Category Archives: Navel-gazing

Posted in My articles, TV

Videotron makes its biggest HD jump yet, adding 36 English HD channels

To those who have long complained about the lack of English high-definition channels on Videotron, finally some good news: The TV distributor is going a long way in playing catchup to its rivals, upgrading 36 of its English-language channels to high definition, including all of its Sportsnet channels and all of its Movie Network channels.

There’s a catch, though. For Montrealers, these channels will only be available to those with next-generation Illico set-top boxes, which have been used for the past couple of years. The older Scientific Atlanta or PACE boxes (what Videotron calls “Illico 1″ internally) can’t decode the MPEG-4-encoded signals that carry the new channels, so they won’t be able to access them in HD.

The exception is Sportsnet 360 (formerly The Score). That channel, whose viewers have long demanded an HD version, will be available to all receivers throughout Videotron’s service area.

Some of the channels (the Movie Network channels, Sportsnet World, U.S. superstations and Disney Jr.) will also be available in the Gatineau/Rockland region, for all HD subscribers regardless of box type.

Outside of Gatineau and Montreal, it’s just Sportsnet 360 and the French version of Disney Jr.

If it sounds complicated, it is. Even Videotron’s vice-president got it wrong a couple of times trying to explain it to me.

The problem is that Videotron’s cable network is nearing saturation, with a combination of analog channels, digital channels, video-on-demand channels and channels used for Internet data. HD channels use up a lot of space (though not as much as an analog channel) and there isn’t much of it left.

So the company is switching to a new compression system. In Montreal, all the new channels (except Sportsnet 360) will be encoded using MPEG-4 instead of MPEG-2, which dramatically lowers the bitrate for each channel. This is why the next-generation boxes are needed. Existing channels are not changing, so if you have an older box you’ll still get the same channels you do now.

This move combines with a very expensive network modernization project that has brought head-ends closer to homes and reduced the size of their cells, both of which are designed to use bandwidth more efficiently to offer more channels and faster Internet speeds.

But still, some HD channels are missing from Videotron’s lineup, and customers who want them will certainly complain that they weren’t added here. They include:

  • CTV News Channel
  • The Comedy Network
  • The Weather Network
  • Documentary
  • BNN
  • MSNBC
  • BBC World News
  • Al Jazeera English
  • Gol TV
  • TVO
  • Action
  • Time-shifting channels

Plus channels that aren’t on Videotron even in standard definition, like:

  • TSN Habs
  • Disney XD
  • Fox News Channel
  • Bloomberg TV
  • Russia Today
  • NASA TV
  • Smithsonian Channel
  • HIFI
  • RadX
  • Hollywood Suite
  • Big Ten Network
  • CBS Sports
  • CTV Two (don’t ask me why, but people complain that it’s not there)

Feel free to add suggestions below. I should note that Videotron does keep note of new channel requests, and will base their decision to take a channel based in no small part on consumer demand. So if you want something, ask for it.

Videotron's vice-president of content operations and public affairs, Isabelle Dessureault, who is also in charge of MAtv and the MYtv community channel project.

Videotron’s vice-president of content operations and public affairs, Isabelle Dessureault, who is also in charge of MAtv and the MYtv community channel project.

The new HD channels prompted me to write a feature story that appears in Saturday’s Gazette about Videotron’s relationship with anglophones. Isabelle Dessureault, Videotron’s vice-president of content operations and public affairs, told me that the company is under-performing among anglos and has made a stronger effort to improve its offering for them and better compete with … well, you know who. It finally came to terms with AMC after a long negotiation, added premium channels like FX Canada and Super Channel, and has asked the CRTC for permission to launch an English-language community channel in Montreal.

Through our discussion, I got Dessureault to explain, in general terms, why it’s difficult for Videotron to get English content. It’s not for lack of wanting, and technical issues aren’t the only limitation.

Dessureault said that for TV channels, the problems start at the negotiating table. Broadcasters, particularly American ones, demand minimum subscription guarantees or variable wholesale rates. But that’s particularly difficult for Videotron because of it’s custom channel packaging strategy. Allowing people to choose their own channels and not pay for ones they don’t want means the people who own those channels get less money. With 80% of new clients choosing custom packages, minimum subscription guarantees don’t make sense. And variable rates means Videotron has even less of an incentive to include less popular services.

The Canadian government has said it wants to move toward freedom of choice in TV packaging. The CRTC has repeatedly indicated it wants to encourage this as well. And some providers, particularly smaller ones, are trying to do just that. But it’s not that easy with the contracts that are signed with various broadcasters.

Dessureault said there’s only so much that can be done about the problem. The CRTC has no jurisdiction in the United States, so it can’t force CNN, AMC, Spike TV or A&E to accept contract conditions they don’t want. But she said that if more Canadian distributors moved toward so-called pick-and-pay systems, the big U.S. players might accept no-guarantee channel carriage as the cost of doing business in this country, and negotiations might go easier in the future.

There are also non-linear content distribution methods, like Videotron’s new Illico Club Unlimited, its answer to Netflix. The company admitted when it launched that it had very little to offer to anglophones. The focus was on French-language content, where Netflix is weak. Dessureault said she wants to see more English content on the service, but explained why the business case for it is bad.

Simply put, English content in a subscription video-on-demand service is six times more expensive to acquire than French-language content. And Videotron has far fewer anglophone clients than francophone. Added to the fact that Videotron just doesn’t have the same financial resources as Netflix to acquire content, and it just doesn’t make sense in the short term to buy English content for this platform.

Of course Videotron made a 15% profit margin, or $15 million in profit last year in TV service, so don’t cry for them too much.

UPDATE (Dec. 4): The channels are all live now, along with two holiday fireplace channels that are part of the Galaxie service. They’re on channel 552 (with francophone holiday music) and 553 (with crackling sounds). Videotron hasn’t created a map or anything to show which people have access to which channels where. Instead, it’s asking people to contact customer service and is telling them individually.

New HD channels

For all digital HD subscribers

  • 711: Rogers Sportsnet 360

For all digital HD subscribers in Gatineau and Rockland, Ont., and subscribers in Montreal with next-generation Illico boxes

  • 685: Rogers Sportsnet World
  • 813: MExcess
  • 815: MFest
  • 814: MFun
  • 831: WGN
  • 833: WPIX
  • 832: WSBK
  • 834: KTLA
  • 759: Disney Jr. (English)

Only for digital HD subscribers in Montreal with next-generation Illico boxes

  • 715: ABC Spark
  • 755: Animal Planet
  • 756: Discovery Science
  • 760: Family Channel
  • 757: H2
  • 741: HLN
  • 735: Investigation Discovery
  • 731: Lifetime
  • 736: Movietime
  • 667: MuchMusic
  • 718: Nat Geo Wild
  • 714: OLN
  • 818: Peachtree
  • 673: Slice
  • 682: Sportsnet Ontario
  • 683: Sportsnet Pacific
  • 684: Sportsnet West
  • 817: TMN Encore 2
  • 671: Teletoon (English)
  • 716: The Fight Network
  • 745: Travel + Escape
  • 819: Turner Classic Movies
  • 709: W Movies
  • 721: W Network
  • 656: Wild TV
  • 672: YTV

For all digital HD subscribers outside Montreal, and those in Montreal with next-generation Illico boxes

  • 646: Disney Jr. (French)
Posted in My articles, TV

Space Opera Society wants your help to fund a sci-fi production studio run by fans

We’ve all seen them. The Star Trek fan videos, kids living out their fantasies with the help of rudimentary production skills. Poor lighting, horrible audio, and even worse acting.

Eric Bernard wants to make it clear that this is not what he’s proposing. As I explain in this story that appears in Wednesday’s Gazette, Bernard and his Space Opera Society are trying to create a production company that makes high-quality science-fiction series set in space. It differs from mainstream television production in two important ways:

  1. It’s funded by the consumers directly, rather than sold to a network
  2. It’s distributed directly to the consumers, through the Internet

Bernard and his group of writers, special effects artists and others have proposed to set up a system whereby the networks are bypassed so that the fans themselves can fund and produce science fiction series. The purpose is so that the “suits” don’t stifle creative freedom or cut off high-quality cult series before their time. This system would also ignore boundaries, so people from around the world could be consumers instead of producing something for the U.S. market and then trying to sell its rights to individual television networks around the world.

He compares the structure he’d like to see with that of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, only with a much more modest budget. Most of the funding would come from private donations, but it would also be a business, with sales to consumers and salaries to employees.

Creators would have complete editorial freedom to produce, without the obligation to tailor what they do to maximize ratings. Fans would be able to communicate directly with those creators, and with each other. Bernard said SOS would be a social network, with people sharing the same passion for space-based sci-fi.

It would also be completely transparent, with funders knowing exactly where their money is going.

Bernard wants the series to be produced right here in Montreal, but with the help of people around the world. He said sometimes it’s easier to deal with someone in Germany who thinks the same way and can produce a visual effect exactly the way he wants it than to try to find someone locally and explain what he wants to that person.

Once produced, series would be distributed online to the fans. He has no interest in dealing with production credits or government grants or television networks because of the restrictions they impose. He’d rather collect money from fans, put it toward production and put what’s produced directly online.

He sees the economics this way:

“When you think about it, you’re paying 60 bucks a month for cable,” Bernard said. “Imagine if you would pay for 60 shows that you love $1, but $1 for exactly the shows you want to see — 60 shows in a month that you would love to watch for $1 vs. 60 you don’t on cable.”

In fact, it wouldn’t even cost that much. Current episodes would be free online. Paying members would have access to archives, forums, and even be able to see stuff in development and influence how they turn out.

But with only ideas for new series, SOS needs funding to get off the ground. So in September, just after Montreal Comic-Con, it launched a fundraising campaign through Indiegogo, setting a goal of just over $200,000. With four days left in this two-month campaign, it’s reached just under $7,000. So that goal seems unlikely unless some huge online buzz spreads very quickly.

That’s not impossible. Though only about 2% of successfully funded projects are for six figures or more, KickStarter lists 40 film and video projects that have raised more than $200,000. At the top of that list was a controversial project to create a movie based on the Veronica Mars television series, which used this method to raise money at an alarmingly high rate after the project was panned by the studios.

Science-fiction projects based on fan passion more than corporate cash-counting have also done well. One sci-fi series based on Star Trek raised $242,000 last year. Another whose funding campaign ended on Wednesday raised more than $100,000.

SOS isn’t anywhere near that yet, mainly because of a lack of buzz. Bernard blames that mainly on himself, saying the launch, coinciding with Montreal Comic-Con, wasn’t done right and it was slow to get the word out. But the Indiegogo campaign is structured so that it’ll get whatever money is raised (minus fees). And the work that has been done so far, combined with the obvious passion these people have for the project, suggests that they’ll probably move on it either way, albeit with fewer means if they don’t raise much money.

I wish them luck, and hope I’ll write another story about their first series once it’s completed.

The Indiegogo campaign continues until Nov. 11. More information about the Space Opera Society is at www.spaceoperasociety.org.

UPDATE: After an unsuccessful campaign on Indiegogo, SOS has started a new one on another website, this time with a much longer funding period.

Posted in Montreal, My articles, TV

CBC’s new local TV shows debut Saturday; Sonali Karnick to host Our Montreal

Sonali Karnick will host Our Montreal, airing weekends on CBC television.

Sonali Karnick will host Our Montreal, airing weekends on CBC television.

During its last CRTC licence renewal hearing, the CBC committed to increasing the amount of local programming it airs on its stations in large markets, including Montreal, bumping it up to 14 hours a week, consistent with private stations in large markets.

But rather than just adding more newscasts, CBC also committed that for these markets, at least one hour a week would be non-news local programming. Even after their licence renewal was approved, the CBC couldn’t say what form that programming would take. And even after the new licence came into effect on Sept. 1, there was no announcement, just confirmation that the new program would be an hour a week repeated twice over the weekend.

So without a new show ready, CBC Montreal has met its requirements for non-news local programming since Sept. 1 by re-airing the Absolutely Quebec series produced this summer.

Finally, today, even though the new show has been on the electronic schedule for a week and a half, we’re just now getting information from the public broadcaster about what these new shows are.

Our Montreal

Here’s what we know so far. The new show is called “Our Montreal” (There’s also “Our Toronto”, “Our Ottawa”, “Our Calgary”, “Our Edmonton” and “Our Vancouver”, because local programming is still very much decided in Toronto). It’s an hour-long current affairs show, hosted by Sonali Karnick.

What will be on the show? According to the press release, it’s “the stories that made headlines and had everyone talking … weekly highlights plus a look behind the headlines on the issues everyone’s been buzzing about … the week’s top news stories plus timely features on books, health, one-on-one interviews and an interactive web column.”

The shows debut Saturday at 6am in every market — what kind of audience they can expect to get with this horrible time slot I have no idea* — and repeats at 11am on Sundays and 11am on Mondays.

Karnick will continue to host All in a Weekend on CBC Radio One in Quebec. Which means that her radio show and her television show will be on the air at the same time. Which also doesn’t make much sense.

I’ll be speaking with Karnick tomorrow for a story for The Gazette. I’ll ask her and others at the CBC about what they want the show to be, and which show she wants fans to listen to on Saturday mornings. If you have any other questions, let me know.

*Okay, I have some idea. Ratings for that timeslot show 1,700 viewers on average in Montreal last fall and spring. But will early risers for kids shows translate well into early risers (or insomniacs) among local current affairs watchers? We’ll see.

UPDATE: The story is here and in Friday’s paper. It goes into a bit of Karnick’s background, including her 2011 departure for Toronto and her quick return to Montreal. It also goes a bit into the timeslot. I never did get a very good answer, either from the local office or CBC nationally, about why 6am Saturday was chosen. Everyone reminded me that the show airs three times and is available online, and that some people are up that early on Saturday.

But while airing local shows at 6am is not unusual, it’s odd for that airing to be the premiere (unless it’s a three-hour morning show). Global Montreal used to repeat its evening newscasts at 6am the next day to meet CRTC local programming requirements. Some other stations elsewhere in Canada still do this, and even CTV Montreal has done it on occasion when pre-empted or cancelled newscasts have pushed it below its weekly minimum.

Maybe it’s just semantics here, and having a show air at 6am Saturday and repeat at 11am Sunday is no different from premiering at 11am and repeating at 6am.

But that 6am Saturday time slot still seems odd, especially because the Absolutely Quebec reruns were done at a much more reasonable hour of 11am or noon on Saturdays.

The press release

CBC Montreal launches “Our Montreal”: A weekly review program

Starting Saturday, October 12th on CBC Television

Tuesday, October 8, 2013 — Join CBC Television this Saturday, October 12 for Our Montreal an hour-long current affairs review program that looks at the best of Montreal.

“Each week, Our Montreal will bring you the stories that made headlines and had everyone talking,” says Shelagh Kinch, Managing Director, CBC Quebec “At CBC Montreal, we’re dedicated to sharing local stories and issues that matter to Montrealers. This program gives weekly highlights plus a look behind the headlines on the issues everyone’s been buzzing about.”

Hosted by Sonali Karnick, Our Montreal includes the week’s top news stories plus timely features on books, health, one-on-one interviews and an interactive web column.

“Montrealers love to boast about their city and what secret gems they’ve uncovered. And I’m no exception,” says Karnick. “It’s really a privilege to host this new program and talk about the people and places that make our city one of the best places to live.”

In addition to Our Montreal, Sonali Karnick will continue as host of All in a Weekend, Saturday and Sunday mornings, 6-9am (88.5/104.7FM). Our Montreal airs on Saturdays at 6 am on CBC Television with encore presentations on Sundays and Mondays at 11am.

The other shows

The CBC’s commitment applies to its stations in large “metropolitan” markets, which are defined as those in which the population “with knowledge of the official language of the station” is one million or more. The six largest metro areas in Canada each have a CBC station meeting this criteria. (The next largest is Quebec City, whose population is mainly French, and then Winnipeg, with a population of 730,018.)

  • Our Toronto, hosted by Marivel Taruc
  • Our Ottawa, hosted by Lucy van Oldenbarneveld
  • Our Calgary, hosted by Holly Preston
  • Our Edmonton, hosted by Adrienne Lamb
  • Our Vancouver, hosted by Gloria Macarenko
Posted in Media, Navel-gazing, Opinion

More departures at The Gazette, but it still matters

Bernard Perusse's empty desk in the Gazette office

Bernard Perusse’s empty desk in the Gazette office

There’s been a bit of buzz in the media-navel-gazing sphere this week about the latest set of buyouts at The Gazette. J-Source had a piece on it. A bunch of others tweeted about it or retweeted my list of names. Some expressed disappointment that some big names were leaving. Others saw it as part of some larger trend.

And then there were the haters. Those who never hesitate to say The Gazette is a piece of garbage, that print media is solely responsible for its own fate, and that this is just another example of a money-grubbing fat cat gleefully cutting important jobs so they can get rich by publishing cat videos or something. Those who say The Gazette isn’t worth anything and they’re happy to get their news from Google, the radio, Metro or even blogs and Twitter.

As someone who works there, who goes through dozens of stories a week crafted by its remaining journalists, those comments are painful to read. They’re insulting to those who still come into the office and write, or take photos, or edit stories or design pages or do all sorts of other jobs there, many working very hard every shift because they believe in producing a quality product.

It’s funny because, in the office, on the copy desk when most managers have gone home for the night, or at a bar during (now less frequent) office parties or post-shift drinks, there’s no hesitation to criticize, sometimes sharply, the decisions that have been made that we disagree with, those we feel unnecessarily harm the future of the paper. I’ve been in many conversations with coworkers that look back on the old days with fondness, and on the present with frustration that the quality that was once there has been chiselled away.

Sometimes I’ve sat back and thought to myself whether it was still worth it, whether the paper had cut so far that it has lost that critical mass that makes it worth the paper it’s printed on.

And then I see an investigative report by Linda Gyulai, or a heartbreaking medical story by Charlie Fidelman, or a story about Quebec’s culture by Brendan Kelly that wouldn’t get noticed elsewhere by anglophone media, or another scoop or feature about the Alouettes from Herb Zurkowsky, or some fascinating and useful information about taxes and business dug up and elegantly explained by Paul Delean. Or I see the dozens of pages of coverage that the paper gave to the Lac-Mégantic disaster, which involved practically setting up a bureau there overnight and keeping it staffed every day for weeks. And I remember that despite everything, despite how frustrating it is to see yet another round of cuts, that this newsroom I work for still produces stuff that matters.

It might not be as thorough as papers with bigger budgets like La Presse, the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star, but there are so many stories it publishes on a weekly basis that would never see the light of day if it wasn’t for this paper.

The truth is that while at last report The Gazette makes money, its parent company is still struggling, as is the entire print industry. I suppose you could argue that almost every single print publication in North America has made the exact same mistakes, or that they have copied the worst mistakes off each other, but I think the simple fact that technology has revolutionized media is the biggest cause of the industry’s crisis. Everyone is trying their hardest to adapt, but adapting can be a very painful process, and one filled with trial and error.

And while this latest round of cuts might seem bad, it’s small compared to the much larger purge that happened a year ago, which saw many copy editors, picture editors, support staff and other less high-profile positions be eliminated. And while there have been many waves of cuts, management at The Gazette have consistently done their best to protect the jobs that really matter, the core of journalists who go out and find stories every day.

So by all means, criticize, but when you suggest that The Gazette is worthless, you’re saying that to the dozens of writers, photographers, editors, designers, managers and support staff who work there and are trying their best to put out something worth reading. Including me.

Six more off into the sunset

Anyway, back to the news: Six people, including two managers, are leaving The Gazette this week. They’re all leaving voluntarily, and while it’s nobody’s business but theirs whether they’re taking buyouts, it’s pretty clear that that’s what’s going on, at least for the non-managers.

They are:

Raymond Brassard, Executive Editor: Brassard, who was the managing editor under Andrew Phillips when I started at The Gazette, has been the most senior manager in the newsroom since Phillips left (even though Alan Allnutt took over the title of editor in chief). Soft spoken with a thick Boston accent, Brassard was enough levels of management above me that I couldn’t tell you much about his day-to-day activities, except through all the calls from irate readers that were routed to his office. Brassard, like most managers, had the uncomfortable position of sitting between a newsroom they tried their best to protect and the upper management at Canwest and Postmedia that wanted things to be as lean as possible. He said earlier this summer that, having just turned 65, he would be retiring. He stayed to fill the gap until Lucinda Chodan, our new editor in chief, took her post, replacing Alan Allnutt who will be managing Postmedia’s western papers. A note to readers explains the two moves.

Dave Bist, Senior Editor: Known as the “night editor” on the desk, Bist’s job for the entire time I’ve worked at The Gazette was to manage the paper during the evening, until it was actually typeset. A decade ago, that meant looking over pages and handling any serious decisions. As the desk got smaller, the job meant putting together the front page, including the little things like the index and quote of the day. Bist started in August 1966, he covered things like the John and Yoko bed-in, and otherwise distinguished himself enough to win a Juno Award (!) and get a Wikipedia page. His last night on the job was Thursday. and he wrote on Facebook that he’s been “incredibly lucky” to have the career that he’s had. Though technically a manager, Bist was a strong advocate for the newsroom staff, and you would be hard-pressed to find someone more deserving of respect from his peers.

Henry Aubin, regional affairs columnist: Aubin has been at The Gazette for 40 years, he recounts in his final column. His opinion columns about municipal affairs have always been thought-provoking, even when I thoroughly disagreed with him. While some columnists fill their columns with “I think that” and knee-jerk reactions to already-reported news events, Aubin’s best columns would often include things like charts, and a good deal of original research. He would take contrarian opinions, or explain how conventional wisdom is actually wrong. He was a bit stubborn about some things, but it was hard to argue with his facts. Aubin says in his column that, after a break, he’ll continue writing a column on a weekly freelance basis for The Gazette.

Janet Bagnall, education reporter: Probably better known for her left-leaning columns, particularly about women’s issues, when she was in the opinion department, Bagnall moved to the city desk to take up education reporting in the past year. Her voice on the editorial board, which she’d been on since 1997, gave it a much-needed perspective. Though editorials are unsigned, many were written by her when she was there, earning her a National Newspaper Award nomination.

Bernard Perusse, music columnist: Perusse’s goodbye column appears in Saturday’s Gazette, explaining that while he’s retiring at 59, he’s not ready for the old folks’ home yet. Perusse took over the music columnist gig after T’Cha Dunlevy moved to film reviewing. But he had been writing about music ever since The Gazette disbanded its Gazette Probe consumer rights column, a decision I thought was unfortunate even though it happened before my time. He suggested that he will continue to write freelance.

Stephanie Myles, editor: At least one person asked me if the paper’s former Expos beat writer and tennis expert had disappeared off the face of the Earth. No, she still works full-time there. A year ago she left the tennis beat and put an end to her blog (which was consistently the paper’s most popular by far, mainly because of the large amount of work she put into it), and moved to the copy desk to compensate for the drastic staff reduction. She has been posting stories working mainly weeknights since then. She’s still pretty young, but she hasn’t mentioned jumping into another career yet.

I can’t pretend these cuts won’t hurt, badly. These are some quality people leaving us. But we’ll move on, try our best to adapt by having fewer people do more work, or cutting out work that is not as essential. It’s what we always do. Because that’s the only thing we can do.

Posted in My articles, TV

Elysia Bryan-Baynes: Your friendly neighbourhood news-woman

Elysia Bryan-Baynes at her newsroom desk at Global Montreal

Elysia Bryan-Baynes at her newsroom desk at Global Montreal

That’s not some fake photo smile there. Elysia Bryan-Baynes is very charismatic and approachable, and was more than willing to be profiled in a story I wrote for The Gazette that was published in Friday’s paper.

Bryan-Baynes was named the late-night anchor at Global Montreal in May, five months after Richard Dagenais was moved from late nights to the new morning show. Though she has been at the station since 2003, this is her first permanent job there.

She hadn’t done much anchoring before, her boss admitted, but she had a great screen test and she’s done just about everything else there. A researcher and runner for the previous morning show (which was cancelled in 2008), an overnight lineup editor and field producer for that morning show, a lineup editor for the 6pm newscast, and of course reporting, including a stint as the Quebec City bureau chief.

Bryan-Baynes is described in her official bio as being “of Jamaican and Vincentian heritage,” and a lot of that Caribbean culture shows in the way she describes her life. She has a big family, and they’re very close-knit. In fact, even though her newscast ends at 11:30pm, it’s followed by phone calls with her family, she said. To say that they’re proud of her would be an understatement.

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Posted in Media, Montreal, My articles

Cult MTL tries twice-monthly print issue as it turns a year old

Cult MTL staff at their December 2012 issue launch.

Cult MTL staff at their December 2012 issue launch.

It’s not often you get to write a happy news story about struggling print media. Heck, the blog post just before this one is about hundreds of jobs being lost and big papers shutting down. But while other papers have decades of history and so-called “legacy costs” and are slashing their workforce to face the new industry reality, Cult MTL is building itself up slowly from the ground. And through a mixture of incremental steps and fuelled by a large amount of good-will unpaid or underpaid work, it’s establishing a future for itself and filling the hole that was left by the shut down of Hour and Mirror last year.

It was one year ago today that the cultmontreal.com website published its first articles. And in today’s Gazette, I talk to the brains behind the operation about their progress and future plans.

It’s during that meeting a little over week ago that they told me Cult was moving to a twice-monthly schedule (the next issue comes out starting on Thursday) and that they’re looking for permanent office space.

The three senior editorial staff were surprisingly open with me about how things are going there. Part of being so independent is not having to keep too many trade secrets. I didn’t ask them for their tax returns or anything, but they answered every question I asked as best they could.

Here’s a roundup of things they told me.

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Posted in My articles, TV

Only in Montreal debuts Saturday

The Only in Montreal set at Whalley-Abbey Media's office. This is where the three hosts set up their pieces with a discussion.

The Only in Montreal set at Whalley-Abbey Media’s office. This is where the three hosts set up their pieces with a discussion.

Only in Montreal, the new weekly magazine show about Montreal city life, debuted Saturday night at 7pm on City Montreal. You can watch the first episode online.

Each half-hour episode of the series, which is produced by Montreal-based Whalley-Abbey Media (the folks behind those Debbie Travis and Chuck Hughes shows) features one piece each by hosts Matt Silver, Tamy Emma Pepin and Dimitrios Koussioulas, exploring some interesting facet of life in Montreal. Because the segments are shot months in advance (early segments were shot in April while it was still snowing), there’s nothing very topical on the show. The first episode has Silver exploring Montreal’s food trucks during a First Friday event at the Olympic Stadium, Pepin talking to Corey Shapiro of vintage sunglasses fame, and Koussioulas hanging out with the roller derby crowd.

I talk about the show and its hosts in this story, which appears in Saturday’s Gazette.

Koussioulas vs. Koussioulas

You might have noticed that the debut of this show coincides with the airing of the Parc Avenue Tonight live show, also starring Dimitrios Koussioulas. In fact, they’re both on at the same time, as I point out in this short story, which features both CBC and Rogers downplaying the significance of introducing a new face and having him competing against himself.

The conflict has been known for months, and it’s hard to imagine with all the weeks and all the time slots they could have chosen, that this conflict isn’t somehow intentional. The official explanation from both sides is that the two shows have been in the works for months, and the schedules were set before they were aware of each other. And in any case it’s not a big deal.

But really, with months of advance notice, neither of these shows could have been moved by half an hour, or moved by a week?

I’m having a hard time buying that.

UPDATE: Because the Calgary Stampede ran way long, the local CBC newscast was pushed back by almost an hour, an episode of Marketplace was killed entirely, and still Parc Avenue Tonight was delayed by about 15 minutes. Maybe CBC should run it again some time.

Posted in Navel-gazing

Things look different ’round here

If you’re one of those super-sleuth detective persons, you might have noticed a slight change to the look of this blog.

Well, your eyes are not deceiving you. For mainly technical reasons (i.e. all the ways it was broken), I need to abandon the previous theme that was used on this website. I’ve replaced it with the WordPress stock theme Twenty Twelve, which I’ll be customizing to fit my personal preferences and the way things work around here. Until then, things might be a bit awkward, but everything should at least work.

If you see something that doesn’t, or want to suggest a change, or just want to tell me to go to hell, leave a comment or send me an email.

Posted in My articles, Photos, TV

Photos: Behind the scenes at the Parc Avenue Tonight live taping

You might recall a few months ago I mentioned that CBC was going to record and air a special live-audience version of Dimitrios Koussioulas’s Mile End talk show Parc Avenue Tonight.

The show was recorded in front of a live audience on May 15 at Cabaret du Mile End. I was invited to witness the setup, and took a bunch of pictures. I talk a bit about the show for this story in Saturday’s Gazette, which discusses the state of local non-news television in English Montreal.

CBC Montreal presented Parc Avenue Tonight Live Saturday at 7pm as part of its Absolutely Quebec series of regional specials. You can watch it online if you missed it.
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Posted in My articles, Video

Abby Howard and my Strip Search obsession

Abby Howard got rich quick off the Internet (kinda)

Abby Howard got rich quick off the Internet (kinda)

Is “why don’t you go suck a dick?” inappropriate for a family newspaper? It’s a question I had to ask myself while writing the lead of a story for The Gazette about Abby Howard, a (temporary) Montrealer who gained thousands of fans online and raised more than $100,000 for a project she’s working on after she was a contestant on a reality series produced by Penny Arcade.

It was a story I really enjoyed writing, and enjoyed researching. And like many such stories, it’s very long (by newspaper standards) and there’s tons of information I couldn’t cram into it. Thankfully the Internet has no limit on story size, and my blog imposes on itself no limit to how much detail I can get into.

I’ll start off here by introducing you to the series, and inviting you to watch it. Because suspense is a big part of the fun, I won’t spoil it for you until later in this post.

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Posted in Navel-gazing, Video

10-year-old documentary an insight into insanity of student politics

I recently discovered that Concordia University’s television club has posted to YouTube a 10-year-old documentary called Student Politics. Directed by Sergeo Kirby, who would later produce other documentaries including Wal-Town, it tells the story of a student election at Concordia University in 2003. I appear a few times in the film giving somewhat incoherent commentary.

The time from 2000 to 2004 was a crazy one for Concordia and its student political bodies, and I was fortunate to have spent that time as a student journalist covering student politics. My first year, there was a $200,000 embezzlement scandal involving the VP finance writing 50 blank cheques to herself, and then a war between the student government and the student newspaper that resulted in the latter being shut down over a summer. My second year, an unprecedented popular impeachment campaign fuelled mainly by a post-9/11 backlash against radical activism, and an executive by-election that was derailed after a bribery scandal and ended in the election result being annulled. My third year, a controversial visit by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that triggered a riot, a very controversial moratorium on free speech related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a rush to the ballot box to replace radical left-wingers with a more moderate mainstream in the student executive.

Student Politics tells the story of that third year, about the heated battle between left and right (though it’s simplistic to describe the two factions in such terms), and the dynasty change that came after thousands of students from the apathetic majority finally decided they’d had enough. (That dynasty, which turned out to be no less corrupt than the leftist one, would stay in power for several years. By the time it disappeared, the left-right divide had largely faded away or been replaced by other pressing political divides.)

Highlights of the film include a point at the 22-minute mark that shows the campaigns, gathered in the lobby of Concordia’s Henry F. Hall building on de Maisonneuve Blvd., rushing through the building at midnight on the first day of campaigning to plaster every wall they can find with their posters. It’s an absurd indication of how seriously both sides took their campaigns back then.

(It’s also not the first time that year that I ran up that set of escalators in a panic trying to avoid a stampede.)

Other documentaries were made about that year at Concordia, though this was the only one to focus on student politics specifically. The other two focused on the Netanyahu riot and the conflict between students supporting the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the Middle East conflict. I wrote about them a few years ago. There was Discordia, which is on he NFB’s website, which told the personal stories of the people behind this campus conflict. And there was Confrontation at Concordia, a heavily biased anti-Palestinian rant that aired on Global television. (It was originally posted to Google Video, but that no longer exists. A few minutes of it can be seen on YouTube.) The latter led to complaints to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, which found that although it obviously had a point of view, it didn’t engage in unethical practices or violate any broadcast standards to express it.

Student Politics isn’t the best documentary in the world. It was the effort of a first-time filmmaker. And I can’t really evaluate how well it tells a story I already know so well. But it’s a nice trip down memory lane to a time when the pettiness of student politics reached its peak.

And also a sad reminder of how much my hairline has receded in the past decade.

Posted in Media, Montreal, My articles

Midnight Poutine turns 300 (Thank you, Jeremy Morris)

The Midnight Poutine crew, from left: Theo Mathien, Amie Watson, Gabrielle LeFort, Gregory Bouchard

The Midnight Poutine crew, from left: Theo Mathien, Amie Watson, Gabrielle Lefort, Gregory Bouchard

When I asked the current team behind the Midnight Poutine podcast why they do what they do, they all had the same answer: Jeremy Morris.

Morris started the podcast in 2006 with John MacFarlane, a former Gazette writer and editor who I worked with briefly (and was one of the key figures in the early days of what was then Habs Inside/Out).

After MacFarlane moved to the other side of the world, Morris continued the podcast every week, a lot of times by himself. Eventually he brought along some other Midnight Poutine contributors to join the podcast — Greg Bouchard during Pop Montreal in 2009, Amie Watson in 2010, Gabrielle Lefort soon after that, and Theo Mathien in 2011, and when Morris left himself for Madison, Wis., last summer, he left the podcast in their hands.

“We all feel like we owe it to Jer to continue,” said Mathien. “We were infected by Jeremy’s enthusiasm,” added LeFort. “It’s partially his level of devotion that causes us to keep this thing going,” said Bouchard. “If we stopped doing this, I would be annoyed that there isn’t another podcast like this to listen to.”

I wanted to write about Morris and the podcast when Morris left, but never found the time. Now, as the show hits its 300th episode, I made the time to head out to Pointe St-Charles and profile it for The Gazette.

You can read the Gazette story here. I’ll add some detail below.

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Posted in My articles, TV

CBC jumps into semantic nightmare with “ICI” debacle

I thought nothing short of an alien invasion would unite the country. Heck, even then I’m sure the PQ would blame the federal government. But the CBC managed to do so last week when it announced that it was rebranding all its French-language services as “ICI”.

But the move has been so universally condemned, from the left, from the right, from its enemies and its friends, that I feel the urge to play contrarian and find some reason to support it. But I can’t.

The reasons to dislike it just pile up:

  • It’s confusing. Are they changing the name Radio-Canada? No. Except yes. They’re not changing their name, but just adopting a new “brand identity”, or using a “term”, or “denominator”. Just the list of synonyms for the word “name” they used (including the word “name” itself) created needless confusion. Even CBC and Radio-Canada journalists couldn’t figure out what “ICI” was, exactly.
  • It’s expensive. This rebranding exercise cost $400,000. You can see that as a tiny part of the corporation’s $1-billion annual subsidy from the Canadian government, or you could see that as a handful of well-paid full-time jobs for a year. Rebranding is an expensive endeavour that does little to further the CBC’s mandate.
  • It’s unnecessary. The closest thing I got to a reason for this whole thing in the first place is a video (now deleted) in which someone put a confused look on their face when explained that “Radio-Canada” means both radio and television. I get that, in a sense. You’ll recall that Télé-Québec used to be called Radio-Québec. But is this really a problem for a brand that’s existed for 75 years? Does anyone who lives in Canada and speaks French actually get confused?
  • It’s consultantism at its finest. The CBC loves consultants. People who tell them that newscasts have to look a certain way, or that Peter Mansbridge should stand at all times. Some consulting is good. You want to focus-group television shows or expensive concepts before putting them into motion. But consultants are also good at convincing people to buy things they don’t need. I don’t know if that happened in this case, but it certainly gives that impression.
  • It’s abandoning a strong brand. Rebranding is something you do when your brand isn’t working. Maybe you’re involved in a scandal, or your name doesn’t reflect what you do anymore, or it’s not politically correct. But Radio-Canada is a very strong brand. People know what it is and expect good things from it. Why would you mess with that? Even the federal government got involved to complain.
  • It’s anti-patriotic. Fuelling the exaggerated notion that Radio-Canada is filled with separatists (as if half of Quebec wasn’t), cutting “Radio-Canada” in favour of “ICI” has been seized by some in English Canada has a political move. “ICI” is also being seen as reinforcing the Quebec-centric view of Radio-Canada by groups that feel the corporation all but ignores francophones in the rest of Canada.
  • It’s a generic word with little meaning. The Abbott and Costello routine from Jean Lapierre and Mario Dumont might be a caricature of the problem, but there’s a very serious lack of meaning in the term “ici”. It’s a generic word, an adverb, and they’re trying to use it as a noun. “ICI” has been the name of a bunch of things, including a weekly alternative newspaper in Montreal. “ICI Montréal” was even registered as a trademark by Télé-Métropole, which is now TVA, in 1985.

But the biggest problem with this rebrand is this: It’s screwing the little guy.

Sam Norouzi

 

Here’s that little guy. His name is Sam Nowrouzzahrai, but he does business as Sam Norouzi because he wants to save people the trouble of always looking up how to spell and pronounce his name. He’s the man behind a new ethnic television station in Montreal. It’s a mom-and-pop shop, owned by his family and run as a producers’ cooperative. He’s not looking to get rich off of this, just find work for some ethnic broadcasters and bring local ethnic television back to one of Canada’s most diverse cities.

He wanted to call the station International Channel/Canal International, or “ICI” for short.

As I explain in this story in The Gazette, Norouzi did his homework, applying for a registered trademark and waiting for it to get approved as the CRTC application process followed its course. Now, weeks before the station is set to go on the air, he has to deal with the CBC’s lawyers who are trying to take his name from him. And while he has a legal team to deal with that, it’s taking up a lot of his time too. “There’s not a day that goes by that there’s not an issue I have to deal with” involving the case, he said.

I first wrote about this story in March, but now Norouzi has decided he’s ready to play offence in his David-vs-Goliath battle. Articles in the Journal de Montréal, La Pressethe Globe and Mail, the National Post, even the New York Times. An interview on CBC Radio’s As it Happens. An angry column from Sophie Durocher. And while he told me back in March that he didn’t have the funds to take this matter to court, he now says he’s ready to fight.

“We have full rights to go forward with the name and we intend to do so,” Norouzi told me. “We will defend ourselves. For us it’s really a question of principle.”

CBC by a technicality

So what kind of case does the CBC have here? Can they really force Norouzi to give up his name?

Companies don’t have to register their trademarks for them to be legal. They just have to use them. Same thing with government bodies and their “official marks” according to the Trade-marks Act. But it helps. And Norouzi’s application for ICI came a year before CBC’s 31 applications for ICI-branded services. (The only CBC mark that predates Norouzi’s is one from 1969 for “Éditions Ici Radio-Canada”.)

I spoke with Pascal Lauzon, a lawyer and trademark agent with BCF. He said most of the case is “very debatable on both sides.” He pointed out that the registrar of trademarks looks through the database when a trademark is applied for. The process also includes a two-month waiting period so opponents can file oppositions to proposed registrations.

But Lauzon also said that there’s a five-year period during which someone can apply to the federal court to expunge a trademark.

Obviously not in a position to prejudge a case like this, Lauzon said the CBC has a strong case, not so much because it can prove it used the name first, but because of what amounts to a technicality.

Part of the trademark registration process is the filing of what’s called a “declaration of use.” This tells the Canadian Intellectual Property Office that you have actually used the trademark you’ve applied for on a good or in connection with a service. Norouzi filed this on Aug. 20, 2012. But his station wasn’t on the air at that time. We didn’t even know it existed because the application for it wasn’t published until a month later.

The CBC alleges in its lawsuit that, because Norouzi did not appear to be actually using the trademark, his declaration of use was “materially false.”

That, Lauzon said, is enough to have the entire trademark registration thrown out. If that happens, Norouzi would have to file for a new one, but that would put his application behind those 31 marks of CBC-Radio-Canada, and would weaken his case considerably.

“He should have waited” until the station was on the air, Lauzon said. He had three years to file a declaration of use, and waiting would not have made his initial filing date of August 2011 any less valid. “If he had waited, he would be in a much better position,” Lauzon said.

An amicable solution is the best solution

There is another way for this to end: The CBC could see the error of its ways and abandon the whole “ICI” plan entirely. Or it could offer to pay the costs associated with Norouzi’s station taking another name. I don’t know if either of those are likely.

Norouzi tells me he has had no communication with the CBC other than through its lawyers, who first contacted him last November complaining about possible confusion. (Norouzi dismissed those claims since they came long before anyone had any idea that Radio-Canada would be rebranding.) The CBC won’t comment except through written communication that goes through its legal department. Which means I didn’t get a response from them by press time. (I’ll update this post with what I hear back.)

The CBC has already started to back away from ICI. On Monday, president Hubert Lacroix apologized for the “confusion” and announced that some services, including the main TV and radio networks, would retain the Radio-Canada name. You can see a full list here (PDF). Names like “ICI Radio-Canada Télé” and “ICI Radio-Canada Première” sound like awful compromises, taking names that were long and making them even longer.

This backtrack was after days of trying to re-explain a move that should have been self-explanatory.

It hurts to throw away a $400,000 project. But sticking with a bad idea isn’t a better option.

UPDATE: I asked for additional comment from CBC about this case. Hours after the request, I was asked to submit written questions. Almost 24 hours later, I finally got this as a response from Radio-Canada’s Marc Pichette:

In response to your questions sent yesterday (and I apologize for the delay), the term “ICI” has been closely tied to Radio-Canada’s identity for over 75 years. That it has risen to increased prominence recently is only a reflection of the close association our audience makes between that word and our brand.

Confusion is in no one’s interest. That’s why the matter to which you refer is part of an ongoing legal process which is before the Federal Court. I hope you will understand that I cannot comment on the specifics.

Posted in Montreal, My articles, TV

Alexandre Despatie, Joanne Vrakas named hosts of City Montreal’s Breakfast Television

Alexandre Despatie and Joanne Vrakas (Photo: Rogers Media)

Alexandre Despatie and Joanne Vrakas (Photo: Rogers Media)

Hours ahead of their Upfront presentation to advertisers, City Montreal has named the two people who will host Breakfast Television when it launches in August: Alexandre Despatie, the former world champion diver who announced his retirement from competitive diving only two days ago, and Joanne Vrakas, the radio and TV personality whose previous job was a TV reporter for CBC Montreal.

You can read more about the announcement in this story in The Gazette, which includes excerpts of an interview with Despatie and Vrakas.

The announcement of Despatie in particular has been enough to capture the interest of French-language media in Quebec, who could normally not care less about local English-language television. Brief stories in HuffPost Quebec, 98.5fm, Hollywood PQ, Agence QMI, and an interview with Rogers-owned L’Actualité. Also in English, a story from Canadian Press that will get posted everywhere, and one from J-Source.

(UPDATE: More from the Journal de Montréal and TVA Sports, and an interview with Pénélope McQuade)

The two hosts have been doing the rounds at Breakfast Televisions across the country this morning, which is a bit odd because people who watch those shows won’t be watching BT Montreal. Here’s their interview with Winnipeg and Toronto, the latter of which is ridiculously labelled an “exclusive.”

Joining Vrakas and Despatie will be Wilder Weir, the co-host of Montreal Connected. Weir will be a roving “Live Eye” host.

Breakfast Television hosts Joanne Vrakas, Wilder Weir and Alexandre Despatie are shown off to advertisers on Thursday evening.

Breakfast Television hosts Joanne Vrakas, Wilder Weir and Alexandre Despatie are shown off to advertisers on Thursday evening.

Jeffrey Feldman, who has been a Montreal-based producer for eTalk and Fashion Television, had previously been announced as supervising producer for the morning show. Also previously announced is Elias Makos, formerly CTV Montreal’s tech columnist, who is now City’s New Media Producer. He will appear daily on Breakfast Television.