Category Archives: My articles

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.

The dream of Frissons TV

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

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

They didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power struggle tearing Radio Centre-Ville apart

A protest outside Radio Centre-Ville’s office on March 29.

Montreal’s only community ethnic radio station is in crisis. It started as a financial one, without a major source of revenue to pay expenses. But since last fall it has turned into a legal one as well, with two stubborn sides fighting it out. And each side is willing to financially bankroll their legal battle, even though that money would be put to far better use rescuing the station directly, because they’re convinced that their victory is the only way they can truly save the station.

And neither side is willing to negotiate or compromise.

The issue has been getting some media attention, with articles in Métro and Le Devoir. I wrote about it as well for the Montreal Gazette. Here, I’ll lay out the issues in more detail, based on interviews with both sides.

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Heather Backman, Paul Beauregard laid off at CHOM

Heather Backman

Heather Backman, who was Terry DiMonte’s co-host on CHOM’s morning show since he returned to Montreal in 2012, is no longer in that role. Backman updated her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles to remove references to the station, and CHOM’s website no longer lists her as co-host for the morning show.

Paul Beauregard, who returned to CHOM recently to fill in on various shifts, is also out.

I wrote about their layoffs in a story for the Montreal Gazette, which also includes some analysis of the financial situation of Bell Media’s radio stations and the market (albeit with figures from 2014-15).

Matthew Garrow, Director of News, Local Stations, Sports, Discovery Networks & Community Investment for Bell Media, confirmed that there are layoffs happening at CHOM, without mentioning any names:

I can confirm that we are reducing several positions at CHOM. These changes are the result of the challenges Bell Media and other Canadian media companies are facing due to increasing international competition, the evolution of broadcast technologies, and advertising and regulatory pressure.

We have no further comment on the matter at this time.

Backman herself had no immediate comment, but posted a message to Facebook on Tuesday morning thanking DiMonte, producer Esteban Vargas and former bosses Martin Spalding and the late André Lallier.

Beauregard also declined to comment.

The cuts at CHOM are part of wider cuts at Bell Media nationwide. They include:

Bell hasn’t said how many people it’s letting go across the country, where they are, or if there are other cuts to come.

UPDATE (Jan. 31): DiMonte addressed Backman’s departure at the beginning of Tuesday’s morning show, saying the decision was “not mine to make”, and citing the disruptive nature of employment in the industry. He said the position of morning show co-host has been eliminated and the show would “take a new direction, and we’re moving forward without Heather.” He said Monday was “tough” and she will be missed but the station wishes her the best. (He posted a nearly identical message on his Facebook page.)

This was DiMonte’s only unprompted statement about Backman during Tuesday’s show, so most listeners didn’t hear it. But it was brought up during the 7am hour when contributor Pierre Houde brought it up to pay tribute. Here’s what he said:

The Beat’s Nat Lauzon was among those local personalities to (at least publicly) show support to her dismissed friend:

Kim Sullivan, who worked at both Virgin Radio and The Beat, also paid tribute:

UPDATE (May 24): Backman has gotten some work at The Beat.

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

TV

  • 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 Cartt.ca (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 Panora.tv, 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 Cartt.ca 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.

Radio

Good reads

Upcoming events

Obituaries

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 Cartt.ca. 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 Colba.net. 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.

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.

Continue reading

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.