Tag Archives: TV specialty channels

TVA pulls the plug on Argent

argent-logoArgent, the only French-language business specialty channel in Canada, is being shut down on April 30, owner Groupe TVA announced on Tuesday.

The television and cable industries are in turmoil and TVA Group has concluded that, despite the marketing efforts made in recent years to support Argent, it would be difficult if not impossible to achieve the profitability to continue operating the economic and financial channel.

I’m not sure what those “marketing efforts” were exactly (I’ve never seen an ad for the channel, beyond the branded business pages of the Journal de Montréal), but questions can certainly be raised about TVA’s commitment to the channel, which for one thing was never distributed in high definition, even on Quebecor’s Videotron cable system.

After taking its usual unnecessary swipe at Canada’s public broadcaster (which doesn’t have a business news channel), TVA said the decision would affect an unspecified number of employees. La Presse reports its nine permanent employees will stay with TVA, but their shift to other jobs might affect temporary employees at LCN and elsewhere.

The channel launched in 2005.

According to data submitted to the CRTC, Argent’s financial situation has been in significant decline since 2010-11, going from $4.2 million in revenue to $2.4 million in 2013-14. (Data for the year ending Aug. 31, 2015 should be out within the next month or two.) This is largely because of a decline in subscription revenue (advertising makes up only 2% of revenue), which in turn is because of a decrease in the number of subscribers, from a high of 957,000 in 2010 to 552,000 in 2014.

In the three years from 2012-14, the channel lost almost $2 million, and nothing indicates that 2015 or 2016 would have been any different.

The news of Argent’s shutdown has interesting timing since Canada just added its second English-language business channel (Bloomberg TV Canada) and the first one, Business News Network, is still doing quite well financially, with a 40% profit margin.

And the suggestion that this decision comes out of the CRTC’s recent pick-and-pay TV decision also doesn’t jive with the fact that its financial troubles started long before then and that Videotron, also owned by Quebecor, has been offering custom channel packages for many years now.

But these days it makes more sense for a Canadian business channel to be based in Toronto than Montreal. The only place I remember seeing Argent on TV was at my local Caisse Desjardins bank. I guess they can switch to LCN.

Cuts in QMI’s investigative bureau

UPDATE (April 21): Meanwhile, there were cuts to the investigative reporting team at Agence QMI, Quebecor Media’s shared journalism outlet.

Andrew McIntosh is an investigative reporter who’s been in the business more than 30 years, working for the Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and National Post before joining QMI in 2010 as their top investigative reporter. His awards include three National Newspaper Awards.

You can read some of his reporting for QMI here.

The other high-profile departure is Michel Morin, who was a journalist with Radio-Canada until he became a CRTC commissioner. After his term at the broadcasting regulator ended, he joined QMI’s investigative team. You can read some of his stories here.

10 things that might disappoint you about skinny basic and pick-and-pay TV

It’s March 1, 2016, which means the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s new rules about TV packaging take effect.

To explain it, I wrote this piece for Tuesday’s Gazette, which also lists exactly what you’ll find in a skinny basic package in Montreal.

But in hearing people talk about the new rules, it seems there are some misconceptions or assumptions that people have that will cause disappointments when they actually try to take advantage of the new rules. Here are the ones I can explain so far:

1. In Quebec, not much changes

Videotron, the market leader here, has offered a small basic package and build-your-own bundles for many years now. And until December, when it has to offer almost all channels à la carte, they really don’t have to change how they operate.

Videotron’s new $25 a month basic package is pretty similar to the old one, with a few exceptions:

  • RDI is not included. CBC News Network is, because of an order that news networks be distributed in minority language communities (at reduced prices). Outside Quebec, it’s the reverse: RDI is mandatory, CBCNN is not.
  • Stingray music channels are not included
  • Some out-of-market over-the-air channels are not included. The CRTC rules say stations from other cities can only be included if there are fewer than 10 local stations, and even then can be added to reach a total of no more than 10. That means Montreal’s basic package loses CJOH (CTV Ottawa, included for historical reasons because the station’s transmitter in Cornwall reached into western Quebec), Granby and Sherbrooke lose Canal Savoir, and Gatineau loses most Montreal stations. Videotron asked for special permission to keep these stations, but was denied.

2. The $25 maximum doesn’t include set-top box rental, installation fees or taxes

The CRTC is clear that the $25 price is for programming only. Renting a set-top box will cost between $5 and $10 a month depending on provider, and if you’re not already a customer you’ll need to pay extra for installation.

3. Providers aren’t offering special deals or discounts on skinny basic

It’s very clear that none of the major TV providers are really promoting this new package. CBC even found out about Bell ordering its customer service representatives not to discuss it unless asked, even though that’s a clear violation of the CRTC’s rules.

Other attempts to downplay are more subtle. Most providers list the package at the bottom of web pages. Shaw calls it “Limited TV”, Rogers calls it a “Starter package” as does Bell Fibe. Telus calls it “Lite”.

But even if the CRTC forces them to offer the same amount of visibility, they aren’t obligated to offer the same deals. Free equipment rental, new customer discounts, customer retention discounts, even bundle discounts don’t apply to this package (though Telus offers it at $5 off if you bundle with other services).

New IPTV providers are more aggressive, however. Zazeen, which is used by Distributel in Quebec, offers an Internet-based basic package for $10 a month if you prepay for 12 months. VMedia (which isn’t available here yet) offers it for $18 a month.

4. The channels you want to add will be the most expensive

If all you care about are TSN and Sportsnet, because everything else you can watch online, well I have bad news for you. The wholesale prices for those channels averaged $3 per subscriber per month in 2014, and they’re going up. Those costs are being passed on to you. To get them on Videotron you need at least the basic + 10 channels package, which is $50 a month. Shaw customers can add them for $8 each or $12 for both.

While the retail cost of the basic package is regulated at $25 a month, the cost of add-ons isn’t regulated at all. And nothing requires all channels to be offered at the same price. You could be charged $5 a channel or $20 for a pick-your-own package with a lot of exceptions.

5. No, you can’t get HBO for 1/5 the price of The Movie Network

While most channels will be available à la carte, in some cases there are multiple channels tied to a single licence. That’s the case for TSN, the four main Sportsnet channels, and The Movie Network. If you spend $15 a month for TMN and its five channels, you won’t be able to get just HBO Canada for $3 a month.

The CRTC is reviewing its rules for multiplexed channels and will remove the requirement that they be sold as one unit. But don’t expect HBO Canada to be offered anywhere near that cheaply.

6. It’ll probably be cheaper for you to keep your current package

If you’re interested in more than a couple of channels, chances are you’re better getting a big bundle, even if it might have some channels you don’t care about. It’s in the providers’ interest, and the broadcasters’, that as many people subscribe to as many channels as possible to spread the cost around. Simple economics will encourage you to buy more, just like a grocery store encourages you to buy in bulk.

7. Some channels will die

This is particularly true of independent channels like Vision, OUTtv and iChannel, that don’t have free advertising on CTV, Global or TVA. Some CRTC rules encourage providers to carry them, but if their number of subscribers goes down, they’re in big trouble financially.

8. Many channels will try to generate maximum demand at minimum cost

Consider a channel like AMC or FX. They’ve got some expensive must-watch shows during primetime, but the rest of their schedules are largely filler, with old movies or reruns. Expect a lot of channels to have one or two high-quality shows to get you to subscribe, but not much else for the other 22 hours of the day.

9. It’s competition, not regulation, that will really bring prices down

Part of the problem with TV service in this country is that because very few places have more than one incumbent cable company, there’s little competition (there’s satellite TV, but that has technical limitations). Bell and Telus are doing their part building up their fibre-optic networks to allow them to offer IPTV service.

But what would really make a difference are more independent third-party IPTV providers like Zazeen, VMedia and Colba.net. Those are still in their infancy and lack the kind of channel selection and quality the big guys have.

The CRTC has been doing a lot to make it easier for these guys to start up. New TV providers, even those operating in big urban centres, don’t need to have a licence until they reach a large enough subscriber base. Such exempt services also don’t have as many rules to follow. Plus they can use existing telecommunications infrastructure, similar to the way independent Internet providers do. And new rules about how the big broadcasters negotiate carriage will create less headaches for independent providers when signing carriage contracts.

But we’re still a while from these independents creating real competition for established TV providers.

10. No one really knows what the TV market will look like after this

We know that it will be more expensive to buy a set number of channels individually than in a bundle. We know that skinny basic will make less money for providers if they don’t have lots of add-ons. But how the economics will look exactly isn’t known.

Will we see channels go high-quality and expensive, like HBO, TSN and Sportsnet? Will they go cheap to maximize the number of subscribers? Will we see an explosion in the number of channels as the big guys try to maximize subscription revenue by splitting up their most in-demand programming? Will free previews be more or less common? Will this encourage more over-the-top offers for specialty channels wanting to bypass TV providers all together?

We’re not following the U.S. here, even though politicians there are trying to push for more consumer choice. So we’ll have to wait and see.

But it’s still a good idea

Skinny basic and packaging choice are good things. There are a lot of channels out there (*cough*BookTV*cough*) that survive almost solely on being included in large packages and have had nothing new to offer for years. Those deserve to reform or die.

But TV providers are going to do whatever they can to protect their bottom lines so long as they don’t have to worry about competition. So, unless you only want a few channels, and you don’t like sports, don’t expect to save too much under these new rules.

Instead, be happy that the money you pay is more likely to go toward channels and programming you care about than zombie services that profit from resistance to change.

UPDATE (March 1): I had a discussion with CBC Radio’s Q about the changes and what they mean for consumers.

Video: CRTC 1987 specialty channel hearings

With a month to go until the CRTC begins what will probably be the most important hearing into television policy in decades, it’s fun to look back at one of the hearings that shaped television in Canada as we know it, back in 1987.

The Youtube channel Retro Winnipeg recently posted nearly five hours of video from CRTC hearings held in July 1987 on specialty channel services. It led to a wave of new channels, including YTV, TV5, Family Channel, The Weather Network, CBC Newsworld and more.

Rather than have you sit through five hours of people in suits talking as boringly as they possibly can, I’ve split them up into sections, and you can watch the parts that interest you.

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Shaw Media to rebrand Twist, Mystery channels

As part of its fall upfront presentation to advertisers, Shaw Media announced on Wednesday that it is launching two new specialty channels before the end of the year. Though what the press release doesn’t say is that these are actually rebrands of existing channels.

Twist becomes FYI

Twist TV, a lifestyle channel whose schedule includes reality shows like Till Debt Do Us Part, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and I don’t know how many shows devoted to weddings and bride-ness, will be rebranded FYI this fall. FYI is “geared towards a younger, upscale audience” and “offers contemporary lifestyle programs” aimed at millenials. “FYI hosts a hub of modern lifestyle programming featuring health and wellness and food and fashion.”

FYI will effectively be a Canadian version of an American channel by the same name. A&E Networks is rebranding its Bio channel to FYI as of July 8. The U.S. channel has already announced what some of its new shows will be. The list includes Epic Meal Empire, a half-hour 16-episode show starring Montreal’s Epic Meal Time. (I don’t know if this will be considered a Canadian program.)

The U.S. rebrand also brings up the question of what happens to Biography Channel Canada, owned by Rogers, which shares branding with the U.S. version, and gets shows like Gangsters: America’s Most Evil, Mobsters, Women Behind Bars, Celebrity Close Calls, Celebrity Ghost Stories and My Ghost Story from its U.S. counterpart. Without a supply of fresh content, it too could be headed toward a rebrand.

Twist began as Discovery Health Canada in 2001. When the U.S. network turned into the Oprah Winfrey Network 10 years later, the Canadian Channel was morphed into Twist. (Corus rebranded a different channel, Viva (formerly CLT) into OWN Canada.)

The history of the channel means FYI remains tied to Discovery Health’s CRTC licence conditions, which requires it to air programming “devoted entirely to useful, practical, reliable and entertaining programming related to health, wellness and medicine.”

Whether Twist and FYI fit into this definition depends, I guess, on your definition of “wellness”. If reality shows about getting married or fashion or home renovations qualify, then I guess so.

FYI will also be bound by other licence conditions, limiting the amount of sports, drama, comedy, movie and music video programming combined to 10% of the schedule. There’s no limit on the number of reality shows, formal or informal educational shows, or entertainment magazine programs.

FYI must also ensure that at least half its schedule (and half its primetime schedule) is Canadian programs.

According to CRTC figures, Twist made $1.76 million in ad revenue in 2012-13, had 2.2 million subscribers and had a 60 per cent pre-tax profit margin, employing a staff of 10. It’s clearly not in financial trouble, though I guess Shaw believes it can boost those ad figures by targetting a younger audience.

Mystery becomes Crime + Investigation

The other rebrand seems less dramatic on the surface, but involves a much bigger change in programming. Mystery, the channel whose schedule is half Law & Order reruns (plus whatever shows Shaw owns that it can pretend fit into this category), will become “Crime + Investigation” in December.

“Crime + Investigation strives to engage viewers’ minds and crime solving skills, drawing the audience into investigations by offering a behind-the-scenes look at gripping, unforgettable crime stories,” reads the press release.

This is also a case of a Canadian channel copying a U.S. brand. Crime & Investigation is also owned by A&E. Its programming features reality shows following law enforcement and investigators.

If “CI” follows the U.S. version, this will mean dropping most of its drama reruns and replacing them with justice reality shows. And that would make it very similar to Investigation Discovery, formerly Court TV Canada, a Bell-owned channel that’s doing the same thing.

First licensed in 2000 as “13th Street”, Mystery is “devoted to mystery and suspense programming. The service will nurture and encourage short-form Canadian mysteries. It will provide a wide assortment of genre-specific programs including movies, television series, short films and documentaries that will focus exclusively on the delivery of entertaining programming on suspense, espionage and classic mysteries.”

Whether law and order reality shows fit into this definition is a matter of interpretation. The channel has limits on comedy, professional sports and music video programming, but is otherwise free to air what it wishes as long as it fits the nature of service.

Mystery was co-owned with Quebecor until 2012, when Shaw bought it out. As part of that deal, Shaw promised the CRTC to devote some funding to scripted dramas and other so-called programs of national interest until 2017. The dramas wouldn’t have much of a home on the new channel, but that money could also be spent on long-form documentaries.

In the latest CRTC financial numbers, Mystery had $6.5 million a year in advertising revenue in 2012-13, a staff of 11, about 2 million subscribers (growing steadily over the past five years) and a very healthy 47 per cent profit margin.

Book Television and the de-specialization of specialty channels

Updated below with CRTC decision.

These days, what little public attention is devoted to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is split between two major hearings taking place back to back: The mandatory carriage hearings, in which more than a dozen groups are trying to force themselves onto basic cable to get maximum audience or free money, or both; and the Bell takeover of Astral Media, which is heavily opposed by most of Bell’s competitors.

There’s another file open for public comment that’s much more minor, but much more representative of what’s happening to Canada’s television industry right now. Book Television, a specialty channel owned by Bell Media, has applied to the commission to modify its licence to allow for more fictional entertainment programs, like scripted dramas, sitcoms, feature films, sketch or standup comedy shows, and animated shows.

Its current licence limits these kinds of programs to 35% of their schedule over the week, and no more than 30% between 6pm and midnight. It wants to bring that up to 50%, and eliminate the separate limit on programming during prime time.

The reason is simple: Book Television wants to run more popular programs, and fewer programs that have to do with books.

Like all specialty television services, Book Television is tied to what’s called the “nature of service” clause in its licence. This is the clause that requires a specialty television channel to specialize in something. It sets its language and its topic. And all programming should fit its theme.

For Book Television, the licence says this: “The licensee shall provide a national English-language specialty Category A service that will feature magazines and talk shows, dramas and documentaries that are exclusively based upon printed and published works and offered with additional programming that provides an educational context and promotes reading.”

In other words, a channel about books, and about things based on books.

In the 2000 hearing where Book Television was first proposed to the CRTC (it was only one of several proposed book-themed channels, with Alliance Atlantis, Corus, Boxer Four Entertainment and Key Media also proposing channels based on books and literature), then-owner CHUM said “Book Television — The Channel will develop, over several years, shows on critics and criticism, kidlit, reading festivals and erotica, support for new writers with the WordFACT Foundation and more.”

CHUM wanted to expand on the offering of another channel it owned, Canadian Learning Television. That channel, since rebranded twice, got into its own trouble at the CRTC recently for straying from its purpose.

The idea was that drama programming would be presented in such a way as to educate viewers about books and encourage them to read.

The CRTC agreed, and awarded a licence for Book Television.

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CRTC looks at ending MuchMusic/MusiquePlus monopoly

Want to sit down and watch a TV channel that just airs music videos all day? Your options are actually artificially limited, but the CRTC could soon be making it a lot easier for people to start up music-based specialty channels.

In April, the CRTC opened a call for comments about allowing more competition in channels devoted to popular music, in the same way it opened up competition for two other genres it deemed mature enough – sports and news.

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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.

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.

Two French specialty channels coming

Announcements came this week about two new specialty channels that will be launched over the next month.

One is Yoopa, a kids’ channel (ages 2-6) that was approved by the CRTC as “TVA Junior”. Quebecor plans to launch it April 1, and it will have some advertising, though not of the traditional kind, says Richard Therrien.

The other is Zeste, a food channel set to launch March 22 by the company behind Évasion.

Both are digital channels and will launch in both standard and high definition.

UPDATE (Feb. 26): The CRTC has also approved TVA Sports, though it refused to step in and force RDS to give up is exclusivity contract with the Canadiens.

Canwest study shows people like Canwest networks

Canwest has released the results of a study that seeks to measure specialty television channels by quality rather than quantity of ratings. Instead of just pure viewer numbers, it seeks to rank networks by how attentive their viewers are, and how likely they are to pay attention to ads.

A cynic might notice that Canwest-owned networks, including Food Network, HGTV, History Television, Showcase (and its sister networks), National Geographic, Mystery TV and TVtropolis, improve their scores under this measurement. Under pure ratings, only one Canwest network (HGTV) comes in the top five, and only three (with History and Showcase) in the top 10. In the other metrics shown, Canwest networks have 2-3 of the top five and 4-6 of the top 10.

That cynic might wonder if Canwest would have released this study if Canwest-owned networks hadn’t fared so well.

Spécialisées

Le Devoir today has a series of articles about the 15th anniversary of Canal D, the documentary/educational network launched on Jan. 1, 1995. About half are subscriber-locked, but there’s some open ones worth reading:

Stéphane Baillargeon also discusses the changes happening at Canal Savoir, which turned 25 this year.

There are other hockey teams too, you know

NHL Center Ice

In addition to free previews of Showcase Action and Showcase Diva (both owned by my corporate overlord Canwest) and Planète on Videotron digital cable, October is also free NHL Centre Ice month.

For those unfamiliar with the concept NHL Centre Ice (NHL Center Ice in the U.S.) takes television feeds from out-of-market games (in our case, anything not involving the Canadiens) that otherwise wouldn’t be available, including those games that are blacked out on the west-coast Sportsnet feeds. There’s all sorts of asterisks involved (it doesn’t show all games, or include playoff games beyond the first round, in addition to the local blackouts), but if you’re a fan of, say, the Canucks, the Devils or the not-Hamilton Coyotes, it could be useful.

Check it out: Channels 451-461 on Videotron, 425-435 on Bell TV, and 471-487 on Shaw Direct (other channels for HD feeds, where available). After Oct. 24, NHL Centre Ice becomes $30 a month, which seems like a lot for me. But maybe I’m just spoiled because RDS has the rights to all 82 regular-season games of the Canadiens, plus all playoff games.

One demographic to rule them all

There’s a disturbing trend happening in cable specialty channels: they’re being rebranded to appeal to adult women:

  • TLC, the U.S. network formerly known as The Learning Channel, gave up all pretense of educating people and is now a female-centric lifestyle channel running Jon & Kate Plus Eight
  • Scream, the horror movie channel, was rebranded by Corus as Dusk. It includes more “paranormal” content to broaden its appeal and get more women watching.
  • CLT, Canadian Learning Television, was shelved by Corus in favour of VIVA, the network for “boomer women”.

The latest blow came this week as Corus (notice a pattern here?) let it be known that it is rebranding almost-porn network SexTV as “W movies”, starting Nov. 1.

I realize video pornography is easy to acquire these days, but Corus seems to think it needs to change all its specialty channels into women’s channels to appeal to the advertiser-rich demographic. Meanwhile, those of us (male or female) who don’t fit into that stereotype get left behind.

We’ve lost education, horror and sex. What’s next? Will they replace MANswers with Womanswers? Start up the Discovery Emotions channel? Have OUTtv broadcast nothing but Queer Eye for the Straight Guy?

Something must be done to halt the assault on our television.

CRTC Roundup: Videotron must closed-caption porn

We made fun of this a bit when it came out, but there was a serious policy question being asked by Videotron: Should cable companies be required to spend money closed-captioning on-demand pornography and programming aimed at preschool children who can’t read?

The month, the CRTC ruled that, well, yes, they should.

While you might think it common sense that such programs should be excluded from closed-captioning requirements, the CRTC said that children should have access to captioning so they can learn to read, and parents should have access to what their children watch. There wasn’t much discussion about the porn angle, namely that nobody cares what people are saying in pornographic movies.

In any case, the CRTC said Videotron hadn’t made a case that it’s so financially strapped that it can’t afford captioning costs, so the application was denied.

Konrad’s oopsie

The CRTC chairman said sorry for saying that conventional broadcasters like CTV and Global wouldn’t commit to taking carriage fees from cable and satellite providers and putting all that money into local programming. It turns out they were ready to make just such a commitment.

That certainly makes the TV people look better. But what guarantee would we have that they wouldn’t take back their existing funding to local stations now that this new source of revenue is available to them?

Bye Bye was wrong

You hate to still be talking about this, but the judgment is in about Radio-Canada’s Bye-Bye: It really was racist. The CRTC passed on complaints to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council and asked them to judge the show. The CBSC normally rules only on private broadcasting, but the CRTC asked them for their advice (if anything, this shows that there’s no reason the CBSC shouldn’t also deal with complaints about public broadcasting).

The CBSC’s ruling dismissed most of the complaints (though some only barely), including those about jokes on anglos, the poor, immigrants, dépanneur owners, Indian call centre operators, Julie Couillard, Céline Dion, politicians, and a single complaint saying they were unfair to GM. It also said that the show did not go over the line in its treatment of Nathalie Simard, and didn’t even hint at the abuse she suffered at the hands of Guy Cloutier, father of Bye Bye hotst Véronique Cloutier.

The council did rule that three things crossed the line:

  • Jokes against blacks, particularly the sketch involving Denis Lévesque and Barack Obama as well as comments from Jean-François Mercier about Obama being easier to shoot in front of the White House.
  • The portrayal of violence against women in a sketch involving the family of Patrick Roy.
  • The rebroadcast of the show the next evening without viewer advisories.

The racist jokes, the council said, were gratuitous and abusive. Though Radio-Canada, the show’s producers, its writers and its performers did not intend to foster racism and intended for the comments to be ironic, the council ruled that the context didn’t make this sufficiently clear, and the comments could easily have been taken at face value. It brought up a number of previous cases to support its view that comedic irony isn’t a blank cheque to make racist comments.

It’s hard not to agree with the council’s well-thought-out decision. Bye Bye didn’t intend to be racist, but it did intend to shock. And when you’re spouting racist comments just to shock people, how is that different from just being racist?

This decision is worth reading if only for the words “a rather cartoonish rabbit-like act of intercourse.”

Technically, this is just a recommendation to the CRTC. It is up to the commission to decide if it agrees, and if so what kind of sanction it will impose. Normally, private broadcasters are required to air a notice of the decision to viewers. We’ll see if the CRTC orders Radio-Canada to do the same.

More power for radio

It’s going to be a bit easier to listen to some out-of-town radio stations thanks to some CRTC approvals of power increases:

  • CKOY 104.5 FM in Sherbrooke, the sister station to Montreal’s CKOI, gets a huge power boost to up to 50,000 Watts. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to hear, especially with CBC Radio One’s second 100W transmitter at 104.7 FM in the west end. But if you’re in the Eastern townships and had trouble hearing the station, you should have much less of that now.
  • CJLM 103.5 FM in Joliette gets a modest boost from 3,000 to 4,500 Watts, which will help people on the north side of the island and on the north shore.
  • For those on the south side, they’ll be hearing FM 103.3 in Longueuil, which in the same decision saw its allowed power output grow more than five-fold. It’s still a low-power community radio station, but maybe now it won’t disappear off the dial when I hit the Plateau.

Haitian station wants change of frequency

CJWI, a Haitian AM station currently on 1610 AM, wants to change its frequency to 1410, which is where CFMB used to be. The move would put CJWI in the regular, non-extended AM band, allowing people with older radios to hear it. It also wants to increase its output power from 1kW to 10kW, and relocate its transmitter.

Rogers, small cable companies get nannied

The Canadian Cable Systems Alliance asked the CRTC to intervene in stalled negotiations it was having on behalf of small cable companies across the country with Rogers over its SportsNet service. The CRTC has the power to intervene in these cases, but it prefers not to. However, since regulations require some cable companies to carry SportsNet (and will until new regulations take effect in 2011 that deregulate the cable sports channels), it decided it must step in here. Details are kept in confidence to protect both businesses, so that’s about all we know.

Slice wants less CanCon

Canwest-owned Slice channel has noticed that its Canadian content requirements are much higher than what other specialty channels require, so it wants to get the same deal. It’s asking that its CanCon minimum programming requirement be dropped from 82.5% to 60%, and that it be forced to spend only 45% instead of 71% of revenues on Canadian programming.

City wants less CanCon movies

Citytv has asked the CRTC for a change in license that would eliminate a requirement to air 100 hours of Canadian movies each year – which works out to about a movie a week. Rogers (which owns City now) argues that it is the only conventional broadcaster that has this requirement and it shouldn’t be singled out. Canadian movie-makers say Rogers has pulled a bait and switch, praising Canadian movies when it bought the network and now quietly wanting to get rid of them.

Want Al-Jazeera?

The CRTC is opening up the can of worms about allowing Al-Jazeera English into the country. The commission had previously approved the Arabic-language version of the network, with unique requirements that distributors monitor and censor its content, something that requires far too much work for the cable and satellite companies.

The commission is considering adding the English channel to eligible foreign networks that cable and satellite can add to their lineups, but it wants comments from Canadians who might be opposed to it. They specifically want evidence of abusive comments, with tapes if possible.

More specialty channels

Conventional TV may be dying, but specialty channels are exploding like nobody’s business. The CRTC is holding a hearing on July 21 where it will listen to proposals for new networks:

  • Black Entertainment Television Canada (English and French) – self-explanatory, I would imagine.
  • Reality TV – A Canwest proposal for reality shows, DIY programs and scripted reality shows. This network was originally approved by the CRTC in 2005, but expired before Canwest could launch it, forcing them to start over from scratch.
  • AMET-TV, an African and Afro-Caribbean-themed channel that carries programming in English (70%), French (20%) and African languages (10%)
  • New Tang Dynasty Television Canada HD, a generalist network mainly in Mandarin but also other Chinese languages.

CPAC wants to be patriotic

CPAC, the politics channel that carries House of Commons proceedings among other things, is asking for permission to expand its boundaries on July 1 of each year. It wants to add three programming categories which would allow it to carry musical performance, variety, entertainment and related programming from Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill and elsewhere. A reasonable request if I’ve ever heard one, though I don’t think there are similarly specific exceptions to such rules on other channels.

A bold move

The CBC was in the process of getting slapped by the CRTC because it was violating its license with respect to Bold, a specialty channel. Formerly Country Canada, its license says it should air programming directed toward rural Canadians. But since then it’s basically been a dumping ground for whatever content the network wants to put there.

After the CRTC called a hearing, the CBC waved the white flag. It has proposed a license amendment, though one that would keep the rural focus.

Good news, bad news for Olympics

Following a request from the CRTC chairman, CTV and the CBC have been in talks about using CBC stations to broadcast French-language Olympics coverage for the tiny, tiny portion of Canadians who:

  • are unilingual francophones
  • don’t live in Quebec or within range of a TQS station
  • don’t have cable or satellite TV service
  • don’t have broadband Internet access
  • AND want to watch the Olympics in French on TV

You’d think this number would be so small as to be negligible (about 10,000 apparently fit the first three criteria), but in the spirit of political correctness, CTV (which owns the broadcast rights and is part of a giant consortium that’s covering the games) is looking at using some CBC stations to retransmit its TQS/RDS Olympics coverage over the air.

The problem is that the CBC isn’t crazy about donating the stations and getting nothing in return. Specifically, the debate is over ad revenue: CTV wants to keep it all (minus some compensation for what they would have had with their regular programming), and CBC thinks that’s crazy.

On the plus side, Corus has joined the giant consortium, which currently includes CTV (with TSN and RDS), TQS, Rogers and APTN. Corus will have Olympics coverage (though it doesn’t sound like much) on CKAC Sports as well as updates on CKOI, Info 690 and 98.5FM in Montreal.

In other news

And finally, not that anyone doubted it would happen, but the CRTC has allowed CBC Television and Télévision Radio-Canada to continue to operate for another year.

CRTC roundup: Deciding the future of TV

The CRTC continues to dominate be a footnote in the headlines as conventional television operators appear in two hearings – one for the CRTC itself in Gatineau to discuss license renewals, and another for a House committee in Ottawa to discuss the future of local television. And those discussions are heating up.

Last week, CTV and Global pressed their fee-for-carriage idea, where cable and satellite providers would be required to pay broadcasters to carry stations that already transmit their signals over the air for free. This would give broadcasters a $350-million lifeline, which is why they’re continuing to press for it even after having gotten rejected twice. They say local news simply can’t pay for itself, and it needs to be subsidized.

Even TQS jumped on board, despite the fact that it doesn’t produce local news.

Rogers, which owns CityTV and OMNI but gets much more of its revenue from its cable distributor, argued in front of MPs that CTV and Global were exaggerating their financial troubles to get a handout.

This week, Rogers repeated the accusation to the CRTC, saying the networks want money for local stations but also want to shut down small stations that don’t rake in money. It tempered that by saying that if the CRTC approves such an idea, it should be temporary until the recession goes away and a revenue goes back up. It also said fee-for-carriage means they shouldn’t be required to distribute conventional TV channels if broadcasters demand fees that are too high.

(This brings up an issue: Isn’t Rogers in a conflict of interest here? On one hand, OMNI and Citytv would benefit from additional fees, but Rogers is silencing those voices because the corporate parent has decided it would have more to lose from these fees through its cable provider than it would gain through its television stations. The same applies to Quebecor, which owns the TVA network and Videotron. In all, distributors showed revenues of $10 billion in 2008, with over $2 billion in profit.)

Pierre-Karl Péladeau, who speaks on behalf of TVA and Videotron, gave a more nuanced, have-your-cake-and-subsidize-it-too answer to MPs, saying fee-for-carriage should be allowed, but that the rates should be subject to negotiation between broadcaster and provider (no doubt the negotiations between TVA and Videotron would go amicably).

Leonard Asper of Canwest argued the problem is a regulatory system that allows distributors to flourish while broadcasters falter. He said debt and the recession are problems too, but they’re not the whole answer.

Ivan Fecan of CTVglobemedia said the Local Programming Improvement Fund, a special fund setup by the CRTC to subsidize local television stations in small markets, would need to be tripled, and that even then this would only protect the status quo and would not result in any increase in local programming. That angered Rogers and CRTC members.

CTV and Canwest also pointed out that cable and satellite providers are constantly increasing their rates without the “revolt” that the providers say would happen with a fee-for-carriage.

The Globe and Mail’s Grant Robertson, who has been covering this issue better than anyone, has a list of some of the issues that may come up in discussions about the future of television in Canada.

Why not just shut them down?

An interesting point was made in discussions of license renewals: If CTV and Global are so jealous of specialty television channels, why don’t they just become specialty channels?

It’s not quite so simple, but with 90% of Canadian television viewers having cable or satellite service, the added expense of setting up transmitters and local news stations isn’t worth the added viewership and ad revenue that comes with it. (Not to mention the cost of transitioning to digital television, which has caused broadcasters to decide to shut down dozens of retransmitters across the country.)

CRTC chairman Konrad von Finkenstein asked if CTV would prefer the specialty channel model to the conventional TV model. Conventional stations require a certain amount of local programming, while specialty channels are required to spend a certain percentage of their revenues on creating original programming. CTV suggested it would prefer the latter, though it wanted some recognition that having local stations is much more expensive than rerunning old Seinfeld episodes.

CRTC wants more transparency from big guns

The CRTC is seeking comment on new rules that would require large broadcasters and distributors to disclose more information about their finances than they currently do.

Currently, the CRTC collects lots of information but only releases “aggregate information” to the public. So we know how much all broadcasters spend on U.S. programming, but we don’t know how that breaks down per broadcaster or broadcasting unit.

Since broadcasters are arguing that they need more money because their business model is broken (and the distributors are arguing that the can’t spare fee-for-carriage payments without raising prices), it makes sense that they should let us see their books.

The CEP labour union certainly agrees with that reasoning.

Broadcasters want changes on the air too

In addition to fee-for-carriage, television broadcasters are asking for a relaxing of regulations about how much Canadian content they have to air and what kind of programming they must create. One of the proposed changes is to include reality programming in the list of “priority programming” (scripted comedies and drama shows) that the CRTC gives special attention to because it costs more to produce. This would go against the entire point of distinguishing expensive from cheap programming, and encourage private broadcasters to cancel expensive dramas in favour of cheaper reality shows.

Meanwhile, Bill Brioux wonders if CTV and Global will be reducing their big-budget U.S. programming purchases in light of their apparent financial woes.

StarChoice really dislikes CBC Regina

Last year, the CBC got all up in StarChoice’s face because of a decision by the satellite distributor to remove CBC Regina (CBKT) from its channel lineup. The CBC complained to the CRTC, saying that the removal meant StarChoice had more CTV channels than CBC channels, and this represented a violation of one of its conditions of license.

In November, the CRTC ruled that CTV’s main network and its A Channel network should be considered separately for the purposes of this rule, and that StarChoice was still in compliance. It dismissed the complaint.

But the CBC pressed on with its case, arguing that the CRTC got the numbers wrong and that even excluding the A Channel network, StarChoice has more CTV-owned stations than CBC-owned stations. These include CTV-branded stations as well as CJCH in Halifax (formerly ATV, rebranded as CTV Atlantic) and MCTV’s CICI (rebranded as CTV Northern Ontario).

What followed was a war of words betwen CBC and StarChoice, with the latter accusing the former of using incendiary language.

Now, StarChoice is asking for an exception to be made to its license to allow it to continue not distributing CBC Regina but still distribute all its CTV stations (including CTV Regina). I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest the CBC will oppose this request.

In other news