Category Archives: Navel-gazing

Radio ratings: The Beat, Virgin, TSN 690 all falter during pandemic

Numeris released its summer 2020 ratings this week, and combined with the ratings from the spring, we see the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as fewer people tune in.

The Beat 92.5 saw the most noticeable drop in terms of raw audience numbers, going from an average of 10,000 anglophone listeners a minute down to 6,800 and 6,600. But it maintained its second-place rank among English-language stations. Virgin also saw a drop, continuing a long decline that has seen it lose more than half its audience in three years.

Conversely, CHOM managed to grow its audience slightly, which gave it its best audience share in years as its competitors declined. And Énergie 94,3, which has refocused itself on rock music and away from talk, saw a jump in audience that put it ahead of sister station Rouge FM 107,3 for the first time since at least 2011, and claiming the adults 25-54 demographic over Rythme FM (though Rythme has much higher ratings overall).

In Toronto, Corus’s Q107 also had a big jump in ratings, making it the #1 station among adults 25-54, a status it didn’t hesitate to crow about.

So does this mean rock music stations did well during the pandemic?

Well, no. I crunched the numbers for this story for Cartt.ca and it turns out these three stations are the exception. Across Canada, rock and alternative stations were flat, and most lost audience.

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For my newspaper, 15 years feels like a lifetime

It was 15 years ago today that I walked into the offices of The Gazette, got trained on how to use their software, and began my career as a professional copy editor.

More than a third of my life has been spent employed by this newspaper. And in that time, I’ve never wanted to do anything else, because there’s always something new.

In the past week, as I’ve been doing some pandemic-related cleaning up of old stuff, I went through some old issues I had lying around from years ago, and it amazes me how much this newspaper has changed in that decade and a half.

Of course, I’ve worked with many people who would tell stories about the good ol’ days of hot type, constantly-crashing computer systems, typesetters, darkrooms, presses in the building, managers working late with ashtrays on their desks and alcohol inside them. But those were long before my time, and those times changed mainly because of technology.

In the past 15 years, though, it’s the business that has changed the most. The revenue side of the newspaper business model has crumbled away, and years of cutbacks have forced a much more efficient newsroom that focuses on its core mission to the detriment of the rest. Meanwhile, the demands of an increasingly online readership (and the hope that digital revenue will take over from print before the business collapses) have meant more resources being focused on digital platforms that didn’t exist back then.

To give you an idea of how things have changed, I figured I’d give you a tour of The Gazette in May 2005.

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CBC suspends local TV newscasts amid COVID-19 outbreak

Updated April 15 with some 11pm newscasts returning.

Local news is vital. It provides an essential service, especially in times of emergency. People rely on local broadcasters to provide them up-to-the-minute information told by local journalists.

So what does the CBC do during an unprecedented public health crisis? It shuts it all down.

The public broadcaster announced Wednesday that effective immediately it is “consolidating” its TV news coverage, and replacing the 6pm and 11pm local newscasts at all of its stations (except CBC North, which provides news in Inuktitut) with CBC News Network.

According to a memo sent to staff this morning, the decision was made because of a lack of staff at CBC’s Toronto Broadcast Centre, which handles master control (why it has a lack of staff is not explained), as well as “much stricter newsgathering protocols.”

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Quebecor’s shifting arguments against Tou.tv

It will come as no surprise to you that Quebecor and Canada’s public broadcaster are not the best of friends. Quebecor’s controlling shareholder and CEO, Pierre Karl Péladeau, has complained about it many times in the past. (He also complains about La Presse, Bell, the Quebec Liberal Party, the Quebec government and others.)

This week, Quebec’s largest telecom and media company filed a complaint with the CRTC demanding that it order CBC/Radio-Canada to shut down its Tou.tv Extra streaming service. Not all of Tou.tv, just the $7/month premium version that charges for premium content.

I examine the application in this article for Cartt.ca subscribers. In short, Quebecor is arguing that:

  • As a public broadcaster, it’s improper for CBC/Radio-Canada to charge for access to content paid for by taxpayers, and goes against its mandate.
  • Since it licenses some content from other broadcasters (Télé-Québec, V, Canal Vie, TV5 and others), it is a de facto TV provider and should be licensed as such, including obligations to spend 5% of its revenue on Canadian programming funds.
  • Its deal with Telus giving Telus’s customers free access to Tou.tv Extra is an illegal undue preference and against the rules for digital media broadcasters.
  • CBC’s last licence renewal in 2013 included a note from the CRTC that said it does not charge for access to its streaming service (Tou.tv Extra launched in 2014), which Quebecor argues is a de facto condition of acceptance.

Quebecor lays it on pretty thick in the application, saying CBC/Radio-Canada is “short-circuiting the Canadian broadcasting system with taxpayer money” and “creating two-tier public television: enriched content, exclusives and offers first to the better off, and regular content and reruns to the masses.”

In a procedural letter, the CRTC says that issues related to CBC’s mandate should be dealt with in the CBC licence renewal proceeding, which is currently under way. Other issues of fairness can be dealt with in the context of an “undue preference” proceeding, which it will examine.

I could point out some of the obvious counter-arguments to Quebecor’s argument (Tou.tv Extra does not offer live streaming of cable channels, only some of their content on demand; there is no condition of licence requiring it to be free; it’s basically the same model as Quebecor’s own Club Illico; the deal offered to Telus was offered to others as well including Videotron, who choose not to take it; even if there is undue preference, it does not mean Tou.tv Extra needs to cease its operations), but what struck me today as I was doing some Google searching is a post I wrote 10 years ago just after Tou.tv first launched, when Péladeau complained about it then. Here’s a paragraph I excerpted from an open letter he wrote:

Furthermore, the CBC has launched the Tou.tv website without consulting the industry, a move that jeopardizes Canada’s broadcasting system by providing free, heavily subsidized television content on the Internet without concern for the revenue losses that may result, not only for the CBC but also for other stakeholders, including writers and directors.

So, in 2010 Péladeau argued that Tou.tv threatened the broadcasting system by not charging a fee.

And in 2020 Péladeau argues that Tou.tv Extra threatens the broadcasting system by charging a fee.

You have to give this to Péladeau: He’s got quite the ability to argue. It must be fun working in his regulatory affairs department.

Sportsnet, TSN, BeIN, DAZN — Is sports TV getting too expensive?

If you only follow the big North American sports and only care about your local team, you might not be familiar with DAZN. But if you watch the English Premier League, one of the top leagues of international soccer, you’ve had to become very familiar with them this month.

Though the deal was announced in April, it was only when the season started on Aug. 9 that Canadians started really noticing that their EPL games are no longer available on TV. Instead, they have to shell out $20 a month for DAZN, a two-year-old streaming service. And they have to figure out how to get that streaming service to work on their TVs.

For many people, it was complicated and expensive, so they wrote in to their local newspaper and asked it to write about the problem. And that local newspaper turned to me.

In Saturday’s Gazette, I have a story about DAZN’s new deal for the EPL, and talk to a bar owner and a stay-at-home fan about what it’s meant for them. I also talk to DAZN itself about how they’re keeping their fans satisfied after botching the rollout of NFL games in 2017.

You can read the story for all of that fun stuff. But I also asked Norm Lem, SVP of revenue at DAZN Canada, about what he sees as the future of sports broadcasting in general, as consumers have seen prices go up and the number of services they have to subscribe to increase. I also asked him if we should expect DAZN to bid for something bigger, like rights to Canadian NHL matches, Blue Jays, Raptors or CFL.

Here’s what he had to say.

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Virgin Radio 95.9 fires Freeway Frank, Natasha Gargiulo, brings in Cousin Vinny and Shannon King

Updated with announcement of new hosts.

“Freeway” Frank Depalo and Natasha Gargiulo in 2011.

Until Wednesday, these were the two big faces of Montreal’s Virgin Radio station. On Thursday the station was pretending they never existed. Standard operating procedure in the industry, unfortunately.

“Freeway Frank” Depalo and Natasha Gargiulo, who have been together on the morning show since shortly after The Beat launched in 2011, disappeared from the station’s website, Mike Cohen noticed yesterday. They confirmed the news in a video posted on Thursday.

Thursday morning, in their place on air were Lee Haberkorn and Kelly Alexander, hosting the nameless “Virgin Radio Mornings” with no mention of the previous hosts, talking about various lifestyle topics like nothing changed.

Cousin Vinny and Shannon King in their new publicity photo.

On Monday morning, Virgin announced its new lineup, finally confirming the rumour that it had hired Cousin Vinny Barrucco back from The Beat. He’s being paired with Shannon King, who comes from Kiss radio in Sudbury.

Barrucco left The Beat six months ago and promised recently he would soon announce where he’s going. So apparently his non-compete clause is six months.

Bell Media did not respond to my request for comment about the firing, and made no mention of Freeway and Natasha in its announcement of its new lineup. None of the remaining Virgin personalities have commented publicly on social media about their departed colleagues, likely because they were told to by management, which makes them seem heartless to some listeners.

Also in the new Virgin lineup:

  • Lee Haberkorn, who was the third person on the morning team, gets promoted to afternoon drive host, where he’ll do a shift from 3-8pm.
  • Charli Paige gets the entire daytime to herself, going from 10am to 3pm weekdays. This puts an end to the experiment where a syndicated Ryan Seacrest show aired during the weekday. It started in 2012 after Virgin filled the hole that Barrucco left by hiring Andrea Collins.
  • Adam Greenberg, who was hosting afternoons, switches with Haberkorn and becomes the third guy on the morning team as content producer for the show and its social media.

Going with a three-show lineup between 5:30am and 8pm, each one about five hours long, shows Bell Media will still be stretching the shifts of its announcers — The Beat has four shifts in that time and starts its evening show at 7pm.

The new lineup announcement doesn’t mention Kelly Alexander, who has been with the station since 2007 and seems to have been passed over for a promotion to a more prominent (and stable) job once again. She’s currently hosting weekends.

Virgin also recently parted ways with program director Mark Bergman, who surprisingly resurfaced at The Beat. He has been replaced by Blair Bartrem.

Virgin Radio’s loyal audience, like any other, isn’t pleased with two personalities they have spent a decade getting to know suddenly disappearing without a word. A video posted to Facebook teasing the new show generated more than 200 comments, mostly negative. A video announcing the new hosts generated 180 comments in three hours, and 89 “angry” reaction emotes.

Firing on-air talent is never easy, but perhaps it’s time for radio stations in particular to re-examine how they go about it. You never want to put someone you’ve just fired in front of a live microphone, but in the age of social media, they kind of have one anyways. A little heart can go a long way. And the fact that Virgin has had this in the works for six months just makes it worse.

Listeners will be wondering why this change was made. The most logical answer is ratings. Virgin slipped behind CHOM and even CBC Radio One in the last ratings book, and the morning show, though not always the highest rated, tends still to be the anchor of the schedule. With the trend against The Beat continuing its slide, a change had to be made. At first, when The Beat climbed above Virgin in the overall ratings, Virgin could content itself to owning the 25-54 demographic, but even that slipped away as the two continued to diverge.

I’m not sure how much this will change things. The music tends to come first, especially when daytime announcers are limited to breaks of only a few seconds between songs. But we’ll see.

UPDATE: I wrote about the change for the Montreal Gazette. Bell Media isn’t making anyone at the station available for an interview.

TVA Sports defies CRTC, cuts off Bell TV customers as part of carriage dispute

Updated April 12 with court ruling and TVA Sports returning to Bell TV

Four days after it threatened Bell subscribers with on-air messages, TVA pulled TVA Sports from Bell TV on Wednesday at 7pm, as scheduled, the start time for the NHL playoffs.

Bell immediately announced that it would make Sportsnet, Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 360, which with CBC and City comprise all the channels carrying NHL playoff games, free for subscribers “temporarily.”

Quebecor, meanwhile, issued a statement saying it was disappointed it couldn’t reach a deal.

On Thursday, the CRTC announced that it was calling Groupe TVA to a hearing in Gatineau on April 17 to explain itself, and threatened to either issue a mandatory order (which would be enforceable in federal court) or even suspend TVA Sports’s broadcasting licence in light of the decision to ignore its warnings about pulling service during a dispute.

In court, as Bell tried to get a court injunction for TVA to stop what it’s doing, Quebecor lawyers offered a truce, to bring back the channel at 6pm and maintain it until April 23 as the two sides negotiate with the help of the CRTC. Bell accepted on condition that TVA Sports accept a court order requiring the re-establishing of the signal, but Quebecor refused that condition.

On Friday, the court granted Bell’s request for an injunction, ordering TVA Sports re-established on Bell TV by 6pm, but did not order Quebecor to cease its “Fair Value” campaign, which Bell says is false and defamatory. TVA complied with the request, and TVA Sports returned to Bell TV by 6pm.

In addition to ensuring Bell TV subscribers could get access to NHL playoff games, Bell Media acquired the rights to two additional Montreal Impact MLS games, another TVA Sports exclusivity, so they can be broadcast on TSN. That pushed the date of the next Impact game only broadcast on TVA Sports to April 28. Bell TV had said it would make TSN also available for free for Montreal Impact fans.

History

Bell customers got a pretty scary-looking message during the Canadiens-Maple Leafs game Saturday night on TVA Sports: The sports channel, which has the French-language rights to all NHL playoff games, will be removed from Bell TV as a way for Bell to “punish” those subscribers.

TVA also aired the graphic during La Voix, Quebec’s most popular TV show, on Sunday.

TVA airs a message attacking Bell during La Voix on Sunday, April 7, 2019.

Bell said not only is this message not true, it would be against CRTC regulations. The CRTC wrote to both parties twice to say that during their dispute, TVA is required to keep offering its channels to Bell and Bell is required to keep distributing them.

TVA said it doesn’t care, it’s pulling its signal anyway. Which means this dispute will quickly escalate in the legal and regulatory sphere.

Except it’s already escalated there, because this is a battle being fought on multiple fronts:

  • An existing CRTC process in which TVA complains of unfair treatment (currently in the reply phase)
  • A TVA lawsuit against Bell demanding compensation for its unfair packaging
  • A Bell request for injunction against TVA demanding the signal be returned
  • An emergency CRTC hearing called for next week in which TVA has been ordered to explain itself
  • Direct negotiations between Bell and TVA to reach a deal on carriage
  • TVA’s media campaign and Bell’s press releases in response, fighting in the public arena
  • Pierre Karl Péladeau’s lobbying of federal politicians to make changes to the CRTC’s dispute resolution process
  • Programming changes at Bell Media and packaging changes at Bell TV to mitigate the loss of TVA Sports for Bell customers

How long Bell customers will actually be without TVA Sports is anyone’s guess. But TVA says it’s prepared to do whatever it takes.

(You can read more about my interview with TVA chief operating officer Martin Picard in this story at Cartt.ca, but I have lots of details below about the conflict.)

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My contribution to solving the two solitudes: Get bilingual anglos to watch more French TV

I never used to watch French TV. Even in the days of analog cable, we’d skip past Radio-Canada, TVA and TQS to get to CTV, CBC and Global. Wouldn’t even bother seeing what’s on. It was in French, and we didn’t want to watch it.

There were a few reasons for this. One, my French comprehension wasn’t quite good enough at a young age to be able to properly understand the fast-talking faces on screen. The fact that many of these series were primarily dialogue-driven (faute de moyens, as they say) made it worse. But perhaps just as important, I was disconnected from the culture. I didn’t get the popular references, I didn’t know the actors, and I wasn’t familiar with the series.

It changed about 10 years ago. I can’t point to a specific moment, or even say why it happened exactly or what the first show I watched was. But it started not long after I moved into a building where all my neighbours were francophones. Combined with writing this blog and covering media including francophone media, I got exposed to a lot more French than before — reading it, speaking it, understanding it.

Nowadays, French-language TV is a large part of my (rather gluttonous) TV-watching diet. A lot of it is low-budget and has horrible writing. But as American TV has reached its so-called golden age, Canadian TV in both languages has also dramatically improved in writing and production quality, at least at the high end.

Watching French TV has given me a lot more insight into Quebec culture, in addition to providing conversation material for the extended (francophone) family get-togethers on New Year’s Day. It’s something I wanted more people to be exposed to, especially as the idea of “two solitudes” in Quebec seems to persist despite how much of both sides of it understand the other language.

So with that in mind I proposed an idea to the Gazette, which was quickly accepted, to compile a list of suggestions of French TV series for bilingual anglophones to check out. A Top 15 list of French TV series is published in Saturday’s Culture section.

Initially, my plan was to look at series that could serve as gateways for anglos. Series without too much complex, fast-talking dialogue or cultural references. And I didn’t restrict it to fictional series either. But in the end the suggestions were all works of fiction, almost all of them dramas, and heavily weighted to more recent series. And some of these series might not be easiest for people who struggle in French (pro tip: turn on closed captioning. I still have to rely on it sometimes when I can’t make out a key word that was spoken).

As part of the effort to unite the languages, I reached out to some experts for suggestions. Three were kind enough to offer them: Marc-André Lemieux from the Journal de Montréal, Amélie Gaudreau from Le Devoir, and Thérèse Parisien from 98.5 FM and C’est juste de la TV. All three watch TV for a living, so they know what they’re talking about.

I also got plenty of suggestions from Twitter in response to this tweet. As well as several responses from anglos who wanted to take note of those suggestions, which is encouraging.

I intentionally left off Tout le monde en parle, the Sunday night talk show on Radio-Canada, which I think is a special case because it’s big enough to be newsworthy in itself. But I included a bonus mention of C’est juste de la TV, which offers TV suggestions and reviews on a weekly basis.

If I were to suggest other non-fiction series, I would suggest hospital documentary series De Garde 24/7, Radio-Canada’s Enquête, En direct de l’univers, and whatever Véronique Cloutier’s latest variety show is.

Feel free to suggest more series, fiction, non-fiction or other, in the comments. And like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, at least try some before you decide you don’t like it.

How The Beat beat Virgin (and other trends of Montreal radio ratings)

Numeris released its quarterly metered radio ratings today. There aren’t a lot of surprises, because it’s mostly the same numbers as the last time, and the time before that, and the time before that.

So instead of just excitedly reposting the top-line numbers or fetching the various spins by the broadcasters that make everyone look like they had the best quarter, I thought I’d take a look at some historical data and see how the stations are trending over time.

I did this exercise for Canada’s five metered markets for Cartt.ca after the last ratings book. If you’re a subscriber you can read them there: VancouverEdmonton and Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.

In this post, I’ll go into some more detail about the Montreal numbers, with charts!

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Why doesn’t TSN have Canadiens pregame and postgame shows? I asked them

The NHL season begins tonight, and that means yet another year of WTF-why-is-my-Canadiens-game-blacked-out pleas on social media and email.

So once again the Gazette asked me to put together a full 82-game schedule listing what channels each game is on (we’re also making printable letter-sized versions available). It was printed in Tuesday’s paper, which had a lot of other news content as well. The story next to it is mainly an interview with Bryan Mudryk, TSN’s new play-by-play man for (most of) their Canadiens games this season.

I also spoke with Paul Graham, TSN’s executive producer of live events. He was on the phone in Helsinki at the time, signing new agreements for international hockey. (He took the time to remind me that TSN airs far more hockey than ever before, even though it doesn’t have the Wednesday night national games and first-round playoff series that it did before the Rogers deal.)

Just before I hung up with him, I asked Graham about why we don’t see more pregame and postgame Canadiens programming during the TSN regional games, like we see on RDS and TVA Sports.

“In our minds for the most part we already have a pregame show, and it’s That’s Hockey,” he said. “It’s just not specific to one team.”

The exception is in Winnipeg, “mostly based on time zone.” Because it’s an hour behind and its home games generally start an hour later, it will have its own version of the program on TSN3.

But producing separate Leafs, Senators and Canadiens pregame and postgame shows wouldn’t be worth the cost because people don’t really care about that stuff, he said.

“What we found, quite honestly, from a research perspective, is that when you talk about post-game shows, they’re really there for the die-hard fans, that most people just watch the game and they’re done. And so what we try to do is we try to get to SportsCentre as quickly as possible. And still include key elements of what you would hear in a post-game show anyways, which would be comments from our broadcasters that did the game, dressing room post-game comments from, in this case, John Lu, and then our hosts on SportsCentre, if the story dictates it for that night, going a little bit longer on one particular item. So there’s no real plan to have a specific Montreal Canadiens pregame show or specific Canadiens postgame show. We think that we service that already with That’s Hockey before and with SportsCentre afterwards.”

RDS and TVA Sports go pretty hard with local pregame and postgame with the Canadiens (and almost nothing with their Senators broadcasts). But their ratings data shows it’s hard to keep fans tuned in. They’re lucky if even half of those who tuned in during the game stay for the postgame show. And with TSN’s Canadiens regional broadcasts getting less than 200,000 viewers (the average was 123,000 last season, but the Canadiens sucked really bad that year), there’s just not enough of a critical mass to warrant it.

Not much new, but a bit more Lu

I asked Graham if we should expect any other big changes for the Canadiens broadcasts this season. For the most part, it’ll be the same as last year. The supporting cast of analysts (Dave Poulin, Mike Johnson, Craig Button) and studio hosts (Tessa Bonhomme, Glenn Schiiler, Pierre LeBrun) will be the same. But “we’re looking to incorporate more TSN-specific programming in intermission” such as the Insider Trading segment with experts like Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger.

“(Reporter) John Lu will be front and centre at a lot of games that originate in Montreal,” Graham added.

I also asked him what he sees happening when TSN’s rights deal expires in 2022. While regional rights deals for Canadian NHL teams were quickly gobbled up following the national Sportsnet deal, the Canadiens’ English-language rights seemed to be of less interest. First Sportsnet grabbed it for three years (the first time all 82 Canadiens games were televised in English), then TSN for five.

Team English TV French TV English radio French radio
(National) Sportsnet (2026) TVA Sports (2026) N/A N/A
Vancouver Canucks Sportsnet Pacific (2023) None Sportsnet 650 (2022) None
Edmonton Oilers Sportsnet West (2020) None Corus/CHED (2020) None
Calgary Flames Sportsnet West (2020) None Sportsnet 960 (2020) None
Winnipeg Jets TSN3 (2021) None TSN 1290 (2021) None
Toronto Maple Leafs TSN4 None TSN 1050 None
Sportsnet Ontario Sportsnet 590
Ottawa Senators TSN5 (2026) RDS (2026) TSN 1200 (2026) Unique FM (via Bell)
Montreal Canadiens TSN2 (2022) RDS (2026) TSN 690 (2022) Cogeco (2019)
Laval Rocket (AHL) None RDS TSN 690 91.9 Sports (2022)

Graham pointed out that TSN shares resources with RDS, which allows them to make the broadcasts more efficient. And with Bell having a share in ownership of the Canadiens, they have an interest in keeping the relationship going.

“At the end of the day, along with our Bell ownership, we’re confident that Montreal will get better, and we’re confident that we’re going to be part of this for a long time,” he said. “I can’t see any situation in the immediate future, even when we get past the five years, where we wouldn’t be involved.”

Mudryk gives back

I didn’t have space to get into this in the story, but Mudryk is known for his charity work in addition to his on-air talents. The Bryan Mudryk Golf Classic has gone on for 15 years now, inspired by his own battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma (i.e. the non-Koivu version). While he’s going to have a busy year with a lot of travelling (his life so far has been mainly going back and forth between his hotel, the Bell Centre and the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard), he’s ready for requests from charitable organizations to host their events, and he wants to help.

“I’m not just saying that to get a good quote in your paper,” he said, which is good because I didn’t get the quote in the paper. “I’m saying it because I mean it. If I have the time and it works out in my schedule I’m always there to help worthwhile causes.”

I could probably insert a joke here about the Canadiens being the biggest cause needing help right now.

Status quo on Sportsnet

As far as Sportsnet is concerned, not much has changed in their plans. Hockey Night in Canada (with the Leafs generally on CBC and the Canadiens generally on Citytv, it seems), Wednesday Night Hockey and Hometown Hockey on Sundays. It’ll be Bob Cole’s 50th and last season as a play-by-play announcer, and he’s starting it with the Habs’ game on Saturday.

Sportsnet is also bringing in the weekly Twitter broadcast Ice Surfing, after a pilot episode last season. The show will follow games playing that night with some live action but also commentary and conversation.

What to expect from CityNews Montreal, which launches Monday

Gazette photographer Dave Sidaway composes a photo of CityNews Montreal journalists Andrew Brennan, Akil Alleyne, Emily Campbell, Fariha Naqvi-Mohamed and Giordano Cescutti at the Citytv Montreal studio on Friday.

A handful of young journalists have been spending a couple of weeks rehearsing for the launch of Montreal’s fourth English-language daily evening local newscast. On Labour Day, ready or not, it goes live.

CityNews Montreal is part of the second half of five local City stations that have decided to join Toronto in having local news at 6 and 11pm. Rogers has determined that these evening newscasts are worth investing in as part of meeting their new requirements for “locally reflective news” established by the CRTC as of last year.

To get an idea what we can expect from this newscast, I watched the existing ones in Edmonton and Winnipeg, and talked with Dave Budge, VP of news and information at Rogers, plus briefly with Melanie Porco, supervising producer in Montreal.

The result is this Montreal Gazette story, published in Saturday’s paper. It explains how the anchorless newscast works. But for the TV and policy nerds, a few extra tidbits here.

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How the CRTC screwed over community television to save local news

It’s a new dawn in local television. CTV Montreal has a new 5pm weekday newscast, City Montreal is preparing to launch evening news at 6pm and 11pm, and ICI is getting an infusion of cash thanks to OMNI’s successful bid for mandatory distribution at 12 cents per month per subscriber.

It’s a big enough change that I was asked to write about it for the Montreal Gazette. That story leads Saturday’s Culture section.

But while the new investments are great news for people who like local television (and, indirectly, people like me who like writing about it), there’s a big loser in this that isn’t getting discussed much: community television. The additional money going into local news is coming straight out of their pockets.

Let’s not talk TV

When the CRTC announced it was undertaking a long consultation process it called Let’s Talk TV, proponents of non-profit community television were excited about the prospect of finally bringing their issues to the forefront. A complaint from the independent group ICTV against Videotron’s community channel was in progress (the commission would later find that MAtv had failed to respect its licence conditions in terms of giving enough access to people from the community). And there was a growing opinion that community channels were not fulfilling their mandate.

The Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations and other groups filed complaints about other television providers that they felt were doing the same things to their community channels, ignoring their commitments to community access and using their funds to produce professional broadcasts and give side jobs to people affiliated with the company.

But the Let’s Talk TV process didn’t talk much about community television, and when it led to its first decisions in January 2015, the commission decided to kick the can down the road on community television, announcing it would begin a separate process to consider that. And that process would also include discussions of local news.

As expected, a review of the community television process was hijacked by discussions of local commercial television. People were more concerned about whether their local station would stay on the air or how long their local newscast would be than how their local Rogers TV or Shaw TV would be funded.

And the complaints about community channels still haven’t been properly evaluated, years later. That will happen at a hearing on the renewals of their licences, scheduled for October.

Provider TV

Let’s step back a bit and look at what community television is and has become in Canada.

Since 1971, the CRTC has required cable television providers to support community channels. Back then, television equipment was very expensive, very large and hard to obtain and operate. Community access was the only way many people could see themselves on television and communicate with the public through video. Cable companies would set up studios at their head ends and let people from the community broadcast on a special channel they set up.

Since the turn of the millennium, the situation has changed. Getting access to equipment isn’t the biggest problem — as the CRTC says, “many Canadians now carry an HD camera in their pocket in the form of their smartphone” — editing can be done on a home computer, and distribution is much easier thanks to YouTube and other free online services.

Instead, over the past decade, the issue has been more about money.

All cable television providers are required to spend 5% of their gross revenues on Canadian programming, but most are allowed to redirect some of that money to a community channel rather than simply hand it over to a fund like the Canada Media Fund. Most large terrestrial television providers do this because it allows them to keep control of that money, create a service that’s seen to do a public good, and provide added value for subscribers.

Critics might point out some other benefits, such as billing yourself for Internet access and providing side jobs for your employees. (The CRTC limits such overhead costs, but there isn’t a bright line that says you can’t be a supplier to your own community channel.)

Since 1991, the amount of money allowed to be redirected to community channels has been capped at 2% of gross revenues. Though there were many exceptions (small cable companies could devote the full 5% to a community channel, and companies that offered community channels in each official language could devote 2% to each one).

It might not seem like much, but when you have more than a million subscribers paying more than $50 a month, that’s a million dollars a month right there going to community TV.

As budgets for community TV grew, and technology advanced, they started to get more ambitious in terms of programming. Some even started broadcasting professional sports until the CRTC put a stop to that. (The ban doesn’t affect junior sports, and many junior hockey league matches are still broadcast on community channels.)

Community television is in an odd place because on the one hand it’s supposed to be volunteer-driven but on the other hand it’s required to spend money on programming. The pressure has always been there to keep the cable-access stuff to a minimum so more popular professional-looking programming can entice people to buy or keep their cable subscriptions.

And there was the added benefit of using community channel money to benefit related productions and personalities. Bell’s TV1 had shows linked to The Amazing Race Canada, the Much Music Video Awards, the Montreal Canadiens, The Social and eTalk. Videotron’s MAtv had side projects for such Quebecor personalities as Sophie Durocher, Louise Deschâtelets and Dominic Arpin.

This is a big part of the reason why CACTUS and others wanted community television taken out of the hands of big cable providers and put into the hands of non-profit community groups. But the CRTC has repeatedly resisted that effort, believing that the cable companies have the best resources available to provide high-quality community programming on a sustainable basis.

“Flexibility”

In 2010, the commission decided to freeze contributions to community channels. It found that the amount of money going to community television had almost doubled in a decade, and “although the Commission acknowledges that various metrics can be used to evaluate the success of community channels, it nonetheless considers that overall viewing to community channels remains modest relative to the growth in contributions to this sector.” Rather than cut the funding down, though, it decided to freeze it. Existing television providers would be capped at their 2010 levels until those dropped to 1.5% of revenues, and then they would stay at 1.5%.

In June 2016, the CRTC released its new policy on local and community television. There, it cut the contribution from 2% to 1.5%.

But the bigger blow was their decision to allow distributors the “flexibility” to redirect funds from community channels to their affiliated local stations to spend on local programming. For Canada’s five largest cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton), that redirection could be 100%, since the CRTC believed that people in those areas “have access to many media sources on television and radio, as well as online and in print, that provide community reflection.” For smaller areas, at least 50% of that money would still need to be spent on community television.

By the CRTC’s estimate, $65 million a year could be redirected from community channels to local stations owned by the major vertically integrated companies.

But what about independent stations? Where do they get additional money?

To help out most of them, there was already a fund called the Small Market Local Production Fund, funded by Canada’s satellite TV providers. The CRTC transformed that into the Independent Local News Fund, adjusted its admission criteria to include larger-market stations like CHCH in Hamilton and the V stations in Quebec and Montreal (while excluding small-market stations owned by the media giants), and required cable companies to contribute into the fund. Everyone kicks in 0.3% of revenues to support independent stations.

So in the end, all independent stations get extra money from this fund, and non-independent stations get funded through TV providers who share the same owner.

News pro quo

In exchange for the extra money, there were new requirements for local stations:

  • In addition to the amount of local programming they have to air each week (still set at 14 hours for major-market stations and 7 hours for smaller ones, with some exceptions), they must air a certain amount of locally reflective news programming as well — six hours in large markets, three in smaller ones.
  • There’s also a financial requirement for investment in local news: 11% of gross revenues for local television stations must be devoted to locally reflective news. (This number, proposed by the three English networks, is based on previous spending on local news.)

For community stations, even though they got less money, there were stricter regulations imposed to ensure that the money they did get was spent correctly:

  • Starting this year, cable companies must spend 60% of their community channel allocations on direct programming expenses. That rises in increments and reaches 75% after 2020.
  • Diverse citizen advisory committees are required in Canada’s five largest markets.
  • Rules on what qualifies as access programming have been tightened to stress that the community member that initiates a project must have creative control, and “is neither employed by a (TV provider) nor a media professional who is known to the public or who already has access to the broadcasting system.” They also can’t profit from the show (by turning it into a de facto infomercial for their business, for example).

The changes took effect on Sept. 1 after being formally approved as amendments to the regulations and enshrined in TV stations’ conditions of licence.

But most companies didn’t wait that long to make major changes:

  • Rogers closed some Rogers TV community stations and cut back at others in the greater Toronto area.
  • Shaw closed Shaw TV in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, eliminating 70 positions and sending $10 million to Global TV stations.
  • Videotron cut the budget of MAtv by 25%, reflecting the drop of the maximum deduction from 2% to 1.5%. (There hasn’t been an announcement of any redirection of funds to TVA stations.) The cuts meant the cancellation of Montreal Billboard, a weekly series featuring interviews with local community groups. MAtv director Steve Desgagné told me the decision to cut that program was strictly budgetary.
  • Bell made serious cuts at its TV1 community channels, which operate in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. It declined to provide specifics when I asked.

The result

It’s hard to evaluate the impact on community television by looking at programming, because much of that programming is short-term projects. But you can expect less programming, and especially less of the non-access local programming produced directly by the cable companies, particularly in the larger markets, as a result of these changes.

On the TV side, Bell’s CTV and Rogers’s City have both announced new expansions of local news, both to make use of these new funds and to meet the new locally reflective news requirements. Global has been non-specific about how it’s using the additional money.

What definitely won’t change is the strongly held belief among supporters of community television that cable access needs to be less cable and more access.

The dream of Frissons TV

I first spoke with Sylvain Gagné on May 6, 2014. It was shortly after he sent out a press release about the upcoming launch of Terror TV, a specialty television channel devoted to horror movies. A French version called Frissons TV had just been approved by the CRTC.

The channels, one each in French and English, were set to launch that fall.

They didn’t.

I sat down with Gagné at the Gazette restaurant in Old Montreal (which was named after the newspaper I work for and is in the building it once occupied). We had a long chat, about how he couldn’t understand the decision by Corus to pull the plug on the Dusk channel (formerly Scream TV), how the financial information it disclosed to the CRTC showed it to be healthy, and how the data he’s seen on video-on-demand consumption of horror films makes such a channel a no-brainer.

But I never ended up writing the article, and the channel never launched. Until now.

After signing a distribution deal with Videotron, Frissons TV (in French only for now) will launch on Sept. 1, with a free preview for Videotron customers until Nov. 18.

I spoke to Gagné again, and wrote about what to expect from the channel in this story at Cartt.ca. For those without a Cartt subscription, here are the details to know:

  • The channel will be commercial-free (Gagné said it makes no financial sense to put in the effort to sell ads that people won’t want to see anyway).
  • The channel will be available in HD only on Videotron, Channel 799.
  • After the free preview, the channel will be available on Videotron’s custom packages, and will be added to the Mega package that has all the non-premium channels. It will also be available individually as of December for $5 a month.
  • Videotron will have some of Frissons TV’s content available on demand for subscribers.
  • There will be three original series launching over the next year, one of which will feature shorts.
  • Negotiations are continuing with other providers, particularly Bell. Videotron is the launch provider but the channel will be available to others in October. There hasn’t been much effort to sell the channel to non-Quebec providers like Rogers.
  • An English version of the channel is in the future plans, but only once the French version gets off the ground.

The channel has its schedule for the first week. The list of films it’s showing is here. For more details you can check out the channel’s Facebook page.

The power struggle tearing Radio Centre-Ville apart

A protest outside Radio Centre-Ville’s office on March 29.

Montreal’s only community ethnic radio station is in crisis. It started as a financial one, without a major source of revenue to pay expenses. But since last fall it has turned into a legal one as well, with two stubborn sides fighting it out. And each side is willing to financially bankroll their legal battle, even though that money would be put to far better use rescuing the station directly, because they’re convinced that their victory is the only way they can truly save the station.

And neither side is willing to negotiate or compromise.

The issue has been getting some media attention, with articles in Métro and Le Devoir. I wrote about it as well for the Montreal Gazette. Here, I’ll lay out the issues in more detail, based on interviews with both sides.

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Heather Backman, Paul Beauregard laid off at CHOM

Heather Backman

Heather Backman, who was Terry DiMonte’s co-host on CHOM’s morning show since he returned to Montreal in 2012, is no longer in that role. Backman updated her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles to remove references to the station, and CHOM’s website no longer lists her as co-host for the morning show.

Paul Beauregard, who returned to CHOM recently to fill in on various shifts, is also out.

I wrote about their layoffs in a story for the Montreal Gazette, which also includes some analysis of the financial situation of Bell Media’s radio stations and the market (albeit with figures from 2014-15).

Matthew Garrow, Director of News, Local Stations, Sports, Discovery Networks & Community Investment for Bell Media, confirmed that there are layoffs happening at CHOM, without mentioning any names:

I can confirm that we are reducing several positions at CHOM. These changes are the result of the challenges Bell Media and other Canadian media companies are facing due to increasing international competition, the evolution of broadcast technologies, and advertising and regulatory pressure.

We have no further comment on the matter at this time.

Backman herself had no immediate comment, but posted a message to Facebook on Tuesday morning thanking DiMonte, producer Esteban Vargas and former bosses Martin Spalding and the late André Lallier.

Beauregard also declined to comment.

The cuts at CHOM are part of wider cuts at Bell Media nationwide. They include:

Bell hasn’t said how many people it’s letting go across the country, where they are, or if there are other cuts to come.

UPDATE (Jan. 31): DiMonte addressed Backman’s departure at the beginning of Tuesday’s morning show, saying the decision was “not mine to make”, and citing the disruptive nature of employment in the industry. He said the position of morning show co-host has been eliminated and the show would “take a new direction, and we’re moving forward without Heather.” He said Monday was “tough” and she will be missed but the station wishes her the best. (He posted a nearly identical message on his Facebook page.)

This was DiMonte’s only unprompted statement about Backman during Tuesday’s show, so most listeners didn’t hear it. But it was brought up during the 7am hour when contributor Pierre Houde brought it up to pay tribute. Here’s what he said:

The Beat’s Nat Lauzon was among those local personalities to (at least publicly) show support to her dismissed friend:

Kim Sullivan, who worked at both Virgin Radio and The Beat, also paid tribute:

UPDATE (May 24): Backman has gotten some work at The Beat.