The press releases came out Tuesday afternoon and has been rewritten everywhere: CP, Presse Canadienne, Reuters, Financial Post, CBC, Toronto Star, Hamilton Spectator, LesAffaires.com, Broadcaster Magazine.
Channel Zero (warning: website has sound you can’t turn off), which owns Silver Screen Classics and Movieola, but also AOV Adult Movie Channel, XXX Action Clips Channel and Maleflixxx Television (latter three are Wikipedia links), has agreed to purchase two of Canwest’s five E! stations, CJNT in Montreal and CHCH in Hamilton.
The sale, which is for an undisclosed price (but presumably better than the $1 a station that Shaw was offering in what apparently turned out to be a bluff) is contingent upon the usual CRTC rubber stamp, but also on Canwest wrestling a new deal out of unionized employees at CHCH that would switch from a defined-benefit pension plan to a defined-contribution pension plan eliminate the employee pension plan and replace it with a defined contribution plan, throwing retirees under the bus. (CJNT staff, a grand total of six, are not unionized.) According to my ears at CHCH, the station’s staff are excited by the offer (except for the pension thing) and of the prospect for producing more local news.
Channel Zero has an FAQ posted on its website which actually does a pretty good job answering the kinds of questions this would prompt from skeptics like me. (They promise not to air adult material on either station, though … would that be such a bad thing for CJNT?)
The plan for CHCH is to turn it into an all-news station during the day (5:30 am to 8 pm) with movies in the evening. This capitalizes on CHCH’s unusually high local programming requirement of 36.5 hours per week, which Channel Zero has promised to maintain (it says it wants to keep license terms “substantially similar”, which suggests some changes).
For CJNT, the plan is to air foreign-language movies and multicultural music videos. It’s not clear if that means there will be fewer of the foreign-language talk shows that currently air, or if the celebrity gossip and second-rate U.S. imports will be cut off.
And the rest?
Even if the deal goes through, and that’s a big if, the other three stations in the E! network, CHEK Victoria, CHBC Kelowna (B.C.) and CHCA Red Deer (Alta.) are still up in the air. Canwest has made it more clear that they won’t keep the stations running after this summer, and if they can’t find a buyer for them they’ll be shut down.
But will it work?
CHCH News has an analysis of the deal and an interview with Channel Zero’s Cal Millar, which both sound very positive. People say they want local news, and this company seems prepared to inject funding to create a new all-news station. But CHCH host Mark Hebscher insightfully compares this to Toronto One, which failed as a locally-focused station two years later became bottom-feeding Sun TV.
Call me a skeptic, but Channel Zero has zero experience in running conventional television stations and zero experience with local news. Taking on CHCH is a big challenge, and I think the company is being overly optimistic about its proposed business model, even with the cut to pension expenses. Two or three years down the road, we may very well see Channel Zero come back to the CRTC and ask for reductions in local programming requirements and other commitments as it starts bleeding money.
But, like CHCH employees and their union leaders, I hope I’m wrong.
UPDATE (July 18): Channel Zero tells the CRTC the price of the sale was $12, both stations included.