Category Archives: Opinion

Posted in Opinion, TV

CRTC has to begin preparing for its own irrelevance

As the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission began its two-week hearing into television policy on Monday, the various interest groups began planting their self-serving stakes. Google doesn’t want YouTube to be regulated by the commission. The Ontario government and others want the CRTC to force Netflix and similar services to contribute to Canadian content. And funds like the Canada Media Fund and Shaw Rocket Fund want to ensure they don’t lose their funding.

It’s all so predictable, which makes sitting through hours of these presentations so boring. But, despite chairman Jean-Pierre Blais’s best efforts, we’re not getting to practical solutions here or any concrete idea of what TV is going to look like in 10 years or even five.

The CRTC’s Communications Monitoring Report shows that the adoption of Netflix alone in Canada is on a dramatic rise. Now almost a third of English-language households have subscriptions. But this hasn’t resulted in a dramatic drop in cable and satellite subscriptions. About 85% of Canadian households have some sort of regulated pay TV subscription, either through cable, satellite or IPTV (Bell Fibe/Telus Optik etc.). The percentage is falling, but not fast enough to panic. At least not yet.

As technology evolves, the difference between YouTube, Netflix and Bell TV becomes more and more irrelevant from a regulatory perspective. Internet-based television connections like Bell Fibe use the same data links to send TSN’s five feeds as they do to send House of Cards and that latest cat video. At this point, we could deliver all television services in Canada to most consumers via the Internet. We have the technology to do that.

Bureaucratic momentum

The biggest reason we haven’t moved everything online is bureaucratic. And not in the sense of regulation (though that’s part of it), but in the sense of having large media empires like Bell, Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor, that own the exclusive rights to high-value programming and deliver it through the regulated system because the regulated system pays them for it and consumers haven’t been too tempted to change that.

So long as the CRTC imposes a 5% tax on cable revenues that are to be redirected to Canadian content (including community television channels), and forces content channels to devote certain parts of their schedules and certain percentages of their revenue to Canadian content, there will be an incentive to move more content out of the regulated system and onto an unregulated one. And eventually we will pass that tipping point where there’s no must-see TV on the regulated system and consumers start abandoning it in droves.

Fortunately for the CRTC, it has time. It can prepare for this. But it has to decide now which way it will go: expand its reach to include purely online forms of video delivery, or contract its reach to eventually get out of the TV regulating business completely.

You can’t regulate Internet content

There have been some cases for the former that try their best to pass the sanity test (Jason Kee, Public Policy & Government Relations Counsel at Google, asked rhetorically if the CRTC would start regulating animated GIFs, too). Proponents of regulatory expansion say the CRTC should only regulate video that is sold, not stuff put on YouTube for free. They say there should be a minimum revenue before regulation kicks in. They say we should focus on companies like Netflix instead of trying to regulate all video.

But there isn’t really a way to do this sanely. Not without censoring the Internet, or dissuading companies like Netflix from making their videos available here, or forcing them to blackout their videos to Canada for fear of being taxed. Or creating some sort of grey market for content, where some content is legal and other content is illegal. Or creating a chill among all content creators in this country. Or just pissing off the Canadian public.

(And the federal government didn’t waste any time making it clear that it will not support any move to tax Netflix or YouTube, with heritage minister Shelly Glover issuing a statement Monday evening.)

The CRTC’s New Media Exemption Order is a policy decision in which it has convinced itself that it can regulate content on the Internet but simply chooses not to do so. It is trying to make rules out of de facto reality to maintain the illusion of control. And while it can control the online activities of companies it already regulates like Bell and Shaw, it can’t control Google, Apple and Netflix without prompting a war that might just end in those companies abandoning our country.

So the CRTC has little choice but to maintain a hands-off approach to Internet content. And that means that eventually, maybe five or 10 or 20 years down the road, it will have to take its hands off television content as well, because there won’t be any difference between the two.

The CRTC needs to start now to plan for the day when television regulation becomes irrelevant. while not allowing the telecom giants to abuse their power in the meantime.

It’s taking steps in that direction, proposing relaxing rules for specialty channels and third-language services, and giving consumers more choice in terms of channel selection. And it’s trying to find ways to encourage more competition for cable TV providers, by extending an exemption order so that smaller players like Colba.net and VMedia can set up TV distributors in big cities using IPTV without needing a licence first.

Cancon’s future

But it faces a bigger challenge in determining how to promote Canadian culture in the future. So much of the Canadian television industry is based on regulated transfers of money, from broadcasters and distributors to production funds to independent producers. That system will eventually collapse or evaporate, and we need to find a replacement.

One possibility is by doing something like taxing Internet access and sending that money to the federal government or a fund like the Canada Media Fund (which is already funded in part by the government anyway). But that creates a system where one government-appointed body acts as the gatekeeper, deciding what Canadian content is worth supporting. It discourages competition and innovation.

Or the CRTC could do nothing, and let Canadian video content stand on its own with little support from the broadcasting system. This could result in Canadian media giants collapsing or being taken over by larger U.S. giants. We could lose a large part of our identity.

It’s a scary thought for the industry, and those champions of Canadian content, but I haven’t seen a viable long-term alternative.

The CRTC’s future

I’m not saying the CRTC will cease to exist. It will still have a vital role to play, so long as there are aspects of telecommunications that need regulatory help. Radio is still broadcast through scarce radio frequencies which need to be regulated, though they too will eventually move to Internet-based distribution.

Internet access needs a regulator so long as there’s a finite number of cables reaching into our homes. And though the technology used to deliver it bears little resemblance to what it was at first, the telephone is still a tool we use regularly and will be with us for some time.

The CRTC has a job to do, to ensure that the TV industry plays fair with itself and keeps the best interest of consumers, workers and the Canadian public in mind. But it also has to look forward to the day when it has to decide to stop regulating the unregulateable and focus on where it can make a difference for the better.

But the commissioners are only human. So we — the industry, the public, the government — have to be part of that discussion. Through our comments and guidance, we must help the regulator build this road toward the future where choice is infinite and the only limit to content is creativity and no one but us can decide what we can and cannot watch.

Posted in Opinion, TV

How the new TVA Nouvelles saved journalism

Discussion panels!

Discussion panels!

Tonight was the premiere of a new format for TVA Nouvelles’s flagship 10pm newscast (you can watch the whole thing here). Trying to find a new model that was different from the boring single-anchor TV newscast, it brought in four columnists who comment about major news stories, and has become more of a panel discussion show about the news than a newscast.

But that’s not the only change. Here, in screenshots, are other things that TVA Nouvelles has that will save the TV news industry from that pesky Internet threat and make sure the kids keep watching.

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Posted in Opinion, TV

Are TSN’s five channels worth it?

Updated with some clarification below about TSN’s main feed.

It was inevitable. With so much sports programming available, with so many scheduling conflicts, with prices going up (both in terms of subscription fees and in terms of rights fees) and with Rogers having scooped up national NHL games, TSN had to expand beyond the two channels it previously had.

Rogers crowed that it had nine channels available on Saturday nights for hockey: CBC, City, four regional Sportsnet channels, Sportsnet One, Sportsnet 360, and FX Canada. Rogers also owns Sportsnet World, and three special Sportsnet One regional feeds (for Canucks, Flames and Oilers games).

TSN, meanwhile, had TSN and TSN2, plus special part-time regional feeds for Jets and Canadiens games.

So on Monday, TSN officially expanded to five channels, numbered 1 through 5. The Jets and Canadiens channels disappear, and regional NHL games (Jets, Leafs and Senators) will instead air on the three new channels, which will be blacked out outside their regions when those teams are playing.

Videotron holds out

Bell Media managed to secure deals with most major providers to add the channels. Shaw, Rogers, Telus, Bell, Cogeco, Eastlink, MTS and SaskTel are all on board. The major holdout is Videotron, which says it’s still in talks with Bell Media over adding the channels.

These kind of negotiations are complex, and it’s hard, without getting details on those talks, to tell which side is being unreasonable. Videotron is out on its own here, but it’s also the only provider that allows its subscribers to choose just about everything à la carte. Right now TSN is one of those channels, and it comes with TSN2 thrown in for free.

Various factors come into play when negotiating over new channels: the price, packaging and other special conditions, available space on the distribution network, and of course subscriber demand.

TSN decided to launch the five feeds on the first day of the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Early rounds of a tennis major provide a very good example of how useful extra feeds can be, with lots of matches happening simultaneously. Viewers might be interested in following a Canadian, or checking up on their favourite tennis superstar, or checking out some interesting story going on in another match entirely. Having five feeds is very useful here.

But TSN seemed to try to artificially inflate demand on Tuesday by pushing a match by Eugenie Bouchard to TSN5 instead of having it on the main channel or TSN2. (Though strangely on Videotron, TSN’s main feed was replaced with TSN5 all day.) That led to a lot of people bugging their service providers (not just Videotron) about where TSN5 is.

UPDATE: As Josh explains in a comment below, TSN has decided that TSN1 is no longer its main feed nationally. Instead, TSN1 is the main feed for B.C. and Alberta, TSN3 is the main feed in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, TSN4 is the main feed for southern Ontario, and TSN5 is the main feed for eastern Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. This allows those who only have one or two TSN channels (such as analog subscribers) to still get their Jets, Leafs and Senators regional games. This explains a lot of what we see below.

As they decide whether to add these channels, Videotron and others have to ask themselves: Just what do the other three TSN channels offer that its two existing ones don’t have?

Schedule grid of TSN's five channels for this Saturday.

Schedule grid of TSN’s five channels for this Saturday.

This schedule for Saturday offers more insight into the added value of these additional feeds. Instead of one Premier League game on Saturday mornings, TSN can air three simultaneously. It can air college football games and more NASCAR races, things that would otherwise be shown on tape-delay or on those rare occasions when there was nothing better to show.

Fans of the Jets, Leafs and Senators (who live in their respective broadcast regions) will definitely appreciate the feeds during the NHL season. But that’s only 138 games, or 414 hours of programming, in a year. And as I mention above, subscribers in those regions don’t need the extra channels to watch their team (except in some areas of Ontario where the broadcast regions overlap).

Identical programming much of the time

If you look at other days, the value of extra TSN channels becomes less apparent. Take Friday, Sept. 5. The U.S. Open is still on, but its field has narrowed so much that only three matches are scheduled for that day: two women’s singles semifinals and the mixed doubles final. There’s also a NASCAR race and a CFL game that night. Two channels are more than enough for all that.

Looking at the schedule for that day, the lineup for TSN1, TSN3, TSN4 and TSN5 are identical from 2am to 11:30pm: 10 repeats of SportsCentre, U.S. Open tennis, and the B.C. vs. Ottawa CFL game.

Only TSN2 looks different, with NASCAR, MLS, Dave Naylor and various ESPN feature and talk shows.

Of course, these channels just launched, and we could see more differentiation in the future, especially as the number of subscribers who have only one or two TSN channels further diminishes. There was a suggestion early on of installing cameras in other TSN Radio studios and broadcasting other radio shows on TV. Repeats, documentaries and talk shows can also fill up the schedules pretty easily.

But because of TSN’s Sportsnet-like regionalization of those channels, it has essentially backed itself into duplicating much of its content across four of them (TSN2 isn’t the main feed anywhere, so its programming can be entirely distinct). So expect CFL games and major sporting events to still be the same across TSN1, TSN3, TSN4 and TSN5 for a while.

That’s not to say that the additional feeds aren’t worth it. But for now, their value depends on how much you want more choice in things like tennis, NASCAR, English soccer and U.S. college football, and whether you feel like, when it comes to sports, you absolutely cannot miss a thing.

UPDATE: Mitch Melnick speaks with TSN president Stewart Johnston about the new channels. Johnston says Videotron sees the value in them and the two parties are working on getting them added.

Posted in Opinion, Technology

Cooperation, not acquisition, might be better option for Quebecor

Put simply: Under the right conditions we are ready, willing and able to become
Canada’s fourth wireless competitor.

With that statement two months ago, new Quebecor CEO Pierre Dion launched a campaign to create fertile ground for his company to expand its wireless operation nationally, and become the fourth national wireless player that the Conservative government has been so desperate to see arrive.

Quebecor’s main issue is roaming — the fees it has to pay other carriers when its subscribers use their networks. Until it can build a national network that rivals those of the Big Three in coverage (something that would take several billion dollars to do), it would have to offer its subscribers access to someone else’s network, and at fees that would still allow it to undercut those networks’ operators on prices.

The CRTC is holding a public hearing in September on wholesale wireless services that should address this issue. The commission will try to determine if the market is sufficiently competitive and if not, what it can do to fix that. Quebecor would like low, regulated wireless wholesale rates, particularly for data. Bell, Telus and Rogers, needless to say, aren’t in favour.

And just two weeks ago the commission slapped Rogers on the wrist for exclusive roaming deals that it determined were anti-competitive.

Quebecor’s hand

At the moment, Quebecor’s network covers populated areas of Quebec and the National Capital Region. It also has a deal with Rogers that allows Videotron customers to use Rogers’s network where necessary. A year ago, the companies signed a 20-year agreement to build a shared wireless LTE network in Videotron’s existing territory.

The thought of Videotron becoming a national player took off in February after it purchased licenses in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia for $233 million. Because the big three were limited in the amount of spectrum they could buy, and new players like Wind and Mobilicity didn’t have the financial means to spend that kind of money, Videotron got a deal it simply couldn’t pass up. The licences could be worth a lot more than that, even with the limitation that they can’t be sold to Bell, Rogers or Telus.

The rest of Canada is split up between other regional players: MTS in Manitoba, SaskTel in Saskatchewan, and Eastlink in Atlantic Canada and Northern Ontario. They also got good deals on spectrum because those frequencies were reserved for smaller players.

So even if Videotron wanted to become a national player, it would need to team up either with one of the big three or all of these smaller providers. Plus building out networks in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta.

It has been suggested very openly that Videotron would be interested in buying either Wind Mobile or Mobilicity (or both) to instantly get a foothold in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta. This is important because next March will see another spectrum auction from Industry Canada, and its rules reserve licences for operators other than the Big Three that are already operating in those territories. Unless Videotron sets up its network in the next six months, it’s bidding potential is limited. But acquire Wind and/or Mobilicity, neither of which have the capacity to participate in the auction, and Videotron can make another government-assisted investment.

Except Videotron doesn’t have enough cash for such an acquisition. So it would need some source of money to step up to help it. And the clock is ticking.

Politics

But spectrum licenses and cash aren’t the only impediments to Videotron’s wireless expansion. Even if it develops a decent network, Videotron has no other infrastructure in the rest of Canada. It can’t bundle wireless with cable TV and Internet like it does in Quebec. It can’t leverage its brand, or set up Videotron corners in Archambault shops in the rest of Canada.

And then there’s the politics. Pierre Karl Péladeau is still the controlling shareholder of Quebecor and Videotron. And he’s not willing to put his stake in a blind trust until he becomes a minister (and even then it would come with an order not to sell the company). So the federal government’s best hope for a company that would give a shot in the arm to competition in wireless is one owned by a devoted separatist. It’s not exactly the kind of company the government would want to bend backwards to help. And that’s saying nothing about consumers who might see switching to Videotron as tantamount to funding Quebec separation.

Cooperation

But maybe there’s another way. What if, instead of buying Wind and Mobilicity outright, it partnered with one or both, giving them enough cash to participate in the March auction and allowing their subscribers to use each other’s networks seamlessly? For that matter, why not do the same with MTS, SaskTel and Eastlink? Imagine a national wireless player made up of regional players, all with the same problem of national roaming. It would take less cash than one company gobbling up the others, and avoids the problem of having to deal with Quebecor’s not-so-great brand outside of Quebec.

There are other possibilities, too. Shaw, which is active in B.C. and Alberta and has a lot of money but doesn’t have a wireless network, could become involved, and partner with Wind or Mobilicity or Videotron to offer a wireless service they could bundle.

Perhaps it’s just pie-in-the-sky dreaming, and I’m sure people will point out a bunch of practical problems with these ideas that would make them unrealistic. But if Ottawa really wants a fourth wireless player (even though experience in other countries suggest the market might not be able to support more than three), this sounds to me like a way to get there.

Of course, it would require Quebecor playing nice with others and swallowing a lot of humble pie.

Posted in In the news, Montreal, Opinion, Photos

“Homeless spikes” are gone — but what about Montreal’s other homeless deterrents?

Scars on the concrete outside a window of Archambault on Berri St., where spikes had been installed to deter people from sitting or lying down there.

Scars on the concrete outside a window of Archambault on Berri St., where spikes had been installed to deter people from sitting or lying down there.

When Le Devoir came out with a story this week noting the presence of anti-homeless spikes outside of a downtown business, the outrage was immediate. Heartless, disgusting, inhuman, dangerous. All sorts of angry comments directed at Archambault, the music and book store who Le Devoir said installed them.

Mayor Denis Coderre, outraged, promised to have them removed by any means necessary within the day.

As it turns out, Archambault wasn’t at fault, it was the owner of the building. And public pressure resulted in a crew removing the spikes by noon. News outlets discussed the issue, offering comments from the public who again noted their outrage. There was a comparison with a similar thing being done in London, another move that was reversed after public outcry. Or with a similar thing at a McDonald’s two blocks away as seen in Google Street View images taken in 2012, but those had already been removed.

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Posted in Montreal, Opinion

No safe option for cyclists through Plateau/Rosemont underpasses

Which of these options is safer: Sharing a narrow lane with a car, or a narrow sidewalk with pedestrians?

Which of these options is safer: Sharing a narrow lane with a car, or a narrow sidewalk with pedestrians?

The accidental death of a cyclist riding a Bixi through an underpass on Saint-Denis St. got to me. Because I’ve ridden a Bixi through that underpass (under Des Carrières St. and a railway line) many times going to and from work, and I’m aware of how dangerous it is.

We don’t know the details of the accident yet. Did she fall off and then get hit? Was there a collision? Did she veer into the truck or did it hit her from behind? It’s important to figure this out not so much to assign blame, but to determine what safety measures are at issue.

Flowers and other objects mark a memorial to a cyclist killed at a St-Denis underpass.

Flowers and other objects mark a memorial to a cyclist killed at a St-Denis underpass.

The death was controversial because right next to the accident scene was a sidewalk with bollards preventing cyclists from using the sidewalk. In this case, at least, had the cyclist used the sidewalk, she probably would have lived.

So in response, elected officials acted quickly, removing the bollards and announcing plans to allow cyclists to use the sidewalk through these underpasses. The mayor of the Rosemont borough announced that new signs were installed Friday morning allowing cyclists to share the sidewalk with pedestrians.

This applies not only at St-Denis, but at similar underpasses below that rail line where there is no bicycle path, underpasses that have been described as “tunnels de la mort”.

But is that really a better solution? To find out, I grabbed a tape measure and headed down to the underpass to measure the width of the sidewalks. (I ended up running into a guy doing the exact same thing while I was there.)

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Posted in Opinion, TV

Election night projections the networks got wrong

Rigueur, rigueur, rigueur.

Those words were uttered by TVA’s Pierre Bruneau on election night in 2007, after Radio-Canada had earlier incorrectly projected that Liberal leader Jean Charest had lost his seat in the election that swept the Action démocratique du Québec to official opposition status and ended the political career of André Boisclair. TVA held off on calling the race for that seat, and reaped the benefits.

The TV networks make big deals of their “decision desk” teams, the computers, political analysts and experts who wait until they’re absolutely sure that a race can be called before making a decision. That care is counteracted by the race to be the first to declare the result of the election.

But surely the chance of being embarrassed, as Radio-Canada’s Bernard Derome was in 2007, by calling even a single seat wrong would be enough to ensure that they always get it right.

Not so much.

On Monday night, all three local English TV stations with elections specials made more than one incorrect call. And, to their shame, I caught them on my PVR.

8:33: CBC calls Lévis for Liberals

CBC Lévis

Simon Turmel was one of a few Liberals to steal seats away from the CAQ in the Quebec City region. Or at least that’s what CBC seemed to think, announcing the gain with Turmel sitting in a seemingly comfortable lead of more than 1,100 votes.

But not quite. When the night was over, the CAQ’s Christian Dubé won the riding by 1,943 votes.

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Posted in Opinion

Strategic voters’ guide to the Quebec 2014 election

The Parti Québécois posted this video ad on Friday, featuring former voters of Québec solidaire and Option nationale who have decided to vote for the Parti Québécois this time. The message is simple and explicit: Don’t split the vote by voting for the other left-wing sovereignist parties.

The ad bugged me. Not because it’s a PQ ad, or because it’s trying to discourage people from voting for other parties. Or even because it’s a two-minute ad that has 27 seconds of another party’s campaign video.

No, it bugged me because if the PQ’s strategy is really anyone-but-Couillard don’t-split-the-vote, then it should have told 34 of its candidates to withdraw from the race and endorse another candidate.

Based off these riding-by-riding projections from Too Close To Call, which I use only because there isn’t any better way to project what the likely numbers are where, there are 29 ridings where the Coalition avenir Québec candidate is ahead of the PQ candidate, and another five where the Québec solidaire candidate is ahead of the PQ candidate. But in all these cases, the PQ candidate is still in the race (though perhaps keeping quiet). Only in one riding has the PQ decided not to run in order not to split the vote: La Pinière, where former Liberal Fatima Houda Pepin, who left the party over disagreements about the PQ charter of values, is running as an independent.

But whatever, it wouldn’t be the first time a desperate party threw up a bucket of hypocrisy at the end of a campaign.

So if the PQ wants people to vote strategically, how would you do it? Not just anyone-but-Liberals, but anyone-but-party-X?

Here, Québec solidaire is right, if exaggerated. It is actually complicated in any riding where more than two parties have a chance. And there are a lot of those. The TCTC projection shows seven ridings where three parties have a 10% or more chance of winning, and 20 ridings total where there’s a reasonable chance that any of three parties could win.

Based on that projection, I’ve created the chart below. It’s a chart with numbers to use to determine how to vote strategically. The first five columns give the riding-by-riding projections (the fifth is for independents, but the only one worth noting is Houda Pepin). There are no ridings where Option nationale, the Green party or others make any sense to vote for strategically, so I’ve excluded them.

The next four columns are the anybody-but-X columns telling you who to vote for based on who you have decided is the embodiment of pure evil. Generally, it means voting for the party most likely to win the seat, unless that’s your anybody-but party, in which case you vote for the next-most-likely candidate.

The final two columns assume your sole issue is sovereignty, and would either be fine with one of the two sovereignist parties, or fine with either the Liberals or CAQ. (If you don’t think the CAQ is federalist enough, then your only strategic choice is to vote for the Liberals.) Again, neither ON nor the Greens have enough support to be worth considering in any riding.

There are five cases where one of the four main parties isn’t running a candidate. Besides the aforementioned case where the PQ isn’t running a candidate in La Pinière, there were three CAQ candidates and one Québec solidaire candidate (all in Montreal-area Liberal strongholds) whose nomination papers were rejected. Those cases are marked N/C or “no candidate” since there’s no reason to vote against a candidate who doesn’t exist.

Feel free to complain that the polls are wrong, or the projections are wrong, because your gut feeling tells you otherwise. You can repeat the exercise with numbers from ThreeHundredEight.com or your back-alley pollster or party strategist of choice.

And if you think this whole strategic voting thing is nonsense, you could vote for a party that supports some form of proportional representation or alternative voting method. Unfortunately, none of that is in the PQ’s platform.

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Posted in Opinion, Sports

It’s time to get serious about women’s hockey

It was one of the great highlights of the Sochi Olympics: Down 2-0 with three and a half minutes remaining in the gold-medal game, Canada’s women’s hockey team mounts an improbable comeback, with a goal by Brianne Jenner and another with less than a minute left from Marie-Philip Poulin to send the game to overtime, where Poulin would strike again to make Canada the Olympic champion once again.

It was no Miracle On Ice. The Canada-U.S. final was given before the tournament even started, and Canada had won the gold in the three previous winter Olympics. But in terms of sheer excitement and the holy-crap-did-that-just-happen feeling, it was hard to beat.

Now, with the Olympics over, the male players return to their professional teams in the NHL, KHL or other leagues. The women, meanwhile, return to relative obscurity.

It’s unfortunate that while the NHL gets all the attention, the women’s hockey players that created such a spectacle at the Olympics get so little three years out of every four. The Canadiens sell out the Bell Centre for 41 games a year even though tickets cost $100 to $400 apiece, the concessions are wildly overpriced, the team is often mediocre and the players don’t speak French.

Meanwhile, at the Étienne Desmarteau arena, the Montreal Stars team of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League struggles to fill seats 12 games a year with $10 ticket prices, incredibly cheap food, players that are mostly from here and who always stay after games to give autographs to anyone who wants them.

And they’re also good. How good? Going into this weekend’s games, the Stars are riding a 20-game unbeaten streak in regulation. The only game they lost in 60 minutes was the season opener in Boston. Their record this season is a ridiculous 18-1-2, their record at home is a perfect 10-0-0, and they have more than twice as many goals for as goals against (91 vs. 40). All four of the top points leaders in the league play for this team.

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Posted in My articles, Opinion, Radio, TV

Why is CBC refusing ads from radio stations?

It sounded like the kind of story that even Sun News Network couldn’t make up: The CBC saying no to money from private industry for the sole reason that it wants to compete with it.

A complaint has been filed with the CRTC by Leclerc Communication, the company that bought Quebec City stations CKOI (CFEL-FM) and WKND (CJEC-FM) when Cogeco was told it couldn’t keep them after its purchase of Corus Quebec. The complaint alleges that the stations have been trying to book advertisements on Radio-Canada’s television station in Quebec City to promote the stations, and that Radio-Canada has issued a blanket refusal because it has a policy not to accept ads from competitors.

This would seem to go against a very clear CRTC policy that says that media companies can’t give themselves preference over their competitors in things like this.

Convinced there must have been a misunderstanding, I contacted the CBC and asked the public broadcaster about the allegation.

Radio-Canada actually confirmed it. CBC and Radio-Canada don’t accept ads from commercial radio stations because they compete with CBC services. And they don’t see anything wrong with that.

I explain the positions of Leclerc and Radio-Canada in this story at Cartt.ca. In short, Leclerc wants to advertise on RadCan because it finds that the demographics of RadCan viewers match the listeners it’s trying to target. And Radio-Canada refuses because its advertising policy prevents it from accepting ads for competitors.

The policy is CBC Programming Policy 1.3.11: Unacceptable advertising. It bans tobacco ads, ads for religious viewpoints, “any advertisement that could place the CBC/Radio-Canada at the centre of a controversy or public debate” and “advertisements for services considered competitive with CBC/Radio-Canada services.”

Now, we can argue whether two Quebec City music stations with personalities like Les Justiciers masqués are competitive with Première and Espace Musique. But even if they were, so what? These are television ads, first of all, not radio ads, and if Leclerc wants to spend money this way, why should the public broadcaster say no?

More importantly, can it even do so legally?

The television broadcasting regulations, which Radio-Canada and all other television broadcasters have to abide by, says a licensee may not “give an undue preference to any person, including itself, or subject any person to an undue disadvantage.”

A similar provision exists for TV distribution, which is why Videotron can’t give Quebecor-owned channels advantages over their competitors unless it can find a good reason to back it up.

But the CBC doesn’t quite see it that way. It argues that it’s not giving anyone an undue advantage, because it’s not accepting ads from anyone. Everyone’s being treated equally, so there’s no advantage.

Leclerc points out, though, that Radio-Canada’s radio services get plenty of advertisement on its television network. And giving free ads to its own radio stations and refusing ads from all competitors is pretty well exactly what this rule was meant to prevent.

Radio-Canada confirmed that the programming policy is set by the CBC board of directors, not by legislation or CRTC condition of licence. So logic would suggest that CRTC regulations take precedence over internal rules at the CBC.

The CBC rule becomes all the more absurd when you consider it in context. The CBC is facing a major cash crunch, seeing government funding tightened and now losing the rights to NHL games. CBC’s president is talking about “dark clouds on the horizon” because of lower revenue. So why say no to what is practically free money?

It would be one thing if this was a big corporate player wanting to buy airtime on the CBC to encourage people not to listen to Radio One or something. But this is a small independent broadcaster that just wants to expose his radio stations to Radio-Canada’s audience in Quebec City.

The CBC is going to have to come up with some real good justification for shutting the door to competitors. Bell or Shaw or Rogers would never be allowed to get away with something like this, and I don’t see why the CBC should be able to.

And if the CBC doesn’t come up with a good reason to refuse these ads, they should expect to be told to shut up and take Leclerc’s money.

Leclerc’s complaint letter can be read here. The full file is on the CRTC’s website in this .zip file. The CRTC is accepting comments on this complaint until March 6. You can submit comments here. Note that all information submitted, including contact information, becomes part of the public record.

(So far, only the Journal de Québec has covered this story aside from myself. We’ll see if others pick it up before the deadline.)

Posted in Media, Opinion

Anglos hate Quebec, says SSJB report condemning malicious generalizations of linguistic groups

Examples of francophobia on social media collected and published in a report by the SSJB.

Examples of “francophobia” on social media collected and published in a report by the SSJB.

I really don’t want to write this. I hate wading into language issues, because I know nobody’s mind is ever changed in those debates. And I hate giving attention to something so unworthy of it yet so desperate to get it.

But a manifesto published by a group assembled by the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste that condemns “francophobia” by, among other things, anglophone media in Canada, is way off the mark, and predictable sarcastic responses by people like Don Macpherson will do little to enlighten anyone.

The thing is, there is Quebec-bashing out there, and attention does need to be paid to it. But a factually-incorrect manifesto that has the focus and self-criticism of a blog post comment thread will just lead the other solitude to conclude that the problem does not exist.

So let’s delve into the document that purports to give an update on “recent” examples of francophobia (Mordecai Richler is mentioned three times even though he’s been dead for 12 years).

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Posted in Opinion, Public transit

The real problem with Philippe Schnobb and the STM board

STM board of directors: politicians and failed politicians

STM board of directors: politicians and failed politicians

When news came out that Denis Coderre planned to appoint Philippe Schnobb as chair of the STM, there was some controversy. Projet Montréal councillors objected to the fact that Schnobb, a former Radio-Canada journalist, has no experience in public transit and no experience managing a large corporation. The fact that this was a patronage appointment — Schnobb ran for Coderre, losing to Richard Bergeron — just made it worse.

But one thing that hasn’t gotten as much attention (though it was mentioned at the city council meeting) is the nature of Schnobb’s appointment as the transit users’ representative on the STM board.

The STM board has 10 members, of whom six are Montreal city councillors, one represents a demerged municipality within the STM’s territory, and three represent transit users (of them, one represents paratransit users and another, recently added, represents users under age 35).

But these three positions are not elected by the transit users. Instead, they’re appointed by the agglomeration council, with no requirement to consult transit users first. And that opens the door to political patronage.

In 2005, Brenda Paris ran for a city council seat for Gérald Tremblay’s Montreal Island Citizens’ Union party. She lost to Line Hamel of Vision Montreal. She had already been on the STM’s board as the transit users’ representative. She was kept in that position even though she was effectively a politician, eventually becoming the president of the party. In 2009, I said this was an inappropriate use of this post.

In 2009, Michel Labrecque ran for the Plateau borough mayor’s job for Tremblay’s Union Montreal with the understanding that he would continue to head the STM, a job he had for less than a year while a city councillor. He lost to Luc Ferrandez of Projet Montréal. But Tremblay kept him on anyway, making him the transit users’ representative in addition to chair of the STM board. (Paris also lost in this election, but by then she had switched parties.) Again, I wrote that this was inappropriate. I like Labrecque, and believe he actually did a good job as STM chair, but that doesn’t make it less wrong that he was taking a seat meant for someone else.

In 2013, Philippe Schnobb ran for a city council seat for Denis Coderre’s team. He lost to Richard Bergeron. But Coderre did what had been done for Brenda Paris and Michel Labrecque, using the transit users’ representative post as a loophole to get Schnobb on the STM board.

Schnobb’s appointment raises a lot of questions. Was he promised this job as a failsafe if he didn’t get elected? (Returning to journalism is hard after running in a political campaign.) What, other than loyalty to a party, convinced Coderre that Schnobb was a good choice? Is this yet another indication that Coderre has no interest in changing the way politics are run at Montreal city hall?

I don’t object to Schnobb sitting on the STM board. That board has had plenty of people with questionable qualifications and lacklustre interest in public transit. He might even do a great job. But if this position on the board is going to be filled only with failed politicians as patronage appointments, then let’s cut the bullshit and just call it the failed politicians’ representative.

The issue isn’t just a semantic one. As great as Labrecque was as a chairperson, and as patient and inviting as he was during question period at STM board meetings, or with individual users he ran into on the bus or metro, Labrecque never really comported himself as a spokesperson for transit users, or a link between them and the STM. He was the STM. He never made any formal effort to consult with the people he was supposed to be representing, outside of the same internal methods that all STM board members use. If that system was broken, there’s no way he’d ever know. His contact information was never published on the STM’s website — not even an email address. Actual transit users had no way to get in touch with him directly unless they went to a meeting or ran into him on the street.

I also believe that the nature of Labrecque’s appointment, and Paris’s before him, resulted in a lack of transparency on the STM board. In all the meetings I’ve attended, never once has anyone cast a vote opposing a motion. Never once as anyone debated a motion. Never once has a vote even been called. Everything is approved unanimously, without discussion. Everything, without exception, is rubber-stamped.

Take the last STM board meeting. After some announcements and a question period, the formal meeting begins. It lasts exactly five minutes and 45 seconds, the time it takes to read, occasionally explain, and approve 20 motions. That works out to about 17 seconds each.

This is typical of the STM board. And is a symptom of the groupthink that pervades the organization’s administration.

Another symptom is the STM’s formal transparency issues. The complete lack of discussion about motions proposed at board meetings is reflected in the list of motions that’s published sometimes only hours before a meeting, and which provide very little information. After a meeting once, I approached the secretary to ask for a document that was passed at the meeting, a change to a bus route. I was told that I had to file a formal access-to-information request. (At the time, those requests could only be filed by written letter or by fax.)

Let me repeat that: In order to find out what the STM board had just approved before me minutes before, I had to formally file an access to information request. Just to find out what the nature was of a bus route change, I had to write a letter and perhaps wait weeks for a response.

As far as I’m aware, this policy remains. None of the documents approved at the latest meeting are available on the STM website, nor are they available for reading if you go to the meetings in person.

And I can’t ask my transit users’ representative what he just voted to approve, because he’s also the chair of the STM, and politically tied to the government in power.

I honestly believe that if there was someone sitting on the STM’s board that was there to seriously represent transit users, these issues would have been resolved long ago.

Again, I think Labrecque did a good job as the STM’s chair, except on the issue of transparency. (And maybe their awful media relations, but that’s a bit of inside baseball.) And if the agglomeration of Montreal wants to replace one of those city councillor seats with an open seat they can fill with political losers, be my guest.

But giving the title “transit users’ representative” to someone who citizens didn’t even want sitting on city council, and then on top of that making that person the chair of the board despite a glaring lack of qualifications… It’s just wrong.

When Labrecque was appointed, I referred to it as a “giant ‘fuck you’ to users.” I was really tempted to use the same vulgar language here. Philippe Schnobb does not represent me any more than Marvin Rotrand or Richard Bergeron (either of whom by the way would have made much better choices for STM chair). And experience with Schnobb’s predecessors has shown me that he’s unlikely to make an effort to try to care about my interests.

It’s unfortunate that one of Coderre’s first acts as mayor has been to repeat a political manoeuvre of his predecessor, and to put the needs of his political team first, at the expense of the people he’s supposed to be serving.

UPDATE: The STM’s executive puts out a statement praising Labrecque and the accomplishments the corporation has made over his tenure.

Meanwhile, La Presse has an interview with Labrecque, and Radio-Canada talks to Schnobb, who says he’s willing to publish his personal email address to increase communication with transit users.

Posted in Montreal, Opinion

They’re all good and bad, but Montrealers have choices for mayor

It’s a day before Voting Day, and I still don’t know who to vote for.

I’ve watched the debates, I’ve seen the posters, I know the main talking points of each of the parties’ platforms, but nothing has come out and grabbed me yet. It’s not so much because I think all the choices are bad. It’s that I like each of the four main candidates for mayor, for different reasons, and I’m also keenly aware of their faults.

Denis Coderre

There’s Denis Coderre, the front-runner (though we haven’t seen a poll in two weeks, so who knows, really). He’s a veteran politician who has been criticized for being more about shaking hands than building policy, and for adopting so many former Union Montreal councillors that he’s seen as its de facto successor.

Those are valid concerns. But Coderre hasn’t given any reason to doubt his personal integrity (then again, neither did Gérald Tremblay). Coderre’s point about avoiding guilt by association is a valid one. He was in the Liberal party, but had no connection to the sponsorship scandal. And while he has many people from Union Montreal on his team, it’s because those people are well respected by their local constituents, and I suspect most of them will be re-elected.

I like Coderre. It’s hard to fake the kind of sincerity he has when he meets people. Yes, he’s a politician, but he doesn’t think that alone should condemn him.

On the flip side, there’s his ego. Even while he was just a Liberal MP, he seemed to have an addiction to the media. He’d rarely turn down an interview or media appearance, and it always seemed more about wanting to see his face on TV than wanting to put forth an idea. His party is literally just his name, as if “Denis Coderre” is the only thing it stands for.

I don’t know if his populist, “proche des gens” attitude is fake. I suspect he really believes it, either way.

But my big question is about loyalty. If he finds out about something embarrassing in his administration (whether it’s illegal or not), will he come right out and expose it, or will he do like almost any other politician, and weigh his options first?

In short, where does Coderre’s loyalty lie: In the city, or in his party and his political career? The party carries his name, so for better or for worse he’s married to it.

Marcel Côté

There’s Marcel Côté, the administrator whose poor on-stage presence and ties with Vision Montreal (and Louise Harel in particular) have left him in last place in the latest poll (though that poll is more than two weeks old).

Côté should be the ideal candidate. He’s not a politician. He’s an administrator. He’s not the leader of a party, he’s the leader of a coalition made up of Vision Montreal and some Union Montreal councillors like Marvin Rotrand and Bernard Blanchet and even some former Projet Montréal councillors like Carl Boileau and Piper Huggins. His party has united former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Louise Harel with former Liberal MNA Russell Copeman.

If Montrealers are interested in someone who cares more about getting things working again than being in the political spotlight, Côté will be our next mayor.

But here’s the secret that nobody wants to admit: Style is, in fact, more important than substance to voters. Côté has failed miserably to get his message across. And that’s why he’s doing so poorly, and why his party members are trying to campaign around him now.

And style is important. A mayor isn’t just an administrator. He’s not a guy who sits at a desk all day making decisions. A mayor is a leader, who has to rally the troops, whether it’s the city council, or municipal employees, or the population at large, to make things work. Someone who has to convince other levels of government to go along with ideas. If Côté can’t communicate with us effectively during an election campaign, how can we believe he’ll communicate with anyone well when he’s in office?

I’d love for Côté to be part of the next city administration, in a senior management position. But as mayor, I’m left with the impression that he’d be a lame duck before he even took the oath of office.

Richard Bergeron

There’s Richard Bergeron, the guy who’s perceived as — and let’s not sugar-coat this — the crazy 9/11-truther leader of the party that hates cars and is obsessed with wasting our money on a tramway.

If there’s any election that Projet Montréal should have a chance at actually winning, it’s this one. The alternatives are unappealing, and Bergeron is the only candidate for mayor with actual city council experience (with the advantage that he’s not tainted by the corruption scandal). It’s the only party that hasn’t had a candidate withdraw or be forced out due to a scandal. The party is currently running two boroughs, and despite complaints about reversing the flow of one-way streets or installing parking meters, they actually haven’t been doing that bad a job.

But Projet’s popularity has an upper limit. There are those in the city who are attached to their cars, want highways to be bigger, not smaller, and want downtown turned into a giant parking lot. These people are never going to vote for Projet. And there are those that are scared of what an organization based on ideology will do if handed the keys to the city.

Projet Montréal is the only party with a serious, detailed platform, while the other parties are criticized for having plans that are either obvious or vague. If actual promises were what mattered, the party would be coasting to victory.

But they’re not. Because specific promises don’t make for good politics. People can dislike specific promises. They can’t dislike general, vague ones like making government more transparent or saving money by ending corruption.

Take the tramway. Many people have oversimplified Projet’s platform as being obsessed with this project, that has been highly criticized. It’s more expensive and less flexible than buses, and it’s slower than the metro. My main problem with it, and with a similar project proposed by the Tremblay administration, is inflexibility. Both projects included a route going through Old Montreal, from Peel to Berri, along the route of the 715 bus. But when that bus was put into service (as the 515), it turned out to be way less popular than expected. The buses went around empty, and service was eventually reduced and the route changed. That’s much easier to do with a bus line than with a tramway.

On the flip side, no one can argue that service along roads like Côte des Neiges and Parc Ave. would be unpopular. And while everyone criticizes the tramway, nobody running for office seems to be terribly opposed to the much more expensive metro extension project whose usefulness is far from proven.

Projet could also point to its administration of the Plateau borough as reasons to vote it into office. After the 2009 election, it became clear that this borough would be a testing ground for the party’s ideas, and that people across the city would judge them based on their performance here.

The borough has changed. One-way streets have been reversed as a traffic-calming measure, annoying drivers and (law-abiding) cyclists alike. Areas have been greened, parks have been improved, more bike lanes have been painted, the budget has been brought under control, and the administration is more transparent than its neighbours. Some decisions have hardly been unanimous, but you can’t fault them for lack of creativity.

But Projet’s record in the Plateau isn’t all good. Businesses have complained that measures put forth by the administration have hurt them. Mayor Luc Ferrandez has been criticized as being stubborn, unwilling to consult with people before making a major decision that affects them.

The problem with a party based on ideology is that ideologies don’t change.

Ferrandez, of course, disagrees, as does his party. And I think his critics have exaggerated their positions. But perception is what gets to voters. And the perception is that Projet Montréal is on the radical left, when there are plenty of other alternatives that are more moderate left.

Voters might want to give Projet Montréal another mandate in the Plateau and/or other boroughs before trusting the party with the big chair at city hall.

Mélanie Joly

There’s Mélanie Joly. She’s new, she’s hip, she’s different. She has no experience in politics and she thinks that’s great.

Joly’s candidacy was dismissed at first as non-serious. She wasn’t invited to the first English debate (which preceded the first poll) because it was thought she wouldn’t have a chance. Then the polls showed her support rising rapidly, and everyone started to take notice.

Joly wouldn’t be the first candidate to jump into politics as a fresh face and go right to the top. She’s been compared to Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, whose political career also began with a mayoral campaign that relied a lot on social media, or Régis Labeaume, who became Quebec City mayor in 2007 on a wave of popularity.

But other than being pretty and new, what is Joly? Her platform is short on many details, though it includes some ideas like a bus rapid transit network, open data and amnesty for construction companies that clean up and pay back. Would she even know what to do in office when she gets there?

And there’s her team. (Can you name five of its members? Three? Even one?) When the Bibiane Bovet scandal became all she could talk about, she finally admitted that Bovet’s candidacy was last-minute and she didn’t have time to vet her properly about her bizarre economic views. This hardly inspires confidence, and points toward Joly being more of a politics-as-usual person than a hopey-changey candidate.

But as embarrassing as the Bovet situation was for Joly, this is hardly the first time a party with a sudden surge in popularity has been left with untested candidates. Regime change has been rife with examples, from the Progressive Conservatives in 1984 to the Reformers and Bloc in 1993 to Ruth Ellen Brosseau and the Quebec NDP MPs in 2011. (And Brosseau hasn’t been nearly the kind of embarrassment in office as some had suspected.)

The surge in popularity for Joly (I’ve heard too many anecdotal stories about surprisingly large support for her to believe it’s more than a coincidence) should be both a message that Montrealers want change from the politics of old, and a warning that image is more important than substance in local politics. Joly is basically a “none-of-the-above” candidate, and many would rather take a gamble on a blank slate that could be filled with anything than with parties whose plans are easy to understand.

Michel Brûlé and the independents

Michel Brûlé’s campaign has gotten some coverage, but he isn’t being treated seriously, and with good reason. His “100% français” program based on hatred of anglophones (he refuses to even give interviews in English) is a joke.

The remaining candidates are all independents, and we know nothing about them. That’s unfortunate. I would have liked to see more attention given to each of them, even if it was only a story or two in each media. Most are running on a platform focused on corruption, and while I don’t doubt their sincerity, I can’t imagine administrations so weak could ever take on organized or even disorganized white-collar crime.

Where does my X go?

Having written all that, I still don’t know where my vote for mayor is going to go. I may be making my final decision while standing at the ballot box, pencil in hand. But I know I’ll be voting.

And you should too. For all the criticism against these candidates for mayor, I wouldn’t pack up and leave if any of them won. I could live with an administration by any of them. (And with all the borough-level parties running, it’s unlikely any of them will have a majority on council anyway.)

The only thing that’s clear is that there are choices, and that nothing is predetermined. If you want a strong populist leader who will shake your hand and sit in back rooms with politicians in Quebec and Ottawa, vote for Coderre. If you want an administrator who’s going to shake up the civil service and run it like a business, vote for Côté. If you want a grand vision, a transportation revolution and a leader who isn’t afraid to make decisions that are unpopular that he believes are right, vote for Bergeron. If you want someone young who will use high-tech ideas to try to make Montreal cool, vote for Joly. And if you want to drive anglos into the St. Lawrence, vote for Brûlé.

But vote. I know it’s cliché, but this is your chance to make a difference, and you can’t complain if you sit at home and abdicate that chance.

Polls are open from 10am to 8pm Sunday.

Posted in Opinion, Radio

What happened to TTP Media?

From left: Paul Tietolman, Nicolas Tétrault and Rajiv Pancholy, partners in 7954689 Canada Inc., aka Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy Media

From left: Paul Tietolman, Nicolas Tétrault and Rajiv Pancholy, partners in 7954689 Canada Inc., aka Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy Media

Over the past few months, one of the questions I’ve been asked a lot is what is going on with the group known as TTP Media. The group, composed of businessmen Paul Tietolman, Nicolas Tétrault and Rajiv Pancholy, has licences for three AM radio stations in Montreal, none of which has launched yet. And none of them has said anything publicly for months.

Some of those inquiries have come from people looking for jobs at these new stations, which have promised to invest heavily in local programming and local news. Others have come from radio watchers excited about having something else to listen to. And some are from people who have a beef with CJAD and want to see competition as soon as possible.

Since May, I have been trying to get answers from all three of them. And it has been proving strangely difficult. Tietolman, who had previously been very talkative about the new station, without giving away any secrets, clammed up, asking me to speak with Pancholy, who is the managing partner.

Pancholy told me he didn’t have anything to say at the moment, but that I could expect an announcement in the next four to six weeks that would answer most of my questions.

That was May 23. Despite repeated phone calls, I haven’t spoken to Pancholy since. (That’s 20 weeks ago, in case you’re counting.)

Tétrault, for his part, has at least been getting back to me. “Our group is very much alive and hard at work,” he wrote me in an email on Aug. 20. “However, we do not want to announce anything till we are fully ready. I hope you understand. We will contact you when the time comes.”

On Oct. 3, in response to another request for information as the deadline to launch the first of those three stations approaches, Tétrault said “we do not like to talk about our plans” but that he’d make an exception to tell me this:

In the current business environment, it makes business sense to launch multiple radio stations as close to each other as possible. Consequently, we had requested that our implementation deadline be extended. The CRTC has recently responded favorably to our request.

We do not have any other comments at the moment.

Tietolman had told me something similar the last time I saw him in person, during the Bell/Astral CRTC merger hearings in May. The group wants to launch its English and French news-talk stations at the same time. (The three have gone back and forth on this plan a bit, first saying they would launch simultaneously, then saying they wouldn’t have to do that, and now saying they want to do that again.)

News of this extension will no doubt fuel more rumours out there about why this group has disappeared from the public radar.

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Posted in Montreal, Opinion, Public transit

Numbers — not politics — is why the metro should extend toward the east first

When the PQ government made a big-splash announcement that the blue line of Montreal’s metro would be extended toward the east, plenty of anglophones took the opportunity to once again complain that there’s no extension toward the west.

To them, the reason was simple: politics. The PQ is more interested in francophone voters in St-Léonard than anglophones in the West Island, they argue, and so the West Island will never get improved transit service as long as the PQ is in power.

The problem is that the logic doesn’t hold up.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of politics involved in high-cost consumer-oriented projects like this. And there’s plenty of politics involved in this particular announcement. But let’s set a few things straight before we come to incorrect conclusions:

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