Tag Archives: Quebecor

The new convergence utopia: Who owns what in Canadian media

A little under three years ago, I published a post with a chart of Canada’s media giants and what they own. Now that the CRTC has given a green light to a major acquisition by one of them, I thought it was a good time to revisit and update that chart.

The following represents who will own what once all the various deals go through, including related deals for asset acquisitions involving Corus, Shaw and Pattison Group.

UPDATE: I’ve moved the chart to this page, where I will be keeping it updated.

Quebecor’s new STM bus shelter: cool, slick, but is it useful?

Quebecor out-of-home VP Claude Foisy demonstrates the new interactive screen

Quebecor out-of-home VP Claude Foisy demonstrates the new interactive screen

When Claude Foisy walked up to the big ad screen and it changed, I have to admit I thought that was pretty cool.

It didn’t transform into a helicopter or anything, it just displayed a menu.

This is the new Abribus, introduced by Quebecor and the STM on Tuesday morning at a rather fancy press conference.

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“Say No To Bell”: The hypocritical campaign against Bell/Astral

After staying silent for months following the announcement in March, a small group of cable companies has started a very public campaign to get people to oppose the proposed purchase of Astral Media by BCE (Bell).

Full-page ads from Say No to Bell (Quebecor, Cogeco and Eastlink) appeared in major newspapers on Tuesday.

It’s called Say No To Bell (Dites non à Bell), and it launched Tuesday with a press conference in Ottawa with the CEOs of Quebecor (which owns Videotron), Eastlink and Cogeco. They gave the usual arguments against concentration of media ownership, saying Bell could abuse its dominant position to unfairly harm competitors, consumers and even advertisers. Specifically, it said:

  • “When too much power is concentrated in one company it often means higher prices and poorer choices for consumers”
  • “If Bell Canada controls all the most popular content, they could charge you whatever they want to watch it.”
  • “A Bell/Astral merger could lead to an organization so dominant that no other company could compete with it to buy sports broadcast rights”
  • “To get popular channels, you could face pressure to pay for other Bell Canada channels that you are not interested in watching.”
  • “This merger could mean escalating costs for commercial advertising on television and radio and forced buys on multiple Bell Canada advertising platforms for Canadian advertisers.”
  • “Bell Canada could use its power to pressure consumers to buy their services exclusively in order to get the content they love, and buy more services than they need.”
  • “If the deal goes through, it poses a serious threat to the future health of the broadcast industry in Canada. Jobs will be lost in the TV production and arts sectors. Young people hoping to build a career in these fields will see fewer opportunities as production is centralized.”
(They also point to a list of quotes from various media writing about the deal, including three from me.)

All that stuff sounds pretty scary. But it’s also a lot of “could” and very little “will”. And the statements seem to ignore that the CRTC has specific rules that are designed to prevent most of the things they worry about. Distributors are not allowed to show undue preference to affiliated channels, and they are required to carry channels owned by competitors (and include those channels in packages where their own channels are included). Specialty channels, meanwhile, are not allowed to charge excess fees, nor refuse to offer their channels individually.

That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate worries here. Media concentration wouldn’t be happening if it didn’t result in a significant advantage. Larger companies are more efficient (centralizing paperwork and technology, for example), and even though there can’t be any formal advantage given to affiliated services, it happens in practice. (Cogeco gave the example of Bell’s RDS2, which it said was withheld from it for months until an arbitrator imposed a deal.) There are also advantages to be had in areas the CRTC doesn’t regulate, like online video.

Chart of Canadian market share by the Say No To Bell campaign.

Hypocrites

But arguments against media concentration are a bit rich coming from Quebecor and Cogeco. (I’ll leave Eastlink out of this since I don’t know them very well and they’re not a vertically integrated company.)

Quebecor’s name is practically synonymous with convergence and media concentration. It owns the largest private television network in Quebec, the largest newspaper (in terms of circulation), the largest cable company and the largest magazine publisher. It has been scooping up independent weekly newspapers in Quebec as it fights a war with Transcontinental in that industry. And it has absolutely no qualms about using its convergence power across different media.

Though Quebecor seems concerned with how big a combined Bell/Astral would become, Quebecor’s French-language television market share would still be higher, at 29.6% to 26.8%. (Say No To Bell prefers to speak of revenues, which skews heavily in favour of Astral in both languages because Astral owns the expensive premium movie services The Movie Network and Super Écran.)

Cogeco, meanwhile, is ill-placed to talk about the negative effects of market share. It was just last year that it purchased Corus Quebec, combining two of the three major players in radio in this province. As if that wasn’t enough, it asked for – and received – an exemption from the CRTC to allow it to own three French-language FM radio stations in Montreal, in addition to an English FM station and a French AM station. Combined, Cogeco-owned stations have a 51.4% market share among francophone Montrealers according to ratings data from BBM Canada. Counting only commercial stations, that market share jumps to 65%. In Quebec City, Cogeco has a 40% commercial market share, nine points more than its strongest competitor.

And even then, it applied to the CRTC to launch two more AM radio stations in Montreal, both heavily subsidized by the Quebec government. (One application was withdrawn when it turned CKAC into an all-traffic station, the other was denied because of a lack of acceptable alternative frequencies.)

These are the people warning about concentration of media ownership.

Perhaps the biggest example of hypocrisy is when Quebecor and Cogeco were asked during the press conference whether they tried to buy Astral. Cogeco’s Audet refused to answer the question, saying it was irrelevant. I take that to mean they probably did try, but lost to the big pockets of Bell.

Bell/Astral rounding up support

It’s interesting that none of these three companies has yet submitted a formal intervention to the CRTC in this case (or if they have, those comments haven’t been published yet). But supporters of the deal have been flooding the commission with comments. Of the more than 450 comments about Bell’s purchase of Astral, most are from organizations that have dealings with one or both companies, and support the purchase either because of the tangible benefits package they would receive in it or just out of some apparent sense of corporate loyalty. (The number of them and their similarity suggests that Bell is pushing its business contacts to submit them, and it’s not clear what incentives they’re using.)

Among those to send their support are charities like the Saskatoon SPCA and Canadian Cancer Society, TV producers like Novem, Groupe Fair-Play and Zone 3, territorial legislators (because of the proposed upgrades to Northwestel) and major advertisers like Loblaws.

The CRTC accepted comments on this application until 8pm ET on Aug. 9, with hearings to take place in Montreal on Sept. 10. The Competition Bureau, which also has to approve the deal, issued a statement Tuesday saying it is “aware that a number of serious concerns have been expressed” and that “we are actively reviewing these concerns.”

Let’s hope both regulatory bodies can sort the truth from the BS being thrown at them from both sides.

Coverage

Other reactions

Bell responded to the campaign with a press release focusing on how the acquisition would increase, not decrease, competition in Quebec.

Even though the purchase was announced in March, and the CRTC application published a month ago, other groups are only now making their voices heard in the Bell/Astral acquisition debate. (Though this is also because many of them filed interventions at the last minute.) Among them:

Telus joins in

Even though it was days after the deadline for comments to the CRTC, Telus also issued a public statement encouraging a stop to the deal. Telus filed an intervention with the CRTC making a similar call.

Looks like it’s working

A poll by Forum Research shows 60% of Canadians oppose the Bell/Astral merger. Is that just a matter of their distaste for large corporate mergers, or evidence that the Say No To Bell campaign is working? Either way, I predict lots more full-page newspaper ads.

Quebecor’s media wars: It takes two to tango

It seems a week can’t go by without Quebecor or one of its journalistic outlets picking a fight with a competitor. Whether it’s an unwritten company rule to bias its news coverage in this fashion or simply an astonishing coincidence, I can’t say for certain. But either way the result is the same: lots of mudslinging in the direction of Quebecor’s enemies.

And, unfortunately, the response to a lot of this mudslinging is mudslinging in the other direction. Rather than see dispassionate analysis of important issues presented with balance, we’re bombarded with fact-massaging attacks from both sides and left to our own devices to try to pick out truth from truthiness.

Here’s a few examples of the battles it’s been waging recently:

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Quebecor doesn’t inform when it doesn’t feel like it

Last week I told you about Quebecor’s new webpage where the media and telecom giant responds to criticism and perceived misinformation via open letter (instead of, say, responding to journalists’ queries).

Though I have issues with Quebecor’s way of dealing with news about itself (particularly its apparently systematic refusal to speak to journalists from Gesca and Radio-Canada, and to a lesser extent all other media as well), I thought this was a good step forward, that maybe the company would start interacting more with people and present its side of disputes more often.

Then, a few days later came the news that Quebecor was laying off 400 people across the country. This is a cull on the level of triple-digit job cuts two to three years ago by the CBC, CTV, Canwest and Rogers. And it’s about three years since an even larger cut at Sun Media decimated its workforce.

It’s hard to think of a way Quebecor could spin this positively, but they could probably talk about how this will affect their business, where the cuts will be concentrated, and what will happen to the workers.

Instead, the official response from Quebecor spokesperson Serge Sasseville was “no comment”. The “Quebecor vous informe” website is silent on the issue.

Canadian Press finally got he union to confirm the job cuts, half of which is through voluntary buyouts and another 100 through other forms of attrition, leaving only 100 people laid off. It’s still a significant cut, but at least some will be leaving on their own terms.

Had Sasseville decided he did want to comment and answer journalists’ questions, we might get an answer to why a company that just started up a 24-hour all-news network that depends heavily on the work produced by Quebecor’s existing print journalists is now making significant cuts to them. We might know why a company that seems to have no trouble making money feels the need to make such significant cuts in its workforce. We might know why the previous cut of 600 jobs only three years ago wasn’t good enough to bring efficiency to its operations.

But instead, we’ll just have to guess what those answers are, and it’s entirely possible those guesses will be wrong.

24 Heures cuts photo department

It’s unclear if these cuts are part of the 400, but news came out earlier this month that Quebecor’s free Montreal daily 24 Heures had fired its three photographers, eliminating its photo department, as well as a number of copy editors.

Quebecor wouldn’t confirm the news initially, but news came via social media, resulting in a blog post by former 24 Heures photographer Rogerio Barbosa, who quit his job there because the paper refused to pay his expenses. He then went to the Journal de Montréal, where he was locked out along with 252 others in January 2009. The newspaper he left, meanwhile, hired three people to replace them, apparently at a higher pay.

Barbosa’s blog post got picked up by Le Devoir’s Stéphane Baillargeon, who put this into context: Three photographers hired to replace one months before a lockout at the Journal de Montréal. During the lockout, many photos originally taken for 24 Heures got republished in the Journal. And then months after the lockout ends, suddenly all three photographers are fired.

It makes for a pretty strong circumstantial case that the three photographers were hired for the sole purpose of replacing locked-out Journal de Montréal photographers.

Nowadays, much of the photography appearing in Quebecor papers is done by Agence QMI, wire services, provided publicity photos or writers taking photos for their own stories.

(Baillargeon’s piece resulted in a reply from Quebecor’s Serge Sasseville, pointing out that 24 Heures still has eight journalists, two “journalistes-pupitreurs”, two editors and a designer. Sasseville said six people lost their jobs – three photographers and three editors (of whom four were permanent employees and two freelance).

Quebecor starts PR counterattack

This post has also been published at OpenFile.ca.

Apparently frustrated by the misinformation being spread about Quebec’s largest media company by its competitors, Quebecor Media is starting to defend itself directly to the public.

It recently started making use of its Twitter account, and has setup a new website called Quebecor vous informe, where it posts letters by the company responding to competitors and critics (all of them, somewhat annoyingly, as PDFs).

As an example, there’s this letter, dated Tuesday, that responds to the recent episode of Radio-Canada’s Enquête that reported on the Quebecor empire (well, actually, it’s a letter in response to a lawyer’s letter to the Journal de Montréal’s editor-in-chief that criticized the report, but most of it deals with the Enquête episode itself).

The letter from Quebecor VP Marc Tremblay doesn’t challenge any of the facts presented in the Enquête report, but takes exception to the way they are presented, by either accusing it of bias against Quebecor or explaining how the company’s practices are perfectly justifiable.

It doesn’t, for example, challenge the part about how the Journal de Montréal altered the results of a ranking of the most influential cultural figures in Quebec, but calls it an “isolated incident” and presents lots of documentation on why Julie Snyder is actually very influential (mostly clippings from Gesca papers that also rank her high). It also criticized Enquête for relying so much on people critical of Quebecor and bringing no one in who supports the company’s positions.

Another example is this letter to Le Devoir criticizing a column by its media columnist Stéphane Baillargeon about the recent firings at 24 Heures. Le Devoir published it with a response from Baillargeon saying the writer, Serge Sasseville, refused to respond to his questions about 24 Heures when he wrote the piece.

This is the thing that annoys me most about this way of functioning: Quebecor systematically refuses interviews with journalists, particularly from Gesca or Radio-Canada, then complains that everyone’s biased against them because news articles only present the other side.

It’s like gagging yourself and then complaining that you never get a chance to speak.

That said, and though it might cause some Quebecor critics to pull their hair out, this is a step forward. Quebecor isn’t being silent about criticisms and is taking them head-on. Or at least trying to deflect them instead of ignoring them.

Quebecor needs to go on a charm offensive to get the public back on its side. Opening the lines of communication is a start. But toning down the arrogance that seeps through every sentence of those letters would be a giant next step in making Quebecor Media sound more human.

Then maybe I might start having hope that the conflict between Quebecor and Gesca/Radio-Canada might be resolved before the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is.

Enquête sur Quebecor: Good, but I expected more (UPDATED)

UPDATE (Nov. 10): More excerpts from documents cited by Enquête, and reaction in Quebecor media outlets added below, including one in English from Éric Duhaime.

“Il est aussi clair dans notre esprit qu’un groupe de presse rival peut poser un regard critique sur un autre,” Enquête host Alain Gravel writes in a blog post published hours before his show’s report on the Quebecor media empire (also viewable on tou.tv). “Ça se fait partout dans le monde. Sinon, qui pourrait le faire?”

It’s a good question. There are few journalistic enterprises here with the resources to pull it off. Maybe La Presse, but it suffers from the same problem as Radio-Canada of being a perceived enemy of Quebecor. An anglophone media outlet like the Globe and Mail or Toronto Star or Maclean’s might, but this story needed to be told in French.

Aside from La Presse and Radio-Canada, the only big media left in this province are all owned by Quebecor. And that’s kind of the point. A study by Influence Communication done for Enquête shows that these three media companies produce 83% of the journalism that Quebecers consume. Though Quebecor is the largest of these three groups, the problem of media concentration concerns all three.

Gravel pointed out right off the bat how delicate the report would be, because Quebecor owns TVA, which competes directly with Radio-Canada. It’s an important point to keep in mind, and certainly No. 1 on the list of issues Quebecor would bring up in response.

Fortunately for us, Enquête has pretty solid journalistic credentials, and isn’t about to say something unless it’s been verified.

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The CBC/Quebecor misinformation war

To understand the ongoing war between Quebecor and the CBC, you have to understand a bit how television works in Quebec.

In English Canada, the conventional television networks make money by buying popular American series, running them during prime time and selling commercials. It takes little effort, and brings in a lot of reward. The CBC, meanwhile, does its best to produce original series, but few of them have a chance competing against the big American shows, so CBC falls significantly behind in the ratings. (Actually, overall CBC is No. 2 in prime-time behind CTV, thanks to powerhouses like Hockey Night in Canada.)

In Quebec, things are different. Francophones here like to watch things in their own language, so American shows aren’t as popular as home-grown ones. (Generous government subsidies helps here too.) While the networks do bring in American shows, have them dubbed and aired during prime time, the big shows are original productions. So Radio-Canada television can be commercially competitive and very Canadian at the same time.

In Quebec, the two big players in television are Radio-Canada and Quebecor’s TVA network. Télé-Québec and V, the other conventional networks, fall in with specialty channels like RDS, Canal Vie, Canal D, etc. in a secondary tier.

So when TVA looks at the competition, it looks at Radio-Canada. And there’s this annoying little fact at the back of its mind when it takes that look: Radio-Canada has a competitive advantage given to it directly by the government.

Billion-dollar leg-up

Radio-Canada, along with the CBC, gets $1.1 billion annually from the Canadian government, as the public broadcaster. That money is spent on all sorts of things, but particularly radio and television programming. Because both CBC and Radio-Canada sell advertising for their television stations, the giant subsidy effectively covers the loss they incur by spending much more on production than they get in ad revenue.

Imagine being in any other business where your biggest competitor is handed a truckload of money from the government every week. Imagine that business then lowered its prices to below cost, and had the government cover that loss.

I’m not saying I agree with the organized campaign against CBC and Radio-Canada being put together by Quebecor’s media outlets. For one thing, I’m not crazy about a bunch of journalists working for one company engaging in a campaign against their employer’s competitor.

But I do understand the basics of the argument: The CBC is at an unfair competitive advantage compared to private television networks. It’s an argument that doesn’t really work in the rest of Canada because the CBC doesn’t really compete with CTV and Global. But it does work in Quebec, because Radio-Canada and TVA compete directly with each other.

The “CBC sucks” Network

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, Quebecor has been targetting the CBC. Journalists at Sun Media file tons of access to information requests against the public broadcaster – an average of more than one a day in 2007, so much that the CBC asked the government to step in because so many requests were coming from the same source. Columnists attack the CBC at the slightest whim, while staying silent on anything negative about Quebecor.

Sun News Network has been particularly vicious. “CBC Money Drain” appears in the generic opening of one of its prime-time shows, and segments about media criticism focus mostly on the CBC, which it refers to as the “state broadcaster”, despite how ridiculous that comparison is. Sun News has repeatedly called for privatization or shutdown of the CBC and Radio-Canada.

The public broadcaster has so far reacted in kind of a mixed way. It defends itself, but politely. It calmly explains its role as a public broadcaster to those who ask. It responds to a flood of access-to-information requests from Quebecor media outlets by posting all the documents online. It sends letters to the editor correcting bad facts and incorrect assumptions.

In recent months, there has been a bit more directed directly at Quebecor. Sarcasm, for one. Or taking its case to third parties, like this letter sent to The Gazette, which the CBC accused of falling for Quebecor’s misinformation. (UPDATE: Quebecor’s Serge Sasseville emails me to point out his response to that letter, also published in The Gazette)

The gloves come off

It’s only this week that the CBC has, in the words of some of its defenders, taken the gloves off and fought back hard against the Quebecor machine. It released a statement on Wednesday attacking their anti-CBC talking points. That got attention from such news outlets as the Globe and Mail, and lots of play on social media.

It also prompted an angry response hours later from Quebecor, taking on the anti-talking-points point by point. (UPDATE Oct. 21: A second press release from Quebecor, threatening legal action if the CBC page isn’t taken down)

This was a day before Quebecor boss Pierre Karl Péladeau appeared before a committee looking into the CBC’s refusal to disclose information requested by Quebecor journalists. There, Péladeau denies waging a war against the CBC, but says it has to be accountable. (See coverage from Globe and Mail, Canadian Press, Ottawa Citizen)

So who’s right?

While many people who instinctually love the CBC and hate Quebecor cheer at the Mother Corp fighting back, I find myself a bit disappointed. It feels like the CBC is sinking down to Quebecor’s level, and many of the facts they put out have the same problems when it comes to lack of context or oversimplification.

Let’s take a look at the arguments from each side individually:

Quebecor Media is waging a coordinated war against the CBC: Péladeau denies this. But he does so in sort of a self-contradictory way. Péladeau claims that his journalists work independently, without anyone telling them what to do. But then he says his journalists have never sought journalistic sources. How does he know this? How can he pretend to speak for his media empire if he says his journalists act independently?

It’s obvious that Quebecor’s outlets, particularly Sun News, Sun papers and the Journals, have a beef with the CBC. Whether that’s because of corporate edict or just because those outlets hire like-minded people as journalists is up to the public to decide.

Quebecor’s access-to-information requests seek journalistic sources: I’ve yet to see a proper accounting of exactly what requests Quebecor have filed that have been denied, so I can’t answer this question. I suspect it’s more subtle than this, and the problem comes down to a matter of interpretation. The CBC can deny requests for information about its “programming activities”, for example, but how far does that go? Is Rick Mercer’s expense account fair game? Don Cherry’s employment contract? The CBC’s deal with the NHL? Quebecor denies it is asking for the identities of the CBC’s Deep Throats, but compares its requests to asking for lunch receipts of senior executives, information which is already posted online.

The CBC is using taxpayer money to hire lawyers to fight transparency: Well, yes. Specifically, they’re fighting the access-to-information commissioner, arguing that only a judge should be able to determine what information should be released. I don’t agree with this, but the argument that the CBC shouldn’t use lawyers because they’re taxpayer-funded is ridiculous. The alternative would be to cave in to every demand, no matter how damaging.

CRTC chair Konrad von Finkenstein has called for the access-to-information law to be clarified. The CBC also says it is trying to clarify the rules, rather than admit they’re fighting them.

“Quebecor has received more than half a billion dollars in direct and indirect subsidies and benefits from Canadian taxpayers over the past three years, yet it is not accountable to them.” The CBC links this statement to a presentation (PDF) that breaks down that figure. By the CBC’s own numbers, more than half of that “half a billion dollars” is their calculation of how much Quebecor “saved” in the last spectrum auction because it bid on frequencies that were set aside to new entrants into the wireless market. The figure is based on the assumption that if Bell, Telus and Rogers were not prevented form bidding for those frequencies, that they would have gone for as much as the frequencies not set aside for new entrants were sold for. That’s a big assumption. And even if we accept that, calling this a “subsidy”, even an “indirect” one, is a big stretch.

The rest of those subsidies are things like the Canada Media Fund, the Local Programming Improvement Fund, and government tax credits for TV production. All of these are things that CBC programming is also eligible for, and is above the $1.1 billion annual subsidy from the Canadian government.

Plus, the CMF and LPIF are funded primarily by cable and satellite companies like Videotron, not by the federal government. Quebecor points out that Videotron pays slightly more into the media fund than TVA takes out of it, which means Quebecor is subsidizing the CMF, not the other way around.

I get the point that Quebecor receives public money too, but the CBC’s figures are exaggerated.

Quebecor complained to the prime minister that CBC wasn’t taking out ads in its newspapers. Quebecor said it was “false” to say they’ve complained about the lack of advertising, then proceeded to complain about the lack of advertising. Péladeau testifed on Thursday that in fact a letter was sent to the prime minister complaining about the lack of newspaper ads. (UPDATE Oct. 21: A similar strange reasoning appears in the legal letter Quebecor sent CBC: Saying the statement is false and then repeating it in different words. Maybe there’s a difference I don’t understand?)

The truth is that both Quebecor and the CBC are engaged in a boycott of each other. There are no ads for the Journal de Montréal on Radio-Canada either. It’s not absolute, but there’s a big difference in advertising buys when you compare TVA to Radio-Canada, or La Presse to the Journal de Montréal.

Quebecor Media is also owned by the government. This logic is based on the fact that the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the government’s investment arm, has a 45% stake in Quebecor Media, dating back to when Quebecor bought Videotron. This is a big stake, but still a minority one, with Quebecor Inc. having the rest. The big distinction here is that the Caisse is an investment organization that puts money in companies expecting a healthy return. The government isn’t funding Quebecor Media as much as Quebecor Media is funding the government through its profits.

The Quebecor war machine

It’s funny how all the big public media wars in Canada involve Quebecor. It’s at war with the CBC over access to information. It’s at war with Bell over specialty channel carriage (even though Bell has gotten a major competitor to vouch for its fairness). It’s at war with La Presse over the secret deal it imagines Gesca has with the CBC. It’s at war with Transcontinental over community newspapers.

If I was paranoid, I’d think Quebecor just likes picking fights.

Specialty channel war is screwing customers

UPDATE (Nov. 23): We have a truce! RDS2 has come to Videotron, while TVA’s channels including TVA Sports and Sun News are coming to Bell TV.

This fall, two new all-sports networks are being launched. One, RDS2, is owned by Bell Media. The other, TVA Sports, is owned by Quebecor’s Groupe TVA.

Personally, I think this is good news. Competition for viewers will do good things, like bring Montreal Impact games to the TV screen. And the CRTC has determined that sports channels – currently the most profitable format – are healthy enough that they shouldn’t be restricted from competition. (Not healthy enough for Radio-Canada and Rogers to jump in the fray, but still healthy).

But you can’t get TVA Sports if you’re a subscriber to Bell TV. And it’s not clear if you’ll be able to get RDS2 if you subscribe to Videotron (it has deals with only Bell and Shaw so far). That may change (RDS2 is most likely doomed to failure if it can’t get Videotron carriage), but even if it’s just a delay, this is yet another example of two companies whose affiliated television distribution services are giving undue preference to their affiliated specialty channels.

Another example in the sports sphere is TSN Habs, a part-time regional offshoot of the TSN channel that has regional English-language broadcast rights to some Canadiens games. It’s available on Bell TV, but not on Videotron, despite Videotron’s huge subscriber base in Quebec, where I understand the Canadiens are popular – even among anglophones.

Sports isn’t the only type of channel where this problem exists. In the past few years, broadcasters have applied for and received dozens of licenses for unregulated specialty channels – the so-called “Category 2” channels that aren’t protected from competition and have low requirements for Canadian and original content. In exchange for some liberties in programming, the channels have no guaranteed carriage, so cable and satellite companies can choose whether or not to include them in their lineups, and the broadcasters can choose to charge whatever they would like.

Quebecor has been particularly active in this field, launching a bunch of new channels (including TVA Sports), many of them in high definition. In all cases, those channels are immediately carried on Quebecor-owned Videotron’s cable system, but few of them are on Bell TV.

To give you an idea of what’s going on here, I’ve compiled a table below of specialty channels owned by the big cable and satellite companies (Cogeco is included for reference, but doesn’t own any specialty channels). I’ve limited the list to those channels that are either Category 2 (unregulated, with no guaranteed carriage) or that have high-definition feeds available.

I’ve marked in bold where a service is offered by the affiliated distributor that is not offered by at least two of its competitors, suggesting undue preference. I’ve marked in red where the opposite is true, where a service is not offered by the affiliated company but is offered by at least one competitor.

Channel Owner Bell TV Videotron Shaw Direct Cogeco Rogers Cable
Discovery Bell Media (64%) SD/HD SD* SD SD SD*
Space Bell Media SD/HD SD SD SD SD
MuchMusic Bell Media SD/HD SD SD SD SD/HD
MuchMoreRetro Bell Media X SD X SD(O) SD
MuchLOUD Bell Media X SD X SD(O) SD
Much Vibe Bell Media SD SD X SD(O) SD
PunchMuch Bell Media SD SD X SD(O) SD
Comedy Gold Bell Media SD SD X SD(O) SD
Investigation Discovery Bell Media SD SD X SD(O) SD
Discovery World Bell Media (64%) HD HD HD HD HD
ESPN Classic Bell Media (80%) SD SD SD SD SD
NHL Network Bell Media (17%) SD SD SD SD SD
TSN2 Bell Media (80%) SD/HD SD/HD SD/HD SD/HD SD/HD
TSN Habs Bell Media (80%) SD/HD X SD/HD X X
LCN Groupe TVA SD SD/HD SD SD/HD(Q) SD
CASA Groupe TVA SD SD SD SD(Q) SD
Prise 2 Groupe TVA SD SD SD SD(Q) SD
Mlle Groupe TVA Dec. 15 SD/HD SD SD/HD(Q) X
TVA Sports Groupe TVA Dec. 15 SD/HD SD/HD X X
Sun News Groupe TVA Dec. 15** SD/HD SD SD/HD(O)** SD**
Yoopa Groupe TVA Dec. 15 SD/HD SD SD/HD(Q) X
Showcase Shaw Media SD/HD SD SD/HD SD/HD(O) SD/HD
Showcase Diva Shaw Media SD SD SD SD SD
Action Shaw Media SD SD SD SD SD
BBC Canada Shaw Media (80%) SD SD SD SD SD
DejaView Shaw Media SD SD SD SD SD
DIY Network Shaw Media (80%) SD SD SD SD(O) SD
Dusk Shaw Media SD SD SD SD SD
Fox Sports World Canada Shaw Media (58%) X SD SD SD SD
Global Reality Shaw Media X X X X SD
Food Network Shaw Media SD/HD SD SD SD SD
History Television Shaw Media SD/HD SD SD/HD SD/HD(O) SD/HD
HGTV Canada Shaw Media SD/HD SD SD/HD SD SD
Movietime Shaw Media SD SD SD SD/HD(O) SD/HD
Rogers Sportsnet One Rogers SD/HD X SD/HD SD(O)/HD(O) SD/HD
Sportsnet Sens/Flames/
Oilers/Vancouver Hockey
Rogers SD/HD X X SD(O) SD/HD
OLN Rogers SD SD SD SD SD/HD
Setanta Sports Rogers SD/HD SD SD/HD SD(O) SD/HD

(Q)/(O): Denotes channels that Cogeco carries in Quebec or Ontario only.

*Discovery World HD, a separately licensed channel, is available on Videotron.

**The situation with Sun News is complicated by the fact that a conventional TV station was broadcasting its content. Rogers, Cogeco and Bell carried the conventional signal, but Sun News asked Bell to pull the channel or start paying for it.

You can see in the chart 12 instances among the 37 channels where there is evidence of undue preference. This does not necessarily prove such a thing – there could be all sorts of reasons to choose whether or not to carry a channel – but it’s annoying nonetheless for customers who want a certain channel and can’t get it for no apparent reason other than it’s owned by the wrong cable company.

You’ll also see four (UPDATE: five) instances where a service isn’t offered by the affiliated company. It’s worth noting that all of those services predate their ownership by the affiliated cable/satellite company.

The CRTC actually has a rule against this sort of thing. It’s called “undue preference”, and it is supposed to prevent just this sort of thing. The problem is that it’s hard to prove. Negotiations between broadcasters and distributors are secret, and we don’t know how much each distributor is paying for each channel.

Still, this may come to a head soon. Sun News has filed a complaint with the CRTC alleging undue preference on the part of Bell when it pulled the station’s signal and refused to pay for it.

Hopefully the CRTC will take a close look at this issue and do something about it before the flood of new channels makes the problem – and viewers’ frustrations – even worse.

Quebecor begins hypocritical outrage campaign

UPDATE (Sept. 20): QMI Agency has published a joke of a news article by Raphaël Gendron-Martin. It quotes only TVA’s Pierre Dion bashing Bell and Cogeco for not carrying TVA Sports, and makes no apparent attempt to contact Cogeco or Bell for comment. The hit piece appears in the Journal de Montréal (on the front page), 24 Heures, TVA Nouvelles and Argent (twice). Dion also appeared on LCN and TVA’s Salut Bonjour, where again no apparent attempt was made to contact Cogeco or Bell for comment, no mention was made of RDS2 or TSN’s Habs channel not being on Videotron, and Dion went unchallenged on anything he said. (In the case of Salut Bonjour, it’s clear host Gino Chouinard is being fed his questions and even refers to Dion as “boss” at the end.)

Despite what I am unfortunately forced to conclude (to use Dion’s logic) was an organized misinformation campaign from Quebecor that abused its media power, Cogeco did respond by way of an open letter (PDF) that was also published on Facebook. Cogeco said it was interested in carrying TVA Sports and even made an offer that TVA refused.

No (public) word yet from Bell.

I sent an email to Gendron-Martin asking him about his article. He responded by pointing to full-page piece in Tuesday’s paper by Danny Joncas, which quotes representatives of Bell and Cogeco. Gendron-Martin did not respond to questions about why he didn’t contact Bell or Cogeco before writing his piece, nor why he didn’t mention Videotron not carrying RDS2, nor whether he was ordered by his employer to write this article in this way.

Joncas’s reaction piece was not posted online, either by the Journal or by any other QMI website. The original article from Gendron-Martin still appears on those websites unaltered, with no indication that there has since been a response.

Joncas’s piece quotes both Bell and Cogeco saying these negotiations should be conducted privately instead of in the media, and that both are negotiating with TVA. It also says TVA rejected Cogeco’s offer because it wanted better placement in Cogeco’s specialty channel packages.

UPDATE (Sept. 23): The CRTC has released new rules concerning this issue (press release, decision, Globe and Mail story). It offers some specific rules (no mobile/Internet exclusivity deals for TV programs), but also includes a lot of rules barring things that are “unreasonable” or “excessive”, which leaves a lot of room for disagreement over what qualifies as unreasonable.

It also pushes off a lot of decisions until later, including whether cable and satellite companies should be required to offer à la carte subscriptions (though they seem to be moving in that direction).

Whether those new rules will change how these big telecom companies deal with each other is to be seen.

Be careful who you make fun of

QMI Agency reporter Julien McEvoy must have thought he had a pretty good scoop when he spotted an ad in a community paper from one of the new NDP MPs that contained some grammatical errors.

The ad was by Matthew Dubé, the former president of the McGill NDP club who had to quit because he got elected as an MP on May 2 in the riding of Chambly-Borduas (that’s the riding Jean-François Mercier ran in as an independent).

Politicians are always putting ads in community newspapers wishing them well during all sorts of holidays. But this one contained some errors. Specifically, two verbs were improperly conjugated, and the ad referred to the riding of Quebec (as in Quebec City), even though his constituency is just east of Montreal.

The Journal de Montréal printed the article on Page 2 on Wednesday (PDF), complete with a reproduction of the ad that circled its errors. At the end, it asks readers to weigh in on whether these kinds of mistakes will affect Jack Layton’s credibility.

McEvoy apparently made no effort to contact Dubé or the NDP for comment. They quickly responded after the story was published, saying it was the newspaper that was responsible. The NDP had not approved the final text of the ad, he says.

The party acted quickly, and got l’Oeil Régional to publish an apology on its website. The Journal and Canoë also published a follow-up piece.

But McEvoy didn’t back down. Despite the paper’s apology, he insists the error was still the NDP’s, that it was the party – not the paper – that drafted the erroneous text in the first place. He has also posted images of another NDP MP’s similar mistakes, and another ad that uses the logo for the NDP (in English, instead of NPD in French).

Perhaps this is why the original articles online have not been corrected or updated. Neither has this article, which erroneously refers to it as a card sent through the mail.

I shouldn’t need to explain why erroneous articles online need to be corrected. The mistake gets passed around a lot more than the correction. And people aren’t going to search the website of every article they read to see if a corrected article was published the next day.

Other articles posted online that used the QMI piece (without attribution or links) also sit uncorrected, including this blog post and this piece on CJAD’s website.

Whether you believe the paper or the NDP is ultimately at fault here (I’m more inclined to believe the latter, though I also think newspapers should proofread all their ads), there are some unfortunate implications of this story. It’s clear that the Journal and Quebecor have an agenda here and are pushing it. They feel the NDP MPs are incompetent and want to expose their troubles with the French language. This story is being fuelled as much by the usual sensationalist bias of the media (and particularly the Journal) as it is by Quebecor’s growing right-wing bias that puts the NDP in its sights.

There’s the fact that McEvoy appears to have made no attempt to contact a politician before publishing a piece designed to smear him. Whether or not such a smear is justified, basic journalistic ethics require at least an attempt to seek comment before publishing it. Had McEvoy done so, he would have learned of the NDP’s response and there would have been little need for a follow-up piece.

And then there’s the simple fact that L’Oeil Régional is now owned by Quebecor. Which brings up the question: Why were Quebecor newspaper employees not able to spot basic grammatical errors in an ad before it was published?

I’d ask these questions to McEvoy, but apparently the new rules of journalism say I don’t have to.

Is Quebecor evil?

CORRECTION: This post originally stated that only one case of a scab working for the Journal had been proven. There are actually two that have gotten rulings from the labour board. Thanks to J.F. Codère for pointing it out in a comment.

N.B.: Une version française de ce billet a été publié dans Trente, le journal du Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec.

I’ve always liked to think of myself as open-minded. It’s a good quality for a journalist, and one that I don’t think enough of them have.

For most of this blog’s existence, there has been a major labour conflict at a Quebecor-owned newspaper – the Journal de Québec in 2007 and 2008, and the Journal de Montréal in 2009 and 2010. In between there have been all sorts of depressing news for journalists in general as the media industry seems to be in a state of slow collapse.

Like many of my journalist colleagues, my first reaction to Quebecor’s lockout of its two largest newspapers was to take the side of the workers. Whether or not I agreed with what they wrote when they were employed by Quebecor, they are mere pawns in the media game being played by the great Quebecor Empire. They are the Luke Skywalkers to Pierre Karl Péladeau’s Darth Vader.

But in my admittedly limited experience as a journalist, I’ve learned that situations aren’t nearly as black and white as they may seem to be. Society’s villains aren’t all Hitler-like caricatures of pure cartoonish evil, motivated solely by greed and hatred of puppies. And its heroes aren’t all pure good.

So while some may throw it out as a given, I sit here and ask myself a question that requires a lot of thought before I can answer:

Is Quebecor evil?

Continue reading

Some truth about Sun TV News

Sun TV News, the new specialty channel being proposed by Quebecor, is in the news again because their second attempt at CRTC approval has been released to the public.

After the previous application for a Category 1 specialty channel was outright rejected by the CRTC, Quebecor has decided to put forward an application for a Category 2 channel, just like almost every new specialty channel in the past few years.

Both categories are digital channels, meaning they won’t be on analog cable and aren’t part of the basic package. The difference is that Category 1 channels must have a minimum of 50% Canadian content, and in return all digital cable and satellite providers must make the channel available on a discretionary basis. For Category 2 channels, the dealings with television providers are mostly unregulated. They negotiate carriage fees with each other, and the providers can choose whether or not to make the channel available.

But while the Sun TV News application is technically a Category 2 channel, Quebecor is asking for an exception that grants it the biggest advantage of Category 1: mandatory availability, at least for the first three years.

In both the previous and current applications, media coverage and left-wing reaction has confused the nature of what Quebecor is asking for. That’s partially understandable. CRTC’s regulations can be overly complicated sometimes, particularly when it comes to what channels providers have to carry.

This Canadian Press article, for example, states three times that the new channel would be “funded with money from cable TV fees”, even though that’s not what the application is requesting. The statements are attributed to activists, but aren’t challenged in the article, leaving readers to assume they are true. This report uses the term “must-carry”, which has a special meaning at the CRTC that doesn’t apply in this case. Quebecor isn’t asking for must-carry status. This Globe and Mail story also uses the term “must carry”, as does this National Post report.

“Must carry” vs. “must offer”

In an effort to reduce the confusion, let me explain a bit how this works.

There is a list of channels that all cable and satellite providers must provide as part of their basic packages. In addition to the local television channels, this also includes things like CPAC and APTN. Other channels like CBC News Network and the Weather Network are also included in basic packages. Fees, set by the CRTC, are charged to all subscribers to pay for these channels.

Beyond that, there are levels of discretionary tiers that have different statuses at the CRTC. Some are allowed on analog cable on a discretionary basis or can be part of the basic package. Some, like Category 1 channels, are offered only on a digital basis unless an exception is warranted.

Category 2 channels are the least regulated type, and the one preferred by both the CRTC and new channel applicants because of how easy it is and how low the minimum requirements are.

Though it might seem like your cable or satellite company has every channel in existence, it doesn’t. Bell TV, for example, doesn’t carry MuchMoreRetro. Videotron doesn’t carry Fox News Channel (somewhat ironically, if you think Quebecor is an evil right-wing empire). Shaw Direct doesn’t carry Court TV (now Investigation Discovery) or TFO. There is no regulation requiring these companies to make these channels available. They decide what their users might be interested in, based on what the channels offer and what they want to charge the TV provider. The channels, meanwhile, ask people to “call your cable or satellite provider” to pressure them into adding the channel to their lineup.

What Quebecor wants with Sun TV News is to bypass this process, and require that all digital TV providers have the channel in their lineups. The wholesale price would still be negotiated between the provider and the network, and the provider could package the channel and charge for it however it feels.

Kory Teneycke, the former Harper aide who is behind this application, calls it “must offer” to distinguish it from “must carry”. I’ll use that expression for lack of a better one.

In short, Quebecor is asking that this channel be available on all digital cable and satellite providers, but the choice to take it would be entirely up to the consumer. Nobody would be forced to pay for the channel if they didn’t want it.

The package exception

One scenario that might see people paying for Sun TV News without wanting to would be if they got it as part of a package. It would make sense for a news channel theme pack to include Sun TV News with CTV News Channel, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel, BNN, CNBC, Al Jazeera English and BBC World News. Someone might select that wanting all the news channels but having moral objections to Sun TV (and, presumably, Fox News).

But this packaging is entirely up to the TV provider. It’s not regulated by the CRTC and isn’t negotiated with the channels.

The CRTC only regulates packaging to ensure that porn channels and single-view religious channels aren’t forced on consumers as part of packages. Theoretically, the CRTC could require the same thing for Sun TV News that it requires for Playboy TV, but that seems a bit excessive.

Of course, if cable and satellite providers did away with such packages, or offered people à la carte options, this wouldn’t be an issue. But so far, only one major TV provider offers that kind of à la carte service: Quebecor-owned Videotron.

Ignorance breeds fear

What gets me most about the reaction to this application is how much people are willing to oppose it without knowing what it is. There has been no proposed program grid, not even any confirmed hosts. All we know about Sun TV News is that it wants to be a mix of news and opinion, that its creators consider the other news channels “boring”, and that those creators are Conservatives who want to create a channel based partially on Fox News.

A group of activists has already started a petition that has 68,000 signatures on it (we’re not sure how many of those are real people). It repeats the non-truth about forcing people to pay for the channel, and throws in some drama that makes it seem as if Stephen Harper is trying to force his ideological agenda into our brains through the CRTC.

Sun Media had a field day with this, saying that the petition is based out of New York and that author Margaret Atwood and her cronies are trying to suppress free speech. Even Teneycke himself weighed in.

Fox News Cheap

It’s hard to judge something like this until you’ve seen it. Sun TV News could become a quality all-news network that bring much-needed competition to the industry. It could become a Fox News North, as critics have called it, providing news coverage to make people think it’s objective, but loading primetime hours with fearmongering blowhards who care more about expressing their opinions than seeking the truth.

The arguments from Quebecor that this isn’t Fox News North are contradicted by statements in the CRTC appliction, particularly this one:

The most comparable channel to STN is located in the USA, Fox News. Both channels’ strategy is to focus hard news and commentary that raise public debates and reactions on different topics. Fox News has been USA’s most watched All News channel for years and still is. In 2008-2009, Fox News’s audience was as high as CNN’s and MSNBC’s combined. Fox News does not have extensive distribution in Canada. Therefore, this represents a true opportunity for STN.

But while their goal is to replicate Fox News, I think the more likely scenario is that Sun TV News will be an experiment in cheap newsgathering that will quickly become a laughing stock because of its horribly small budget. According to the CRTC application, the channel plans to have a budget of about $25 million, of which $15 million would go to programming and technical costs. Though it’s hard to directly compare this to CBC and CTV, since they take advantage of their local stations and national newscasts (I’m trying hard not to use the word “synergies” here), it’s still very little money. We’re looking at a staff of maybe 100 people, including journalists, anchors, producers and technicians, advertising salespeople, marketers, etc. Anyone who thinks he can run a national news network on that kind of budget is probably kidding himself.

The feared scenario, that they’ll spend little money on news budget and focus all their efforts on opinion, makes more sense considering how little they have to spend. But even then, the big-name blowhards come at a high price, and a $25 million total budget isn’t enough to get a Canadian Glenn Beck on the air if you want anything more than a webcam and laptop in front of him.

How Sun TV News describes itself

Though it’s obviously self-serving, we really can’t judge Sun TV News based on anything other than the statements of the people behind it.

Here, verbatim from the CRTC application, is how Sun TV News describes its “hard news” and “straight talk”:

“Hard News” will almost exclusively rely on live reporting and real-time conversations with journalists covering breaking news – as opposed to the more traditional news wheel format that features a revolving set of news stories. But these headlines will be analysed, commented upon and discussed at length. The host will question the reporter and will have an intelligent exchange that will often open to further debate.

News will not be read like in a news bulletin. Daytime “hard news” will be covering a broad range of political, economic and lifestyle stories that matter to Canadians both rural and urban. So even its “hard news” portion will not be “all news” like it has traditionally been done in Canada. Short traditional news bulletin may be programmed but not more than once an hour.

“Straight Talk” will be programs featuring hosts and guests that deliver strong opinions and analysis of stories that are important to Canadians that day. “Straight talk” opinion journalism at night will be clear, intelligent and engaging – featuring a broader array of television personalities and signature hosts who will challenge viewers to think – and decide – for themselves. The challenging of ideas in itself may feed the news but at least will attempt to have Canadians make their own mind on the events occurring every day in Canada.

That could easily describe either Fox News Channel or MSNBC. Or a bunch of other networks. But it gives a bit of an idea what they’re going for.

What the CRTC should do

The CRTC doesn’t have the luxury of watching this network and judging whether it’s good for Canadian TV watchers. It has to go on the application itself.

Based on that application, I would argue the CRTC should accept the network, maybe even with the exception they’re requesting (particularly since it’s only temporary).

The reason is simple: The channel proposes to create all its content. It says it will have zero foreign content. That alone should put it on a level higher than those Category 2 channels that air little but Family Guy reruns, 80s music videos, Star Trek movie marathons and ancient sitcoms.

The fact that Sun TV News wants to add to both news coverage and political debate in this country should certainly count for something as well, even though we may not agree with it.

The potential for abuse is there, but the CRTC already requires broadcasters to adhere to a code of ethics through the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. Sun TV News has already accepted that it would be subject to those rules. The CRTC can’t prohibit someone from starting up a channel because fearmongers disagree with the political leanings of its creator.

Sun TV News made sure to suggest in its application that without mandatory availability for at least the first three years on air, its business case would fall apart:

If mandatory access for a maximum period of three years is not granted to Sun TV News, one or more major cable or satellite providers might decide to not offer this service. This would be fatal to our business case as shown in Appendix 1, and would likely result in the cancellation of the Sun TV News project.

The CRTC shouldn’t let itself get bullied. But it should set policy encouraging new channels to include as much original, Canadian content as possible. Sun TV News, which seems to put this figure at 100%, should be rewarded for that, just like any other channel should.

Sun TV News’s suggestion that it get a break from closed-captioning requirements, though, should be ignored. Broadcasters routinely request exemptions from obligations to CC programming, like a high school student who wants an extension on a term paper.

Though it doesn’t specifically request relief from CC requirements, it gives this quote: “However commendable this obligation is, the sums that need to be invested in such an amount of closed captioning means a lower amount is left for Canadian programs.”

I’m pretty sure everyone else could make a similar argument.

By the numbers

Looking through Sun TV News’s CRTC application, I found some interesting financial projections I thought would be worth sharing.

  • Though the wholesale fee would be negotiated between the broadcaster and TV provider, Sun TV News uses a base fee of $0.25 per subscriber per month in its analysis, and seems to suggest that they would aim for this. (That doesn’t mean the channel would cost $0.25 to consumers though – providers charge consumers far above the wholesale rate.)
  • If the mandatory availability or “must offer” requirement is given, Sun TV News expects 17% penetration in the first year and up to 50% penetration by the end of the seven-year license at $0.25 per month. (“Penetration” defined as the number of cable/satellite subscribers who pay for the channel.)
  • Based on this analysis, the channel would get $15 million a year in subscriber revenue, which would be combined with $10 million a year in advertising to reach the $25 million budget.

Quebecor survey shows Sun TV News wouldn’t be popular

The CRTC application includes some survey data from polling they conducted. Though they do a good job of spinning it, the survey shows only 41% of Canadian TV watchers would be somewhat (36%) or very (5%) likely to subscribe to the channel. This makes its 50% penetration rate seem a bit far-fetched.

Similarly, a survey showed “Canadians do not find reporters to have an inherent bias in the news they report” (52% vs 7%), contradicting claims by Quebecor that Canadians are tired of the “lamestream” media’s biases.

When asked about their satisfaction with current news choices, 67% in Quebecor’s survey rate it six or higher on a scale of 1-10. Quebecor spins this as saying Canadians are “not extremely satisfied”, but when almost half are rating seven or eight on a scale of 1-10, I would argue that’s pretty satisfied. Postmedia’s Andrew Mayeda agrees.

Finally, even though Teneycke and company are pushing this as a competitor to CBC and CTV news channels, the application softens the stance and even argues that those networks won’t be seriously affected by the appearance of Sun TV News. Instead, it argues that it will bring Canadians back from CNN (which it simultaneously argues is winning Canadian viewers from CBC and CTV because it has more opinionative programming in primetime, and is losing American viewers to Fox News because its primetime programming isn’t opinionative enough).

“In the long run, we believe the impact on the existing Canadian all-news services will be negligible,” it says.

I’m sure that comes as a relief to them.

A new front in the Transcon-Quebecor war

The all-out war between Quebecor and Transcontinental continues. Only a few months after announcing new community weeklies in Laval and the north shore, Quebecor is opening up two other free weekly newspapers northeast of Montreal:

  • L’Écho de Repentigny (59,000 copies), serving Le Gardeur to Lavaltrie and competing directly with Transcontinental’s Hebdo Rive-Nord
  • Journal de Joliette (62,000 copies), serving Joliette, Berthierville and St-Michel-des-Saints and competing directly with Transcontinental’s L’Action

Quebecor says it will create 120 jobs with these new papers, which sounds like a lot, even from a company that is looking for creative ways around Quebec’s anti-scab law to get cheap content for the Journal de Montréal.

So far, there’s been no counterattack from Transcontinental in areas that Quebecor has historically covered, like the south shore. It remains to be seen if they will raise the stakes and create real competition in community newspapers, or if they’ll just give up and watch the media giant slowly erode what’s left of Transcon’s readership.

UPDATE: Seems I’ve missed the Rive-Sud Express, which was launched in April and competes directly with Quebecor’s Courier du Sud. Last week, Transcontinental added Point de vue Sainte-Agathe and Point de vue Mont-Tremblant, and Abitibi Express, that compete with Information du nord Sainte-Agathe, Information du nord Mont-Tremblant and La Frontière, respectively.

The Point de vue papers are actually a split-up of the formerly independent Point de vue Laurentides, which Transcontinental has acquired and turned into two weeklies, each running with a single journalist, a freelancer and a shared photographer, and a bunch of people doing ad sales.

I don’t like Sun News, but I welcome it

(Updated with more talking out of my ass)

Canadian media are buzzing today (and have been for about a week or so) about Sun News, the new all-news specialty TV network being setup by Quebecor Media.

Before its name was made public, people were calling it “Fox News North”, partly because the guy behind it, Kory Teneycke, used to shill for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The reputation that Quebecor and its head honcho Pierre-Karl Péladeau have built certainly helped fuel the rumours that a strong conservative bias would be more important to this network than a commitment to accuracy in reporting.

Though the announcement doesn’t make reference to Fox (directly) or use the word “conservative”, and Teneycke dismisses the comparison, the hints are all there. The video talks about being “strong and proud”, and Canada being “the greatest place on Earth” (I assume that’s part of their “factual” “straight talk” and they have lots of research to back that assertion up). And, of course, nobody involved with the project has denied outright that it would take a conservative, or at least strongly opinionative, stance.

The application

Quebecor says it has applied for a Category 1 specialty channel license from the CRTC. This means that satellite and digital cable providers would be required to put the channel on a discretionary tier so anyone who wanted to have it as part of their package could get it. Analog cable companies are not even allowed to carry them, except by special exception.

This is interesting because virtually all new specialty channels apply for a Category 2 license. This is entirely discretionary – cable and satellite companies would not be required to even make it available, and can freely negotiate with broadcasters to determine fees.

It makes sense for Quebecor to apply for a Category 1 license because the two biggest regulatory hurdles don’t apply to the concept. First, Category 1 channels have genre protection (and must respect other channels’ exclusivity), so people can’t launch a new weather channel or business network or cartoon network – unless it has a very specific focus that doesn’t compete directly with the Weather Network, BNN or Teletoon, respectively. But the CRTC decided recently that it would remove such protections from news and sports networks, because it judged that they had matured to the point where they were no longer needed.

Second, Category 1 channels must have at least 50% Canadian content. Since presumably all the content on Sun News would be provided by its journalists and those of Quebecor Media, that wouldn’t be a problem.

The biggest problem will be convincing the CRTC that it should grant a license in what it originally planned to be a very limited category of digital specialty channels like Book TV, Bold, Discovery Health and G4.

Think Sun Media, LCN … and yes, Fox News

I don’t doubt that Sun News Channel will have a conservative slant to it, or at least a Fox News-style sensationalist slant. They’ve already said that they want to have opinion, and the kinds of talking heads you don’t find on the other networks (CBC, CTV). But while I have no evidence to back this up, I’m thinking the model they’ll want to use for the channel isn’t so much Fox News as it is LCN.

For the Toronto-ites out there, LCN is kind of Quebec’s equivalent to CP24, a regionally-focused news network that’s the first to send a helicopter out when something happens in Montreal. Fires, car accidents, minor natural disasters, dead children, all the usual local news stuff. It’s the channel that’s usually on in the newsroom, for the simple reason that it’s the TV network closes to an all-Montreal-news channel. (LCN pretends it’s Quebec-wide, and it does have journalists elsewhere, but the vast majority of its news is based in the Montreal area, or occasionally Quebec City).

LCN also has opinion. Richard Martineau, Jean-Luc Mongrain, Claude Poirier, and anyone else who can talk loud even if they don’t really say much of substance (Actually, now that I think about it, that does sound a lot like Fox News), and can be easily pre-empted if breaking news happens during the day. After LCN changed its format to have more of these kinds of hosts, ratings apparently shot up 300 per cent.

But while I think there will be a definite fiscal-conservative slant (expect investigative stories every day based on access to information requests for CBC expenses), I don’t think we’ll be seeing the same kind of socially conservative biases you see in the United States. I don’t see Sun News praising Sarah Palin or talking about the evils of abortion or trotting out conspiracy theories that Michael Ignatieff is a secret terrorist.

Then again, I could be wrong. Sun News could turn into the press release arm of the Conservative Party. It could start simulcasting Fox News Channel. It could start running free ads for the Christian Heritage Party. Nobody knows yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.

It’s interesting to note here that although Fox News Channel is approved for carriage in Canada, Quebecor-owned Videotron doesn’t make it available on its digital service. I suspect many Quebecers criticizing Quebecor may be basing their opinions of Fox News on what they see on the Daily Show.

Conservative is better than nothing

I welcome Sun News for the same reason I welcome the National Post: It’s a different voice, and it employs journalists. If that means stories get out into the public that would have remained secret before, I’d say that’s worth hearing more of Ezra Levant. I would hope they take their role seriously and concentrate more on being honest and open than countering perceived biases in their competitors. And I think Canadians should keep them on their toes and put immense pressure on them to keep their biases in check.

But either way, adding a new voice to the equation can only make the Canadian news industry more diverse.

My biggest worry

Although a news network that seeks to impose an opinion more than inform the population sounds pretty scary, my biggest worry about Sun News isn’t that it will be conservative, it’s that it will be cheap.

During the press conference announcing the network, after Teneycke blasted so-called “elites”, he talked about, and I’m quoting directly here: “value-added content convergence with Sun Media properties across Canada”. Besides being filled with meaningless industry buzzwords, it seemed apparent that Sun Media and Quebecor believe they can use existing journalists to supply the network. They think that Sun Media print reporters can do TV spots, as part of some convergent utopia.

(Speaking of which, it’s interesting that Péladeau claims the media is in crisis – forcing him to lock out journalists at the Journal de Québec, Le Réveil and the Journal de Montréal – and then appears at a press conference to announce he’s spending millions on a new TV news network. Péladeau said during the press conference when asked directly about this that the two are unrelated. But the irony was certainly not lost on locked-out Journal de Montréal workers.)

Even CTV and CBC, which have local television stations across the country to supply a national news network, need “national” reporters in various cities to supply the national network and national evening news. Anyone who’s seen videos on Sun Media websites can’t be optimistic about the prospects of a news network relying on them for content.

I’m sure Sun News will hire anchors (the prettiest they can find), technicians and all sorts of other people to run the channel. But without that network of videojournalists, I wouldn’t expect their news operation to be able to match what the main networks can provide, outside of Toronto and (if they share resources with LCN and TVA) Quebec.

The opinion-news mix has two advantages over straight news. One is that it provides higher ratings, as the choir flock to their preachers. The other is that it’s cheap. Spend good money on a well-known host, add maybe a researcher or two, and you’re done. The big mouth blabbers about whatever, provided it’s controversial and excites or angers the audience enough that they pay attention. And if Glenn Beck demonstrated anything, it’s that those talking heads don’t have to make sense, be consistent, have any connection to reality or have any journalistic integrity to succeed.

As much as sending out hundreds of access to information requests to the CBC, then trolling through management expense claims to drum up even the most minor irregularity may seem petty and biased, it’s still journalism.

My fear with Sun News isn’t that it’s going to have those kinds of stories, it’s that it’ll have those kinds of stories and then have blowhards yelling about them for three hours, showing some clips from YouTube and then calling it a day.

Kind of like Fox News. Or CNN. Or MSNBC.

Let’s hope I’ve vastly underestimated what Quebecor has planned.

Sun News Channel is slated for launch Jan. 1, 2011, pending CRTC approval.

UPDATE: Bill Brioux is also highly skeptical of this network, particularly because of the failures at CKXT, the local Toronto station they’re trying to “convert” into Sun News.

UPDATE (June 24): Steve Proulx has some thoughts (mainly negative) about Quebecor’s convergence and conservativeness and how it’s affecting media.