Category Archives: My articles

Posted in My articles, TV

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.

Posted in Canadiens, My articles, TV

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

Posted in Montreal, My articles

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.

Posted in My articles, TV

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.

Other reading

Posted in My articles, Radio

The Beat beats Virgin: a fluke, or a turning point?

The quarterly radio ratings haven’t interested me much in a while, mainly because there’s few stations owned by even fewer owners, and the ranking never changes. People talk about a few extra listeners here and some demographic shift there, but overall it’s always the same: CJAD has the highest market share*, Virgin is No. 1 with adults 25-54, CHOM does best with men, and we ignore the fact that all three of those stations are owned by the same company.

This time though, there was a noticeable change. And it made a big difference. The Beat 92.5, which had been slightly ahead of Virgin Radio 96 in most reports the past two years but behind in the key demographics, shot ahead under both measures. Instead of them fighting it out at around 16% or 17% of the audience, The Beat had 20% and Virgin was under 15%.

That was enough to write a story for the Gazette and get the program directors on the record.

That wasn’t easy, mind you. Sam Zniber, who was hired last August at The Beat, flat-out refused to tell me what he thought contributed to the ratings increase, fearing his competitor would find out and copy him. He would only say it’s a team effort.

Mark Bergman at Virgin, meanwhile, did his best to put a positive spin on the ratings, pointing out that the station has a larger reach, and saying that because the measured period included December, the numbers biased in favour of The Beat.

That’s half true. Virgin’s market share does go down in the winter ratings period, but The Beat’s doesn’t spike during that period. And it wasn’t nearly this bad last winter, so it must be something else.

I listened to The Beat, trying to figure out what changed. Was it the announcers? No, because their lineup has been stable for the past year. Was it the amount of music? Anne-Marie Withenshaw’s lawsuit suggests a shift toward less time on air for announcers, and I’ve noticed that many breaks are very brief — like seven seconds brief. But studying the “recently played” lists of Virgin and The Beat, they play about the same number of songs per hour (about eight during peak hours when they have contests, traffic and other stuff, and about 13 an hour during off-peak hours).

The type of music played seems to have changed. Instead of just Katy Perry pop, it’s got more R&B, more dance. Its slogan “Montreal’s perfect mix” and describing itself as airing a “variety” of music make it seem more and more like The Beat of today is the Mix 96 of a decade ago.

Or maybe it’s a combination of factors — a new program director bringing in some new ideas, an experienced on-air staff (many of whom used to work at Virgin) keeping the audience loyal, a more popular mix of music, lots of contests and stunts to keep people engaged, a better-than-expected boost from Christmas music season, and a bit of luck.

We’ll know in three months (or maybe six) how sustainable this lead is. I suspect it won’t last long, but the trend (at least among 2+ audience) has clearly been in The Beat’s favour since it relaunched in 2011.


* An earlier version of this post said CJAD had the “most listeners”. As a reader points out, if you count everyone who listens for at least a minute during a day or a measuring period, Virgin has more listeners. I’m more interested in the average, but for clarity I’ve referred instead to market share.

Wayne Bews let go from The Beat

Wayne Bews, hired only a year ago as general manager of The Beat, filling the role vacated by Mark Dickie, has once again fallen victim to corporate management deciding that a station doesn’t need its own general manager. Cogeco tells me that the position has been eliminated and his functions taken over by other people within the company.

Bews left his job at TSN 690 for similar reasons in the fall of 2013, though at least that time Bell got him a job at CTV Montreal.

Charli Paige is Virgin’s new evening announcer

Meanwhile, a new face at Virgin. Tony Stark’s old evening show has been given to Charli Paige, who comes from 101.3 The Bounce in Halifax, where she was Jillian Blinkhorn. Her show airs 6-11pm Mondays to Thursdays.

Stark, meanwhile, is in the middle of a contest at The Jump in Ottawa to find a morning co-host.

Posted in Media, My articles, Radio, TV

CBC holding its first public consultation for English-language minority in Quebec

The CBC wants to hear from you, not just because it wants to, but because it’s required to by a condition of licence.

In fact, it’s the very first condition of licence for CBC’s English and French-language services in a new CRTC licence approved in May 2013: The public broadcaster has to consult with minority-language communities: Francophones in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, Western Canada and the North, and anglophones in Quebec. It has to happen once every two years and it has to be reported to the CRTC.

As CBC Quebec Managing Director Shelagh Kinch explains in this story I wrote for the Montreal Gazette, this is merely a formalizing of regular consultations the CBC did with anglophone community groups in Quebec and collection of audience feedback.

The consultation takes place Tuesday (Feb. 24) from 6:30pm to 8pm at Salle Raymond David of the Maison Radio-Canada in Montreal. You can also tune in via live webcast and participate on Twitter using the hashtag #CBCconsults.

In addition to Kinch and a panel of local journalists (All in a Weekend/Our Montreal host Sonali Karnick, C’est la vie host and political columnist Bernard St-Laurent, Shari Okeke and Raffy Boudjikanian, plus travelling journalist Marika Wheeler), there will also be two bigwigs from CBC who can make a real difference: Jennifer McGuire, editor-in-chief of CBC News (who is also responsible for local radio across the country) and Sally Catto, general manager of programming for CBC Television. (Sadly, there isn’t anyone from national CBC radio, nor is CEO Hubert Lacroix on the panel.)

The CRTC imposed this condition of licence among several changes in the last licence renewal to ensure CBC is fulfilling its mandate toward minority language communities that aren’t large enough to have commercial broadcasters catering to them. And while Montreal is big enough that we have four English TV stations and several commercial radio stations, the rest of Quebec is pretty underserved. The only major broadcaster catering to them directly is the CBC Radio One station in Quebec City.

So if you have some beef with CBC’s programming, or feel as though it needs to better reflect your reality, whether you live on the Plateau or in Gaspé, this is your chance to make yourself heard.

And yeah, the just-shut-down-the-CBC suggestion has already been made.

The Facebook event for the discussion is here.

I can’t make it because of a meeting I have to be at, so I won’t get a chance to ask why our public broadcaster took a pass on the only English-language Canadian scripted drama series that’s actually set in Montreal.

Posted in My articles, Radio

The Jewel in Hudson hires Ted Bird as morning show host

Ted Bird

Ted Bird

Three months after it began on-air testing, The Jewel 106.7 (CHSV-FM) in Hudson/St-Lazare is getting ready for a launch in early March and has hired its morning man: Ted Bird.

I have some details in this story in the Montreal Gazette’s Off-Island section.

With the hire, Bird gains his fifth employer and fifth station in five years. He left CHOM in 2010 over “creative differences” with management and months later landed at community station K103 in Kahnawake. In 2012, he left K103 and joined what was then TSN 990. In the fall of 2013, after the Bell/Astral merger put his old CHOM bosses in charge of TSN, he was let go, and joined KIC Country 89.9 in Kahnawake. His last shift at that station was on Friday.

Bird also freelances as a sports commentator. He had a regular segment on CTV Montreal, and recently started doing the same thing for City’s Sportsnet Central Montreal.

Evanov Radio, which owns The Jewel, confirms that it has hired Bird as the morning show host.

“We have also hired a sales team which consists of three representatives to start and are looking to add our sales manager shortly,” says Evanov vice-president Carmela Laurignano.

There’s no word yet on other talent, but we’ll know that in the coming weeks. I’ve heard of a few names familiar to Montreal radio listeners that have tried out.

The Jewel is licensed to serve Hudson and St-Lazare, and its signal also covers Vaudreuil, Rigaud, Oka, Île Perrot and the western part of the West Island. Its programming will be mainly easy-listening music, but will have news and information specific for the Hudson/St-Lazare community (its application promised four hours and 22 minutes a week of news, of which half would be local to that community). Evanov told the CRTC in applying for the licence to the station that this community of should be considered a separate market from Montreal. (According to the CRTC’s measure, Hudson and St-Lazare alone have about 22,000 anglophone residents.)

Posted in My articles, Radio

CRTC denies CJLO transmitter at 107.9 FM

Vermont Public Radio fans in Montreal can exhale. At least for now.

On Monday, the CRTC denied an application from Concordia’s CJLO to add an FM retransmitter at 107.9 FM, which would block out VPR in downtown Montreal and an arguable radius around it.

But the commission makes it clear that objections from VPR and its fans had nothing to do with the decision: “because VPR operates a U.S. station, its station was not considered in the examination of this application.”

This is consistent with a previous decision allowing CHLT-FM in Sherbrooke to move to 107.7 FM despite interference problems it might cause VPR listeners in the townships.

Instead, the CRTC determined that CJLO had not presented a compelling technical need to get the new allocation, particularly since 107.9 would be one of the last frequencies available for a station in Montreal.

More about this decision below and in this story in the Montreal Gazette.

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Posted in My articles, Opinion, Public transit

Crunching the numbers in the STM’s budget

A week ago, the STM hiked its fares yet again, making it more expensive to take public transit in Montreal. The hikes represent about a 50% increase over a decade, well above the rate of inflation.

Politicians, social activists and regular transit users complained, as they do every year, that this is unacceptable, making it harder for those who don’t have money to get to and from work. The STM and its defenders point to the fact that public transit in Montreal is still much cheaper than Toronto and other comparable cities. The other side comes back with the argument that income and costs of living are lower in Montreal, so you can’t compare cities like that.

A few weeks ago, I started wondering whether the STM’s rate increases were truly reasonable, so I started going through its budgets and plugging numbers into a spreadsheet. I also got some numbers from Statistics Canada, such as the consumer price index in Montreal, the population of the city, the median family income.

The result is a story published in Thursday’s Gazette that tries to give a quantitative picture of the situation. The headline is that the increase in fares, at least for the years 2005-2013 (we don’t have figures for 2014 yet), corresponds to an increase in service in both métro and bus service, all going up about 30% over that period.

But is that the proper way to measure whether it’s reasonable? The increased service came with an increase in the number of users, which means more fare revenues. Should that be taken into account? What about our ability to pay?

With the help of the Gazette’s data guru Roberto Rocha, we put together an interactive chart with the story that allows you to make comparisons for yourself of how things have changed since 2005. Fare price versus total trips. Total salaries and benefits vs. total bus service. Revenue per trip versus total passes sold. Total revenue versus population.

But even that’s only a subset of the data analysis that can be done. So I invite you to do your own: Download this spreadsheet and compare numbers to write your own story.

STM fares in context (.xls, 42kb)

The figures don’t all look good for the STM. Salaries and benefits are going up higher than the amount of work done to justify them. And the amount of subsidies from the Quebec government has gone up more than 200%.

But before you blame the unions or some other invented bogeyman, consider that the cost per hour worked at the STM went gone up about the same as the median family income in Montreal.

Missing numbers

There were some comparisons I wanted to make that I couldn’t. Reading the comments below the Gazette piece, people point to executive salaries. I wanted to include that, but it’s hard to quantify because of the changes in executive pay. For example, I could put in the salary for the director-general of the STM. But that salary went down significantly when Carl Desrosiers took over the position, and in the latest numbers were still lower than his predecessor (though not much).

Another is the price of oil. Including its value could easily give the impression that the fare hikes are more than reasonable. But the price of crude has plummeted in recent months, which would not be reflected on these charts because they end in 2013. So I asked Jeanine Lee, our graphic artist, to take it out of one of the charts we were using.

And there are numbers that can’t be easily calculated, like the number of overall users. Or numbers that are subjective, like customer satisfaction.

What metrics would you use to judge the STM’s performance? And what do those numbers show?

Posted in Media, My articles

What would you do if you were CBC’s president?

Découverte host Charles Tisseyre’s cri-du-coeur last week at the CBC Annual Public Meeting has already gotten more than 100,000 views on YouTube. Straddling the line between passionate and angry, it deplored the situation at the public broadcaster, how much it has seen its programming cut (his own show now has fewer episodes and more repeats as a result) and has been kicking its young talent out the door.

But while Tisseyre’s words got wild applause from the crowd assembled in the basement of the Maison Radio-Canada, and Tisseyre politely but firmly challenged CBC president Hubert Lacroix on the latter’s failure to answer a question about why he hasn’t done more to fight the federal government on CBC funding, the Radio-Canada personality doesn’t necessarily share the crowd’s animosity toward Lacroix.

A concerned citizen helps Hubert Lacroix out with the tedious resignation-letter-writing thing.

A concerned citizen helps Hubert Lacroix out with the tedious resignation-letter-writing thing.

“Animosity” is perhaps an understatement here. Many in the crowd wore T-shirts that seemed to directly blame Lacroix for the thousands of job cuts the broadcaster has seen since he took office. The second question of the event asked if he should resign. Later, someone handed him what he described as a pre-written resignation letter that needed only Lacroix’s signature.

But Tisseyre told me later in a one-on-one interview that Lacroix’s resignation would serve little purpose. “If the people who were there resigned, they would be replaced by others, who would be faced with the same cuts. I think the problem is much deeper,” he said.

You can read more about Tisseyre’s comments in this (paywalled) piece I wrote for It also includes my impressions about Lacroix’s problem with expressing the right emotions to relate to his employees and CBC fans among the general population.

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Posted in My articles, Radio

The Beat cancels Anne-Marie Withenshaw’s All Access Weekend (and she’s suing over it)

Anne-Marie Withenshaw filed a lawsuit against Cogeco Diffusion in Quebec Superior Court this week.

Anne-Marie Withenshaw filed a lawsuit against Cogeco Diffusion in Quebec Superior Court this week.

Listeners to 92.5 The Beat may have noticed that it’s no longer broadcasting its weekly All Access Weekend show with Anne-Marie Withenshaw, and that all evidence of her has been wiped from the station’s website.

Now we know that the station has decided to cancel the show as part of an apparent new direction in programming that involves on-air personalities being heard less and less. But what makes this story different from every other radio-personality-is-fired stories is that she’s responding with a lawsuit.

I explain the details of the suit in this story in the Montreal Gazette. Essentially, she and her company Killer Queen Productions are alleging that the station strung her along under false pretences after her contract expired at the end of August, making her believe they would renew her contract in order to prevent her from jumping to another station.

That allegation hasn’t been proven in court, and station owner Cogeco Diffusion will have a chance to present a defence.

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Posted in My articles, TV

Videotron adding TSN1, TSN3 and TSN4 after customer complaints

Two months after TSN expanded from two to five channels, and after a bunch of complaints from subscribers missing programming that didn’t air on TSN2 or TSN5, Videotron is joining all the other major TV providers in the country and offering all five feeds.

I wrote this story, which appears in Saturday’s Gazette, after a regional Senators game in Florida meant that Videotron customers couldn’t get the Monday Night Football NFL game on TV.

That problem, which generated a flood of complaints to both Videotron and TSN, has apparently pushed the former to move up the launch date of TSN1, which will now be added on Monday, in time for the next MNF game (even though that game will also air on TSN5, the main TSN feed in Quebec).

TSN3 and TSN4, whose main feature will be blacked-out Jets and Leafs games, and occasionally a different Premier League soccer match or college football on weekends, will be added on Oct. 29.

Some information for Videotron customers:

  • All five channels are free with TSN. And selecting TSN1-5 will count for only one channel in custom packages. So you won’t be paying any extra for these other channels.
  • All five channels will be in high definition. And they will be available in all regions.
  • The TSN channels will be moving to keep them together. Starting Oct. 29, they will be at 186-190 in SD and 786-790 in HD.
  • Analog subscribers will continue getting just TSN5, which includes regional Ottawa Senators games.
  • About the same time, TSN and RDS will be pulled from Videotron’s Illico TV mobile service. Videotron blames blackouts for making these channels less desirable. Though it is looking at alternatives.

For details, read the Gazette story or this previous post on TSN’s expansion.

Posted in My articles, Radio

Where to find country music on the radio in Montreal

As a sidebar to my story on Mohawk radio stations near Montreal, I included a list of country music stations that can be heard here, all of which transmit from off the island. Country music is very popular among Mohawks, and so it is as well on their radio stations. And with Montreal missing a big-name country music station, many assume it isn’t available here.

The list brought me one rebuke from the host of a country music program on a local station. And it’s true that there’s plenty of country music on other stations. So here’s a longer list, including the country music programs that appear on radio stations that can be heard in Montreal, based off those station’s posted program schedules.

Stations in bold should be relatively easy to hear, the rest are more difficult and can be heard only in certain parts of the Montreal region.

This list doesn’t include shows playing folk music, blues or other related genres. It also doesn’t include all-request shows, local artist programs or others where much of the music might be country but the show itself isn’t limited to the genre.

I’m almost certain to have missed some show or some station. If you know of another show to add to this schedule, or a correction to an existing one, leave a comment below.

Posted in My articles, TV

CRTC megahearing on TV begins Monday

10 days, 118 presentations. That’s what’s on the agenda for a CRTC hearing that begins on Monday. There’s the usual big players like Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Quebecor, Telus and Cogeco. There’s the interest groups like the Canada Media Fund, Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Writers Guild of Canada, and labour unions. And there are some individuals thrown in as well.

But there’s also Google, Netflix, Disney.

It’s hard to oversell the importance of this hearing. It isn’t about reviewing a single policy, or approving a single acquisition or new licence. It’s about everything having to do with television regulation in Canada. A working document posted Aug. 21 contains 28 proposals concerning television policy (and a 29th about when to implement changes). It ranges from how consumers choose which channels to buy from their distributor to how accessible programming is for those who can’t see or hear to things that could change the very nature of specialty channels or how you define local television.

And the CRTC is going to try to review this all in two weeks, and rather than deal with the issues one at a time, it’s going to deal with them all simultaneously as each group steps forward to present its opinions.

I put together a story in Saturday’s Gazette that lists the big issues at stake that affect consumers (the online version contains some more issues than the print one does). Packaging flexibility is the big focus of media, and simultaneous substitution is also mentioned a lot, but there are far more issues.

The commission is clear that the proposals outlined in its discussion paper aren’t necessarily what it’s going to do, but are meant to start discussions. Nevertheless, it gives a lot of insight into how it’s thinking. And even with just the changes proposed there, a lot of how we watch and pay for television would change.

For more on the issues at stake, I would invite you to read the series posted on (a website I’ve written for, though not for this series) and the series posted to Media in Canada or my post from June outlining the issues as they were presented then. Or you can read all 2,552 interventions filed in this proceeding.

Unusually, the CRTC will continue accepting comments about these policies during the hearings, through that most sober and intelligent method: online discussion forums. They’ll be open until the end of the hearing on Sept. 19.

If you want to watch the hearings, CPAC will be webcasting them. The CRTC will also have audio feeds in English, French and with no translation. Or you can go to 140 Promenade du Portage in Gatineau and see the hearings in person.

For Twitter commentary, good bets are editor Greg O’Brien, policy wonk Kelly Lynne Ashton, the CRTC Hearings official Twitter (which will post links to documents) and the hashtags #CRTC and #TalkTV.

Further reading


Posted in My articles, Photos, Radio, Video

K103 moves into new building, and says goodbye to 30 years of history

The new main studio at K103 Kahnawake.

The new main studio at K103 Kahnawake.

For this community where tradition is so important, the move of K103 to a new building in July was bittersweet, even if it was a long time coming. Staff and supporters were excited about entering a much larger building and sitting down to state-of-the-art equipment, but it also meant leaving the building that the station had occupied since it launched in 1981, and bringing with them only small relics of the memories that were made there.

I talk about the K103 station move, as well as two other radio stations on Mohawk reserves near Montreal — KIC Country (CKKI-FM 89.9) and Kanesatake United Voices Radio (CKHQ-FM 101.7) in this story, which appears in Saturday’s Gazette.

Below are videos, photos and more about the K103 move. (I’ll have posts about the other stations soon.)

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