TTP Media seeks international investors for AM radio stations

Nicolas Tétrault appears in a video seeking investment in his company’s radio stations.

It’s been nine years since a pair of local businessmen came onto the scene and declared they wanted to change how commercial radio works in this city with an $81-million bid for Corus radio stations in Quebec that were being sold to Cogeco. Eight years since, with a third partner, they got a licence for a station on the clear channel of 940 AM. Seven years since they got a second licence for 600 AM. Three years since the first station went on the air. Two years since the second station joined it.

For all that time, we’ve been waiting for something to happen. Waiting for the Bell-Astral deal to conclude, in case they had to sell one of their stations (the transaction closed in 2013). Waiting for TTP Media to solve various technical problems with their transmission site. Waiting for them to build a studio and hire talent. Waiting for the launch of regular programming, that has been promised “soon” for three years.

As it stands, the French station, CFNV 940, has spoken word programming through an agreement with online radio station CNV. CFQR 600, the English station (no relation to the old CFQR-FM at 92.5), is still running an automated music playlist. It’s been a while since we’ve heard from the owners.

But a few weeks ago, Nicolas Tétrault, one of the three partners, posted a video on LinkedIn apparently seeking foreign investment in the stations.

In the seven-minute video, Tétrault talks about the duopoly in commercial radio in Montreal, with Bell Media and Cogeco Media owning most of the market share here, how “extremely complicated” it is to enter the market when there is “no financing available for radio stations,” and how the company owns “millions of dollars of equipment” but has no debt.

“It is impossible to find financing in Quebec,” Tétrault said. “The banks, they don’t lend to media, private funds don’t lend, pensions … no funds are available.”

Tétrault’s invitation notes that foreign investors can own up to 30% of a broadcasting company, and he tags his post with the United States, United Kingdom, France, India, Israel and the Cayman Islands.

This is the first I’ve heard about TTP Media needing money. In its initial applications to the CRTC, the group said its partners were investing $4.5 million, added to a $21 million loan from James Edward Capital Corporation, to provide financing to launch the stations.

Two years ago, when I asked Rajiv Pancholy about finances, he reassured me that it wouldn’t be an issue because he has negotiated loans worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the past and “I have the credibility in Canada on Bay St. and Wall St.”

Tétrault might not have that kind of credibility though, since he just went through a personal bankruptcy. A judge discharged the bankruptcy trustee on Jan. 18.

Finally, it’s curious that Tétrault makes no mention of his other partner, Paul Tietolman, though he mentions Pancholy twice (using “partner” in the singular). Rumours abounded about a rift between Tietolman and his partners, which all three had denied. A change in ownership would require CRTC approval.

Neither Tétrault, Pancholy nor Tietolman responded to my requests for an interview.

TTP Media’s CRTC licences were renewed to 2023 for both the French and English stations.

Jeremy Zafran says his departure from CBC Montreal was a “staged elimination”

Jeremy Zafran

Since the announcement of the new afternoon show Let’s Go with Sabrina Marandola, some people have been asking what happened to Jeremy Zafran, who handled traffic updates for Homerun. With the new show and its “transportation columnist,” Akil Alleyne, who also does daily traffic, Zafran disappeared from the air.

It turns out Zafran has been dropped by the CBC. And he’s not happy about it.

“My staged elimination was set almost two months ago and much like the CBC Montreal staff, few people were aware of my contract non-renewal,” Zafran wrote to me. “The excuse was the job title change adding ‘the story of traffic’ responsibility to the existing job. That was smoke and mirrors. I was told that I was not ‘the strongest candidate for the new job,’ a ruse considering my replacement’s zero experience on radio let alone in traffic: a position on air that is a difficult art form to master. As a veteran announcer and host in Montreal, I worked the last two months with professionalism with my head held high.”

Though the public broadcaster wouldn’t call this “staged,” it did say the new position was “an open competition and anyone could apply” and Zafran was on a yearly contract that “did expire and was not renewed.”

Alleyne, whose previous job was as a reporter with CityNews Montreal, hired there only a year ago, is indeed pretty green. He studied law in the Washington, D.C. area before returning to Montreal. Before that he had brief stints reporting for CBC and The Suburban.

Having listened to his traffic reports a few times on air, he was quite rusty at first, missing the smooth flow that more seasoned traffic reporters have shown on commercial and non-commercial stations. But he’s gotten better as he’s gotten used to the position.

But why replace Zafran?

Here’s the official explanation:

Montrealers get around the city in so many ways and we wanted to tell those stories — beyond traffic updates on highways and cars. So we created a new position of a transportation columnist. While the columnist still does traffic updates, they are responsible for a regular transportation column.

In other words, in CBC’s eyes, it’s a columnist who also does daily traffic updates.

Zafran doesn’t buy that description, and though he doesn’t offer any theories on why exactly management has soured on him, he does offer this:

The CBC has free reign on hiring and without a ratings-based mentality, bosses can literally turn a mime into a weather person and no one in management will face any consequences. And yet here I am paying the price.

Harsh.

But he also makes a case for what he’s done in the position:

I built their traffic department from nothing, negotiated to gain full access to all the CGMU cameras — at no cost, on my own initiative and time — and was considered by (Transports Québec), the SQ, EXO, STM, Ville de Montreal, CN, other hosts who relied on my hits from competing stations, not to mention internally at CBC Montreal as the ‘go to expert’ for traffic and transportation. I created the @montrealdrive Twitter page leaving it at 3600 followers, a few hundred less than the Homerun program itself. This was a planned removal that was witnessed by all.

Zafran said he has received a “mass outpouring of support and disappointment” following the news, after having worked for CBC for eight years.

“On a bright note,” he wrote, “I’m not dead. I can eat dinner again with my young family and I am catching up on all that I have neglected at home. I will not accept a character assassination by those who attempt to discredit me or my work. They know what they did to me and in turn my family life, but if they can sleep well at night then rest assured so will I.

“The job doesn’t define the person, that’s up to me. I won’t lose another breath over this tragedy, Steve. Soon better things will arrive, I’m in my prime and I will return from these last 8+ years to a professional, respectful environment for my 30th year on air in 2020, all chez nous.”

Zafran was also once the weekend weather presenter on CBC Montreal’s local TV newscast, but that role has since been eliminated. Now the anchor, Sean Henry, does brief weather updates himself.

Besides broadcasting, Zafran also does acting and voice work, including various radio and TV ads, and you may have seen him pretending to be a pharmacist on posters at your local Jean-Coutu. Before joining CBC in 2011, he did various on-air roles for 940 News and Q92.

Canadian NHL TV broadcast schedules for 2019-20

With days to go before the first preseason games, the regional TV broadcasters for Canada’s seven NHL teams have released their schedules, and we now have an almost full accounting of where every game will be broadcast.

There are few changes from last year. The regional broadcasters for each team are the same (Sportsnet for the Canucks, Flames and Oilers, TSN for the Jets, Senators and Canadiens, and both for the Leafs) and the splits are about the same, with between 36 and 40 national games where Sportsnet also has the regional rights, and between 22 and 32 national games for teams where Sportsnet doesn’t.

Here’s the national/regional split by team:

  • Canucks: 36/46
  • Oilers: 40/42
  • Flames: 39/43
  • Jets: 22/60
  • Leafs: 40/42
  • Senators (English): 27/55
  • Senators (French): 30/52
  • Canadiens (English): 32/50
  • Canadiens (French): 22/60

In French, TVA Sports retains national rights and RDS still has the regional rights for the Canadiens and Senators.

But that could change next season. The Flames and Oilers TV and radio contracts are up in 2020. And though it would be a surprise if Sportsnet didn’t renew its TV rights, there might be a fight for the Oilers’ radio contract, currently held by Corus’s CHED, against Bell Media’s TSN Radio.

Here’s how it all breaks down per team.

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Radio ratings: The Beat still at twice Virgin’s audience

Numeris has released top-line numbers for its summer ratings period, and those figures show The Beat still at twice Virgin’s audience, while CJAD’s audience has continued to slip.

Here’s the market share for Montreal anglophones, ages 12+, for May 27 to Aug. 25, 2019:

  1. CJAD 800: 25.6%
  2. The Beat 92.5: 20.8%
  3. CHOM 97.7: 12.2%
  4. Virgin Radio 95.9: 10.7%
  5. CBC Radio One: 6.8%
  6. TSN Radio 690: 3.4%
  7. CBC Music: 2.4%
  8. Rythme 105,7: 2.4%
  9. 98,5fm: 2.3%

Remaining stations are below 2%.

Virgin has tried turning things around by replacing its morning team of Freeway and Natasha with Cousin Vinny and Shannon King. It’s too early to tell if that had any impact on ratings. But at least Virgin has climbed back above CBC, which it was below during the last ratings book.

Among Montreal francophones (also 12+, May 27 to Aug. 25, 2019):

  1. 98,5fm: 16.3%
  2. Rythme 105,7: 13.8%
  3. ICI Première: 12.0%
  4. 107,3 Rouge: 11.4%
  5. CKOI: 10.2%
  6. CHOM 97.7: 6.1%
  7. Énergie: 5.9%
  8. The Beat 92.5: 5.4%
  9. Virgin Radio 95.9: 4.3%
  10. ICI Musique: 2.6%
  11. 91,9 Sports: 1.7%

Remaining stations are below 1%.

Not much change here, with news-talk station 98,5 ahead and Rythme the top music station. Énergie’s numbers are very low, falling below CHOM. Expect some change there if the numbers don’t rebound soon. Their numbers were so bad they made a video making fun of the very idea of ratings.

The spin zone

Citytv cancels Breakfast Television Montreal

(Updated with social media posts from on-air talent)

Breakfast Television Montreal is no more. Staff were informed just after Thursday’s show that it was their last one.

Eight jobs will be lost as a result of the cancellation. It leaves 41 Rogers Media employees in Montreal — 21 at CityNews and OMNI, and 20 in sales.

“This decision was very difficult, but at the end of the day, the show was not sustainable,” an emailed statement quoted Colette Watson, SVP of Television & Broadcast Operations, Rogers Media, as saying. “We remain deeply committed to the local market in Montreal and are redirecting resources to our news presence in Montreal at CityNews and OMNI Television with Italian news and the launch of a national third-language newscast next year in support of our OMNI 9(1)(h) licence. We recognize and thank all employees who worked at BT Montreal over the years for their incredible work and commitment and making mornings brighter for our viewers.”

BT Montreal had just celebrated its sixth anniversary.

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Media News Digest: Quebec hearings, RIP Comedy Gold/CosmoTV/IFC, Bergman replaces McMahon at The Beat

News about news

News and the federal election

At the CRTC

Ethical reviews

TV

Radio

Print

Online

News about people

Obituaries

Good reads

  • A good breakdown of how the G7 leaders released photos that, for the most part, distorted reality to make it seem as if they were leading the other leaders.

Jobs

*Correction: I was off by one on the Canucks games’ regional/national split because of a typo on Sportsnet’s website.

Sportsnet, TSN, BeIN, DAZN — Is sports TV getting too expensive?

If you only follow the big North American sports and only care about your local team, you might not be familiar with DAZN. But if you watch the English Premier League, one of the top leagues of international soccer, you’ve had to become very familiar with them this month.

Though the deal was announced in April, it was only when the season started on Aug. 9 that Canadians started really noticing that their EPL games are no longer available on TV. Instead, they have to shell out $20 a month for DAZN, a two-year-old streaming service. And they have to figure out how to get that streaming service to work on their TVs.

For many people, it was complicated and expensive, so they wrote in to their local newspaper and asked it to write about the problem. And that local newspaper turned to me.

In Saturday’s Gazette, I have a story about DAZN’s new deal for the EPL, and talk to a bar owner and a stay-at-home fan about what it’s meant for them. I also talk to DAZN itself about how they’re keeping their fans satisfied after botching the rollout of NFL games in 2017.

You can read the story for all of that fun stuff. But I also asked Norm Lem, SVP of revenue at DAZN Canada, about what he sees as the future of sports broadcasting in general, as consumers have seen prices go up and the number of services they have to subscribe to increase. I also asked him if we should expect DAZN to bid for something bigger, like rights to Canadian NHL matches, Blue Jays, Raptors or CFL.

Here’s what he had to say.

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Deep dive: Exploring the features of Videotron’s new Helix platform

Videotron CEO Jean-François Pruneau and Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau pose for cameras at the launch of Helix at Videotron headquarters in Montreal on Aug. 27, 2019.

After 18 months of development and testing among 3,000 of its employees, Videotron launched its Helix IPTV platform on Tuesday.

Based on Comcast’s X1 platform, Helix joins the Ignite TV platform by Rogers and the Blue Sky TV platform by Shaw, also based on the same technology. Three of Canada’s four largest cable companies (Cogeco uses a TiVo-based system) now have products that can compete with Bell’s Fibe TV, offering features like restart (watch a currently airing or recently aired program that was not recorded) or cloud-based PVR.

I went to Tuesday’s launch event to report on it for Cartt.ca, and asked the people there a bunch of really technical questions. Here, based on their answers and my own opinions, is some analysis of the features in the new Helix system:

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CBC Montreal taps Sabrina Marandola for new Radio One afternoon show

Updated Aug. 30 with comments from Marandola.

CBC’s Sabrina Marandola.

CBC Montreal has found a permanent replacement for Sue Smith, who departed its afternoon radio show Homerun at the end of June. And not only a new host, but a new name and a new focus.

Let’s Go with Sabrina Marandola, which starts Tuesday (still 3-6pm weekdays), will focus on the local community, according to the CBC’s story on the subject:

This is going to be a show that will leave people feeling informed and upbeat about their city. I think many people are tired of being inundated with bad news. Let’s Go will delve into the important issues we all care about, but will bring you stories of people who are trying to find solutions and make a difference.

Part of that sounded like either a rebranding exercise or an attempt to replace hard news with more fluffy feel-good stuff, so I asked Marandola about it.

“I really feel people are really tired of negative news, and I speak to a lot of people (who say) I really tune out of the news, it’s really negative a lot of the time,” she told me. “I want to really leave people with an upbeat feeling about the place where they live.”

Marandola insists they will still be tackling the hard news, not just in the regular newscasts (which won’t change) but in the show’s segments as well.

“We’re still talking about the issues that matter to people. It’s really just the angle we choose to cover.”

She gave an example of spring flooding in Quebec. On Homerun, the instinct might be to find a flood victim to interview, to talk about the financial and emotional toll of the devastation. But with Let’s Go, Marandola prefers to talk to someone who can help listeners with information, on how to get compensation from the government, for example.

It’s more about solutions than problems.

“Homerun, it did a lot of that already,” she noted. “With this new show, I want that to be our focus. That is the thread throughout the show. With Homerun it kind of organically happened.”

Another focus of Let’s Go will be meeting new people and learning new things.

“One of the questions we’ll be asking ourselves in the morning meeting is: Are we meeting someone new? I want to meet someone new every day,” Marandola said.

She also wants to have more panel discussions, featuring people at a table who don’t normally talk to each other much. Like a millennial and a senior. Trying to find common ground between them.

And she wants to talk about Montreal beyond its anglo hot spots of the west end and West Island. Coming from the east end, she knows “there’s huge English-speaking communities there,” along with places like Châteauguay, Laval and Brossard.

“I want to bring stories from all different places of the Montreal area,” she said.

The basic structure of the show, with news, weather and traffic reports, and regular columnists including Duke Eatmon (music) and Douglas Gelevan (sports) won’t change. Nor will the people behind the scenes, including producer Allan Johnson.

But one addition to the team is a transportation columnist, Akil Alleyne. (He was one of the reporters that launched CityNews Montreal. Even though that was only a year ago, most of that group has already moved on. Andrew Brennan and Emily Campbell were recently hired by CTV Montreal.) Once a week, he’ll be filing a story about some transportation issue, talking to commuters or answering questions from them.

With the recent launch of electric Bixis, for example, Marandola said Alleyne would try them out and offer a perspective on how it works and whether it would be useful for listeners.

So why the name change? Marandola didn’t choose the name. That was higher up the chain.

“We researched a bunch of names,” explained Debbie Hynes, regional manager of communications for CBC. “One of the things we liked about this name, and the audience liked about it, it’s the idea of movement,” which works for the time of day when parents are picking up kids from school or heading home after work.

Marandola, who saw a list of potential show names during the process, said Let’s Go was, coincidentally, “kind of a catchphrase in our (very Italian) family,” and fits her well.

I talked to her shortly after she had a chance meeting with former Homerun host Sue Smith, who came into the office unannounced on Friday. She told me that while they’ve been in touch over the past few weeks, Marandola hadn’t gotten any advice from Smith (and of course, it’s her show, she’s not trying to replicate Smith), but she’d try to corner her before she leaves.

“I really already miss Sue. It’s so strange being here and not hearing her laugh or seeing her in the office.”

The new show has a Twitter account, @LetsGoCBC.

Let’s Go with Sabrina Marandola airs weekdays 3-6pm on CBC Radio One in Montreal, starting Sept. 3.

Groupe Capitales Médias files for creditor protection — What’s next?

Updated Aug. 21 with news of Métro Média’s interest.

Groupe Capitales Médias, the newspaper company started by Martin Cauchon when he bought six daily newspapers from Gesca in 2015, made good on rumours that it wouldn’t make it to the end of the month, filing for creditor protection on Monday.

The newspapers continue producing while their journalists await their fate:

  • Le Soleil in Quebec City
  • Le Nouvelliste in Trois-Rivières
  • Le Quotidien in Saguenay (which also publishes the weekly Le Progrès)
  • La Tribune in Sherbrooke
  • La Voix de l’Est in Granby
  • Le Droit in Ottawa/Gatineau

The stakes are serious, because there isn’t a lot of competition in this space. Quebec City has Le Journal de Québec, but Trois-Rivières, Saguenay and Granby don’t have other daily newspapers. Sherbrooke and Ottawa/Gatineau have English dailies but no other French ones. And Le Droit represents not only francophones of the national capital region, but Ontario francophones as a whole. Simply put, except for Quebec City there is no direct competitor that will take these newspapers’ places.

Without them, a lot of news will simply go unreported.

The Quebec government has stepped in with an emergency $5-million loan, which will get it to the end of the year. By that time, a new plan will need to be in place. That likely means new ownership, but in what form?

There’s no end to speculation about the group’s future. So let’s break down the suggestions and analyze them here:

Quebecor

The media empire is reportedly in talks with GCM. It makes sense on a few levels: Quebecor is already in the print media space, it owns TV stations in Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Saguenay and Trois-Rivières (and has an affiliate in Gatineau) that could benefit from news synergies.

But Quebecor has already owned regional newspapers, back when it was a competitor to Transcontinental in the community newspaper wars. That war ended with Quebecor selling all its weeklies to Transcontinental, and later Transcontinental selling all its papers to local owners for peanuts. Quebecor tried expanding to Saguenay with a Saguenay edition of Le Journal de Québec, but that edition quietly closed. (Quebecor also owned a weekly in Saguenay, but locked out its employees and later saw it disappear entirely.)

There’s also the competition concern in Quebec City, where Quebecor would own both daily newspapers. It’s unclear what the government would do about this. The Competition Bureau had no problem with Postmedia buying Sun Media, and owning both daily paid-subscription newspapers in Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton. But it’s still investigating the community newspaper deal between Postmedia and Torstar, in which newspapers were swapped and immediately shut down.

If Quebecor did buy the chain (or the chain minus Le Soleil), it would be an admission that having a media empire is better than having no local media at all.

La Presse

These six newspapers used to belong to the same company as La Presse, which was at the time owned by Power Corp. But as La Presse shifted to a tablet-based publication, and the others maintained their print products, at some point it was decided to separate them, and Cauchon (with a source of funding that remains unclear) stepped in and bought them (for an amount we still don’t know).

Despite the separation, the publications maintain links, including content sharing (which would disappear if Quebecor was the buyer).

The big advantage is that it would be the closest to maintaining the status quo. But La Presse isn’t swimming in cash either, and is making similar demands to governments for financial aid.

Le Devoir

Quebec’s only independent daily newspaper wants to help, but it doesn’t have the money. It has a particular affinity for Le Soleil. And Le Devoir has a strong presence in Quebec City already with its sizeable bureau in the National Assembly press gallery. They also have existing business partnerships — Le Devoir is going to use GCM’s software for its tablet edition, and GCM sells national ads for Le Devoir.

If Le Devoir took Le Soleil and Quebecor took the rest, that might solve competition concerns. But we’re still back to the same problem that Le Devoir doesn’t have the money to buy a newspaper, much less an entire chain.

Local owners

It’s the feel-good option: break up the chain and find local owners in each community to take control. It’s what Transcontinental did when it decided to get out of the community newspaper business. But owning a daily newspaper is much more of a financial commitment than a community one.

And selling to local owners is no guarantee. Those owners generally get their money from other industries, and are more likely to compromise their ethics when it comes to promoting those industries. And even if they’re purely altruistic, once that good will wears off, those papers could end up shutting down anyway.

Plus, selling to a series of local owners would be complicated and take time. This needs to be figured out in a matter of months.

The Journal de Montréal talked to two of the companies that bought Transcon newspapers, and both say there’s no interest in taking over the money-losing company. (Transcontinental itself also is not interested.)

Métro Média

One group that bought newspapers from Transcontinental is interested, though. Métro Média, the group owned by businessman Mike Raffoul and which purchased Montreal’s Métro daily and community weeklies in Montreal and Quebec City, is interested, it told La Presse.

Such a takeover would provide some synergies in the national capital, and create a chain that had a presence in both Montreal and Quebec’s other large cities. But Métro Média is still new, and less experienced in paid subscription newspapers.

Employee co-op

CSN says its unions are interested in taking over the papers and having them be employee-run. It’s another feel-good option, in the same vein as a non-profit. But would an employee-run (or union-run) shop be willing to make the staffing cuts necessary to stay in the black? Would it have the financial capacity to make major investments when necessary? Would it have the courage to stand up to the CSN if that union is its de facto owner?

Maybe. None of these things are dealbreakers, but the co-op model isn’t a magic solution either.

Cogeco

La Presse said they were interested, but Cogeco has repeatedly denied it on the record. Cogeco owns radio stations in most of these markets, so there’s some synergy sense there, but considering its experience with TQS (it was an owner of the TV network when Quebecor was forced to sell it to buy Videotron and TVA in 2001, then it went bankrupt before being bought by the Rémillard family), it’s unlikely the company wants to gamble away a bunch of money for little gain.

Postmedia (or other anglo Canadian chain)

No one has seriously suggested this, but it should be included in such a list. As much as I’d love to have sister newspapers across Quebec (and Le Soleil used to be owned by Conrad Black’s Hollinger chain), the biggest problem is that Postmedia, Torstar et al don’t have any French-language news assets, so don’t stand to gain much in terms of synergy. And, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, they don’t have a lot of money lying around.

The government

Nationalizing GCM sounds like a bad idea, and the Quebec government has already ruled it out.

It doesn’t really matter

In the end, though, regardless of who buys GCM and its newspapers, the business needs to change. Even a rich owner isn’t going to cover deficits forever. That means there will need to be cuts to staff, or new revenues, or direct government support, or some combination of all those things. Le Devoir’s Brian Myles talks about following his paper’s model, focusing more on subscription revenues. The Quebec government will be expected to consider more direct support when it conducts hearings next week. And the Canadian government is putting in place a tax credit system to help. There are also proposals like taxing telecommunications companies and using that money to support news media.

Speculating about potential new owners is fun, but the real problem is that this is a broken business, and someone needs to come up with a plan to fix it.

Media News Digest: APTN French news, radio rebrands, newspaper chain in trouble

News about news

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Virgin Radio 95.9 fires Freeway Frank, Natasha Gargiulo, brings in Cousin Vinny and Shannon King

Updated with announcement of new hosts.

“Freeway” Frank Depalo and Natasha Gargiulo in 2011.

Until Wednesday, these were the two big faces of Montreal’s Virgin Radio station. On Thursday the station was pretending they never existed. Standard operating procedure in the industry, unfortunately.

“Freeway Frank” Depalo and Natasha Gargiulo, who have been together on the morning show since shortly after The Beat launched in 2011, disappeared from the station’s website, Mike Cohen noticed yesterday. They confirmed the news in a video posted on Thursday.

Thursday morning, in their place on air were Lee Haberkorn and Kelly Alexander, hosting the nameless “Virgin Radio Mornings” with no mention of the previous hosts, talking about various lifestyle topics like nothing changed.

Cousin Vinny and Shannon King in their new publicity photo.

On Monday morning, Virgin announced its new lineup, finally confirming the rumour that it had hired Cousin Vinny Barrucco back from The Beat. He’s being paired with Shannon King, who comes from Kiss radio in Sudbury.

Barrucco left The Beat six months ago and promised recently he would soon announce where he’s going. So apparently his non-compete clause is six months.

Bell Media did not respond to my request for comment about the firing, and made no mention of Freeway and Natasha in its announcement of its new lineup. None of the remaining Virgin personalities have commented publicly on social media about their departed colleagues, likely because they were told to by management, which makes them seem heartless to some listeners.

Also in the new Virgin lineup:

  • Lee Haberkorn, who was the third person on the morning team, gets promoted to afternoon drive host, where he’ll do a shift from 3-8pm.
  • Charli Paige gets the entire daytime to herself, going from 10am to 3pm weekdays. This puts an end to the experiment where a syndicated Ryan Seacrest show aired during the weekday. It started in 2012 after Virgin filled the hole that Barrucco left by hiring Andrea Collins.
  • Adam Greenberg, who was hosting afternoons, switches with Haberkorn and becomes the third guy on the morning team as content producer for the show and its social media.

Going with a three-show lineup between 5:30am and 8pm, each one about five hours long, shows Bell Media will still be stretching the shifts of its announcers — The Beat has four shifts in that time and starts its evening show at 7pm.

The new lineup announcement doesn’t mention Kelly Alexander, who has been with the station since 2007 and seems to have been passed over for a promotion to a more prominent (and stable) job once again. She’s currently hosting weekends.

Virgin also recently parted ways with program director Mark Bergman, who surprisingly resurfaced at The Beat. He has been replaced by Blair Bartrem.

Virgin Radio’s loyal audience, like any other, isn’t pleased with two personalities they have spent a decade getting to know suddenly disappearing without a word. A video posted to Facebook teasing the new show generated more than 200 comments, mostly negative. A video announcing the new hosts generated 180 comments in three hours, and 89 “angry” reaction emotes.

Firing on-air talent is never easy, but perhaps it’s time for radio stations in particular to re-examine how they go about it. You never want to put someone you’ve just fired in front of a live microphone, but in the age of social media, they kind of have one anyways. A little heart can go a long way. And the fact that Virgin has had this in the works for six months just makes it worse.

Listeners will be wondering why this change was made. The most logical answer is ratings. Virgin slipped behind CHOM and even CBC Radio One in the last ratings book, and the morning show, though not always the highest rated, tends still to be the anchor of the schedule. With the trend against The Beat continuing its slide, a change had to be made. At first, when The Beat climbed above Virgin in the overall ratings, Virgin could content itself to owning the 25-54 demographic, but even that slipped away as the two continued to diverge.

I’m not sure how much this will change things. The music tends to come first, especially when daytime announcers are limited to breaks of only a few seconds between songs. But we’ll see.

UPDATE: I wrote about the change for the Montreal Gazette. Bell Media isn’t making anyone at the station available for an interview.

Bell reaches deal to buy V network

Megacorporation BCE has filled one of the holes in its vast media empire, announcing this morning it has reached an agreement to purchase Quebec’s French-language V network of television stations, along with its video platform noovo.ca.

The deal, whose financial terms were not disclosed (but will be when it gets to the CRTC), does not include V’s specialty channels, ELLE Fictions (formerly MusiquePlus) and MAX (formerly Musimax). That’s because those channels were originally sold to V by Bell as a condition of getting regulatory approval for Bell’s purchase of Astral Media in 2013.

Bell buying V has been one of those transactions that’s been rumoured for a long time. Bell doesn’t own a conventional television network in French, but it does own many French-language specialty channels. V, though it has undergone a renaissance since the Rémillard brothers bought it from Cogeco in 2008, is still a struggling network trying to find a way to make money going up against the Quebecor-powered TVA and taxpayer-funded Radio-Canada.

It’s far from certain Bell will convince the CRTC to approve the deal. Though the addition of the V network would not increase subscription revenues, which Quebecor has fiercely complained about, it would add significantly to Bell’s audience share, which is how the CRTC judges market dominance in television.

According to Numeris data, V has about a 7% share overall among Quebec francophones. TVA has a 24% share, and Bell’s CTV a 1% share. Quebecor’s specialty channels, which include TVA Sports, LCN, CASA and Yoopa, have a 13% share, and Bell’s specialty channels a 16% share.

Overall:

  • Quebecor: 37%
  • Bell: 17%
  • V (not including specialty): 7%
  • Bell + V after transaction: 24%

The CRTC is normally inclined to approve transactions when the combined market share is less than 35%, but I suspect they’ll take a closer look at this anyway.

Expect some serious opposition from Quebecor to this deal, and from CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau in particular.

A net good, or a net bad?

For opponents of vertical integration, this deal seems bad, putting yet another independent broadcaster in the hands of one of the big players. After the disappearance of Astral and Serdy as independent players in the Quebec French-language marketplace, consumer choice is getting more and more restricted.

But Bell’s big pockets could also revitalize V and make it a more formidable competitor to Quebecor’s TVA. Under Bell, V would presumably no longer get special treatment from the CRTC, meaning it would probably see an increase in its requirements for local news and would no longer be eligible for its $3 million share of the $22-million Independent Local News Fund, which would be reallocated to other independent stations like CHCH, NTV, CHEK, and affiliates owned by Pattison, Thunder Bay, Télé Inter-Rives and RNC Media. (The fund will be up for re-evaluation in 2021.)

It’s not clear if V would have survived without this transaction (or will if it’s denied). In Bell’s press release, Maxime Rémillard talks about needing to “ensure the continuity of this success”:

“After 10 years of ensuring V’s success as an independent conventional channel, I am proud to have found in Bell Media a partner to ensure the continuity of this success,” said Maxime Rémillard, President and Founder, Groupe V Média. “The industry in which we are evolving is constantly, deeply and rapidly changing. This was true when we took over the reins of TQS and allowed the network to survive; it is all the more true today. As it is increasingly difficult to ensure the sustainability of a conventional channel within a non-integrated group, I have made the best decision for the future of V. Bell Media will certainly allow V to continue to evolve and reach out to the Québec public on a massive scale.”

There’s also the question of what happens to the two specialty channels if this deal goes through. On one hand, being specialty-only might be good for the bottom line, because specialty channels generally make more than conventional ones. On the other hand, V loses its biggest marketing vehicle, and its specialty channels are hovering around the break-even point, according to CRTC data.

V owns the following five stations:

  • CFJP-DT Montreal
  • CFAP-DT Quebec City
  • CFKM-DT Trois-Rivières
  • CFKS-DT Sherbrooke
  • CFRS-DT Saguenay

In addition, there are three affiliates of V owned by other companies that are not part of this transaction, but would benefit from changes in network programming and from re-allocation of the Independent Local News Fund:

RNC Media:

  • CFGS-DT Gatineau
  • CFVS-DT Val-d’Or

Télé Inter-Rives:

  • CFTF-DT Rivière-du-Loup

The transaction requires CRTC approval, and likely that of the Competition Bureau, before it can close. Once the CRTC application is published, it will be open to public comment.

UPDATE: Try to contain your shock at the news that Quebecor doesn’t like this deal.

See also: Some analysis from the Globe and Mail’s Konrad Yakabuski.

Loopholes in the written journalism bailout panel report

It’s called the Journalism and Written Media Independent Panel of Experts. Eight people proposed by organizations (two of them unions) hand-picked by the federal government, who were supposed to set the criteria for how to determine what are “Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations” that would be eligible for a tax credit on labour and another one on news subscriptions, part of a $595-million bailout package over five years.

This week, the panel submitted its report to the government. It sets some criteria for how to judge whether an organization is doing real journalism (or real enough to deserve a tax credit), but it also leaves me with a lot of questions. The headline to the report is that the panel thinks the funding is insufficient and is calling on a lot more to be added to the budget (this is not something it was asked to look at in its mandate). It also demands the government greatly increase its ad spend on newspapers and newspapers’ websites, and change the Copyright Act to force digital giants (presumably Google) to compensate news organizations, more things it was not asked to comment on.

As someone who enjoys finding loopholes in rules, I’d like to go through the report and point out some of them.

Preamble: Journalists aren’t accredited

It might surprise a lot of non-journalists to hear this, but there is no central authority that decides who is and is not a journalist. There are organizations, like the Parliamentary Press Gallery or the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec that set criteria and will authenticate journalists in some way, but there are many professional journalists that are part of neither, whose only credentials are given by their employer and have no legal powers attached to them.

This is by design. In Canada, anyone can be a journalist. The profession is not regulated, and allowing the government to decide who can and cannot practice it would be a Very Bad Idea.

So when we talk about giving money to journalism, we have to define what that is. Hence the panel, set up for the sole purpose of laying down some criteria, which would be applied by others. It’s not an easy job, and any rules you set only lead to more problems, as we’ll see below.

Let the CRA decide, or maybe journalism professors

In the interests of moving quickly, we have recommended that the tax credits be implemented and administered directly by the Canada Revenue Agency. We have recommended that the Government appoint an advisory body, with members drawn from the faculty of post-secondary journalism schools across Canada, to assist the Minister of National Revenue with this program.

The panel proposes that rather than a new government bureaucracy, the Canada Revenue Agency itself make calls on whether an organization should qualify for a tax credit. This is a good idea. The CRA is independent of partisan interests, and staffed by accountants who can be trusted, at least more than a politically-appointed body, to apply the criteria objectively.

But then, if the CRA is unsure (and I would be pretty unsure about a lot of organizations here), it can turn to an “advisory body” made up exclusively of journalism professors. The panel makes the assumption that such professors would be similarly objective (perhaps even more so). I’m not sure why. University professors have a reputation of being more left-wing, and that might not sit well with more conservative media outlets.

“It has published at least 10 editions in the last 12 months”

This makes sense for print media, and for edition-based outlets like La Presse+. But what does “edition” mean in terms of a website? How many “editions” has this blog put out? Or CBC.ca? Or the National Observer? Or iPolitics? These organizations wouldn’t be eligible anyway for other reasons, but this line alone seems to betray the fact that this isn’t about saving journalism as a whole or written journalism, it’s about saving newspapers and former newspapers.

“…in the case of web sites that offers video and audio files, at least 60% of the content is written.”

This makes sense until you ask yourself the obvious question: How do you quantify audiovisual content in a way that can compare to written content? Is it by file size? That’s unfair because video is so much larger. Is it by time spent consuming it? Then you’d have to establish some average reading speed. Or maybe one story = one video or podcast, regardless of length of either?

Even if we could establish some proper criteria for this, it encourages a gaming of the system, by finding a cheap source of written content and/or artificially restricting the amount of multimedia content.

“Journalistic processes”

To determine what qualifies as “original written news content,” a phrase used in the legislation for both the labour tax credit and the digital subscription tax credit,  the committee provides these “processes and principles”:

Journalistic processes and principles include:

  • a commitment to researching and verifying information before publication;
  • a consistent practice of providing rebuttal opportunity for those being criticized and presenting alternate perspectives, interpretations and analyses;
  • an honest representation of sources;
  • a practice or correcting errors.

These sound great (well, except for that unfortunate typo in the sentence about correcting errors). And most serious news organizations follow these principles. Most of the time. But how do you enforce this? Leave it to the CRA to determine whether enough errors were corrected by a publication, or whether enough research and verification was done on enough stories? There is no central body regulating written media, and even if you made membership in an organization like the National Newsmedia Council a condition for getting the tax credit (and it’s not), such bodies act only on complaints and have no real power.

Content mix

Content not considered as editorial content: advertisements, listings, catalogues, directories, guides, financial reports, schedules, calendars, timetables, comic books, cartoons, puzzles, games and horoscopes. Advertisements include promotional content, sponsored content, branded content (any content where a third party, advertising client or business partner, participates in the development of the concept or directs or gives final approval to a large portion of the content) as well as stories produced primarily for industrial, corporate or institutional purposes.

This is interesting, and at first glance it would seem to mean that publications that have large amounts of listings, ads or cartoons wouldn’t qualify. But the point of this paragraph is actually to exclude all this content from the calculation of how much editorial content is original to the publication, and seems specifically designed to tilt the scale in favour of newspapers and other publications that have a lot of advertisements and other non-news content.

The original news content (or original editorial content) is the content for which research, writing, editing and formatting are conducted by and for the organization. This original content should represent more than 50% of the publication’s editorial content, over the course of the year. The rewriting, translation, reproduction or aggregation of news from external sources (including articles from news agencies or any other publication) is not considered original news content. The publication of this type of content must not represent the principal activity of the journalistic organization, in order for it to be eligible.

There’s a lot to unpack here:

  • What is “the organization”? A lot of newspapers are part of chains. Does the organization mean the individual newspaper or the chain?
  • Does “editing and formatting” mean that newspapers that outsource things like page layout would be ineligible?
  • If a publication is more than 50% wire content, it would not be eligible. But how is this counted? By number of stories? By number of words published? How do you calculate that for a website that might have automated feeds of wire stories?
  • The paragraph makes “rewriting” and “aggregation” of news not count towards the quota. But how strict are these definitions? If a newspaper matches a story from a competitor with one of its own, or a column summarizes something reported elsewhere, does this not count as original content?

Democratic institutions

To be considered as an eligible QCJO, the publication must regularly cover democratic institutions and processes.

Democratic institutions include legislatives bodies, municipal councils, courts of justice, school boards, etc.

Democratic processes has a broader scope, and includes all issues of public interest that may come before government or any other public decision body.

Another clause that nudges us toward traditional newspapers and away from specialized media, this one requires eligible organizations to “regularly cover” (another undefined term) legislatures, courts or school boards (or other unspecified “etc.”). This might seem obvious, but we live in a world where many legislatures aren’t covered by journalists full-time. There are lots of journalists at Parliament Hill or Queen’s Park or the National Assembly, but in smaller provinces like Saskatchewan, New Brunswick or PEI, you can fit their full-time press galleries in the back of a van. It’s not a given that all traditional media would meet this criterion, and the vague way it’s described would mean more work for the CRA.

General interest

Furthermore, the publication must be focused on matters of general interest. It means that:

  • it is aimed at a general audience (lay persons) rather than specialists of a specific field,
  • it offers a diversity of content, including at least 3 among the following 9 areas: local news; national news; international news; social issues (such as health, education, faith and ethics); business and economy; sports; culture; science and technology; environment.

This brings up an important question: Why is this aid only for general interest newspapers? Is it just assumed that more specialized media are bankrolled indirectly by the industries they cover? One consequence of this is that it artificially tips the scale toward general interest media, and will discourage such media from becoming more specialized, even if that might be in their economic, readers’ and even society’s best interest. (This is a problem with the legislation, mind you, not the panel’s work.)

No freelancers

The expression “regularly employs” refers to the employment of journalists at regular intervals, either fulltime or part-time, even if their position is temporarily unoccupied.

This sentence, which gives context to an element of the legislation requiring at least two journalists, makes it clear that freelancers don’t count. That would exclude many media who rely mainly on freelancers. Not necessarily a bad thing, but worth noting.

Who is a journalist?

The term “journalists” should be understood in the broad sense given to it by media companies and professional associations of journalists, which includes all newsroom employees who exercise journalistic judgement in selecting, planning, assigning and producing news content, including research and collection of facts, data analysis, writing and copy editing, fact-checking, illustration, photography and videography, graphic presentation and adaptation of news content to digital formats.

This is a broad definition of journalist, but not overly so. It includes editors, managers, assignment editors, researchers, photojournalists and illustrators. But it doesn’t include people in administrative tasks or who work in non-editorial departments. It’s not clear how people who have multiple tasks will be counted. Do journalistic activities have to represent the majority of work for them to qualify as journalists? (The labour tax credit says it should be 75%, but it’s unclear if this same quota would apply to an organization that wants a digital news subscription tax credit.)

Ineligible organizations

publications whose editorial content is primarily reproduced or repeated from current or previous issues of the same or other publications;

This clause would seem to exclude publications that primarily reproduce content from other publications. That could cause a problem for organizations like Postmedia (my employer) and Quebecor, whose newspapers share a lot of content. Postmedia broadsheets, the Sun tabloids and the Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec share not only content, but entire pages between them for non-local news and features. Would they have to limit shared content to under 50%? It depends how this is interpreted.

publications with editorial content that is more than 50% of the following, singly or in combination: listings, catalogues, directories, guides, financial reports, schedules, calendars, timetables, comic books, cartoons, puzzles, games and horoscopes;

Wait, hold on. Above, they said “listings, catalogues, directories, guides, financial reports, schedules, calendars, timetables, comic books, cartoons, puzzles, games and horoscopes” are “not considered editorial content.” If they’re not editorial content, how can they possibly make up more than 50% of editorial content?

If we use this definition that apparently includes these things as editorial content, then this might cause trouble. A newspaper with a cartoon page, a puzzles page, a movie listings page, a TV listings page would have that all count against their editorial content (counted how exactly?) and on a slow news day might push it over the top.

Also note how the word “advertisements” is missing from this list, which is otherwise identical to the definition of “not considered editorial content” earlier in the report. That makes sense, but it also underscores the fact that nothing in this set of criteria sets any limit on the amount of advertising in a publication.

pamphlets and other publications whose editorial content consists mainly of opinion texts;

This might cause problems for publications that rely heavily on columnists.

Publication used for the diffusion of hate content;

This sounds good. It also sounds like something lots of activists will pounce on to argue publications they don’t like should have their tax credits revoked. But why are “hate content” publications allowed in the first place?

loose-leaf publications.

I don’t know why this is here. I can’t think of a publication that might otherwise be eligible that requires this clarification, or a reason why a publication that would otherwise be eligible should be disqualified because it’s distributed in loose-leaf form.

Experts must agree with us

The qualifications for panel members should include that they:

support the package of tax credits to help written news outlets covering general interest news

I mean, I guess it would be odd if a panel member opposed the thing they’re here to judge, but it feels weird to require an independent expert to support a political policy. If they express criticism of a tax credit, do they get booted off the panel?

Actually, maybe freelancers

Later, in its list of additional recommendations, the panel says:

Allowing small publications, which have served established audiences for more than 10 years but do not have two regular employees for the last 12 months, to be able to count freelancers and independent contractors among journalists who regularly contribute to the creation of original content in order to allow them to be considered Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations. This would include individuals who work as reporters, editors, page designers, photographers and columnists on a regular basis.

It’s unclear why freelancers shouldn’t count in general but should be allowed to count for small publications with fewer than two employed journalists. Allowing this exception essentially eliminates the entire point for setting that two-employed-journalist minimum in the first place.

Make Google pay

Reform the taxation system so that media companies that benefit from the use of Canadian content contribute to its creation. This includes social media, search platforms and internet providers. This can be done by creating a dedicated fund and redirecting levies paid by these entities to support Canadian news outlets.

I won’t go into all the out-of-mandate recommendations from the panel, which mostly translate into “more $$ plz”, but this one is pretty significant, requiring search engines and even internet providers to pay taxes to support Canadian news outlets. News organizations have repeatedly said Google and Facebook need to help them financially because they’re taking their content. Meanwhile those same organizations devote lots of time and resources to get their content as prominent as possible on Google and Facebook.

Amend the Copyright Act so that originating news outlets are properly compensated for the creation of copyrighted news material that is duplicated across digital platforms.

This isn’t explained, and it’s unclear what it means. Is it referring to when Google excerpts the content of pages in search results, or is it talking about the wholesale copying and pasting of entire stories on sketchy websites?

Transparency

A list of companies that have successfully filed for status as Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations be publicly available.

Good. Taxpayer money should be doled out transparently. Though it’s unclear if the CRA itself would publish this list or some other organization. And it’s unclear why companies that unsuccessfully apply shouldn’t also be publicly available.

Executive compensation

Given that the initiatives outlined in the budget legislation aim to support the creation of news content and coverage of democratic institutions, and that certain companies have eliminated jobs in their newsrooms at the same time as giving executive officers excessive compensation, this Panel strongly urges the Government to require qualifying organizations to recognize that they have an obligation to use publicly funded benefits for the intended purpose of investing in news operations by not awarding excessive compensation to executives at the same time as they receive assistance from the program.

Certain news organizations have been accused of spending too much on executive compensation while seeking a bailout. So some people have suggested this paragraph is aimed at a particular person or type of people.

Let Le Devoir in

The panel specifically recommends that the legislation that allows non-profit news organizations to get charitable status be amended so that organizations that support non-profit news organizations can also be charities. Le Devoir is supported by such an organization, and under the current law (which was drafted more to support La Presse) it wouldn’t be able to issue charitable tax receipts. This seems like a no-brainer, provided the assistance organization otherwise meets the definition of a charity and the news organization itself would otherwise be eligible.

Le Devoir reacted to the report with outrage, as if the report itself was the problem, rather than simply confirming what’s in the legislation and seeking changes on Le Devoir’s behalf. Quebecor, meanwhile, says the report shows the Liberals are in bed with La Presse, but doesn’t point to any specific part of the report or the law that unduly favours its competitor.

An improvised report with big consequences

This panel had only a month to come up with its recommendations, and had to work under the rules set by legislation they did not draft, so I don’t want to criticize them too much. But this report underscores the fact that defining what is and is not journalism is very hard, and not at all easy. Even though we know which kinds of media will likely get the most help (daily newspapers, news magazines plus La Presse), there’s a lot of play around the margins.

What’s more important, though, is that once the government sets some official standard for what constitutes a journalist or journalistic organization, that standard can be referenced or copied elsewhere, creating a slippery slope. Certain privileges meant for any journalist could be restricted to those who meet these criteria and are deemed eligible for the tax credit. Other privileges could be created that give officially accredited journalists more rights than the rest of us. And we need to think hard about the consequences of that.

Tax credits for journalism might be a good idea. But these tax credits support a very specific type of journalism to the detriment of others, and the criteria proposed here just add to the problems.

See also: Andrew Coyne has similar thoughts, expressed more sarcastically.

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