Monthly Archives: April 2012

How not to send a press release

I have great respect for people who work in the communications business. Dark Side or not, they are part of the process that gets information (and government propaganda) to the public. And they are often grilled by the media for decisions made by other people.

So I’ll leave out the name of the poor sap who sent out this email. It’s not important, anyway. But hopefully it will serve as a lesson to others on how not to send messages to the media.

The email was about media accreditation for Quebec’s construction inquiry. As you can imagine, the inquiry is getting a lot of media attention, so it makes sense to try to organize that in some way.

The email, whose subject line was blank, said the following on top of signature boilerplate for the commission:

Bonjour à tous

Vous trouverez ci-joint la procédure pour l’accréditation des médias

Attached to the email was a Microsoft Word document of 545 kB. That Word document contained the following, plus contact information:

Avis aux médias

Objet : Accréditation des médias

Montréal, le 24 avril 2012 – La Commission d’enquête sur l’octroi et la gestion des contrats publics dans l’industrie de la construction publie aujourd’hui, sur son site Internet, la procédure ainsi que le formulaire pour obtenir l’accréditation afin d’avoir accès en tant que membre des médias aux locaux soit : salle d’audience, salle de presse et studio pour entrevues.

Sur le site Internet de la Commission, Section salle de presse (, vous trouverez la procédure ainsi que le formulaire pour l’accréditation.

Le formulaire ainsi qu’une photo numérique format passeport devront être acheminés à la Commission par courriel à .

So, to resume:

  • Subject line is blank
  • Text is contained in attached Word document for no good reason
  • Word document is 545 kB, mainly because of useless design features
  • Word document is three paragraphs essentially saying to go to their website
  • Rather than providing a direct link to the page, it gives instructions on where to click to find it
  • Message gets address of website wrong (it’s, not – a second email was sent an hour later to correct this

Next time, just say you’ve posted accreditation information on your website and provide a link to said page.

There, I’ve saved you the consulting fee for a communications specialist to spend three hours and a PowerPoint presentation telling you that.

Journalists need to leave the echo chamber

Journalism Strategies panel, from left: Moderator Mike Finnerty, Tony Burman, Kai Nagata, Dominique Payette, Judy Rebick

Last week, I attended a panel discussion about the future of journalism, and specifically about public policies to support journalism and whether we still need professional journalists. I resisted going to such a discussion, but decided to go anyway because the panel had some interesting members. Tony Burman, the former CBC and Al-Jazeera executive; Kai Nagata, the disillusioned former CBC and CTV journalist; Dominique Payette, creator of a report calling for accreditation of professional journalists in Quebec; and Judy Rebick, activist and creator of

If you missed the panel, there’s a video of it online. It’s about two and a half hours long, including questions.

I was excited by the idea that there would be some interesting debate from people with different perspectives on how journalism should be done. But sadly, none of the debate I wanted to see materialized.

It became clear to me as the discussion went on how one-sided it all was. There was no representation, either on the panel or in the audience, of opinions from the right or even the centre-right. There was lots of discussion about the student strike and how the media was covering it, but no one questioned whether the strike itself was a good idea. There was discussion of Quebecor’s battles with Transcontinental in the community weekly war and how it has changed since the lockout at the Journal de Montréal, but nobody saw fit to defend the empire, or even point out that starting a bunch of new newspapers adds to the number of journalism jobs. There was condemnation of openly right-wing activist media like Sun News Network, but no corresponding condemnation of openly left-wing activist media like The Tyee or

I say this not because I want to become a Quebecor apologist or student-basher, but because as a journalist the last place I want to be is an echo chamber where everyone agrees on a set of facts that suit their agenda. I want to be challenged on my preconceptions, I want the most unpopular ideas to get a fair chance at being heard and considered. I want people who disagree on fundamental issues to discuss their opinions with each other instead of putting their hands over their ears.

There’s a reason I put the term “open-minded” in the headline of my review of Sun News Network. Open-mindedness is something I find too many journalists lack. And a closed mind is often the biggest reason why a journalist can’t be completely honest with news consumers.

Dominique Payette

Dominique Payette is a former Radio-Canada journalist, now an academic, who was invited on the panel because of her report into journalism in Quebec. It called for the establishment of a “professional journalist” title that would be given out (and could be taken away) by some quasi-government body. I was among many who argued against it because I’m uncomfortable with the government, no matter how arm’s length the distance, deciding who can and can’t be a journalist.

Payette expressed disappointment, perhaps even annoyance, that her report has essentially been shelved. That’s mainly due to the fact that two groups – the FPJQ, which is an association of Quebec journalists, and the Quebec Press Council, which acts as an ombudsman for Quebec media – both want to be in charge of deciding who gets to be a journalist in Quebec. Faced with a journalistic community divided over how to proceed, the government wasn’t about to start legislating what could be a very controversial issue.

But Payette’s interpretation of the reaction was different. According to her, there was a language divide at play. Anglophone media were largely against the report while francophone media largely supported it. She’s right on the first part – anglo media were just about entirely against the idea, for ideological reasons but also because of some of Payette’s other recommendations, like that all journalists be tested in French language skills. But many francophones also came out against the idea.

Payette also cited a language divide in the coverage of the student protests. Apparently francophone media were largely on the students’ side, while anglophone media were largely on the side of the government. This confused me, until I remembered something she said earlier in the evening.

“I don’t read the Journal de Montréal because it has become a right-wing newspaper”

A journal de droite, she said, in case there’s some debate over my translation. According to Payette, there were no longer journalists working there.

Now, there’s definitely debate to be had about journalistic ethics at the Journal, but it stunned me to hear that a person who considers herself an expert on Quebec media refuses to read its largest newspaper. Not only that, but she then analyzes Quebec media as a whole by conveniently ignoring one of its major players. The Journal de Montréal and other Quebecor media were against the licensing of journalists and highly critical of student protesters, but rather than acknowledge that different media have different opinions on important issues, she ignored media she disagreed with and simply resorted to generalizations and caricatures.

Not that there were too many people in the audience to call her on it. I heard only one question that came close, wondering why, if media working for “social change” was such a good thing, right-wing media like Fox News working for their own social change was so bad. The question wasn’t really answered by the panel, who instead pointed out that Fox News viewers are ill-informed and that the opinions it advocates benefit only a small number of people.

It’s sad to see a group of people, who apparently hold quality journalism so dear, seem to take the stance that activist journalism is okay so long as it’s activism on the left. It’s sad to see a crowd that’s interested in journalism openly applaud leftist activist sentiment.

Sun News personalities speak of the “consensus media” where journalists assume the same (left-wing) opinions as all the other ones, perhaps through peer pressure and a desire to fit in, or for some other reason. Coming out of a discussion like this, it’s hard to disagree.

I don’t want to suggest that the crowd thought with one mind. There were some in the audience (which had representatives from many media outlets, including CTV, CBC, CJAD, The Gazette, OpenFile, Sun Media, Presse canadienne, Projet J and probably others whose faces I didn’t recognize) who pointed out to me privately afterward how disappointed they were in the political bias. I myself didn’t speak up, which might have given others the idea that I endorsed the sentiments being expressed.

But I don’t endorse them. Nor do I endorse the opposite opinions. I believe most divisive political issues aren’t nearly as black and white as many people make them out to be. I don’t believe that people who disagree with me are either evil or stupid. I don’t believe that journalists should embrace bias simply because the ideal of objectivity is unreachable.

And I don’t believe that discussions in which everyone agrees with each other do much to further enlighten anyone.

(Then again, I could be wrong about this. I like to keep an open mind, after all.)

CBC Montreal has a new set

If you’ve been tuning in this week, you’ll have noticed that CBC Montreal has inaugurated its new set. Built in the same space in the Maison Radio-Canada’s Centre de l’Information as the previous one, it feautres a new smaller desk, a new background, flat screens and LED lighting.

Tearing down the old set and building the new one took two weeks, during which the newscast was done from the newsroom studio.

Anchor Andrew Chang takes viewers on a tour of the new set on the first newscast on Monday (it starts at the 24th minute).

Here are some shots from that first newscast to give an idea what it looks like.

Continue reading

Another boring journalism conference

I found it interesting that I saw this quote about journalism conferences as I was gathering links for a post about a journalism conference in Montreal.

I like hearing people talk about the trade, and giving insight. And considering what I do, it would be ridiculous to argue that I don’t like navel-gazing about journalism. But I’ve never been a big fan of big academic-style conferences, particularly those that cost hundreds of dollars to attend.

There’s one such conference this weekend, called the Journalism Strategies Conference. It runs Thursday to Saturday. Unfortunately I’m working during much of it so I won’t be able to attend.

But I will be there for a free event on Thursday night, a panel discussion whose lineup is sure to make things interesting:

Just the thought of Payette and Nagata getting into a debate about professional journalism might be worth the price of entry. Which is, you know, free.

The discussion, moderated by Daybreak host Mike Finnerty, begins at 7pm at Concordia’s DB Clarke Theatre (underneath the lobby of the Hall Building at 1455 de Maisonneuve W., corner Mackay). The Facebook event page is here.

There’s another free event Friday at 6pm at the McGill faculty club, with invited guests from abroad.

Two organizers of the conference, Christine Crowther and Lisa Lynch, appeared on CINQ-FM’s Digital Life Show last weekend to talk about it. You can download the podcast on their website.

An open-minded review of Sun News Network

When the Sun News Network launched on April 18, 2011, the rapid-fire reviews were not kind at all. In response, host and seasoned journalist David Akin asked on Twitter that the network be cut some slack, at least until Day 2.

I decided to cut them a bit more slack. I’d give them a week, I’d watch the network throughout the day with an open mind, and reserve judgment until afterward (some sarcastic tweets excepted).

I put my new DVR into overdrive, recording the network for 16 hours a day, then watching it with the remote in hand to fast-forward through some of the repetitive parts and commercials.

After the first week, I realized that Week 2 would be a stronger test of Sun News than Week 1. The royal wedding was scheduled for the coming Friday, and Sun News had promised live coverage just like every other network in the world. And the end of Week 2 would feature the Canadian federal election, a huge test for any network, and an even tougher test for one that’s two weeks old and still trying to find its footing. So I recorded Week 2 as well, from 6am to 10pm (the overnight hours are repeats of prime-time programming).

As it turns out, there was a third major news event during that weekend: the death of Osama bin Laden. An unexpected breaking news event on a weekend evening would also give huge insight into how Sun News performed.

In the end, I recorded and watched (or zipped through) almost 200 hours of Sun News Network broadcasts, including the first two weeks in their entirety.

Afterward, I watched a half-day each of CBC News Network and CTV News Channel, in order to get a proper basis for comparison. (I was reminded, for example, how much 24-hour news networks in general will repeat stories.) I also checked back in with Sun News to see how they filled airtime after the election.

For the past year, I’ve checked in periodically, when there’s nothing better on TV. I won’t be so bold as to suggest that makes me an expert on the network, but I think I’m a bit more familiar with what they put on the air than many of the people who have written about it since it launched.

So for the benefit of those who want a more balanced perspective about the network, and hopefully to counteract the flood of (mostly negative) commentary that comes from people who clearly have never seen it, I’ll offer my review.

I haven’t interviewed anyone at the network, and other than brief Twitter exchanges and a single on-air appearance, I haven’t spoken to anyone there in any other context either. My opinions are based on what has actually been aired, combined with what personalities have said in other media. My research is based on what has aired combined with reputable sources I’ve found online.

(Note: This is really long. Feel free to skip to the conclusions and suggestions at the end if you’re pressed for time.)

Continue reading

Cogeco applies for big power boost to The Beat, 98.5FM

Existing (purple lines) and proposed (black lines) coverage areas of CKBE-FM 92.5, as prepared by SpectrumExpert. The map for CHMP-FM 98.5 is identical.

Cogeco wants more power.

Its broadcasting arm, Cogeco Diffusion, has applied to the CRTC to more than double the power output of two of its stations, CKBE-FM 92.5 (The Beat) and French-language talk station CHMP-FM 98.5, so they reach their maximum of 100kW effective radiated power, from the current 44.1 kW and 40.8 kW, respectively.

The move comes, the applications say, because of a new antenna installed by CBC/Radio-Canada on the Mount Royal Tower for CBF-FM (Première Chaîne 95.1). Cogeco wants to put both stations on this antenna, and replace their ~20kW transmitters with ~40kW transmitters, leading to a 100kW ERP for both.

At 100kW, the stations would match CBF-FM and CBFX-FM (Espace musique 100.7) as the most powerful FM radio transmitters on the tower. Only CKOI, which transmits 307,000 watts from the CIBC tower downtown, has more power, because it was approved for that power before the 100kW limit was set in the 1960s and the right was grandfathered in.

By comparison, other stations like CHOM, CFGL (Rythme FM), CITE (Rouge FM) and CJFM (Virgin Radio) operate around 40 kW ERP, as does CKMF (NRJ), though it has been authorized to go up to 75 kW. CBC Radio One and Radio Two operate around 25 kW.

As you can see from the map above, though it more than doubles the radiated power of both stations, the impact on the coverage area is minor. Cogeco’s application estimates an increased potential audience of 1.5% or 5%, depending on how you measure it.

That said, those who receive either station with some noise or difficulty will probably find it easier if the CRTC approves this change.


The CRTC’s decision on this matter won’t just take into account Cogeco’s needs, but will also look at how this increased power will affect other radio stations. Coordination rules set limits in terms of how much stations on the same channel can interfere with each other, as well as how stations protect other stations on adjacent frequencies. Cogeco’s applications see no interference problems in which another station’s needs would take priority over its own.

Here’s what the engineer’s report lists as potential issues:


  • Co-channel interference: The station would risk interfering with four U.S. station allocations on 92.5 FM, none of which have an operational station. The station would also graze the coverage area of CBCD-FM, a retransmitter of CBC Radio One Ottawa in Pembroke, Ont. (An application is also under consideration for a 300W station on that frequency in Clarence-Rockland, Ont., east of Ottawa.)
  • First-adjacent channel interference (92.3 FM, 92.7 FM): The biggest concern here would be CBF-FM-12 (92.7), a 130-watt retransmitter of Sherbrooke’s Première Chaîne station in Victoriaville. It could also increase interference with WPAC in Ogdensburg, N.Y., but only if that station were expanded to its maximum allowable parameters.
  • Second-adjacent channel interference (92.1 FM, 92.9 FM): There’s a slight overlap near St. Jean sur Richelieu for Burlington’s WEZF (Star 92.9), so there might be trouble for people on the fringe of WEZF’s coverage area near Montreal.
  • Third-adjacent channel interference (91.9 FM, 93.1 FM): Only real concern here is CKLX-FM (Planète Jazz 91.9), which might get more interference for people who live near the Mount Royal tower. But being three channels away, and because it also transmits from that tower with a lot of power, it’s unlikely to result in significant interference.
  • Harmonic interference: The engineers predict a potential interference problem on TV channel 8, which is used by the analog TV retransmitter of CJOH in Cornwall, Ont. The audio frequency of that channel is at 185 MHz, which is twice 92.5. The station is required to solve any harmonic interference problems that come up.


  • Co-channel interference: The biggest concern here is CJWL-FM (The Jewel) in Ottawa, which would not be fully protected. There’s also a potential for some interference with WCKM-FM in Lake George, N.Y.
  • First-adjacent channel interference (98.3 FM, 98.7 FM): Potential interference with CIAX-FM, a community station in Windsor, Quebec.
  • Second-adjacent channel interference (98.1 FM, 98.9 FM): No interference issues. The closest station is CFGE-FM 98.1, a Rythme FM transmitter in Magog, which is also owned by Cogeco.
  • Third-adjacent channel interference (97.9 FM, 99.1 FM): No issues here either. There’s an American frequency allocation, but CHMP interference would not carry anywhere near the U.S. border.
  • Fourth-adjacent channel interference (97.7 FM, 99.3 FM): The engineer mentions CHOM-FM in its report, but notes no likelihood of interference between the two.
  • Harmonic interference: Engineers note a potential interference issue with TV channel 10, which is used by the digital transmitter CFTM-DT (TVA), also on the Mount Royal tower. The second harmonic of 98.5 MHz is 197 MHz, which is part of Channel 10. CHMP is required to solve harmonic interference issues if they come up.
For all the listings of interference problems, Cogeco’s application notes that CKBE and CHMP would be operating within their maximum allocated coverage area, which means it would not need to coordinate with these stations. And in any case, these stations are already operating, so most interference issues would already exist. It’s unlikely too many people are going to have problems they didn’t have before picking up stations.

Rubber stamp?

I haven’t seen enough applications like these to judge their chances of getting through the CRTC. But the fact that they are Part 1 applications (no notice of consultation, no hearing date set) suggests the commission sees this as a minor change. Unless one of the stations listed above files an intervention and makes a case that the power increase would negatively affect their station (and that their station’s needs are more important), these changes are likely to pass.

If you wish to file a comment or intervention in these cases, the deadline is May 14. You can view the applications or submit comments via the CRTC website.

Anglo rights in a sovereign Quebec?

It’s not hard to imagine why anglophones in Quebec are so against the idea of separation. For them, there isn’t this big conflict between being Canadian and living in Quebec. For them, Canada’s bilingual nature – imperfect as it may be in practice – includes them more than Quebec’s attitude of French-but-some-English-too-if-we-have-to.

But it’s more than just a feeling of belonging. Canada’s laws give anglophones the right to live in their own language, to educate their children in English, to deal with the government in English, to have laws written in English. Quebec is obliged to offer services to anglophones, including English school boards, whether it wants to or not. And judging by the amount it restricts access to English public schools (and how much some want to restrict it even further), anglophones could be forgiven for thinking they really don’t want to offer these services, lest they threaten the francophone majority.

I don’t remember every detail about the 1995 referendum campaign – I was 13 at the time and had more important things to worry about that fall. Besides, it’s not like I was going to vote.

I remember about that time and in the years afterward (before it became clear that the whole separation thing wouldn’t be achievable in the short term) how the leaders of the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois – the de facto leaders of the sovereignty movement – would reassure the anglophone community that we’re Quebecers too. During some provincial and federal election campaigns, some even had the gall to suggest that anglos vote for them because their common ground on social or economic issues was more important than their division over sovereignty. And I remember after every election, both those parties would proudly proclaim that every vote for them was a strong mandate for sovereignty.

Politicians being two-faced and pandering is hardly new, but it doesn’t exactly instill confidence when, for something as important as national independence, a lot really has to be based on trust in political leadership.

So it’s not surprising that, even though there were assurances that an independent Quebec would continue to respect the rights of the anglophone minority (under the unspoken assumption that all would be done to ensure they remain a minority), anglophone Quebecers didn’t really trust that a PQ government would do everything in its power to protect their interests.

I mention all this because an article came out in La Presse on Saturday that describes a draft Quebec constitution created in the summer of 1995 that would be enacted in the event of a Yes victory, one that hadn’t been made public until now. A PDF copy of that draft is linked at the bottom of the story. The constitution, which establishes Quebec as a state completely disassociated with the British monarchy, where a president appointed by the legislature would be the head of state but power would rest in the hands of the prime minister, was designed as a transition constitution that would keep everything as it is and eventually be replaced with a permanent one drawn up by an independent Quebec.

Nevertheless, a lot of thought clearly went into it, and those thoughts are described in notes that accompany each article of the constitution. In most cases, it’s the status quo, with a unicameral National Assembly making laws and the same rights and freedoms guaranteed in the existing charters of Canada and Quebec.

As far as anglophones are concerned, the constitution affords certain rights to the anglophone community in Quebec, there’s even an entire section devoted to the topic, starting at article 124 (PDF). Among them:

  • The right to speak in the National Assembly in English
  • The right to communicate in English during court or tribunal proceedings, and have decisions translated into either language
  • The right to educate children in English, from kindergarten until university
  • The right to administer their own educational institutions, presumably meaning the maintaining of linguistic school boards
  • The right to receive medical and social services in English
  • The right to maintain its “identity” and “institutions” (neither of these is defined very well)

That’s not to say everything would be the same. The constitution purposefully doesn’t include, for example, the right to have all laws and transcripts in English as well as French, preferring to leave that up to laws passed by the legislature. And a lot of these rights are very vague, leaving the details to legislation.

Nevertheless, it’s a pretty surprising list of rights from the perspective of a paranoid anglo. What’s more, Article 151 provides that amendments cannot be made to the articles guaranteeing these anglo rights without the consent of the anglo community (although what form that consent takes is left up to the legislature to define).

A logic major such as myself might point out that Article 151 itself could be repealed without the consent of the anglo community, clearing the way for stripping of other anglo rights, but I’m willing to give good faith the benefit of the doubt here. Like the Notwithstanding Clause, just because something is possible in theory doesn’t mean it can easily be abused in practice.

I’m not going to say I’m a convert to the cause of sovereignty. There are questions much more important than the finer points of the French language charter. And it’s hard to take seriously a draft document drawn up in secret that may or may not have been accepted by the population and may or may not have been heavily modified or completely replaced once the public had its say.

But this is perhaps a nudge toward the idea that an independent Quebec might not do everything in its power to strip anglophones of their rights, and maybe there are some deep within the sovereignty movement that believed the anglophone community (or at least the “historic” anglo community in Quebec) is as much deserving of protection as a minority within their new country as the francophone minority did in North America.

Or, you know, I could just look at the French-only-laws thing and scream racism. But I’m not paid to pick fights with Richard Martineau and Jean-François Lisée. ;)

Virgin shuffles lineup, puts Ryan Seacrest and Andrea Collins on afternoons

Andrea Collins moves to afternoon drive on CJFM

CJFM has shuffled its weekday lineup to fill the hole left by Cousin Vinny’s departure for CKBE. Andrea Collins, who was doing late mornings, gets to take over the afternoon drive slot from 3-7pm. Nikki Balch, who did early afternoons, moves to late mornings (9am to noon), and the remaining hole from noon to 3pm is being filled by … Ryan Seacrest.

Virgin Brand Director Mark Bergman tells me he had candidates from inside and outside Montreal for the afternoon drive job posted after Vince Barrucco’s sudden resignation, but that he found Collins was “the best one for the position.” Bergman said “she’s got a young sound to her, yet mature.”

“I’m soooooo excited! I’m used to more of a morning or drive spot, so this right up my alley,” Collins wrote to me in an email during her Wednesday shift. “Drive is generally a male-dominated position, so I’m really pumped to own it as a female, and happy the great peeps at Virgin were open to making that change. I promise it’s the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship ;)”

Balch, one of the unsung heroes of Virgin’s lineup, gets to start her day earlier.

But it’s Seacrest that will probably get some eyebrows raising among local radio watchers because it means no local announcer for three hours in the middle of weekdays. Bergman said he put Seacrest in the slot was because of his star power and how popular he is with the audience that Virgin Radio is attracting. Seacrest has long been a fixture of the Virgin schedule, including a Saturday morning show. But it’s a big leap from low-rated weekend slots to weekday afternoons.

Virgin’s schedule moves contrast with those of its main competitor, The Beat. While Cogeco’s music station is hiring away Virgin announcers (Cat Spencer, Nat Lauzon, Vince Barrucco) and putting a serious focus on local talent (even overnights), Virgin’s schedule is considerably lighter on local people. Its only weekend personality is Kelly Alexander and it has no live local person for weekday overnights. (It’s not just a question of being owned by Astral Media – CHOM is also heavy on local talent, including overnight and weekends.)

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the ratings. Will listeners care that the voice between the hit songs they hear is Seacrest instead of someone local? Will star power have more of an impact than a local voice?

We’ll see.

An Oasis of bad publicity

Guy A. Lepage et al > Oasis

So here’s the deal: A Lassonde, the company that makes Oasis fruit drinks, is apparently sensitive to other companies using the name for consumer products, even when there’s no risk of confusion with a bottle of juice.

Saturday’s La Presse carried the story of its legal battle with a woman, Deborah Kudzman, who makes olive oil soaps called Olivia’s Oasis. Lassonde sued Kudzman, arguing that her product’s brand was confusingly similar to their Oasis juice brand, even though one’s a juice and one’s a soap, and they have nothing in common other than a word.

Kudzman not only won the case (since, among other things, “oasis” is a word in the dictionary and there are about a billion commercial products with that word in their name), but the judge ordered Lassonde to pay Kudzman’s legal bills, which had surpassed $70,000, she told La Presse.

But Lassonde appealed that part of the judgment, arguing that its lawsuit wasn’t abusive. It won that case, and was relieved of the obligation to pay Kudzman’s legal bills. Kudzman, convinced that Oasis knew from the start that it wouldn’t win its case and sued just to try to scare her away, went to La Presse. The story centred mostly on Kudzman, including only a brief comment from Lassonde saying its lawsuit was justified.

That might have been the end of it, a story in the newspaper about a big company screwing a small business, but then social media took over. Bloggers started writing about it, influential personalities like Guy A. Lepage were talking boycott, and Oasis’s Facebook page was flooded with negative comments. La Presse had a followup about the online reaction.

Then, a change of heart. In the evening, as Montrealers were focused on a meaningless hockey game, the company announced on its Facebook page that it would compensate Kudzman for her legal costs. (The post has disappeared, though I don’t know if that’s because they deleted it or for some other technical reason. Their official Twitter feed linked to the post and La Presse quoted from it.)

It’s surprising. First, that everyone would pay so much attention to this story. Second, that it would provoke a response on a Saturday evening during a long weekend. Third, that in a matter of hours a company would decide to make a PR decision that would cost them almost $100,000. And finally, that they would just give her the money after having gone through the trouble of an appeal process in order to not give her the money.

The cost of doing PR

The basics of this story happen pretty often. When the media publish a story about a big company screwing someone (usually a customer), the response tends to be to compensate that person with a refund or anything else that would make them satisfied. Whether the company was right or wrong immediately becomes irrelevant. This isn’t a customer retention issue, it’s purely a public relations one.

But these kinds of stories are usually about customers with $100 phone bills or who bought something at a store that didn’t work. Fixing those problems cost far less than the free advertising they get from being seen as a good corporate citizen on the local news. (It works best when some slick fact-play tries to turn it into some sort of misunderstanding, as was the case in Oasis-gate.)

Rarely do we see such a huge monetary settlement offered so quickly.

I can imagine some self-appointed social media marketing experts salivating at the thought of offering their two cents on the matter (oh wait, here they are). It tends to happen after high-profile cases like this. They talk about the mistakes the company made and pretend they would do things insanely better if only they were in charge. (In what I’ve read so far, the only concrete thing someone has suggested they should have done differently is to take minutes instead of hours on a holiday weekend to decide to spend almost $100,000 on their opponent’s legal fees because people complained on their Facebook page.)

What went wrong here isn’t that Lassonde had bad PR working for it. Its problems were in a conference room, either in the form of its lawyers or its executives (or both).

The real test of whether Lassonde has learned its lesson is whether it will go after other companies that dare use Oasis in their product brand names. Its conciliatory statement implies that it won’t (well, actually it implies that it never did, in one of those amazing doublespeak moments).

Even if Lassonde does change its legal strategy, there are plenty of other companies out there whose greed or fear has eroded their common sense.

UPDATE (April 11): Some people in the communications industry have pointed out that the major error on Lassonde’s part is that it didn’t consult with PR people before engaging in a legal battle that could have put them in hot water. It’s an interesting point. They could have seen this coming and prepared for it, either by not launching the lawsuit in the first place or by having a communications strategy that would mitigate any damage.

Whether that would have made a difference is hard to see. Any lawsuit can make you look bad when you’re a big (or even medium-sized) company going after a mom-and-pop shop. And it’s almost impossible to predict what kind of story will get traction in social media.

Meanwhile, Patrick Lagacé has a story in La Presse about another company, making a cleaning product called Bioasis, that was forced to shut down because it couldn’t handle the cost of renaming itself or fighting Lassonde in court. Lagacé uses this case, which dates from 2003, to call Lassonde a bully.

Lassonde responds in a new blog that things changed in 2004 when it brought its legal department in-house. Its president also says that the Olivia’s Oasis case was the only one that went to court over trademark issues, and that its settlement options include a free license to use the trademark, which allows Lassonde to protect its rights (trademarks lose their value legally if their owners don’t fight for them) without punishing a smaller company.

CBC Montreal building new set

Debra Arbec doing the news from the newsroom set

UPDATE (April 18): The new set is done. See what it looks like here.

Much like CFCF did last year, CBMT is doing its daily newscasts from its newsroom set as its main set is being torn down and redone.

Andrew Chang gave viewers an idea of what’s going into the new set on Monday’s newscast. It will involve a new desk with a Plexiglas top. Behind the anchors will be five HD plasma screens, and a large 70-inch touchscreen will also be on the set, which is being designed in house in the Maison Radio-Canada.

Until then, the evening newscast will be hosted from the set that sits just outside the control room, which itself is just beside the newsroom. Reporters doing live in-studio segments, which were done from this set, have been moved to an adjacent room that is used for remote interviews for CBC News Network or The National. Frank Cavallaro’s weather set is a green screen just a few feet from the desk Arbec is sitting at above.

The 10:55pm newscast is done from this set as well, except with a green screen lowered behind it.

Because the camera for this set is standard definition, anchors won’t be appearing in HD until the camera is upgraded or they move into their new set. And, like with CFCF last year, the set only fits one, so Arbec and Chang will have to alternate behind the desk.

Journal de Québec lockout battle is over – and the employees lost

One of the first big stories I followed with this blog was the lockout at the Journal de Québec. It started in April 2007, when this blog was two months old, and ended in the summer of 2008 with the workers accepting a deal. While people will remember the Rue Frontenac project as one that changed the way labour (and particularly media-related labour) should react to conflicts, the idea for it came from MédiaMatinQuébec, a free daily newspaper distributed by locked-out Journal de Québec workers.

In reality, both Quebecor and the unions learned from that conflict, lessons that were used when the much more bitter Journal de Montréal lockout began in January 2009.

Even after the conflict was over in Quebec City, the legal battle continued. The union complained that Quebecor was using scab labour in the form of independent third parties to produce its news. Quebecor was taking advantage of a loophole in the law, written for an era where people walked into factories to build things as their jobs, that defined scabs only as those people who enter the workplace to do work of locked-out or striking workers.

In December 2008, the union won a decision by the labour board, which redefined the meaning of “workplace” to include anywhere someone does their job, and not the physical building where offices are.

But Quebecor appealed to the Quebec Superior Court, and in September 2009, it overturned the labour board decision, keeping the workplace definition as it was and ruling that the third-party employees were not, in fact, scabs.

The union appealed that decision to the Quebec court of appeal, which dismissed it last September. It appealed again all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which on Thursday ruled it would not take the case. It was on a list of cases dismissed, with costs.

The union was, naturally, profoundly disappointed.

The next step for union supporters is legislative. The Quebec government came under a lot of pressure during the Journal de Montréal lockout to update the law forbidding strikebreakers. But after the JdeM lockout was over, that pressure disappeared.

It remains to be seen if this decision will bring that pressure back or if it will take another major labour conflict to bring it back to the forefront.

CRTC sides with Bell Media in dispute with cable companies

The title of the decision is “Request for dispute resolution by the Canadian Independent Distributors Group relating to the distribution of specialty television services controlled by Bell Media Inc.” – but its boringness hides how much of an effect it could have on your cable or satellite television bills.

The case involves a complaint to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission from a group of independent telecom groups about their attempts to come to a deal with Bell Media over its specialty services like TSN, Discovery Channel and Space.

The cable companies formed an alliance called the Canadian Independent Distributors Group. Its members are:

  • Bragg Communications (EastLink)
  • Cogeco Cable
  • Manitoba Telecom Services
  • Telus
  • The Canadian Cable Systems Alliance, which represents more than 100 independent distributors including dozens of small-town companies and cooperatives

Of note is that none of these companies are vertically integrated – they don’t have specialty channels of their own. They argue in their complaint that Bell is using its ownership of some of Canada’s most popular specialty channels as leverage to give its affiliated television services better deals than it gives to independent cable companies.

Giving undue preference to an affiliated company is not allowed by CRTC rules. What’s more, when it became clear that mega mergers would create giant corporations with significant holdings in both television services and the cable and satellite companies used to distribute them, the CRTC set up a framework to ensure they weren’t abusing their positions.

The framework set rules for these companies, which include:

  • forbidding them from setting “unreasonable” wholesale rates for specialty channels
  • forbidding them from requiring minimum subscription numbers that would force people to pay for services they didn’t want
  • requiring them to make services available on a stand-alone basis
  • forbidding them from establishing an “excessive” activation fee
  • in general, offering conditions to affiliated companies that are not offered to competing companies

This is all well and good in theory, but would it work in practice? Bell’s purchase of CTV and Shaw’s purchase of Canwest/Global certainly gives the impression that they believe they can gain an advantage through this vertical integration and that they believe there are benefits to controlling both sides of the equation.

The independent distributors group complained that Bell Media, in negotiating a new contract for its services, made unfair demands of them. Among them:

  • Making no changes to how they package Bell Media’s specialty channels without first gaining Bell Media’s consent
  • Setting minimum penetration levels so high, particularly for TSN and RDS, that the cable companies would be forced to force customers to carry those channels whether they wanted to or not
  • Requiring high fees and interest be paid when new contracts are agreed to after the previous one has expired
  • Refusing to include “non-linear rights” (i.e. video on demand and mobile) in the agreements

Bell Media responded by saying its services required a certain amount of revenue predictability, but offered an option called a penetration-based rate card, which adjusts wholesale rates based on the number of subscribers. The more subscribers, the lower the wholesale price per subscriber (the retail rate is at the discretion of the distributor). With that option, the cable companies would be free to offer services à la carte (but Bell would still require at least 50% of customers carry the most popular Category A channels like TSN and Discovery).

It also pointed out that more than 150 other distributors had signed an agreement with them.

Bell wouldn’t budge on “non-linear” rights, saying it isn’t regulated and has a high market value. Bell said it currently isn’t offering those rights to other distributors, but would be willing to provide the rights at commercially reasonable rates once they do.

The cable companies responded to Bell Media saying that while the penetration-based rate card makes sense in theory, if the price is much higher than the rates with minimum penetration guarantees, it wouldn’t solve the problem.

A win for Bell Media

The CRTC’s decision came down mostly on the side of Bell Media. While the commission has pronounced itself strongly in favour of consumer choice and à la carte subscription options, it said the older, bigger-budget specialty channels “will need time to adapt to an increasingly consumer-focussed environment.” It endorsed the variable rate system proposed by Bell, with the caveat that it would be unacceptable “if it had the effect of making flexible packaging options commercially unviable or resulted in a company that offers programming services using its market dominance so as to insulate it completely from the effect of consumers exercising choice.”

On the issue of what Bell called “incentives” to sign contracts on time, the CRTC agreed that such practices are commercially reasonable and did not order Bell to cease using them or to stop charging interest on retroactive balances.

And in the debate over “non-linear” programming rights, the CRTC also sided with Bell, saying it did not have to include those rights in negotiations with the cable companies and could negotiate them separately when it is prepared to do so.

The next stage, if the groups can’t come to an agreement before then, is arbitration. The arbitration process used here is called final offer arbitration, also referred to as “baseball arbitration” or “pendulum arbitration“. Both sides present final offers and the arbitrator chooses which one he or she thinks is more reasonable. The idea behind this form of arbitration is that it encourages both sides to be reasonable in their demands, and is likely to reward the side that is seen as being more conciliatory.

What does it all mean for me?

A lot still has to be determined at the arbitration stage. If the wholesale rate on the penetration-based rate card is too high, small cable companies won’t take advantage of it to offer consumers more choice. If it’s low enough that it makes sense to offer more packaging choice, we might see other cable and satellite providers try à la carte models. Currently choosing channels that way is available only in Quebec, and really only because of competitive pressure from Videotron that has forced Bell and Cogeco to do the same in Quebec but not elsewhere. Bell and Rogers both come out against more packaging flexibility for consumers, saying it’s either too complicated or consumers aren’t interested in it. (Bell Media even said at the hearing, when speaking of allowing Videotron to move to an à la carte model: “In hindsight, I wish that horse could be put back in the barn”)

But while the CRTC could have taken a strong stand in favour of consumer choice, it decided instead to stay on the side of some of the biggest money-makers in Canada. Channels like TSN, Space and Discovery are hardly in financial distress. Instead, they are the most profitable specialty channels and each make millions of dollars every year. Still, the CRTC has decided that it’s okay for big companies like Bell Media to impose minimum levels of subscribers for these channels, which means if not enough consumers choose them, cable and satellite companies can be forced to add them to basic packages and charge people for the channels whether they want them or not.

If there’s one bright spot, it’s that the CRTC believes that there’s an adjustment period here, and that eventually these specialty services will have to stand on their own two feet without this crutch of a minimum subscriber base. By the time of the next contract in a few years, all cable and satellite companies could be entirely free of contractual headaches that put limits on packaging flexibility, and consumer choice could reign.

Assuming we haven’t all moved to Netflix by then.