Category Archives: Media

Radio-Canada drops its last private affiliate TV station, forcing it to close

An era is going to end on Aug. 31. One that might not matter much as the nature of television changes.

CKRT-DT, a television station based in Rivière-du-Loup, ends its affiliation with ICI Radio-Canada Télé on that date. The public broadcaster has decided it will not renew the agreement, much like it did for CKRN-DT in Abitibi-Témiscamingue in 2018. And like with CKRN, the owner of CKRT has decided it has no other choice than to shut the station down.

I learned of this through a CRTC application filed by CKRT’s owner Télé Inter-Rives, which also owns a Noovo affiliate and two TVA affiliates serving eastern Quebec and northern New Brunswick. The group wants to redirect the funding CKRT receives from the Independent Local News Fund to the Noovo station, which would see its local news obligations increase as a result.

I talk about that application in this article for Cartt.ca subscribers.

If the CRTC approves the application (it approved a similar one for CKRN), it would mean not that much changes. There would still be local TV news in Rivière-du-Loup, and most people would still be served by Radio-Canada’s station in Rimouski, whose Téléjournal Est-du-Québec covers the region.

There would be a loss of service over the air, though. CKRT has two transmitters in Rivière-du-Loup (the second covers some holes in the downtown signal), and five others in Baie-St-Paul, Dégelis, Cabano, St-Urbain and Trois-Pistoles. All were upgraded to digital by Télé Inter-Rives, though they had no obligation to do so outside of Rivière-du-Loup.

CBC/Radio-Canada decided in 2012 it was no longer interested in operating over-the-air transmitters except for originating local stations. And that policy move is part of the reason for dropping this affiliation. Spokesperson Marc Pichette told me that the industry has shifted to a place where “over-the-air television is no longer considered an adequate and efficient means to offer our content to Canadians.”

A long list of former affiliates

A lot of TV stations have previously been affiliates of CBC or Radio-Canada. One by one those affiliations dropped. Some were by the request of the station, which decided to switch to a private network (especially after they became owned by the same company as that network), while others were dropped by the public broadcaster because it no longer made sense to them.

Here are those who lost their affiliations since 2005:

CBC

  • CKX-TV Brandon, Man.Shut down in 2009 after CTV decided it no longer wanted to pay to keep it open, and CBC refused to buy it for $1, then two other companies — Shaw and Bluepoint Investment Corp. — both decided to buy it and then reneged on the deal.
  • CJDC-TV Dawson Creek, B.C., and CFTK-TV Terrace, B.C. — Were bought by Bell Media in 2013 as part of the Astral acquisition and dropped their CBC affiliations in 2016 to switch to CTV Two.
  • CFJC-TV Kamloops, B.C., CHAT-TV Medicine Hat, Alta., and CKPG-TV Prince George, B.C. — Owned by Pattison Media, they dropped their CBC affiliations and switched to Canwest’s E! network. When that network went bust in 2009, they switched again to Citytv.
  • CHBC-DT Kelowna and CHCA-TV Red Deer — Dropped CBC affiliation in 2005 to switch to Canwest’s CH network, later E!. When that went down in 2009, CHBC was the only station to be switched to Global — it’s now known as Global Okanagan. CHCA was shut down.
  • CKWS-TV Kingston, CHEX-TV Peterborough and CHEX-TV-2 Oshawa, Ont. — Owned by Corus before it bought Global from Shaw, they switched to CTV affiliation in 2015 then became Global stations in 2018.*
  • CKSA-DT Lloydminster, Alta./Sask. — Owned by Newcap and since bought by Stingray, it lost its CBC affiliation in 2016. It switched to become a Global affiliate, as its sister station in the same city is already a CTV affiliate.
  • CKPR-DT Thunder Bay, Ont. — This Dougall Media station ended its CBC affiliation in 2014 and became a CTV affiliate. Its sister station CHFD-DT was a former CTV affiliate that switched to Global in 2010 after it couldn’t reach a renewal deal with CTV.

Radio-Canada

  • CKTV-TV Saguenay, CKSH-TV Sherbrooke and CKTM-TV Trois-Rivières — Owned by Cogeco, they were sold to CBC/Radio-Canada in 2008 and became Radio-Canada stations. These were the last TV stations ever purchased by CBC/Radio-Canada.
  • CKRN-DT Rouyn-Noranda — Owned by RNC Media, shut down when Radio-Canada ended its affiliation deal in 2018.
  • CKRT-DT Rivière-du-Loup — Owned by Télé Inter-Rives, set to shut down Aug. 31, 2021.

To recap:

  • 3 stations purchased by CBC/Radio-Canada
  • 2 stations becoming CTV Two stations (owned by Bell Media)
  • 4 stations becoming Global stations (owned by Corus)
  • 3 stations becoming Citytv affiliates (owned by Pattison Media)
  • 2 stations becoming CTV affiliates (owned by Stingray and Dougall Media)
  • 3 stations shut down

*Corrected, thanks Tim!

Evanov rebrands Hudson Jewel station as Lite 106.7, skews playlist more toward 1980s

For the first time since it launched in 2014, Evanov’s radio station in Hudson/St-Lazare west of Montreal has gone through a rebrand.

Starting Monday at midnight, Jewel 106.7 (CHSV-FM) is Lite 106.7 Hudson’s Lite Favourites (its first song under the new format, for the record, was Baby Baby by Amy Grant). The change coincides with an identical one at The Jewel in Ottawa, which also becomes Lite 98.5, kicking off with Lionel Richie’s All Night Long.

The midnight brand switch was a bit anticlimactic, with just the new station ID:

A press release was issued overnight and a more formal announcement of the change happened just after the 8am news:

Recorded by Gary Gamble, Director of Operations for Evanov Communications, the announcement said that after reviewing comments from listeners who wanted “a vibrant radio station in touch with today, playing the best music from timeless artists past and present” (I’m sure they phrased it like that, too), it was rebranding “to build on the success of Jewel 106.7 and maintain our lite sound.”

Two other Jewel stations in eastern Ontario, CKHK-FM 107.7 in Hawkesbury and CHRC-FM 92.5 in Clarence-Rockland, switched to Hot Country at 9am after the morning show. (Their social media pages have already changed, leading to some comments from confused fans.)

It sounded like this:

The announcement on the Clarence-Rockland station noted that people who still wanted to listen to the Jewel-style light pop can still tune in to the Ottawa station on 98.5. Steven Lee Olsen’s Hello Country kicked off the new brand.

As I explain in this story for Cartt.ca, there are minimal changes to staffing as a result of this rebranding. All four stations keep their morning teams, including Ted Bird and Tom Whelan at Jewel 106.7. The biggest programming change is that the country stations will bring in nationally syndicated Casey Clark at midday and Bobby Bones in the evening.

I spoke with Ted Silver, Evanov’s program director for the four stations, about the change, and he explained that for Jewel/Lite, it was a matter of “following the curve” so the stations can better target the core audience of adults 45-54. “The audience we were appealing to 10 years ago is 10 years older,” he said, and have aged out of the demographic that can be sold to advertisers effectively.

Silver, a former PD at Montreal’s Q92, says Lite should be similar to what people listened to at Q92 before it became The Beat. Jewel listeners won’t feel alienated, it’s more of an evolution than a drastic change. But there will be less focus on the 70s and more on the 80s, because it wants to attract people who were in high school in the 80s.

Jewel’s remaining stations in Toronto, Brantford and Meaford will keep that brand, which is more entrenched in southern Ontario, Silver said. Evanov also has a Jewel station in Halifax, but the CRTC just approved its sale (along with its Hot Country sister station) to Acadia Broadcasting.

The Hudson station doesn’t subscribe to Numeris ratings, but does get some data from a company called StatsRadio. It estimates the station’s audience at 140,000 listeners, “not bad for a little suburban radio station,” Silver said. (That number is probably exaggerated — Jewel 98.5’s weekly reach in Ottawa as measured by Numeris was less than half that.)

What radio executives say about the future of their industry

Late last year, I was asked by my editor at Cartt.ca to write a feature story about branding in commercial radio, to be tied to the CRTC’s review of its commercial radio policy. That story ended up turning into a 10-part series for the website called The Future of Radio, in which I talk to some radio industry executives about how and where things are going.

Here are links to the individual stories (for Cartt.ca subscribers), and below are some point-form comments about the things I learned through this project:

The series

The sources

I spoke to several radio executives for about an hour each for this series, and each conversation was quite insightful. Thanks to them for agreeing to take part:

  • Troy Reeb, Executive Vice President Broadcast Networks, Corus Entertainment
  • Steve Jones, Senior Vice-President Radio, Stingray
  • Rod Schween, President, Jim Pattison Broadcast Group (since renamed Pattison Media)
  • Jon Pole, President, My Broadcasting Corp.
  • Julie Adam, Senior Vice-President of TV & Broadcast, Rogers Sports & Media
  • Kevin Desjardins, President, Canadian Association of Broadcasters

(I tried to get an executive at Bell Media to participate, but things have been a bit chaotic there lately.)

By design, I’ve spoken to people high up at larger national and regional broadcasters, and these stories reflect their views, but those are far from the only voices that deserve to be heard about radio. As the CRTC process continues (replies are due this week), we’ll hear more from groups that are critical of the big players.

The lessons

Some of the things I heard from several radio executives during our talks:

  • Radio brands are boring for a reason. They often include the frequency and the format, or some generic branding like Kiss or Move or The Beat. You need listeners to be able to remember your brand when they fill out radio surveys by Numeris (which is how it’s done in all but the five largest markets).
  • Creating common brands allows for synergy. But it’s not always about common programming. It’s also about saving money on things like imaging — those station ID jingles and promos. When you only have to design a logo or website once for multiple markets, you can save money but also invest more to get better quality and share those costs across multiple stations.
  • Expect more blending of syndication and local. For small-market stations, it just doesn’t make financial sense to have local announcers 24/7. In some, it doesn’t even make much sense to have a local morning show. So big broadcasters are taking a well-produced syndicated or national show and blending it with local news, traffic and weather. We’re also seeing popular morning shows from some markets being edited and repackaged to be used in other markets in the evenings.
  • Moving toward a Canadian radio star system. Both Bell and Corus have created national overnight talk shows for their talk stations, replacing syndicated U.S. programming like Coast to Coast, and other broadcasters are looking at doing their own thing instead of bringing in foreign shows. If they’re going to spend money anyway, they reason, why not spend it on some of their own talent, and give them a larger national audience?
  • The peak hour is getting later. It’s hard to say how much of this will be reversed when we fully emerge from the pandemic, but the peak hour for radio has shifted from about 7am to 8am as people who aren’t commuting don’t have to get up as early. We’re also seeing more listening throughout the day, instead of people abruptly dropping off once their car is in the office parking lot.
  • Radio will follow the platforms. Most broadcasters have kind of given up on trying to create their own digital ecosystems. Instead, they’ll adapt their content to whatever platform people are using. They’ve started up podcast networks, combined forces on the RadioPlayer app (with Bell as the notable exception), and signed up to work on smart speakers. They’re posting to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and whatever else will come next.
  • AM is not the future. It’s not dead yet, and AM stations still rate well in some markets, but the broadcasters aren’t betting on its future. There are no more AM stations in Quebec outside Montreal. Where bandwidth and regulations permit, stations have switched from AM to FM across the country. CBC is replacing low-power AM transmitters with FM ones. And the big players want to be able to move their AM stations to FM as well without having to give up their FM music stations. As a transition measure, HD Radio transmitters in large markets have allowed the big guys to simulcast AM on FM HD, but that’s not a long-term solution, because…
  • Neither is HD Radio. After the disaster that was Digital Audio Broadcasting in the 1990s and early 2000s, broadcasters are hesitant to adopt HD Radio, the technology principally used in the U.S. After a few years of experimentation, there isn’t much hope for its future, for the same reason as DAB failed: A lack of receivers. HD Radio still isn’t as common in cars as it should be, and receivers outside of cars are just about nonexistent. There’s potential for the technology for niche ethnic stations (and some ethnic broadcasters are using digital-only channels for single-language programming) but it’s nowhere close to mainstream. The fact that it’s confusing as well — to tune to CJAD 800 you have to go to 107.3 FM HD Channel 2? — doesn’t help. By the time this might get fixed up, or a new digital technology emerges, it will be easier to deliver audio programming over the internet. (Shout-out to radio broadcast manufacturer Nautel, though, which proposed a very unworkable national network of HD-only stations that would have channels in multiple languages.)
  • But maybe smart speakers. There was a noticeable uptick in smart speaker listening as people stayed home during the pandemic (and realized they don’t have other radio receivers at home). There was a big worry that as people went toward internet-based devices for their audio needs, they might choose things like Spotify over local radio. So there’s a big effort to ensure smart speakers tune to radio first.
  • Don’t expect a Canadian Spotify. I asked several of the executives, if they’re getting all this unfair competition from Spotify and Apple Music and the rest, why don’t they just launch competing platforms? The answer is they lack the scale to make it profitable. The technology wouldn’t be difficult to implement, but even with tariffs that the music industry has mocked as laughably low, Spotify and its peers struggle to make money, and there isn’t much hope a Bell or Rogers version would be more successful. Quebecor is trying with its QUB Musique app, and Stingray has several streaming music channels, but otherwise everyone is sticking with radio, even digital-only radio channels (which, because the user does not control the playlist, has a different tariff scheme).
  • The industry wants more consolidation. One issue brought up in filings to the commission is its limits on local ownership — currently 3-4 stations depending on market size, and no more than two on any one band in any language. The CAB has proposed a new formula that would allow some broadcasters to own up to half the stations in a market. Bell wants to eliminate ownership limits completely. Allowing AM stations to move to FM is an excuse given, but others say radio needs to have fewer owners to be more competitive. (The change isn’t just supported by the big guys, but several smaller owners also agree with consolidation because it means more potential buyers for their stations, which increases their value.)
  • Paperwork is a big problem. Both large and small broadcasters spend a lot of human resources just meeting the CRTC’s reporting requirements. In some cases, they’re necessary, like providing annual financial statements or lists of songs they have broadcast. In other cases, they’re redundant or of limited use. Some broadcasters proposed ways of cutting the paperwork burden, but many told me they just wish the CRTC was itself more efficient, processed applications more quickly, and wasn’t such a bottleneck in plans to launch, acquire or change stations.

There were also plenty of things that weren’t surprising. Broadcasters want lower quotas (dropping CanCon to 25% of songs from 35%), interest groups want quotas maintained. Big broadcasters want fewer regulations for themselves and more for their foreign digital-only competitors.

And, despite everything, everyone believes that radio has a future. Because otherwise they wouldn’t be in the game.

Review: Noovo Le Fil does news differently, with some familiar cost-cutting

Noémi Mercier hosts the first episode of Le Fil on March 29.

In the lead-up to its launch on March 29, Noovo (formerly V, formerly TQS) hyped that its new daily newscast called Le Fil would be, above all else, different.

Different in how it told stories (longer, more in-depth), different in what stories it would tell (younger, more diverse), and different in how it presented itself (two Black anchors, a more industrial-looking studio).

After two weeks of watching these programs, I can conclude that it’s definitely different. In some ways that are good, but in many ways the difference is a stark reminder of how few resources are being put into news-gathering at the network, even though its new owner Bell Media has extensive English-language resources across the country, francophone journalists at radio stations across Quebec, and lots of money.

Rather than being an alternative newscast to TVA and Radio-Canada, it might be more fair to say Le Fil isn’t even in the same league, and isn’t trying to be.

History

A recap of what led to this: TQS, founded in 1986, was the first television network to try to compete directly with the duopoly of Radio-Canada and TVA in Quebec. It was owned by the Pouliot family, who also owned CFCF (CTV Montreal) and CF Cable.

Its newscast, Le Grand Journal, promised to be different, but looking back seems very generic — an anchor in a studio, tight two-minute packaged news reports with reporter voiceover, and weather and sports.

TQS would eventually be bought by Quebecor, but then sold because Quebecor bought Videotron, which owned TVA. Cogeco and what was then Bell Globemedia bought TQS in 2002 (with Cogeco as the controlling owner) and injected money into its news operation, but by 2007 Cogeco gave up and pushed the network into bankruptcy.

It was bought by Maxime Rémillard, a film producer and distributor, who disbanded the entire news operation and renamed the network V. Rémillard convinced the CRTC to drastically reduce the network’s local and news programming requirements in order to keep it alive, and tried various cost-effective ways of doing the bare minimum of news programming, with forgettable newscasts like Les Infos and NVL that were outsourced to other companies.

Rémillard’s massacre of the news operation was heavily criticized, but it worked. V stopped bleeding money and managed to survive.

In 2019, Rémillard agreed to sell V’s five stations (Montreal, Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières and Saguenay) to Bell Media for $20 million, and Bell promised to bring back newscasts to get the CRTC to approve the purchase. The CRTC approved the deal last year and brought in higher local programming requirements, with each station needing to broadcast five hours a week of local programming and two and half hours a week of “locally reflective” programming. Next year, the local programming requirements for Montreal and Quebec City go up to 8.5 hours a week.

Bell must also spend 5% of V’s revenues on local news. In 2019-2020, V brought in $35.7  million, which was about half of its expenses. This would mean about $1.8 million a year minimum on news.

Enter Le Fil.

Structure

Le Fil is a series of newscasts:

  • Le Fil 17h: An hour-long newscast at 5pm weekdays, hosted by Noémi Mercier, a long-time journalist who had been seen mainly on Télé-Québec before joining Noovo.
  • Le Fil 17h30: Though billed as a separate newscast, it’s more of a regional cutaway for Noovo’s owned-and-operated non-Montreal stations (Quebec City, Saguenay, Trois-Rivières and Sherbrooke). About 15 minutes total not including a commercial break, each region’s newscast is anchored out of Quebec City by Lisa-Marie Blais, who comes from LCN but was part of TQS in the last days of Le Grand Journal. For Montreal viewers, Mercier continues to anchor with more local segments during this time. After the regional cutaways, the regions come back to Mercier who does a signoff opinion/analysis monologue.
  • Le Fil 22h: The 10pm half-hour newscast is hosted by Michel Bherer, who spent 13 years at Radio-Canada but also worked at TQS back in the day. It consists mainly of a selection of stories that were presented at 5pm. Regional cutaways, also hosted by Blais, begin at 10:10pm. (They’re not posted online, so I haven’t seen their content.)
  • Le Fil Week-end: Two hour-long shows that strangely air at 9am on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, and mostly repeat stories from the week, sometimes with fresh introductions. The shows include an original feature interview near the end. They’re hosted by Meeker Guerrier, who previously worked at Radio-Canada and since last fall has been a regular columnist on Bell Media radio stations and RDS.

For all of them, the structure is pretty simple: five-minute blocks, either packaged reports, often introduced by the journalist, or perhaps an in-studio chat with a journalist or a columnist.

Contributors include big names like La Presse columnist Yves Boisvert and freelancers like fact-checker Camille Lopez and U.S. politics watcher Valérie Beaudoin.

Laid-back news

The biggest difference between this newscast and a mainstream one is how it tells stories. Rather than a standard two-minute heavily narrated package including B-roll of people walking and ending with a reporter standup, these packages are about five minutes long, adopting a slower pace, and let their subjects do a lot of the talking. Almost like a mini documentary. Many packages include music, to further accentuate that feel. The reporters are also present, but more casual and engaging in how they talk to the camera.

There are “live” chats between the anchor and the reporter, either in studio, or via double box, and I notice the reporters tend to be introduced by first name only.

The rough edges can be seen in the reports, which often show technical issues that I have difficulty just dismissing as first-week flubs or COVID-19 compromises. Subjects in interviews often don’t have a microphone on them, leading to poor-quality audio. This probably wouldn’t have been an issue if they hired both reporters and experienced camera operators who would be more concerned with those technical aspects. Many reports are done entirely by the reporters alone.

Diversity

The other big difference Noovo highlights in its approach to this newscast is diversity — not only of its staff, where two of four anchors are Black, but of the story subjects. They spend more time talking about issues facing young people, racialized communities, Indigenous communities. I don’t know if they’re necessarily covering these issues better than their well-funded competitors, but that’s where they’ve decided to put their focus.

Being a brand new operation, most of their journalists are pretty young, and so much of this focus on different types of stories may come naturally.

Look and feel

Michel Bherer next to the window in the Montreal studio.

Reporter Audrey Ruel-Manseau on the side of the anchor desk in Montreal.

Lisa-Marie Blais at the Quebec City studio.

Lisa-Marie Blais and Alexane Drolet in Quebec City.

I suppose Bell Media was trying to get away from the standard TV studio look with its design for the studios in Montreal and Quebec City. It’s very industrial, like you might expect for a tech startup or something. White-painted brick, exposed metal conduits, a light wood desk, coloured lights, vertical screens. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they were going for something new and cool, but it comes out to me looking a lot like moderate-budget community TV.

The graphics are better. Bold white text on dark blue backgrounds for the most part. Overlays are squarish on the side rather than going along the bottom.

No weather or sports

Despite being built by the same company that runs CTV News, there’s very little of the usual building blocks of a newscast. There’s no weather report, no sports highlights (Bherer briefly gives out the final score at the end of the night when the Canadiens play), no market numbers, no entertainment news, no stories from foreign news services, and no ambulance-chasing fire and car crash briefs.

Bell owns RDS (in fact, the two broadcast out of the same building), so it would not have been difficult to incorporate a sports component, so it seems this was done intentionally. And honestly, it would have been odd to shoe-horn something like sports highlights into this show.

News briefs are often presented on screen with no visuals or only a faded still image to accompany them — literally the text of the brief is presented as a graphic as the anchor reads it. They’ve gotten a bit better at this as the days went on, with some briefs presenting visuals now, but it’s an odd thing to see so much text in a newscast.

One thing I have seen a lot of, though, is vox pops. For a newscast that promises to do things differently, adopting one of the news media’s laziest, most useless forms of journalism — asking random uninformed people on the street what they think of some topic — would be a head-scratcher if we didn’t already know why it’s done. It’s an easy crutch for an uninspired assignment editor.

They’re not in every newscast, but in less than three weeks I’ve seen a handful of them.

Recycling the news

The most glaring way Le Fil saves money is through reusing its content. The 10pm newscast is largely stuff that aired earlier in the day. The weekend newscast is mostly stuff that aired earlier in the week.

Even the regional cutaways involve a lot of reuse. The 15 minutes mean they have three stories. But for most of the regions, the third story is common, regardless of what region it comes from.

So for the Mauricie, Saguenay and Estrie regions, we’re talking about 10 minutes per weekday of actual original local news. Less than an hour a week.

Since Bell has not deemed those three regions worthy enough to even have their own anchors or studios, it’s probably unsurprising that even their local news isn’t that local.

Will anyone watch?

The first broadcasts of Le Fil got just over 100,000 viewers, according to Richard Therrien of Le Soleil. That’s relatively decent, but also a lot of curiosity factor. Later broadcasts got smaller ratings.

Working against Noovo is the schedule — if you want news at 5pm, you can watch TVA. If you want news at 10pm, you can watch either TVA or Radio-Canada. And if you want news at 9am on weekends … well, I guess you have that now, assuming you don’t have LCN or RDI on cable?

I would have liked them to, say, push the late newscast to 11pm and offer some counter-programming in the 10pm hour. Or try to do something more with the weekend news than an hour-long in-case-you-missed-it.

Multiplatform

I can’t say Noovo really sets itself apart by promising its news will be on a bunch of platforms, since everyone is doing that now, but it’s worth noting here. At the moment, there isn’t much along these lines. Packages and newscasts are posted to their website, a few clips are posted to YouTube, and they have Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts, and now TikTok too.

A new Noovo Info website is promised to launch later, which will give a better idea of the digital facet of this operation. By then, Bell will probably have found a way to integrate its journalists at Rouge and Énergie radio stations throughout Quebec into the system, and maybe even found some synergies with CTV and CTV Montreal in particular.

Bottom line

So with some aspects still marked incomplete, and taking into account the usual early-day bugs that will work themselves out as everyone gets more familiar with the daily routine, I would rate Noovo Le Fil as … OK.

Noovo doesn’t have the same news resources as Radio-Canada and TVA, which both have all-news channels and close relationships with other journalists on different platforms (Radio-Canada has digital and radio journalists, while Quebecor has the Journal de Montréal, 24 Heures and other platforms for journalism). But Bell has deep pockets, so if it wanted to, it could create a new competitor on that same level.

As a news operation, it’s definitely better than what it replaced. As a newscast on TV, it’s also better, though probably not better enough to become a real threat to the duopoly of Radio-Canada and TVA. (And we’ll see if, down the line, Noovo’s desire to be different will hold or if it will slowly morph into a similar kind of generic TV newscast that its competitors have settled into over the decades.)

Some of its longer-form documentary-style reports might have some success on digital platforms, I suppose, but it’s really unclear what target audience they’re trying to reach here. Le Fil doesn’t have the flash of TVA nor the reporting depth of Radio-Canada, and despite their promise to be more diverse and reflective, I don’t see that many people who don’t normally watch the news flocking to this show.

Which leaves us with the distinct impression that, despite all the hype, Le Fil exists not because Bell wants to shake up the marketplace when it comes to local news on TV, but simply because the CRTC required Noovo produce local news, and this is what they came up with to fill that minimum requirement.

I hope I’m wrong there.

Noovo Le Fil airs at 5pm and 10pm weekdays and 9am Saturdays and Sundays on Noovo.

Rogers to buy Shaw for $26 billion — but will regulators agree?

There are days you think Canada’s media and telecom industries are about as converged as they can be. And then another megatransaction gets announced that you think couldn’t possibly be approved by the government. And then it is.

Transactions like Bell buying Astral Media, Bell buying MTS, Rogers buying Mobilicity, Postmedia buying Sun Media, and all the other transactions that brought us to this point.

So the news that Shaw has agreed to a $26-billion sale to Rogers maybe shouldn’t come as quite a shock. But as the government professes to be pro-consumer, particularly when it comes to wireless services, can we really expect this deal to be approved?

Here are the stumbling blocks the companies will have to get over:

  1. Freedom Mobile. In Ontario, Alberta and B.C., Freedom is the fourth large wireless carrier, the last surviving one from that era of increased competition after Mobilicity and Public Mobile were scooped up by the big three. Rogers, which is already Canada’s largest mobile provider, apparently believes it can just keep Freedom as part of the deal, with nothing more than a promise that it won’t raise prices for three years. If the federal government is to be taken seriously on wireless competition, it can’t possibly let that stand. It could force Rogers to sell Freedom to some other party (Quebecor? Xplornet? Cogeco? Some random rich guy?), or it could come to some agreement where Rogers sheds just enough Freedom customers to another party, like Bell did when it bought MTS.
  2. Corus. Shaw and Corus are separate companies, with separate boards of directors and different shareholders, but both are controlled by the Shaw family. The CRTC treats them as if they’re the same for competition reasons. The issue here is that, as part of the transaction, the Shaw family gets two seats on the Rogers board. That doesn’t give them control of Rogers, but does it present enough of a competition concern to warrant increased scrutiny?
  3. Cable and satellite. Because Shaw and Rogers have essentially split the country geographically, with Shaw serving western Canada and Rogers serving eastern Canada, there’s not much overlap in terms of wired coverage to deal with. But these are still big companies. Shaw has 1.4 million cable TV subscribers and more than 600,000 satellite TV subscribers, making almost $4 billion in annual revenue on TV services alone. Add that to Rogers’s 1.5 million TV subscribers and $3.5 billion revenue, and you get a company 30% larger than Bell on that front. That’s a change in dynamic in bargaining position when, say, negotiating carriage contracts with TV services. There’s also the fact that if Rogers buys Shaw’s satellite service, that’s one less TV service option for subscribers in Rogers territory. They go from having to choose between Rogers, Bell Fibe/satellite and Shaw Direct to having to choose between Rogers and Bell alone.
  4. Sheer size. Rogers has $15 billion in annual revenue. Shaw has $5 billion. Combined, they still fall short of Bell’s $24 billion, but not by much. No doubt Rogers will use the need to compete against Bell as an argument for approving the transaction, because the only way to fight ownership consolidation is more ownership consolidation.
  5. Jobs. Rogers has promised to create 3,000 “net new jobs” in western Canada as part of the deal. But it also says “synergies are expected to exceed $1 billion annually within two years of closing.” I’m curious what synergies can be achieved without cutting any jobs.

Mobile service seems like the only potential dealbreaker here, unless there are some minor assets that compete directly that would also need to be divested. Rogers would probably be fine ditching Freedom if that was a condition of approval.

Will political and regulatory forces accept such a deal? We’ll have to see. Recent experience suggests they probably will, and companies don’t go through this kind of trouble if they don’t think a deal can succeed. (At least that’s what I’d like to say, but Rogers’ proposed purchase of Cogeco fell flat, so…)

24 Heures transforms into weekly as free newspapers adapt to pandemic

24 Heures’s first edition as a weekly, from Feb. 11, 2021.

24 Heures, Quebecor’s free daily newspaper distributed in Montreal, has undergone a metamorphosis, one that makes it look a bit more like the next reincarnation of Ici than it does the 24 Heures of old.

This month, it launched a “new platform” at 24heures.ca (no more being just a subsection of the Journal de Montréal website), where it promises to “get to the roots of issues you care about, in addition to covering daily news, and inspired by solutions journalism,” according to a message posted on that website.

The website is now broken down into categories:

  • En bref, which has news
  • Panorama, which has content about “social movements, innovation, digital culture, sexuality” … so lifestyle content
  • Urgence climat, which is devoted to climate change, and is its own section so you know they take it seriously like the youth of today
  • Porte-monnaie, which has content on money, personal finance and entrepreneurship
  • Lifestyle … so more lifestyle content
  • Pop, which will have “viral content”

The website has some wire content, from Agence France-Presse, Agence QMI and Quebecor’s other websites like Silo 57, but most of it so far is from 24 Heures’s own writers. And while some of it is viral-content-churnalism, there are some real stories in there as well.

Weekly

The print edition has the more major transformation. It now runs weekly, on Thursdays, and it has a new design and new logo. It’s also thicker — the first two editions are 32 pages each.

But it’s the content that’s most different. The issues are themed — Black History Month for Feb. 11, sex and social media for Feb. 18. You’ll see less hard news and more feature stories and columns, and those columns are new, younger and more diverse faces.

It’ll be interesting to see how long they keep this up. A newspaper is going to put its best foot forward for a launch like this, but a year or two down the line will we see more repurposed Journal de Montréal content?

You can read the digital versions of the paper editions of 24 Heures here.

This isn’t Quebecor’s first youth-focused free weekly newspaper. In 2009, it shut down Ici, its answer to free alt-weekly Voir. That was followed by the shutdowns of Montreal’s other alt-weeklies: Hour, Mirror, and finally last June, the remnants of Voir.

The new reality of the commuter freesheet

24 Heures’s move comes after competitor Métro changed its schedule last fall. After taking almost the full month of August off, it returned on a twice-weekly schedule, publishing Wednesdays and Fridays.

Both newspapers were hit hard by the pandemic, not just because of the dramatic reduction in advertising, which is their only source of revenue, but because fewer people are taking public transit and sanitary rules prevent them from having their human distributors at rush hours handing out the paper to passersby.

Métro and 24 Heures are the last remaining free dai… uhh, right they’re not daily anymore. But anyway, they’re the last of its kind in Canada. The 24 Hours chain was a victim of the 2017 Postmedia-Torstar paper swap, while the last Metro newspapers were shut down by Torstar in 2019.

CRTC rejects request to reduce local programming quota for TSN Radio 690

A request from Bell Media to reduce the amount of local programming it is required to broadcast on TSN Radio 690 AM in Montreal has been rejected by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

In a decision published on Wednesday renewing the station’s licence until 2027, the CRTC found it already had enough flexibility in its current quota and allowing this change in its licence — going from 96 hours a week to 63 hours of local programming — would undermine the reason the quota was established in the first place.

Commercial AM radio stations in Canada generally don’t have requirements for local programming. As we saw with the (coincidental) format changes for TSN stations in other markets this week, you can run whatever you want on AM. Requirements for FM stations are a bit more strict — you have to have at least 42 hours a week of local programming (a third of regulated hours) to be able to solicit local advertising on a station.

But TSN 690 (CKGM) had special conditions of licence imposed in 2013 as part of a deal that allowed Bell to own four English-language stations in Montreal after it purchased Astral Media (which at the time owned CJAD, CHOM and Virgin Radio). Bell had originally proposed to turn TSN into a French-language station to get around that problem, but after seeing the public outrage that caused, they asked for an exemption to the policy during their second try. Bell promised to keep TSN as a sports radio station, and agreed to a CRTC request for a local programming quota roughly equal to what they were broadcasting at the time.

“The station’s condition of licence relating to local programming was an important factor in the approval of an exception to the common ownership policy,” the decision reads. “By authorizing at this time the requested amendment to this condition of licence, which was imposed in 2013 to mitigate the impact of the exception to the common ownership policy, the Commission would substantially reduce the mitigation measure put in place to justify such an exception. Therefore, the Commission is of the view that reducing CKGM’s local programming requirement is not appropriate.”

In its application, Bell had argued the quota caused problems during weeks when the Canadiens weren’t playing. They said this came to a head during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, when it couldn’t broadcast every game because it would have violated the quota. Instead, the station ran some rerun programming in the evening.

That argument didn’t sway the commission. While it acknowledged that the quota would “bring challenges to CKGM” during certain times of the year, “the station can broadcast 30 hours of non-local programming per broadcast week out of a possible total of 126 hours. The Commission considers that this level allows for a significant amount of non-local content and provides sufficient flexibility for the station’s programming offering.”

The 30 hours a week comes out to about four and a half hours a day, more than enough to have a non-local game every night, a couple of NFL games on the weekend and a Blue Jays game or two.

The decision is not directly related to the cuts at other TSN stations this week — this application was originally filed in 2019 and published in November.

The CRTC did agree to another licence amendment proposed by TSN — eliminating the need for additional $245,000 in Canadian content contributions from 2013 to 2020. The commission determined that the money had been paid and the licence condition was no longer necessary.

CJAD merges Natasha Hall, Aaron Rand shows, to rebroadcast CTV News at 6

On the heels of recent cuts to its programming, CJAD is reducing its local schedule by an hour a day and merging the shows of afternoon hosts Natasha Hall and Aaron Rand as of next Monday.

The announcement was made at the beginning of Hall’s show on Wednesday. The two, who have known each other for years going back to when Hall did traffic for Rand’s morning show on Q92, will co-host a show from 2 to 6pm weekdays. The new show, whose name hasn’t been announced but will be something like “Montreal Now with Aaron Rand and Natasha Hall”, replaces Hall’s 2-4pm show and Rand’s 4-7pm show.

Hall said Robyn Flynn, currently the producer of Rand’s show, will produce the new show, while Brian Kowlessar, currently with Hall’s show, will stay as technical producer.

The final hour, from 6-7pm, will be a rebroadcast of CTV News Montreal at 6. That follows similar moves from Toronto’s CFRB and Ottawa’s CFRA, which already rebroadcast local CTV newscasts at 6pm. CJAD already rebroadcasts CTV’s national newscast at 11pm and the local 11:30pm CTV newscast.

Meanwhile, morning host Andrew Carter announced Wednesday he would be joining the Live at Five show, from 5am to 5:30am, with Trudie Mason and James Foster.

The end result of these changes will be reducing CJAD’s local original programming down to 11 hours on weekdays, from 5am to 6pm and excluding the Evan Solomon Show from noon to 2pm. That’s much less than it used to be, when CJAD had local programming until 11pm or midnight.

There’s no word of staff cuts as a result of this change, though it may save some money down the road by, for example, not needing to bring in replacements during vacations. A memo from Bell Media on Tuesday said its organizational changes were complete, so there shouldn’t be other major staff cuts in the near future.

Bell Media shuts down TSN Radio in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Hamilton

Just when we thought the worst was over, Bell Media on Tuesday abruptly pulled the plug on three of its seven TSN Radio stations — CKST 1040 in Vancouver, CFRW 1290 in Winnipeg and CKOC 1150 in Hamilton — to replace them with new, cheaper formats.

Ya Bloomberg’d it

The Hamilton station has already adopted its new brand, BNN Bloomberg 1150, copying a format at CFTE 1410 i Vancouver — itself a former TSN Radio station — that relies on a mix of audio from BNN’s television channel, content from Bloomberg and some random repurposed Bell Media content like CTV News, the Evan Solomon Show and Amanda Lang’s podcast. There was nothing said about local programming and a Bell Media spokesperson didn’t answer when I asked if there would be any.

Funny story

The two other stations said they would announce their new format simultaneously on Friday (at 9am CT and 7am PT), but thanks to a memo from Bell Media President Wade Oosterman, we already know they will adopt the “Funny” standup comedy format that he described as successful even though the existing Funny stations — CKMX 1060 in Calgary and CHAM 820 in Hamilton — have poor ratings, and the third station to run with that brand shut down in 2016.

CKMX is in last place in Calgary with a 0.8% share, and CHAM is second-last in Hamilton with a 0.6% share. The only station rated lower than CHAM? TSN Radio, now BNN.

So don’t expect the ratings to go up with this move. Instead, expect the expenses to go down as they no longer need local programming of any kind.

690 survives

The other four TSN Radio stations — CFRN 1260 in Edmonton, CHUM 1050 in Toronto, CFGO 1200 in Ottawa and CKGM 690 in Montreal — survived the axe. Those stations have varying ratings — 0.9%, 0.4%, 3.1% and 3.5% market shares according to their latest books — but they have other reasons for staying. Montreal and Ottawa have the rights to their local NHL teams and are the only English-language sports radio stations in their markets. Toronto is Toronto, and has plenty of local sports content to go around, including half the Leafs schedule.

Why Edmonton still exists while Vancouver and Winnipeg got yanked is a bit beyond me. Edmonton doesn’t have the rights to either the Oilers or whatever the CFL team will be renaming itself (both of those air on Corus’s 630 CHED), and its ratings aren’t stellar.

(Edmonton was nevertheless hit by layoffs, including Corey Graham)

It’s also worth noting that Bell Media gave up the rights to the Winnipeg Jets to CJOB in December, even though it had a year left on its deal, according to the Winnipeg Free Press.

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Canadian-only Super Bowl commercials disappoint again in 2021

In case you were part of the half of the country that didn’t tune in to the Super Bowl on CTV, TSN or RDS, you may have missed the cool Super Bowl ads.

And if you’re part of the half who did, you probably missed them too, since most of the best ads didn’t air on Canadian television. Instead, you were treated to a bunch of forgettable car commercials, repetitive teasers for CTV programming, unoriginal promos for Crave, and lots of ads for Skip the Dishes somehow.

(I counted five airings of the Jon Hamm spots between kickoff and the end of the CTV broadcast, including three in the first hour, which led to it being the butt of a lot of jokes on Twitter.)

It is unfortunately the reality that we still have to live with (at least those of us not close enough to pick up a U.S. station with an antenna or determined enough to find a bootlegged stream). The CRTC tried to answer consumer demand and allow Canadians access to American ads, but that was overturned by the Supreme Court and its repeal also written into the new North American trade agreement.

If you want to watch the U.S. ads, they’re online. On YouTube’s AdBlitz playlist or on Programming Insider’s more comprehensive list. Some of them are great, some are silly, few are truly memorable, but a lot of them took a lot of effort.

Many of them also aired in Canada. But a lot of them didn’t, either because the advertisers didn’t want to spend the extra money or because their services or products aren’t offered here.

Meanwhile, north of the border, we got some Super Bowl commercials of our own. And they were … not that great. Some tried — Michael Bublé selling Bubly again, and some ads for investing companies — but nothing compared to the U.S. offer.

It’s up to advertisers, not Bell alone, to create a uniquely Canadian Super Bowl ad break experience. Frankly, advertisers have to do more in general to make their ads more interesting. They might think they don’t have to, since Bell has the exclusive broadcasting rights to the Super Bowl in Canada, and people are going to watch it live regardless, but that kind of complacency isn’t going to serve the industry well in the long term.

And Bell could set an example by upping its own game. I get that you’ll have CTV promos (the American broadcast was filled with CBS promos) and ads for Bell Mobility, but maybe you could throw some extra cash at the creative people you haven’t laid off yet and get them to do something a bit more interesting next time.

Anyway, for the sake of keeping a record, here are the ads that most closely resemble “Super Bowl” style that aired only in Canada:

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CJAD guts newsroom, CTV Montreal cuts Quebec City job as Bell Media cuts hit front lines

CJAD has laid off virtually all its reporting staff as recent cuts at Bell Media, starting at the very top with the departure of president Randy Lennox, filtered down to the local station level on Monday.

Bell Media doesn’t like to give specifics about these kinds of things, nor does it like to allow its local managers to face the music when they’re forced to make cuts like these, so most of the information below is pieced together from sources within the CTV Montreal and CJAD offices, plus some information from Bell Media and the union.

(As always, a big thanks to all the people who quietly feed me information during times like this.)

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Kanesatake radio station applies to increase power, protect frequency

CKHQ-FM, Kanesatake’s community radio station, has struggled to keep itself going since it was founded in 1988. But with the help of some broadcasting experts, it has presented a relaunch plan to the CRTC, through two applications published on Monday.

The first is a transfer of ownership, from CKHQ United Voices Radio, owned by resident James Nelson, to Mohawk Multi Media, a non-profit corporation whose membership is open to all community members.

The second is a technical change: The new station would maintain its frequency of 101.7 MHz, but with an effective radiated power of 51 watts, and a height above average terrain of 57 metres. The station’s transmitter would be located at the Riverside Elders Home at 518 Rang Ste-Philomène, along the river about two kilometres southwest of the old location. The studio would also be located at a new building to be constructed on land next to the elders home.

The station has budgeted $500,000 in capital costs for studio and transmitter.

Comparison map of CKHQ-FM’s approved signal (red and brown) and its proposed signal (blue and green)

The increased power would mean a better signal within the community, and more people being able to listen in adjacent ones like Oka, Hudson, and maybe parts of Vaudreuil.

But the most significant change would be on the regulatory level. Stations at 50 watts or below are considered low-power unprotected stations, which means another station can apply for a licence for that frequency or an adjacent one and bump it off that frequency. In most areas that wouldn’t be an issue, but being so close to Montreal (and not that far from Ottawa), there are no other frequencies available it can realistically move to, so such a situation would force it off the air.

That almost happened in 2018 when a group proposed a Christian music station in Lachute on 101.7 FM. The application was denied, because the commission found the quality of the application lacking. But nothing prevented anyone else from trying again.

By going to 51 watts, CKHQ-FM would move from low-power unprotected status to Class A1, which means any proposed new stations would have to protect it from interference.

Projected interference zones for CKHQ-FM.

Though in theory the new signal would extend to much of Vaudreuil and St-Placide, practically it still won’t go too far beyond Oka and the community of Hudson across the river, because of interference from other stations, most significantly CIBL-FM, the Montreal community station on the same frequency at 101.5 MHz.

History

After years of inactivity, CKHQ-FM showed promise when it applied for and received a new licence from the CRTC in 2014. When I visited the station shortly thereafter, its eager staff had cleaned up the rat droppings of the old studio building and gotten it back on the air.

But a flood in July 2017 destroyed most of the transmitting equipment, knocking the station off the air again.

Sylvain Gaspé, an engineer who grew up in Kanesatake and got his start at that radio station, began leading the efforts to bring it back, under the branding of Reviving Kanesatake Radio. In the spring of 2019, a temporary station was set up to offer flood information to the community, and on April 2, 2020, Gaspé brought the station back on the air.

The new entity is separate from the old one, but has the full support of both the current owner and the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake. Because transfers of ownership require CRTC approval first, the station is technically still owned and managed by Nelson’s United Voices corporation, but Gaspé’s Mohawk Multi Media has been mandated to actually do the work. Officially, a transfer of assets has taken place, but because the equipment was destroyed the actual value of those assets is $0.

The new non-profit’s voting membership is open to Kanesatake members with certificate of Indian status, residents of Kanesatake, and “honorary members accepted by the majority of members.” It has five members of the board, including Gaspé and three residents of Kanesatake. All five are Mohawk.

Programming

Don’t expect this station to have much in the way of full-time staff or professional-sounding programming. This will remain a small community station largely run by volunteers. But the application to the CRTC includes some programming commitments, including:

  • 5 hours a week of news
  • 58 hours a week of pop, rock and dance music
  • 38 hours a week of country music
  • 17 hours a week of Indigenous music
  • 15% of songs broadcast performed or composed by Indigenous artists
  • 7 hours a week coming from Kahnawake’s K103
  • 30.5 hours a week in Mohawk, including “incorporating the Mohawk language within the simplest tasks of radio broadcasts, such as the time, weather and station identifications.”
  • 1 hour a week in French

Note that these are projected averages and not necessarily minimums. What actual requirements are to be set will be up to the CRTC, consistent with the Native Broadcasting Policy, for which a review is currently underway.

The CRTC has scheduled a hearing for March 30 to hear these applications. Because no oral presentations are expected, the hearing will be in name only and only to satisfy a legal requirement to hold one. Comments on either application (which are not dependent on each other — the commission could approve one but not the other) are being accepted until Feb. 25, 2020 at 8pm ET/5pm PT, and can be filed here (Application 2020-0751-7 is for the transfer of ownership, Application 2020-0420-9 is for the power increase and transmitter change).

Note that all information submitted, including contact information, becomes part of the public record.

Bell Media to shut down Fashion Television and Book Television on Feb. 22

The cull of zombie specialty channels, many of which trace their origins to a boom around 20 years ago, finally reached Bell Media, which has advised the CRTC it will shut down Fashion Television and Book Television as of Feb. 22.

The CRTC on Thursday responded by revoking the licences of Book Television and Fashion Television Channel as of that date.

Bell’s letters to the commission don’t provide any reasoning for the shutdowns, other than saying they will “cease operations.” But the business model for such channels has collapsed in recent years, as people adopt more custom TV packages and drop channels with no original content, like Cosmo, BBC Canada, G4 and many other similar channels.

According to financial statistics submitted to the CRTC, Book Television had lost more than half its revenue between 2015 and 2019 as the number of subscribers dropped and subscription fees dropped even more. It still had a healthy 40% profit margin, but with less than a million dollars in profit.

Similarly, Fashion had less than a quarter the total revenue in 2019 it had in 2015, and fewer than half the subscribers.

Neither channel has had any original programming in years and Bell has spent virtually no effort at all trying to promote them. Both reported spending $0 in Canadian programming in 2018-19. Book’s current programming is reruns of legal dramas JAG and Matlock, plus CTV shows The Amazing Race Canada, Cardinal, 19-2, Transplant and Saving Hope. Fashion’s is even more pointless, with reruns of Cash Cab, Comedy Now and Amazing Race Canada, none of which are known for having anything to do with fashion.

Both channels were originally licensed to CHUM in 2000, as part of a big wave of licences for new digital specialty channels, and were acquired by Bell when CTV acquired CHUM and Bell bought CTV.

Who’s next?

Rogers killed G4 in 2017 and Viceland in 2018, while Corus killed Cosmo and IFC in 2019 and Bell got rid of Comedy Gold in 2017, so the big guys have cut off the low-hanging fruit already. But there remain a bunch of channels that don’t have much original programming that could be on the chopping block in the coming years, including Rogers’ OLN, Bell’s Discovery Science or MTV2, Corus’s Slice or DIY and Quebecor’s AddikTV or Moi&Cie, plus a bunch of channels owned by smaller companies.

91,9 Sports acquires broadcasting rights to CF Montréal (formerly Impact) games

The best-case (and most likely) scenario after Cogeco announced it no longer had the rights to Montreal’s Major League Soccer team has come to pass. RNC Media’s 91,9 Sports announced on Tuesday it has signed a deal for radio rights to the team’s games for two years, with an option for a third.

Financial terms were not discussed.

The agreement is a boost for 91,9 Sports, becoming the first of the big three franchise rights it could wrestle away from 98,5fm. Until now, its biggest live broadcasting rights were for the Laval Rocket, the Canadiens’ American Hockey League farm team. (That deal ends at the end of this season.)

It’s also a win for the franchise, formerly known as the Montreal Impact and now called Club de Foot Montréal, which could get only some of its games on the radio with the Cogeco deal — when it didn’t interfere with news programming, or Canadiens or Alouettes games.

With 91,9 Sports, all regular-season and playoff games will be on the radio, along with 30-minute pregame shows and 30-minute postgame shows (an hour for games in Montreal)

The station announced it will also be adding more CF Montréal content to its schedule to go with this new partnership, including making its soccer show FC919 daily.

The on-air team will be announced “in the coming weeks” with a team that promises to be “young, dynamic, unifying and different.”

Other announcements are also being promised. With 91,9 Sports not knowing its future as recently as two years ago, it seems plans are finally being made for the future.

CF Montréal’s English radio rights are with TSN Radio 690, but the latest announcement of a rights deal ended in 2020 along with 98,5fm’s. Since there aren’t really other options, expect the team to remain with that station.