Monthly Archives: September 2010

Tout l’monde transpire jusqu’aux orteils

I’m not necessarily in favour of spending millions of taxpayer dollars on massive air conditioning systems for the three or four weeks a year they’ll be useful, but I have to admit this Projet Montréal video is damn funny.

(The original, for those who haven’t seen it)

You can find the party’s dossier on the subject on its website. It includes those pictures of people holding up giant thermometers on the metro.

If only all public policy discussions involved dancers (and am I the only one who thinks it’s a missed opportunity that we don’t see Richard Bergeron, Luc Ferrandez and Peter McQueen prancing around a fake metro car?)

(via Projet Montréal on Twitter)

Front-seat driver

A woman sits on the bus driver's armrest greeting passengers

Maybe I’m being a bit of a prude, and insufficiently open-minded. And I know it can get boring when you’re driving a bus late at night.

But it just seems somewhat … inappropriate to have someone sitting with you in the driver’s seat as you’re driving the bus. Not only does it look rather unprofessional when people start to board the bus, but I’m pretty sure the people who tested the bus for safety don’t recommend people sit there.

There’s a seat right by the front door, and at this particular moment it’s unoccupied. Maybe you can sit there instead. Don’t worry, your conversation shouldn’t suffer.

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Kai Nagata takes over CTV’s Quebec bureau

Kai Nagata reporting live from outside in the cold last January

More than three months after posting an opening for a Quebec City reporter to replace the retiring John Grant, CFCF reached out and stole an up-and-comer from its direct competitor, hiring CBC Montreal reporter Kai Nagata for the job.

The station didn’t get much demand for the job internally, with much of its staff consisting of veterans who aren’t eager to move to a city that’s more than a two-hour drive away and doesn’t have much of an English scene.

“I think our current staff of reporters are pretty happy with what they’re doing now, and simply chose to stay put,” CTV Montreal news director Jed Kahane told me. “Most of them have deep roots in Montreal, with families and other personal commitments here, so I wasn’t expecting any internal applicants.”

So instead, he reached out to Nagata and offered him the job, which Nagata formally accepted last Friday.

“I’ve been watching Kai since he started at CBC and was always very impressed with his work,” Kahane said in a totally not-press-release-y way. “He’s a serious journalist with a lot of insight and commitment. He’s also a great storyteller who is at ease in front of the camera. I think what matters most in this profession is curiosity, a critical eye and a strong desire to inform the public responsibly. Kai has all of that; the rest he’ll learn.

“I saw him cover the opening day of Marc Bellemare’s testimony the other day for CBC’s The National, and he did a great job. I’m really excited he’s joining our team, and like his predecessor John Grant who is retiring at the end of the month, I’m confident Kai will earn the respect of our viewers.”

Nagata, 23, has only been working at the CBC since the spring of 2008. He moved to Montreal from Vancouver a year earlier to take Concordia’s graduate journalism diploma program. I’ve known him since then – we play the occasional soccer or board game. (So feel free to compensate for any bias this post may have in his favour.)

“A chance to step up my game”

Asked about his move, Nagata said he was both excited about this new adventure and sad that “I’m leaving behind the only journalistic family I’ve ever known. These are people I respect professionally but I also shared a lot of laughs and frustrations and cold cafeteria meals with. It’s not an easy thing to walk away from.”

Still, Nagata said he has felt “a sense of restlessness” that this new opportunity can help alleviate. “They’re giving me the chance to cover the biggest stories in the province for the biggest anglophone audience in the province and to immerse myself in francophone culture in a beautiful city and find out what I’m made of.”

“CBC went out of their way from the very beginning to challenge me and to present me with opportunities to cover these interesting stories and to go places and talk to people and to file nationally for radio and TV, but when it came down to it I just felt like the job that CTV is offering me is a chance to step up my game as a journalist.”

Nagata said he’s particularly glad that he’ll have something few television reporters have the luxury of these days: a beat. “Politics is about people,” he said. “There’s a lot of beats that I admire, but politics has always attracted me.”

What about CBC?

The CBC was gracious about Nagata’s career advancement, while putting a positive spin on it.

“Kai is very talented and we’ll miss him around here, but we’re happy for him and wish him all the best,” said News Director Mary-Jo Barr. “I’m proud to know our journalists at CBC Montreal are second to none, and are sought after by other organizations.”

Barr can hardly fault Nagata’s move. She herself used to work at CTV, and plenty of people have jumped from one station to the other.

Nagata gave his two weeks’ notice and plans to keep working until next Friday. He’s currently passing on specialized videojournalist training he received (“videojournalist” being CBC-ese for “working without a cameraman to save us money”) to one of the station’s other up-and-coming young journalists (and a former classmate of mine), Catherine Cullen.

Mind you, this hasn’t stopped him from already becoming friends with CTV staff through Twitter.

Nagata will join the CTV family starting Sept. 27, and spend a few days training with Grant. He takes over the beat on Oct. 1.

The convergence utopia

An updated chart can be found here.

It probably doesn’t matter to most people that Bell Canada’s parent company BCE announced on Friday that it was buying 100% of CTV. Bell already owned 15% of it, and had previously acquired CTV back in 2000 as part of a similar convergence play.

Ah, convergence. It’s been the buzzword in the big media companies for the past decade or so, with all the acquisitions that have taken place. Bell, a phone company, started up a satellite TV service, a DSL Internet service, and got into the broadcasting game in one giant swoop by acquiring CTV the first time, along with a growing number of TV specialty channels.

Rogers, which had a head start on the convergence business being a broadcaster, cable provider and wireless company, added a baseball team, other cable and wireless providers, and broadcasting assets including the sloppy seconds of the CTV/CHUM acquisition.

Quebecor, once a commercial printer and newspaper owner, bought a TV network, a cable and Internet service provider, and an entire newspaper chain.

Canwest, once a small television broadcaster, built up a national television network, bought a high-profile newspaper chain and a media company with a truckload of specialty channels. Now it in turn (minus the newspapers) has been bought up by Shaw, a cable provider that acquired a satellite TV provider.

With Shaw’s acquisition of Canwest and Bell’s acquisition of CTV, a pattern is emerging where each of the corporate empires has a TV provider, a wireless service, an Internet service, a national broadcast network, TV specialty channels, and maybe some radio and print assets on the side.

Shaw Quebecor Bell* Rogers
TV network Global TVA, Sun TV CTV, A Channel CityTV/OMNI
TV provider Shaw Cable/Shaw Direct Videotron cable/Illico Bell TV, Bell Fibe TV Rogers Cable
Internet Shaw Internet Videotron Bell Internet Rogers Internet
Wireless (Coming in 2011) Videotron wireless Bell Mobility, Virgin Mobile Canada Rogers Wireless, Fido, Chatr
Home phone Shaw cable VOIP Videotron cable VOIP Bell Canada Rogers home phone
Newspapers None Sun Media, Osprey Media Globe and Mail (15%) None
Other print None TVA Publications Report on Business Magazine Rogers Publishing (including l’Actualité, Maclean’s, Chatelaine, Canadian Business)
Specialty TV DejaView, Fox Sports World Canada, Global Reality, MovieTime, Mystery TV, TVtropolis, BBC Canada, BBC Kids, Discovery Health Canada, DIY Network, Food Network Canada, History Television, HGTV Canada, IFC Canada, National Geographic Channel Canada, Showcase/Action/Diva, Slice** LCN, Argent, addiktv, Yoopa, Les idées de ma maison, Prise 2, The Cave (51%) Business News Network, Comedy Network, CTV News Channel, TSN/TSN2, RDS, RIS, ESPN Classic, Discovery Channel (and related networks), BookTelevision, Bravo!, CP24, Comedy Gold (80.1%), FashionTelevision, MuchMusic (and related networks), Space, Star! Biography Channel, G4 Canada (66.67%), OLN, Rogers Sportsnet, Setanta Sports Canada (53.33%), The Shopping Channel
Radio None** None CHUM radio network (about 35 stations including CKGM Team 990 in Montreal) About 50 stations
Online publications None 12 assets, including
Other TVA Films, Archambault, Super Club Videotron The Source Toronto Blue Jays, Rogers Centre

*For the purpose of this chart, we’ll assume that the Bell purchase of CTVglobemedia goes through as advertised.

**Many people point to the Shaw family’s control of Corus Entertainment to suggest that Corus is unofficially a subsidiary of Shaw Communications. But if you think that way, you can add a bunch of specialty channels and radio stations to the Shaw column.

Filling the holes

Rather than worry too much about a telecommunications company wanting to spend billions on media assets when just about all media assets are falling in value, the business world is wondering: What’s next? Where is the next big acquisition or merger that puts a fifth column on that table?

Telus is the big name on everyone’s lips, because they have the audacity to just be a telecom company at the moment and therefore have a “content gap”. But Telus says they won’t get in this game.

Besides, there are other options. Just connect the dots as you like:


  • Telus (wireless, home phone, TV, Internet)
  • EastLink (cable, Internet)



Telecom and broadcasting

There’s also plenty of regional telecom companies, small newspaper publishers, book publishers and specialty TV channel owners that can be scooped up and disappear into the large conglomerates.

How this screws us over

“Today our three largest cable competitors are fully integrated and clearly we are not prepared to buy our content from our competitors”

That quote comes from a conference call that Bell had shortly after announcing the deal to buy CTV. The basic premise behind this deal isn’t that CTV is going to make Bell a lot of money by being a profitable business unit, but rather that CTV’s content will be a bargaining chip to get people to use Bell’s services.

Recently, Rogers launched a new TV channel called Sportsnet One. Even though it’s only available on Rogers cable (it hasn’t negotiated carriage on the other providers yet), Rogers decided to move Toronto Blue Jays games to Sportsnet One in order to get people to subscribe to the new channel. Since Rogers owns the baseball team, the television channel and the cable provider that carries it, it’s the ultimate convergence play.

And it’s royally screwing over Blue Jays fans.

Analysts don’t think Bell will be using blackmail to get people to switch over to its services. But they could. Want to watch NHL games on your mobile phone? You can’t unless you’re with Bell. Want TVA shows on demand? You can’t unless you have Videotron illico. Anything these companies can buy exclusive rights for, they will do it. The only things keeping them from forcing you to subscribe to a particular telecom in order to get some content are the CRTC (which doesn’t regulate mobile or online content) and business models that see more profits in maximum exposure than short-sighted consumer blackmail.

It’s not out of the realm of possibilities for one of these companies to pull some move that, like Sportsnet One, requires using a particular service to get something that used to be widely available. And if one company does that (and it’s successful), the others would probably follow. We could be a couple of years away from a country where you need to buy redundant services in order to get the content you want.

Save our local TV from … us?

Remember that “Save Local TV” campaign by the broadcasters who wanted us to convince the CRTC to force the cable and satellite companies to give money to TV broadcasters? And the corresponding “Stop the TV Tax” campaign from the cable and satellite companies to pressure the CRTC the other way? Well, since that campaign, Shaw took control of Global TV and BCE is about to take control of CTV. Quebecor, which owns both TVA and Videotron, didn’t participate in either campaign.

Bill Brioux remembers those campaigns, and is particularly pissed that a TV network with a “broken business model” just sold for billions.

They’re still arguing against each other at the moment, but how long can we expect that to last?

And there’s other concerns too. John Bowman points out that there’s little incentive to invest in quality broadcast equipment. And Iain Marlow suggests this may make it easier for the government to relax foreign ownership restrictions.

This kind of stuff will come up at the CRTC hearings into the takeover, though I’m doubtful that the commission will put up a major roadblock to it, despite opposition from opponents to media concentration.

It won’t work … or maybe it will

The biggest negative opinion about this deal is the simple argument that CTV won’t be a profitable venture for Bell any more than it was a decade ago. That’s what David Olive says, it’s what Howard Bernstein says, and Torstar (which sells its stake in CTV) is playing this up as a win for them, as is the Globe and Mail, which is breaking off (mostly) from the empire.

To be fair, some like the Globe’s Derek DeCloet believe this might make sense, pointing out that the price isn’t as ridiculously high as it was 10 years ago. Other analysts agree.

One of those sides will be proven right in a few years. Let’s hope, for the sake of consumer choice and healthy corporate competition, that bigger isn’t better.

Gazette launches lifestyle magazine, expands Driving section

The first issue of Urban Expressions magazine

Two projects I’ve been involved with over the past month were revealed to Gazette subscribers this week.

Today’s paper (at least the home-delivery version) couldn’t be rolled up very well because of a thick, 92-page magazine called Urban Expressions. It’s a lifestyle magazine filled with stories about fashion, home decor, food and other girly magazine stuff (no sex or relationship tips though).

And, of course, there’s lots of ads.

I was the copy editor for this issue, and lived it for about a week in August (which is why I didn’t post anything to this blog for 11 days), coming up with clever headlines and captions, and reading and re-reading every story to ensure everything was right (so if you find any typos, you can blame me).

Copy editing a magazine is definitely different from a newspaper. You have days, rather than hours. The stories are long, the pages all designed by a professional designer (in this case, The Gazette’s Susan Ferguson, who had an even more hellish time with this than I did, designing a whole magazine from scratch), and everything goes back and forth between different people who each have their own ideas.

The welcome message from editor Mark Tremblay is online. The magazine has its own website, but right now that’s just a media kit and a mockup magazine for advertisers to peruse.

Rachelle Lefevre cover story in Urban Expressions by Eva Friede

The cover story (like most magazines, this one has a giant picture of a pretty white girl on the cover) is about actress Rachelle Lefevre, who is known for her role in Twilight movies but is also in the upcoming Barney’s Version, a film based on the Mordecai Richler novel that just screened in Toronto. She talks to Gazette style editor Eva Friede about her love of the city and poses for pictures in what I understand are the latest fashions.

There’s also:

Local content returns to Driving

The other skybox-worthy change happened the day before, as the paper expanded its Monday Driving section to include some local content. The three-days-a-week Driving section hasn’t seen any regular original content since Jordan Charness’s automotive legal advice column was dropped in 2008.

Among the weekly features, which will be added to the back of the Monday Driving section, are:

There will also be more automotive news, either local or national.

I’m involved in the editing process of this, though only for the local content and I’m not the one laying it out and writing the headlines (now I know what our assignment editors feel like).

As you can imagine, both of these moves are designed to increase advertising revenue. Let’s hope it works.

In defence of Bixi

A year and a half ago, when the Bixi bicycle rental service was launched in Montreal, I was a bit skeptical of it. I thought it was a good idea, I thought it was useful, but to me the idea of spending $78 a year on a bicycle rental service seemed silly when you could buy a whole (albeit crappy and possibly stolen) bike for just a bit more.

In July, I took advantage of a new discount deal that was just too good to resist: In exchange for signing up for the STM’s Opus à l’année annual pass, I’d get a $59 discount on the price of a yearly Bixi pass. So instead of costing $78, it would cost just $19.

The procedure is a bit awkward to get the discount. First you have to subscribe to the yearly Opus pass, which automatically deducts the cost of a monthly pass from your bank account on the 15th of the month. Once that’s done, you have to email your name and address to the STM, telling them you want the Bixi discount. They give you a discount code, which you enter into the Bixi website when you sign up for a yearly pass. Eventually in the mail you get a new Opus card (you can’t subscribe to the yearly pass on an existing card, but on the other hand they don’t charge you to send another one) and a Bixi key like this one:

Underside of a Bixi key (with personally identifying data smudged out)

Anyway, on July 23, after registering my Bixi key with the system, I walked over to a nearby stand and at 12:23am I rented my first Bixi bike. According to Bixi’s records (they keep a running tab of your use on their website), I’ve used a Bixi 44 times since then for a total of 8 hours.

Though it might be fun to use Bixi as my main form of transportation, I live too far from work to be able to bike all the way there (it takes about 45 minutes to get downtown, while the Bixi starts charging after 30), and the basket is too small for my (admittedly large) backpack and regular grocery run. Still, it’s very useful for shorter trips, particularly those that would be less convenient using public transport either because they would require too many connections or because they’re at a time when buses don’t come as often. I use them regularly after a late night at work as an alternative to one of my two night buses.

Though I’ve become somewhat of a Bixi convert, hooking my bicycle helmet to my backpack when I head downtown, I’m still not sure about the economics. I think $78 is pretty expensive compared to the cost of a used bike, but I highly recommend Bixi at $19 a year (and note that, unlike their current promotion of $30 until the end of the season, the yearly Bixi pass is good for one calendar year, which means I can keep using mine until July 2011, albeit not during the winter when Bixi is not in service). And I’ve gotten a new appreciation of the convenience that Bixi offers. Not only can you pick up and dock the bike almost anywhere, but you don’t have to worry about locking it up, pulling off the seat, lights, front wheel and any other valuables, or dealing with any other elaborate anti-theft measures. All you need is a helmet (and that’s technically optional), and once the bike’s locked up you have no responsibility in the matter.

I bring this all up because of an article in The Gazette last week about a transportation survey conducted by McGill’s transportation research group. The survey, which is available online (PDF) via Andy Riga’s blog is quite long and filled with statistical analysis so dense I gave up on much of it, but one of the interesting points is that Bixi rides aren’t replacing car travel, but walking, public transit and rides on private bicycles.

The study itself – based on an online survey of more than 1,000 people – admits there are two large grains of salt to be taken with the results: a potential for sample bias (many of the respondents were young, single people who are more likely to fill out online surveys about their transportation habits or be friends with people who were publicizing it) and the infancy of the Bixi network might also throw off the data (what neighbourhoods it serves, what kind of people are likely to be early adopters, etc.)

It’s not Bixi vs. cars

Still, the fact that such a small percentage of people who use Bixi would otherwise drive isn’t so much of a surprise. Most people who drive come from far away, and Bixi is installed mostly downtown, in the Plateau and areas adjacent where public transit use is high and car use is low.

The perception that Bixi would somehow significantly reduce car travel is one that is actively pushed by Bixi itself. Its statistics include an estimate of how much greenhouse gas is saved by each ride (notably calculated not by distance travelled, but by how much time the bike is out, even if it’s not in motion). Though it comes with a disclaimer, Bixi is clearly trying to make a point about being good for the environment, and the numbers behind those arguments are sketchy at best.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that in the long run that Bixis will significantly impact car travel in the city. Nor will they significantly impact taxi use (much to the relief of taxi drivers, though they cite anecdotal evidence that Bixis are cutting into their potential fares).

But that doesn’t make Bixi a bad thing. People use it because they think it’s convenient, whether it’s replacing a public transit trip or a short walk. And people are paying for this privilege. Replacing private bicycles with Bixis may seem pointless, but they virtually eliminate the problem of bike theft downtown, which is a major motivator for me.

Less public transit use is a good thing

The survey shows that 33% of Bixi trips replace public transit trips – more than any other alternative mode of transportation. This has an indirect benefit: getting people off the buses and metros during rush hour leaves more room for others, and makes public transit more appealing for those who would otherwise take cars. Overcrowding during rush hour is a major complaint of transit users, and Bixi helps alleviate that.

Of course, that’s not much help during the winter, when most of those walkers, cyclists and Bixi users jump back on the bus.

UPDATE (Sept. 14): Riga has a follow-up blog post with reaction to the story, which also brings up a debate over whether taxis should be included as “cars”.

24 Heures gets Metro-like redesign

The day after labour day tends to be a good one to unveil new redesigns. Quebecor is tweaking the look of its 24 Hours papers across the country today, including 24 Heures in Montreal. Each includes an article praising itself for the new design and how much better it is. (The articles aren’t online yet, but you can read the 24 Heures version on their digital edition on Page 5.)

The biggest change in the layout is that the headlines and photos look bigger, which of course means less room for actual news (but nobody cares about that if they’re reading 24 Heures, right?)

You’ll also notice more use of yellow, particularly in highlighter-style behind smaller headlines and labels. I make note of that particularly because there’s a certain other newspaper in town that redesigned in May – and it too promised bigger headlines, bigger photos and more use of yellow highlights.

But to suggest that 24 Heures and its sister papers across the country redesigned so they could look more like the more successful direct competitor Metro, now that would be silly.

Here’s a before and after:

Old New

And a couple of other news pages from the new design:

Rue Frontenac puts it on paper

Rue Frontenac's first attempt at a paper edition last September

You might remember last September, just before the start of the Canadiens’ season, the locked-out journalists and other workers of the Journal de Montréal published a special print edition. It was just a one-time thing, but it got read and now they want to try for something more permanent.

Last week, Rue Frontenac announced that a print edition would be made on a weekly basis (Thursdays) and distributed throughout the Montreal area (from St. Jerome to St. Jean sur Richelieu) starting in late October.

Like most newspapers these days, this one promises to have more features and analysis, keeping the day-to-day breaking news for the website.

The announcement was enough to prompt stories in other media:

From those stories we get some more details:

  • The paper will be called Rue Frontenac
  • Distribution will be a minimum of 50,000
  • The paper will be big – at least 48 pages to start
  • The union expects that non-labour costs will be paid by advertising and other revenue
  • Distribution will be through newsstands and in person by locked out workers (the other newspaper primarily distributed by handing it to people is 24 Heures, which is sure to make for some interesting mornings in front of metro stations)
  • BV!Media, which owns Branchez-Vous and provides online advertising for Rue Frontenac, will help supply advertising for the print product

The Gazette’s story also provides some stats on 300,000 unique visitors and 2.2 million page views monthly.

A paper edition was successful in Quebec City during the Journal de Québec lockout, mainly because there are no free daily newspapers in that city. In Montreal, there are two free dailies, three francophone subscription dailies, the weekly Voir, plus all the anglo publications, community newspapers and weekly news magazines.

It remains to be seen how many people will opt for the union paper over the many other options out there.

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.