The top 10 Quebec media stories of 2013 (and more year-in-review)

(Published now because I have this thing about only reviewing things after they’re finished.)

Around this time, when the media use year-in-review stories to fill space during the most boring news time of the year (mafia funerals notwithstanding), there are always generalizations about the ways the 12 months that have just passed differ from the previous 12 months, or the 12 before that. People look at Lac-Mégantic and Rob Ford and Nelson Mandela and say this was a sad year. Or they look at other stories and say it was a hopeful year, or a silly year, or a serious year, or any other type of year. In reality, it was just a year.

On the media front, it was a very active year. While some things I expected would happen didn’t, other things that I didn’t expect made huge changes to our media landscape. I don’t know if this was the biggest year in media news, but it was certainly a big one.

With that in mind, here are my picks for the top 10 media stories of 2013, from a Montreal perspective:

10. Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize for Literature

The fact that a Canadian won one of the biggest honours in the world for writing was certainly big news enough. The award was also an acknowledgment of the contribution of short story authors.

But my favourite part of this story is that even the Nobel committee couldn’t reach Munro right off the bat to tell her about her win. (It doesn’t warn winners ahead of time.) It took hours to get in touch with her, mainly because it was the middle of the night where she was, and for a while it seemed like she was the only person in the country not talking about her.

9. Language wars heat up

Urbania's Anglo issue

Urbania’s Anglo issue.

The year started out nice enough (or, more accurately, the previous year ended nice enough), with the hip French-language magazine Urbania devoting an issue to Quebec anglophones, and doing so in a way that involved actually finding interesting stories about the province’s language divide rather than relying on tired generalizations and accusations.

But as the year went on, the sniping from both sides grew. There was Sugar Sammy, who was nominated for awards at Quebec’s annual Gala les Olivier for comedy. But it was not for his wildly successful You’re Gonna Rire bilingual show, which was ineligible because it wasn’t entirely in French. Instead, it was for En Français SVP!, his French-only show. Still, he won the Olivier for comedian of the year, which continued to propel him into the Quebec media spotlight and earn him some columnist chatter for making Quebec separatists the butt of his jokes.

In October, the Journal de Montréal put out an article titled “Who is Marie-Mai?” that surveyed anglophones about their knowledge of Quebec’s francophone vedettes. Even though it was a repeat of something Jean-François Lisée had done a year earlier for L’Actualité magazine, and even though the article that blamed anglos for not knowing their Quebec celebrities misspelled the name of Rémy Girard, that was enough for the usual suspects to come out with axes swinging.

The Journal story was followed by another that turned the tables, showing that Quebec francophones weren’t much better informed about anglo personalities. But its choice of personalities was odd. Only three of the ten were born in Quebec (William Shatner, Ben Mulroney and Kevin O’Leary, all born in Montreal), and a grand total of zero currently work here. Perhaps because of this, the story did little to change people’s minds.

Anglo commentators did their thing. There were also some commentators in the francophone media (even some at the Journal de Montréal) who came to the defence of anglos.

But the whole issue didn’t get the kind of discussion it really deserves. The truth is there are two solitudes, particularly when it comes to culture, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. I’ll try to expand on this in a different post.

8. CBC licence renewal means ads on Radio Two, new “non-news” local TV

Public broadcasting purists were up in arms when the CBC asked the CRTC to allow it to air ads on Radio Two and Espace Musique during its licence renewal process. But the mother corp needs money, and this was a way to get it. The CRTC agreed, though it set limits on how much advertising the networks could air. The ads started in October, and within weeks there was already a complaint from a private broadcaster.

What got less attention was requirements for local television programming. The CBC was required to bump local television up to 14 hours a week in large markets, which meant some expanded newscasts, but also a new one-hour weekly non-news local program. That show, Our Montreal, launched in October, and hasn’t really done much to make it noteworthy.

7. CRTC picks winners and losers in mandatory carriage decisions

Avis de recherche staff, from left: journalists  Josie Simard, Kariane Bourassa, Jessica Leblanc, Nancy Bourgon and Valérie Beaudoin, president Vincent Géracitano, journalists Andrée-Anne Lavigne and Jessyka Dumulong, and cameraman/director Michel Ciacciarelli

The Avis de recherche channel will disappear in 2015 unless it finds a new business model.

It wasn’t just Sun News Network. Plenty of TV networks and proposed networks went to the broadcasting regulator asking for free money from all Canadians. There was the channel devoted to Canadian movies. There was the channel devoted to programming for people with disabilities. There was Vision TV and the natural resources channel.

In the end, it was mostly status quo. Most services that had mandatory distribution orders kept them, and most that didn’t have it already were denied.

The two new channels getting mandatory carriage with subscription fees are TV5, which got its request approved in exchange for promising a new channel devoted to representing francophones outside Quebec, and a French version of AMI TV, which is a channel that airs described video. Neither has launched yet.

And Avis de recherche, the Montreal-based television channel that airs public safety information, including notices of people wanted by police and people reported missing, had the rug pulled from under it, given two years to find a new business model, something its owner described as a death sentence.

Sun News, while denied its request for mandatory distribution, didn’t come out empty-handed. The CRTC said it would review the way Canadian national news channels are distributed, and in December it issued new rules that require the channel be made available on all television distribution systems. All Canadians will have access to the channel, but won’t necessarily be forced to subscribe.

6. Montreal anglophones get morning shows

The Breakfast Television studio is 2800 square feet

The Breakfast Television studio is 2800 square feet

When 2013 started, Montreal didn’t have a local morning TV show in English. By the end of the year, it had two.

In January, Shaw finally made good on a promise to the CRTC it made when it bought Global from Canwest and launched a local morning show in Montreal. The show stumbled out of the gate with severe technical problems, due mainly to the fact that they were trying a new automation system that meant far fewer staff than they really needed. Things improved a bit, but the show’s lack of resources are still apparent. We’ll see in January if it can improve its early dismal ratings.

A few blocks away from Global’s studios at Peel and Ste-Catherine, Rogers cleaned out a floor of its building on McGill College Ave. for a Montreal television station. It launched a weekly sports show and local lifestyle show over the summer, but the flagship was Breakfast Television, a three-hour morning show that got off the ground just before Labour Day. With much more staff than Global’s, a brand new spacious studio and a star host in Alexandre Despatie, the show came out of the gate running. But we still don’t know how many Montrealers are making it a part of their morning routine.

5. ICI brings back ethnic television

Sam Norouzi brought ethnic television back to Montreal

Sam Norouzi brought ethnic television back to Montreal

As great as the new local morning shows were, it was the independent ethnic television station ICI that most filled a need for local television in Montreal. After technical troubles and months of planning, the station finally soft-launched in December with more than a dozen local shows, the first local ethnic programming produced since 2009.

Its means are very modest, and those shows won’t win any ratings battles. But with a green-screen studio, high-definition cameras and some help from Rogers and Channel Zero, it’s providing a medium for the city’s ethnic communities to communicate with each other.

The channel’s cooperative business model is still unproven. We’ll see how many producers stay on after their revenues fall short of projections. But there’s no denying there’s a will to succeed here, from the station and the producers making shows for it.

4. La Presse bets big on the iPad

La Presse spent $40 million to develop its iPad app, and is now encouraging even its own print subscribers to switch to it.

La Presse spent $40 million to develop its iPad app, and is now encouraging even its own print subscribers to switch to it.

As every other newspaper in North America seemed to be desperately slashing costs, implementing paywalls and clinging to any way they could find to boost revenue without investing in content, La Presse did the opposite. It hired a hundred new people, threw $40 million into a new project, and when it was all done it gave it away for free. And to top it all off, it’s now pushing its own print subscribers to abandon the paper and switch to the iPad.

But as publisher Guy Crevier explained to me, they haven’t gone insane. In fact, they’ve thought so much about their future that you almost have to think that they’re the only sane ones out there.

La Presse will be under the watchful eye of the industry. And if this move is successful, which many desperately hope it will be, others will surely follow. But because owner Power Corporation doesn’t report its newspaper holdings’ finances publicly, the only information we get about whether this project is a success is whatever they choose to publicize.

3. Quebecor buries the hatchet with Transcontinental

I could tell you I saw the writing on the wall, but I’d be lying. At the beginning of December, Quebecor shocked the Quebec media industry when it decided not only to end its community newspaper war with Transcontinental, but to effectively surrender, selling its 74 community papers for $75 million. Two weeks later, it announced that it was shutting down Le Sac Plus, the flyer distribution service it started to compete with Transcontinental’s Publi-Sac.

We still don’t know how many jobs will be lost or how many newspapers will be shut down as a result of this, but the fact that a bunch of papers started to compete directly in Quebec markets, mergers and terminations are inevitable.

Whether the news is good or not is a matter of perspective. The end of the war means the newspapers that remain will be healthier, with higher ad rates. But there will be less competitive pressure to be better than the other guy.

2. BCE buys Astral Media

Astral CEO Ian Greenberg, left, with BCE CEO George Cope at May's CRTC hearing

Astral CEO Ian Greenberg, left, with BCE CEO George Cope at May’s CRTC hearing

After being rejected the first time in 2012, Bell came back to the table with a compromise, and a letter from the Competition Bureau saying they were okay. Once again, the CRTC came to Montreal and heard from dozens of parties with stakes in the proposed acquisition, and fans of TSN 690 bit their nails as the fate of their beloved sports station hung in the balance.

The CRTC finally said okay, but with a series of conditions to prevent the media and telecom giant from using its size in anti-competitive ways. It’s under orders to play nice with its competitors, sell off some TV services and radio stations, and spend $250 million on projects that benefit Canadian broadcasting.

The deal set off a chain of ownership changes that radically affects the Canadian broadcasting system. Corus, the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group, Newcap Radio, DHX Media and V all get pieces of Bell or Astral that BCE wasn’t allowed to keep (the Corus TV acquisitions were approved by the CRTC, but the rest still need its okay).

Some changes were immediately apparent. Suddenly The Movie Network and HBO Canada were being advertised on Bell Media’s channels. CTV Montreal and CJAD started working more closely together, and CJAD and TSN were effectively merged, leading to layoffs.

For Montreal radio, this means there are now two players in English instead of three. Eleven of 16 commercial (non-ethnic and non-religious) radio stations in the city are owned by either Bell or Cogeco, a level of ownership concentration not seen anywhere else in the country. Of the other five, none are in fantastic commercial health (two are AM stations, one is a low-power station in Vaudreuil, and there’s Radio Classique and Radio X).

But it was good news for TSN 690. The station was saved, it didn’t have to be cut from the TSN family and didn’t have to change language. Bell even promised to maintain the format for seven years, a promise it is now bound to.

The fallout will continue for some time. Will competitors be satisfied that Bell is playing fair? Will Shaw decide to buy back Corus and create a competing empire? Will Pattison and Newcap go from being mid-size to major players in radio? And will the Rémillards be able to turn around MusiquePlus and MusiMax like they did V, and combine them to form an alternative media company that’s connected to hip young Quebecers?

The $3.38-billion deal was easily the biggest media story of the year, both in terms of the quantitive size of the deal and the amount of changes it makes to the media ownership landscape.

Or at least it was, until…

1. Rogers buys rights to NHL games for 12 years

It’s hard to believe, but there was an even bigger media deal this year: Rogers spending $5.2 billion to acquire television rights to the National Hockey League for 12 years.

The deal is earth-shattering for hockey fans. It ends CBC’s control over Saturday night hockey, even if the public broadcaster will continue to air those games. It ends Sportsnet’s out-of-region blackouts during hockey games (though the details are still a bit murky). And, most importantly, it completely depants Bell, taking away all TSN’s national hockey broadcast rights and coverage of events like the NHL draft, yanking Saturday night Habs games away from RDS and potentially making Sportsnet the dominant sports brand in the country.

In Quebec, the deal establishes TVA Sports as a major player, no longer having to settle for RDS’s leftovers. RDS saved face by overpaying for Canadiens regional rights, but it’s still a win for Quebecor.

But what makes this the top media story of the year, beyond its price tag, is that it affects far more than just hockey. Hockey Night in Canada was a money-maker for CBC, which means the loss of that revenue will have to be countered by further budget cuts. For Bell, TSN and RDS, this means having to focus on other sports (it’s already secured additional NFL rights).

The biggest downside might actually go to Rogers itself, which is gambling that it can make a dramatic improvement on revenue generation from hockey broadcasts. This deal is a major moral win for the company, but any sane look at the numbers can only conclude that it has a tough road ahead of it even breaking even on this deal. If it wasn’t for Rogers’s deep pockets as a cable and wireless company, I might even argue that its very existence is at stake if it fails to monetize these rights effectively.

A decade ago, RDS was the network of mini-putt and Expos games, nothing was in HD, YouTube didn’t exist, and nobody was watching video on their phone. You have to imagine that sports broadcasting will be as different 12 years from now as that is to today.

Honourable mentions

Among other stories that happened this year:

Meanwhile, elsewhere

Some stories were big deals in media, but just not in Montreal. They include:

  • Indie 88 launches in Toronto. The winner of the Toronto FM sweepstakes (out of more than 20 that applied) went on the air in July, and after playing Rick Astley on repeat, gave the city’s listeners something new to consume.
  • Quebecor kills 24 Hours newspapers in Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton as part of a major budget cut.
  • Rogers shuts down CityNews Channel, leaving Bell’s CP24 as the only all-Toronto-news-all-the-time channel (at least officially).
  • Rob Ford blames the media for everything. His feud with the Toronto Star in particular sadly succeeds in immunizing himself against everything the paper publishes. The Star’s chest-thumping over the crack video doesn’t help it convince anyone that it is committed to treating the mayor fairly.

International media story of the year

Edward Snowden.

Non-story of the year: Still waiting for new radio stations

Two new commercial players in the Montreal radio scene were supposed to launch stations in 2013. Between them, the Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy Media group and Dufferin Communications had licences for five stations in the Montreal area. But none of them are on the air yet. Dufferin applied for technical changes to its Hudson easy-listening FM station and LGBT music-and-talk AM station. TTP Media got an extension on its first station, but its owners have clammed up, prompting rumours to spread.

Maybe they’re just small bumps in the road. But we’ve been waiting more than two years for some of these stations. And the people who are looking for an alternative station to listen to (or even work at) are growing impatient.

Biggest screwup of the year

Wrong number appears on screen for Lac Mégantic benefit concert

Wrong number appears on screen for Lac Mégantic benefit concert

It’s really hard to top this one: Someone accidentally puts 1-800 instead of 1-866 in an on-screen graphic. But that graphic appears on four television channels at once, and stays on screen for hours. Tweets go out in all caps, and each of the four networks scrambles on a Sunday night to put up tickers advising viewers of the right number to call to send in donations to help Lac-Mégantic.

A rare moment of unity among Quebec’s four French-language television networks turns into an epic fail because of two incorrect digits.

Honorary mention: The Lac-Mégantic disaster itself

The media did a great job covering the aftermath of the train disaster. But in the first few hours after the crash, there was nothing. Because it happened after midnight, in the hours before Saturday morning, the newsrooms we count on to get news to us 24/7 were vacant. It was only after the sun came up, hours after the crash happened, that news media started getting wind of a major disaster just east of Sherbrooke. Once again, it was a demonstration of the dangers of not having newsrooms staffed overnight.

Local media personality of the year

Dimitrios Koussioulas and his hair.

Dimitrios Koussioulas and his hair.

Dimitrios Koussioulas was an unknown a year ago. And while he’s not exactly a celebrity now, he made a big splash on the anglo media scene in Montreal. After his Parc Avenue Tonight web series got some attention, the CBC had him do a live version. Meanwhile, the producers at Only in Montreal, a series about city life, hired him to be one of their hosts.

Both the CBC special and the first episode of Only in Montreal aired on the same day, at the same time. Koussioulas has the distinction of having his TV debut coming on two different shows airing on two different channels at the same time.

National media personality of the year

When it was announced that Chris Hadfield would be the first Canadian to command the International Space Station, there was the usual Canadian pride. But it wasn’t giving orders that made Hadfield a big star. Hadfield, with lots of help from the Canadian Space Agency and his son, made being in space cool again and became an international celebrity in a way that made us a lot happier to be Canadian than Rob Ford’s international celebrity did.

Career changes

  • Ted Bird gets dumped by TSN, and decides to go back across the Mercier, teaming back up with Java Jacobs but this time at country station KIC Country in Kahnawake.
  • Montreal radio loses Ric Peterson, Chantal Desjardins, Claude Beaulieu, Tasso Patsikakis, Paul Hayes, Nick Murdocco, and Gary Whittaker, among others, to firings and resignations.
  • Superstar Véronique Cloutier leaves one of the province’s most successful and popular television shows to focus on other projects, including a touring comedy show with her husband.
  • Eric Salvail leaves the TVA family to join V and launch a nightly talk show
  • Suzanne Clément quits Unité 9, the hottest drama of the year. The character she portrayed is so important that they reassign it to another actress. And amazingly it seems to have worked.
  • Overhaul at C’est juste de la TV. Host André Robitaille leaves to host an afternoon show on Radio-Canada. Marie-Soleil Michon is brought in to replace him. Panellists Liza Frulla and Olivier Robillard Laveaux are gone, replaced by Dave Ouellet (aka MC Gilles) and Jean-Michel Dufaux. The only constant is Anne-Marie Withenshaw, but maternity leave keeps her off the show for the first half of the season.
  • Marie-France Bazzo becomes the morning woman on Radio-Canada radio. She takes over from René Homier-Roy, going head-to-head with 98.5’s Paul Arcand, a show she had been a contributor to. She gives herself a year to make a difference, but the first ratings book shows little change in Arcand’s dominance.

Stories to watch in 2014

Aside from what we hope are the launch of radio stations, here are some other things that are set to make waves in the new year:

  • English community TV comes to Montreal. The CRTC has approved a video-on-demand service from Bell, and approval of a channel on Videotron is expected soon. Both will provide outlets for local producers and people in the community who want to be heard, though both are already being criticized for being more corporate than community-minded.
  • CRTC reviews TV policy. The commission’s “Let’s Talk TV” consultation sets the stage for a wide-ranging review of television policy, with everything in their mandate on the table. Hearings will take place in the fall, and decisions might not arrive until 2015, but the impact of these proceedings will be huge.
  • Kahnawake on the small screen. Mohawk Girls, a scripted series shot on the reserve this year, airs on APTN and OMNI in 2014.
  • CJMS gets a new owner. After its jaw-dropping appearance before the CRTC last fall, the station waits a decision on its future. The commission could pull its licence for repeatedly failing to comply with orders. Or it could allow it to keep running, albeit on a tight leash. The owner has already said a new owner has agreed to buy it. We’ll know who that is when the CRTC publishes an application for ownership change. Assuming it doesn’t pull the licence first.
  • Radio X dumps jazz once and for all, maybe. RNC Media is still waiting for a decision on the licence renewal of Radio X Montreal, and a request to dump its jazz music requirements in favour of more talk. Everyone seems to have agreed that jazz as a format isn’t profitable, but ADISQ wrote in to the CRTC to suggest that the station should try another music format instead of going to talk. The CRTC has given itself until Aug. 31 to renew the station’s licence.
  • Is Montreal ready for a south Asian radio station? There are two applications for ethnic radio stations in Montreal awaiting a decision. One, by AGNI Communications, would be a low-power FM station at 102.9 targeting the Tamil community. Another, by Radio Humsafar, is a station at 1610 AM for the wider south Asian community. And there’s a third player, Toronto’s Neeti Ray, who also wants to apply for a south Asian station at 1610 AM.
  • V takes over MusiquePlus and MusiMax. If the CRTC gives the okay, the struggling conventional broadcaster will finally have popular specialty channels like the big boys. But will that make enough of a difference to level the playing field?

Most popular blog posts of 2013

I’m sure I’ve missed a story or 12 here. What are your big media stories of the past year, and what are you keeping your eye on in 2014?

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