise to create morning shows at least two hours long when it purchased Global from Canwest in 2010, and to keep them running until at least 2016-17, contributing $45 million to that cause ($5 million for Montreal). Because that’s a tangible benefit as part of a major acquisition, those 10 hours a week have to be in addition to the usual 14 hours a week of local programming.

If we consider Morning News, Evening News, News Final and Focus Montreal as local programming, including their repeats and best-of shows, Global is meeting that obligation of 24 hours a week.

But are they really local?

As far as I can tell, the CRTC only really got around to establishing a definition of local programming in 2009, when it established the since-terminated Local Programming Improvement Fund. In Paragraph 43, it decided on the following definition:

Local programming is defined as programming produced by local stations with local personnel or programming produced by locally-based independent producers that reflects the particular needs and interests of the market’s residents.

Are these late-night newscasts produced by local stations? Do they use local personnel? It depends how you define “produced” and “personnel”, I guess.

When Global first outsourced technical production in 2008, the unions complained then too, saying these newscasts were not really local. The CRTC didn’t see it that way,

In 2009, the commission decided that there was no evidence that Global was contravening its licence requirements by outsourcing production of local news. It confirmed this later that year in renewing the licences of Global stations, but said it “will continue to monitor the situation.”

There’s also a separate definition of “local presence”, which has three criteria:

  • providing seven-day-a-week original local news coverage distinct to the market;
  • employing full-time journalists on the ground in the market; and
  • operating a news bureau or news gathering office in the market.

Global’s new plan fits all three of these criteria, though the first might be arguable depending on how distinctive the newscasts really are.

Global points out that it’s not unprecedented to anchor local newscasts outside of the local market. Its New Brunswick newscast is anchored out of Halifax. Other small stations owned by Global and CTV have their local news produced out of neighbouring markets. And the CRTC hasn’t seemed to have a problem with that.

The CRTC will be reviewing its local television policy in the coming year, and this could become a central issue.

What the new Global Montreal will look like

So how will this affect what actually goes on air? Here’s what we know:

  • The 6pm newscast is unchanged. It will still be anchored locally by Jamie Orchard, and produced out of Edmonton with a weatherman in Toronto. Its news will still be local, since it’s followed directly by Global National at 6:30.
  • Focus Montreal is also unchanged.
  • The late-night and weekend newscasts will have a Toronto anchor, and 11pm newscasts will be expanded to a full hour.
  • The morning show will have more nationally-produced content.

Many details are still unclear, but here’s some things I’m predicting will happen:

  • The morning show will have national news, world news and entertainment segments that are nationally produced, but still have the local anchor doing local news. There may be a temptation to do sports nationally, but unless they do something like City where the national sports segment is customized to the local market, it would probably be better to leave that local. We might also see some national lifestyle segments produced for all markets, or special all-markets broadcasts like we’ve seen on City.
  • The quality of the morning show will decrease thanks to its staff cuts.
  • Late-night weeknight and weekend newscasts anchored out of Toronto will no longer be live. Which is fine because they’ll be mainly rehashes of the 6pm news anyway, with maybe a report from an evening reporter thrown in. The hour-long 11pm newscast will be heavy on national segments, including some sports content. The ability to make late changes because of breaking local news will be significantly diminished.

One thing that’s unclear is who will be running the show locally nights and weekends. Global says it will commit to having a local person exercising editorial control over those newscasts, but setting aside how hard it is to effectively use that control when everyone is in another city and there’s enormous pressure to not be different from other markets, who will be the person doing this?

Under the current system, the only person in the newsroom for most of the night or weekend is the anchor. They’re handling assignment duties, lining up the newscast, and even calling the cops to get updates. Will there still be a reporter doing this? And if so, why not just have that person still act as anchor?

Global’s plan is clearly to focus on content over its container. But I think the company is underestimating the contributions that anchors make to their newscasts. It’s not a job that involves only 30 minutes a day of work.

How will the viewers react? Well, when your late-night newscast gets a couple of thousand viewers, you might ask if it even matters. And will they even recognize that their anchor is in Toronto, with little or no knowledge of the city he’s describing every night?

Or maybe it doesn’t matter. After all, TV newscasts are so 20th century. And Global is looking toward the future. Its plans for Global News 1, which ironically involve hiring a bunch of staff instead of laying them off, is a similar blend of national and local where the local resources are all gathering news instead of producing newscasts. But we’re still waiting for the CRTC to publish the application for that proposed service.

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