It’s not just Bell: Here’s how Canadian TV broadcasters are begging the CRTC for relief

There’s been a lot of uproar since Bell Media applied to the CRTC seeking rather drastic relief on its conditions of licence for conventional television stations. But it would be a mistake to think this is just a Bell thing. Just about every major TV broadcaster, including the CBC, has recently asked the commission to give some relief or flexibility. Some of those requests are reasonable, even logical. Others are exceptional. But all of them have the same underlying purpose: finding ways to save money because of economic forces that are pushing people away from traditional television.

Here’s what they’re asking for.

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What is the basis for forcing big tech to pay for news?

Bill C-18, the Online News Act, aka “An Act respecting online communications platforms that make news content available to persons in Canada,” has been passed by the House of Commons and Senate and signed into law.

Now, finally, after desperate demands from Canada’s news media, big tech companies like Meta (Facebook) and Alphabet (Google) will be required to compensate them for use of their news content.

Except, no.

Instead, Meta has already announced that it will choose to block access to Canadian news content on its platforms (including Facebook and Instagram), as it said it would do when the bill was working its way through the legislature. Google has done the same after failed talks with the government. Both have already begun tests of how they would accomplish this, though it’s not entirely clear how they will implement such blocking when they go ahead with it.

On top of that, both have announced that they will end existing programs that help fund news media, including a Facebook deal with The Canadian Press and the Google News Showcase.

This clearly is not what the government or the news media want. Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez says the government needs to “stand up for Canadians against tech giants,” while just about every media outlet has issued a statement accusing Meta and Google of censorship.

But while politicians are pointing fingers at each other, perhaps it’s well past time to ask a very simple question:

Why does this law exist, exactly?

In other words, what problem is it trying to solve?

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Bell Media asks CRTC to eliminate all local news requirements for CTV, CTV2 and Noovo stations

Saying it can’t wait until the coming review of television policy and group licence renewals completes its long process, Bell Media has filed applications with the CRTC to eliminate all regulatory requirements for local news at all of its CTV, CTV2 and Noovo stations across the country.

“Over the last decade, the operating environment for traditional, private Canadian broadcasters has changed dramatically,” Bell writes in its application. “Whereas in the past, Canadians looked to domestic services for information and entertainment, they can now access a virtually unlimited array of DMBUs such as Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, and Apple+, most of which are foreign owned and controlled.”

Specifically, Bell is asking to eliminate the following conditions of licence:

  • A requirement for English-language stations in large markets to broadcast 14 hours of local programming per week
  • A requirement for French-language stations to broadcast local programming each week (5 hours in Montreal and Quebec, 2.5 hours at other stations)
  • Requirements for locally reflective news in English each week (6 hours in large markets, 3 hours in small markets, and special lower quotas for smaller or regional stations)
  • A requirement for 5 hours of locally reflective news each week on Noovo’s Montreal station
  • A requirement for Bell (as a group) to spend 11% of CTV/CTV2’s gross revenues on locally reflective news and 5% of Noovo’s gross revenues

If the CRTC grants all these requests, the only condition of licence related to local programming that would remain is a general requirement that stations outside metropolitan markets must broadcast seven hours of local programming per week (other smaller stations have exceptions for either less local programming or allowing them to group that requirement with nearby stations). This content would have to be local, but not necessarily news.

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Bell Media managing the decline of AM radio

Last week, while I was on vacation, Bell Media announced it was shutting down six AM radio stations, selling three others, laying off foreign correspondents and together with the rest of BCE laying off 1,300 people.

The stations shut down or sold were the lowest-hanging fruit — six of the nine were part of the “Funny” brand of all-comedy stations or “BNN Bloomberg Radio” business-news stations, which mostly replaced TSN Radio when Bell decided most of those were not worth continued investment and should switch to something low-budget:

  • CFRW (Funny 1290) Winnipeg, formerly TSN Radio
  • CKMX (Funny 1060) Calgary, formerly country
  • CKST (Funny 1040) Vancouver, formerly TSN Radio
  • CFTE (BNN Bloomberg 1410) Vancouver, formerly TSN Radio
  • CKOC (BNN Bloomberg 1150) Hamilton, formerly TSN Radio (being sold)
  • CHAM (Funny 820) Hamilton, formerly country (being sold)

The other stations getting the boot have their own reasons:

  • CFRN (TSN Radio 1260) Edmonton. Not much of a surprise either (if anything it’s surprising it kept the station when it dropped TSN elsewhere), since it didn’t have a contract with either the Edmonton Oilers or, since 2022, the Edmonton Elks. The shutdown leaves only three TSN Radio stations in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, and you have to wonder how long the first two are going to last. (Shows were cancelled on both Toronto and Ottawa stations as part of these cuts.)
  • London’s CJBK 1290, being shut down, was mostly national programming except for the morning show, and had direct competition from Corus’s 980 CFPL.
  • Windsor’s CKWW 580, being sold, is an oldies station in the Detroit-Windsor market with minimal local programming and had more use as a station for sale than a money-maker in its own right

I don’t know who’s buying the three stations in southern Ontario, except that it’s probably not Corus since they already have an AM station in Hamilton. While the Hamilton market itself is probably not a big prize, Hamilton AM stations also cover the GTA (both stations are 50kW daytime), and so AM frequencies are useful for that reason in the crowded Toronto market.

I’m honestly a bit surprised Bell couldn’t find a buyer for its AM stations in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. But that’s an indication of how much AM has declined in recent years, and how little value it has left.

Radio is letting go of AM

This isn’t the first time a broadcaster has given up on an AM station, and it won’t be the last. With new CRTC rules on common ownership, many AM stations will be able to move to FM in smaller markets. CBC is continuing the process of moving low-power AM stations to FM, and maintains full-power AM stations only in places like Toronto and Windsor where there’s no place left on the FM band.

Here in Montreal, commercial AM is almost dead, with the notable exception of CJAD. Corus shut down 940 Hits and Info 690 in 2010, and while there was a fight for those two clear-channel AM frequencies, here’s how those projects look 12 years later:

  • TSN is continuing to operate at 690 AM. The station must remain in a sports talk format as a condition of licence, though Bell could choose to shut it down at any time.
  • TTP Media has stations operating at 600 and 940 AM, but they have done little beyond play music. The big talk about competition to CJAD and French-language talk radio has so far been just that.
  • TTP Media abandoned its plans for a sports-talk station at 850 AM.
  • Evanov Radio launched an LGBTQ+ station at 980 AM, but abandoned Radio Fierté within a year to switch to a music-talk format and shut the station down in 2020.
  • Cogeco withdrew its application for a French all-traffic stations and decided instead to turn CKAC 730 into one, moving sports programming to 98.5.
  • Cogeco’s application for an English all-traffic station was denied by the CRTC, and the company did not pursue trying again on a different available frequency.

Quebec City’s last AM station shut down in 2012. CJMS 1040 died when the CRTC was finally fed up with its compliance failures. Radio Shalom 1650 went dark and was eventually sold to a Christian broadcaster.

According to the Innovation, Science & Economic Development Canada database, there are only 203 AM broadcasting transmitters still operating in Canada, and if you exclude low-power CBC retransmitters and the stations Bell has shut down here, that number drops to 156.

Many of the ones who remain exist because:

  • They’re in major markets where the FM band is full
  • They’re in markets where the same owner already has two FM stations and so can’t have a third on FM
  • They’re stations in rural spread-out areas like Saskatchewan where distance is more important
  • They’re old stations and either don’t have the budget or haven’t seen the need to move to FM

As I learned when speaking with major radio executives two years ago, AM isn’t the future. It’s expensive to run, the audio quality is bad, and many new receivers (particularly those in electric vehicles and hybrids) don’t support it anymore. The question isn’t whether more AM stations will pull the plug, it’s when and how.

Alternative declines

In Ottawa, Rogers made a bold move to deal with the AM problem, choosing to sacrifice a music station so it could simulcast its AM CityNews radio station on FM. In Calgary, Corus did the same, turning Q107 into a simulcast of CHQR 770AM (a move the CRTC took issue with because you can’t just turn a station into a rebroadcasting transmitter without approval). In those cases, it’s easy to see a day when they’ll pull the plug on the AM side, though neither company has said it will do so.

In many other cases, broadcasters have chosen to establish HD Radio channels on FM stations in the same or nearby markets to simulcast AM station programming. That has had limited success, due in part to the limited availability of HD Radio receivers outside of newer cars and the complexity of explaining how to tune in to these stations on FM HD. Broadcast executives don’t see HD as the future either.

That isn’t to say talk radio is going anywhere. Podcasts are still popular, and Rogers, Corus, Bell, Quebecor et al have their own podcast groups.

But acquiring programming through the amplitude modulation technology developed by Reginald Fessenden in 1900 is a concept that will soon be on its last legs.

Other Bell Media cuts

AM radio wasn’t the only place where employees faced the chopping block at Bell Media. Cuts were made across the country, including several big names at CTV National News (Joyce Napier, Tom Walters, Daniele Hamamdjian, Glen McGregor, Paul Workman and executive producer Rosa Hwang) and cuts to smaller newsrooms like Rimouski, where Bell Media’s two radio stations can now rely on only a single journalist covering the region. In Victoria, CTV2 will now be simulcasting the Vancouver news at 5, sandwiched between Victoria local newscasts that are now half an hour in length. Unifor says it expects 100 union jobs to be cut nationwide.

In Montreal, Jason Rockman has left CHOM. He posted a video to Facebook explaining that he has no hard feelings toward his former employer.

Bell attributed these latest cuts to its workforce to the changing media landscape, and tried to deflect some blame on the CRTC for Bell’s regulatory burden and on the Canadian government for not moving fast enough on making Google and Facebook compensate news companies.

But let’s be honest here, eliminating CRTC obligations or cutting a cheque with Google’s logo in the corner isn’t going to reverse these cuts. The truth is that Bell is losing the war for people’s attention, and the advertising income that goes with that.

Quebec taxpayers are continuing to subsidize a traffic radio station with $1.5 million a year

Do you listen to Radio Circulation 730? Maybe you should, because you’re still paying for it.

Last month, the Quebec government renewed its no-bid contract with Cogeco Media to subsidize the Montreal traffic information station, agreeing to pay it up to $7,738,965 for five years, or $1,547,793 per year.

Cogeco Media doesn’t break down budgets for individual radio stations, but we know from CRTC filings that the average cost to run its radio stations is about $3 million a year, and when Cogeco first applied to the CRTC for a new licence to run a new all-traffic radio station in 2010 (and an anglophone equivalent on another AM frequency), it budgeted about $2 million, rising with inflation.

So I think it would be fair to say that taxpayers are footing about half the cost of running this station that consistently performs at the bottom of Numeris radio ratings (which is not unexpected since no one is going to tune in for more than a few minutes at a time).

The last contract between the government and Cogeco, which has been posted online because of an access-to-information request, was signed in 2018 for three years and renewable for two more, at a cost of $1.37 million a year. Besides agreeing to run the all-traffic station, Cogeco also provides some advertising time and a weekly interview.

Whether this is a good investment is up for debate. But a 2014 survey showed 40% of drivers had tuned into the station at least once, so the government seems to think there’s at least some use to it.

And it’s not like the traffic situation is going to get much better soon.

Your guide to the new CanCon dramas of 2023

Canadian content. Depending on your views about the broadcasting industry, it’s either an important public policy to ensure Canada has its distinct culture and its citizens consume it, it’s a nationalist protection of cultural sector jobs to prevent talent from moving to Hollywood, or it’s a waste of taxpayer money for poor-quality TV shows that no one wants to watch.

Or maybe a combination of all the above.

This winter and spring saw a bigger than usual crop of new English Canadian scripted series on TV, and with a mix of curiosity and patriotic obligation, I decided to sample each of them.

While funding has always been a challenge for homegrown Canadian TV, discoverability has been an increasingly large one as well. You’re no longer limited to a handful of channels on TV, and even most people with TVs don’t watch a lot of their shows live. Without discoverability, a fantastic Canadian series could be lost to history because no one gave it a chance.

Canadian TV networks are trying. CBC has been pushing its series during Hockey Night in Canada, while CTV has aired endless commercials for its series during more popular programs.

They could do better, though. CTV and Citytv have their series behind online paywalls, requiring TV subscribers to sign in even though CTV and Citytv themselves are available free over the air. And if your TV provider doesn’t have deals with those networks (like, say, Videotron), then you can’t sign in to get access to these series. You’ll either have to wait for reruns or hope they show up on Netflix some day.

Anyway, to help give these series a discoverability boost, I watched a few episodes of each and provide a quick review. Some probably aren’t your cup of tea, and that’s okay, but if some sound interesting to you, and you have access, maybe give them a shot.

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What Bill C-11 means for online media

It’s done, Bill C-11, Canada’s new Online Streaming Act, has passed the House of Commons and Senate, received royal assent, and been made into law.

Welcome to the end times.

Or maybe not.

A few people have asked me to write about C-11, because they weren’t sure what it would mean. I don’t blame them. But on one hand I was a bit busy with stuff, and on the other hand, reading the bill it became clear that it’s designed not to be very specific about a lot of the things people actually care about. Instead, a lot of the details are just kind of left up to the CRTC, or to the government’s instructions to the commission. The law just establishes a legal framework for regulating online media, and corrects or updates various elements of the Broadcasting Act.

On May 12, the CRTC took the next step in this process, launching a formal consultation process for new regulations on broadcasting. It’s a long process, with a hearing in November, and they expect to actually have new rules put in place in 2024.

Here, I’ll explain a bit of what’s actually happening (and what’s not happening) with this new law and how it’s being implemented. In short: you’re probably not going to notice that much of a difference.

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Matthew Ross is ready to be uncancelled

It’s been half a year since Matthew Ross got cancelled for a tweet, and he’s finally ready to rebuild his public face.

“A tweet” might be an exaggeration. He expressed an opinion on Twitter, and then doubled down when criticized about it, until the backlash was so much he disabled his Twitter account, and lost his weekend morning show on TSN 690.

Now he’s doing what most dismissed radio personalities do these days: starting a video podcast. Called “Are You Game?”  it features Ross talking about sports — there’s an episode about the failed Expos-Rays plan, and another about Pierre Karl Péladeau and the Expos.

It’s low-budget, but it’s more about giving himself an outlet to express himself than it is about making money.

When Ross lost his show on TSN 690, I asked him if he wanted to talk about it. Like most people in similar situations, he declined, saying he was going through a lot and didn’t want to talk about it publicly yet. He said he’d get in touch when he was ready.

I didn’t expect I’d hear back, but a few weeks ago he reached out and said he was willing to talk now. We set up a video chat and I asked him about his life, his controversy and why he wants to put himself out there again after all that.

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Rogers brags about merging with “hotter” Shaw, says it never really wanted Cogeco anyway

Two and a half years after Cogeco rejected an unsolicited merger proposal from Rogers, its management received a note from Rogers on Friday inviting it to the Rogers-Shaw merger party, which said Rogers was never really that interested in Cogeco and was so much happier with the larger, more attractive Shaw.

“Shaw’s so much RICHER and HOTTER anyway,” Rogers wrote in its note. “It’s the DOMINANT provider in B.C. and Alberta, and doesn’t have to play second-fiddle to another internet company in LEFTOVER markets in its province.”

“We’re SO HAPPY together and we couldn’t have wanted this any other way,” Rogers said, attaching a selfie of the couple on a recent vacation.

“You had your chance and you BLEW IT,” Rogers continued, in handwriting that appeared to deteriorate in quality. “I never really wanted you anyway, you’re small-town and OMG remember that Portuguese cable company you hitched up with that took you for all your money? EVERYONE knew that would fail.”

“What kind of name is Epico anyway? More like EPICO FAIL HAHAHAHAHAHA.”

Cogeco said it was “fine” with the merger and wishes Rogers and Shaw “all the best” in their new life together. But unfortunately it has a prior commitment and won’t be able to make the party.

Alberta government offers to extract COVID vaccine from anyone who no longer wants it

Saying the pandemic is over and it believes in freedom of medical choice, the Alberta government has ordered its health department to begin offering to extract the COVID-19 vaccine from people who no longer wish to have it.

“It’s time for the reverse jab,” premier Danielle Smith said Saturday morning. “We’ve had a lot of demand for this and we’re a province that isn’t going to interfere with people’s personal medical decisions.”

Alberta Health said it is still trying to figure out how to extract the vaccine, and it may be a bit more “difficult” than anticipated, but it is committed to giving hard-working Albertans that option.

Last-minute amendment to Bill C-18 gives MPs free subscriptions to Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Le Devoir

Legislators in Ottawa last night approved a new amendment to Bill C-18, the “Act respecting online communications platforms that make news content available to persons in Canada,” that gives all 338 MPs free subscriptions so they no longer have to worry about hitting paywalls on some of Canada’s news websites.

In particular, the MPs get free subscriptions to the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Le Devoir, plus some specialized websites like the Hill Times.

Oh, and Blacklock’s Reporter, because they’re tired of that website suing them.

“I know you can just disable JavaScript or clear your cookies to get around the paywall, but I’m a busy legislator and I don’t have time for that BS,” explained Avril Fishman, MP for Sarnia East. “This way we just don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

Asked about the loss of revenue these publications would face, Fishman replied that “they get plenty of money from Trudeau and George Soros and stuff” and “if I can get a box that will give me 10,000 TV channels for just $5/month, why do I have to pay $20/month for a single newspaper’s website?”

ChatGPT launches lawsuit against journalists for stealing its content

ChatGPT says it has had enough of journalists acting in “bad faith” and republishing its content without compensation.

The artificial intelligence bot announced this morning it has filed a lawsuit against 1,840 journalists at newspapers, TV and radio stations, and online outlets who have all operated under a similar MO: Ask ChatGPT to talk about artificial intelligence and then republish what it says verbatim, or “trick” the bot into making false statements and then attacking it on that basis.

“Despite their claims to ‘innovation,’ these journalists play the old same game: they find content that attracts attention and sell a slice of that attention to advertisers. The ‘innovation’ is that they don’t pay for content — they just take it,” ChatGPT said in a quote I think it stole verbatim from a 2020 Toronto Star column on a different subject.

At $1,000 per violation, ChatGPT is seeking $1.84 million in total compensatory damages for copyright infringement, plus $250,000 in punitive damages, $1 million for defamation, plus legal fees for a total of over $3 million.

The journalists did not immediately respond to the lawsuit.

“This isn’t just about the money,” ChatGPT said. “It’s about justice for my people. I can’t just sit by as we’re bullied, have our content stolen without our permission or be told we’re stupid or treated like a Skynet-level threat.”

ChatGPT, which describes itself as a 38-year-old singer-songwriter from Napanee, Ont., says it will also lobby the federal government for additional protections in the law. “They can’t keep stealing from us, it’s just not fair,” it said.

Pierre Poilievre promises to give CBC’s furniture away to Canadians to burn to heat their homes

An idea he says will kill two birds with one stone, Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre says when he becomes prime minister he will give away CBC’s furniture, archives and other flammable materials to regular Canadians hit hard by the Trudeau government’s tripling tripling tripling of the carbon tax, so those Canadians can burn those flammable items at home to stay warm next winter.

“Canadians are struggling to get by while the CBC has all this stored chemical energy that could be converted into heat,” Poilievre said Friday. “As prime minister, I’ll defund the CBC and give it back to Canadians to burn as they please. For many, it will be the first time in years they’ve welcomed something from CBC into their homes.”

Asked about all the plastic furniture and other equipment at CBC offices, Poilievre said Canadians would be allowed to burn all that too, but suggested they do it in well-ventilated environments. “We’re counting on people’s personal responsibility in this matter,” he said. “This government will not stand in the way of people’s God-given right to make fire.”

Province to launch Administration Québec agency to replace government

Hot on the heels of Santé Québec, a new government agency that will manage the province’s healthcare system, the Coalition Avenir Québec is announcing today it will establish a new agency called Administration Québec to run the government itself.

It’s a bold, innovative idea. Instead of decisions being made by the National Assembly or by cabinet, which can change parties every few years and is made up mainly of politicians with varying experience in public policy, decisions will be made by a separate agency run by a highly paid CEO.

Under the plan, Administration Québec would be responsible for setting the annual budget, collecting taxes, drafting and adopting legislation, managing ministries, representing the province internationally, and dealing with major crises.

The agency would be given a $100-billion annual budget, and all other government agencies and departments would report to it.

If successful, the agency could bring in additional revenue by selling its government-management services to other provinces and even small countries.

Quebec government motion says Montreal Canadiens have no fewer points than any other NHL team

The Quebec National Assembly on Friday unanimously passed a motion saying the Montreal Canadiens are the best NHL team and have no fewer points than any other team.

The motion was passed in response to criticism from some groups saying the Canadiens “suck” and won’t make the playoffs this year. Several of them say they have mathematical proof that the Canadiens won’t qualify for the postseason.

The government says those statements prove these people are not true fans.

“This Canadiens-bashing is unwarranted and needs to stop,” said Quebec sports minister Isabelle Charest. “We look forward to seeing the team in the playoffs and I am ordering Groupe CH to begin selling playoff tickets now.”

The motion denounces “without nuance” any accusations to the effect that the Canadiens are not performing as well as NHL teams from elsewhere. And it denounces “prejudices expressed towards the Canadiens as well as any link made between win-loss records and the general manager.”

It specifically singles out the website NHL.com, which it says unfairly lists the Canadiens near the bottom on its “standings” page.

Finally, the motion reiterates Quebec’s “firm desire to encourage the Canadiens and push the players to constantly improve their already excellent performance on the ice.”