Tag Archives: CBC

Radio-Canada is stealing our advertiser, CJPX complains to CRTC

When CBC/Radio-Canada asked the CRTC for permission to air advertising on radio, one of the things it promised is that it would only solicit national advertisers, not local ones, to limit how much it competes with local commercial radio stations.

Well, less than a month after ads started airing, one of those commercial stations has complained that the public broadcaster is soliciting local advertising.

On Thursday, the CRTC published a two-page complaint (.zip) dated Oct. 29 from Jean-Pierre Coallier, owner of CJPX Radio Classique in Montreal. In it, Coallier complains that one of its local advertisers, the Montreal Chamber Orchestra, took out ads on Espace Musique. Because it’s a local organization that only wants to attract a local or regional audience, Coallier argues, it doesn’t fit the definition of national advertising.

According to the decision that renewed the CBC’s licence and allowed it to air advertising on Radio Two and Espace Musique, national advertising is defined as “advertising material that is purchased by a company or organization that has a national interest in reaching the Canadian consumer.” It was also expected that in general national advertising would be booked through advertising agencies, which Coallier says was not done here.

Radio-Canada disagrees with Coallier’s interpretation. Spokesperson Marie Tétreault told me that there was an agency here, Groupe Force Radio (which is owned by Cogeco and represents Espace Musique in Quebec).

Tétreault said the ads for the MCA aired on Espace Musique stations in Montreal, Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières, Quebec, Rimouski, Saguenay and Ottawa. Basically, throughout Quebec and the national capital region but not elsewhere in the country.

“These ads fully respect the conditions of licence of Espace Musique,” Tétreault said.

It’s worth noting that the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, in its filing in the CBC case, pointed out that its definition of national advertising was vague, and worried that it might allow some local advertising. This would seem to be a good example, regardless of how the commission rules.

Comments on the complaint are due by Dec. 16. Tétreault said that Radio-Canada would give details of its position in its submission, which will be filed on that date.

If you want to file your own submission, you can do so by clicking here.

CBC expands Sunday local newscasts starting Sept. 1

You'll be seeing more of Thomas Daigle soon

You’ll be seeing more of Thomas Daigle soon

Few people really paid attention to it when the CBC’s broadcasting licences were renewed this spring, but the public broadcaster committed to expanding local programming in large markets like Montreal, going up to 14 hours a week and ensuring at least one of those hours was non-news local programming.

Currently, large-market CBC television stations produce 10 hours and 40 minutes a week of local news: Three back-to-back half-hour newscasts starting at 5pm weekdays, a half-hour late newscast at 11pm weekdays, a half-hour newscast at 6pm Saturdays, and a 10-minute newscast at 11pm Sundays. (Vancouver is an exception, its Sunday newscast is already half an hour.)

The new CBC licences take effect Sept. 1, so with less than two weeks to go I was wondering why we hadn’t heard any announcements about new shows yet. Had they forgotten? Would they not make the deadline?

Chris Ball, senior manager of media relations for CBC English Services, said they will be meeting the 14-hour-a-week requirement as of Sept. 1 as promised. The Sunday newscast will be expanded to 30 minutes from 10, giving us 11 hours a week of local news. The rest will be made through “the addition of one hour of local non-news programming that will run Saturday, Sunday and Monday in those markets.”

He was deliberately vague about that part. “Planning is still under-way and we’ll have more details to share in the coming weeks,” he said.

The electronic schedule for CBC Montreal, shows that, for Sept. 1 and 2, the station will be re-airing the first episode of the Absolutely Quebec series at 11am. (The same thing is being done at the other affected stations: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa.) The condition of licence doesn’t specify that the local programming be original, so repeats are still within the rules, and gives the corporation a cushion until it puts something else on the air.

What form this non-news programming will take, whether it will be one program repeated twice or three separate ones, is unclear at this point. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Until then, enjoy the Absolutely Quebec reruns.

CBC jumps into semantic nightmare with “ICI” debacle

I thought nothing short of an alien invasion would unite the country. Heck, even then I’m sure the PQ would blame the federal government. But the CBC managed to do so last week when it announced that it was rebranding all its French-language services as “ICI”.

But the move has been so universally condemned, from the left, from the right, from its enemies and its friends, that I feel the urge to play contrarian and find some reason to support it. But I can’t.

The reasons to dislike it just pile up:

  • It’s confusing. Are they changing the name Radio-Canada? No. Except yes. They’re not changing their name, but just adopting a new “brand identity”, or using a “term”, or “denominator”. Just the list of synonyms for the word “name” they used (including the word “name” itself) created needless confusion. Even CBC and Radio-Canada journalists couldn’t figure out what “ICI” was, exactly.
  • It’s expensive. This rebranding exercise cost $400,000. You can see that as a tiny part of the corporation’s $1-billion annual subsidy from the Canadian government, or you could see that as a handful of well-paid full-time jobs for a year. Rebranding is an expensive endeavour that does little to further the CBC’s mandate.
  • It’s unnecessary. The closest thing I got to a reason for this whole thing in the first place is a video (now deleted) in which someone put a confused look on their face when explained that “Radio-Canada” means both radio and television. I get that, in a sense. You’ll recall that Télé-Québec used to be called Radio-Québec. But is this really a problem for a brand that’s existed for 75 years? Does anyone who lives in Canada and speaks French actually get confused?
  • It’s consultantism at its finest. The CBC loves consultants. People who tell them that newscasts have to look a certain way, or that Peter Mansbridge should stand at all times. Some consulting is good. You want to focus-group television shows or expensive concepts before putting them into motion. But consultants are also good at convincing people to buy things they don’t need. I don’t know if that happened in this case, but it certainly gives that impression.
  • It’s abandoning a strong brand. Rebranding is something you do when your brand isn’t working. Maybe you’re involved in a scandal, or your name doesn’t reflect what you do anymore, or it’s not politically correct. But Radio-Canada is a very strong brand. People know what it is and expect good things from it. Why would you mess with that? Even the federal government got involved to complain.
  • It’s anti-patriotic. Fuelling the exaggerated notion that Radio-Canada is filled with separatists (as if half of Quebec wasn’t), cutting “Radio-Canada” in favour of “ICI” has been seized by some in English Canada has a political move. “ICI” is also being seen as reinforcing the Quebec-centric view of Radio-Canada by groups that feel the corporation all but ignores francophones in the rest of Canada.
  • It’s a generic word with little meaning. The Abbott and Costello routine from Jean Lapierre and Mario Dumont might be a caricature of the problem, but there’s a very serious lack of meaning in the term “ici”. It’s a generic word, an adverb, and they’re trying to use it as a noun. “ICI” has been the name of a bunch of things, including a weekly alternative newspaper in Montreal. “ICI Montréal” was even registered as a trademark by Télé-Métropole, which is now TVA, in 1985.

But the biggest problem with this rebrand is this: It’s screwing the little guy.

Sam Norouzi


Here’s that little guy. His name is Sam Nowrouzzahrai, but he does business as Sam Norouzi because he wants to save people the trouble of always looking up how to spell and pronounce his name. He’s the man behind a new ethnic television station in Montreal. It’s a mom-and-pop shop, owned by his family and run as a producers’ cooperative. He’s not looking to get rich off of this, just find work for some ethnic broadcasters and bring local ethnic television back to one of Canada’s most diverse cities.

He wanted to call the station International Channel/Canal International, or “ICI” for short.

As I explain in this story in The Gazette, Norouzi did his homework, applying for a registered trademark and waiting for it to get approved as the CRTC application process followed its course. Now, weeks before the station is set to go on the air, he has to deal with the CBC’s lawyers who are trying to take his name from him. And while he has a legal team to deal with that, it’s taking up a lot of his time too. “There’s not a day that goes by that there’s not an issue I have to deal with” involving the case, he said.

I first wrote about this story in March, but now Norouzi has decided he’s ready to play offence in his David-vs-Goliath battle. Articles in the Journal de Montréal, La Pressethe Globe and Mail, the National Post, even the New York Times. An interview on CBC Radio’s As it Happens. An angry column from Sophie Durocher. And while he told me back in March that he didn’t have the funds to take this matter to court, he now says he’s ready to fight.

“We have full rights to go forward with the name and we intend to do so,” Norouzi told me. “We will defend ourselves. For us it’s really a question of principle.”

CBC by a technicality

So what kind of case does the CBC have here? Can they really force Norouzi to give up his name?

Companies don’t have to register their trademarks for them to be legal. They just have to use them. Same thing with government bodies and their “official marks” according to the Trade-marks Act. But it helps. And Norouzi’s application for ICI came a year before CBC’s 31 applications for ICI-branded services. (The only CBC mark that predates Norouzi’s is one from 1969 for “Éditions Ici Radio-Canada”.)

I spoke with Pascal Lauzon, a lawyer and trademark agent with BCF. He said most of the case is “very debatable on both sides.” He pointed out that the registrar of trademarks looks through the database when a trademark is applied for. The process also includes a two-month waiting period so opponents can file oppositions to proposed registrations.

But Lauzon also said that there’s a five-year period during which someone can apply to the federal court to expunge a trademark.

Obviously not in a position to prejudge a case like this, Lauzon said the CBC has a strong case, not so much because it can prove it used the name first, but because of what amounts to a technicality.

Part of the trademark registration process is the filing of what’s called a “declaration of use.” This tells the Canadian Intellectual Property Office that you have actually used the trademark you’ve applied for on a good or in connection with a service. Norouzi filed this on Aug. 20, 2012. But his station wasn’t on the air at that time. We didn’t even know it existed because the application for it wasn’t published until a month later.

The CBC alleges in its lawsuit that, because Norouzi did not appear to be actually using the trademark, his declaration of use was “materially false.”

That, Lauzon said, is enough to have the entire trademark registration thrown out. If that happens, Norouzi would have to file for a new one, but that would put his application behind those 31 marks of CBC-Radio-Canada, and would weaken his case considerably.

“He should have waited” until the station was on the air, Lauzon said. He had three years to file a declaration of use, and waiting would not have made his initial filing date of August 2011 any less valid. “If he had waited, he would be in a much better position,” Lauzon said.

An amicable solution is the best solution

There is another way for this to end: The CBC could see the error of its ways and abandon the whole “ICI” plan entirely. Or it could offer to pay the costs associated with Norouzi’s station taking another name. I don’t know if either of those are likely.

Norouzi tells me he has had no communication with the CBC other than through its lawyers, who first contacted him last November complaining about possible confusion. (Norouzi dismissed those claims since they came long before anyone had any idea that Radio-Canada would be rebranding.) The CBC won’t comment except through written communication that goes through its legal department. Which means I didn’t get a response from them by press time. (I’ll update this post with what I hear back.)

The CBC has already started to back away from ICI. On Monday, president Hubert Lacroix apologized for the “confusion” and announced that some services, including the main TV and radio networks, would retain the Radio-Canada name. You can see a full list here (PDF). Names like “ICI Radio-Canada Télé” and “ICI Radio-Canada Première” sound like awful compromises, taking names that were long and making them even longer.

This backtrack was after days of trying to re-explain a move that should have been self-explanatory.

It hurts to throw away a $400,000 project. But sticking with a bad idea isn’t a better option.

UPDATE: I asked for additional comment from CBC about this case. Hours after the request, I was asked to submit written questions. Almost 24 hours later, I finally got this as a response from Radio-Canada’s Marc Pichette:

In response to your questions sent yesterday (and I apologize for the delay), the term “ICI” has been closely tied to Radio-Canada’s identity for over 75 years. That it has risen to increased prominence recently is only a reflection of the close association our audience makes between that word and our brand.

Confusion is in no one’s interest. That’s why the matter to which you refer is part of an ongoing legal process which is before the Federal Court. I hope you will understand that I cannot comment on the specifics.

CBC’s CRTC licence renewal: What’s changing in point form

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has just renewed the broadcasting licence for most radio and TV services run by CBC/Radio-Canada, for five years starting Sept. 1 (which means these provisions take effect then). It’s a long decision, and even the press release explaining it is kind of long. So here’s what the CRTC has decided and how it’ll affect what you watch and hear:

(For a Montreal-specific look, see this story I wrote for The Gazette)


  • Ads on Radio Two/Espace Musique: The most controversial proposal has been accepted. The CRTC will allow advertising on the music radio network, but with some restrictions: They can broadcast no more than four minutes of advertising an hour, in no more than two ad blocks, and no local advertising is allowed. This allowance is also limited to three years. If the CBC wants to continue after that, it must re-apply to the CRTC for permission.
  • Minimum playlist size: As part of a way to ensure Radio Two and Espace Musique are different from commercial radio, the CRTC is requiring that they air a large number of different musical selections, 2,800 a month for Radio Two and 3,000 for Espace Musique. That means about 100 songs a day that haven’t been played yet that month.
  • More specific radio CanCon minimums: Currently, half of popular music and 20% of special interest music must be Canadian for all four radio networks. The CRTC has added, with CBC’s blessing, conditions that require that 25% of concert music and 20% of jazz/blues music also be Canadian.
  • More flexibility in French music: On Radio-Canada radio networks, 85% of music played must be French. That requirement remains. But the rest is no longer restricted. Before only 5% could be in English and all of it had to be Canadian. Now that 15% can be in any language, including English, and half of non-French music has to be Canadian.
  • More French local programming in Windsor: CBC’s cuts to local programming at CBEF Windsor caused controversy, leading to complaints that included the official languages commissioner. The CRTC has decided to impose a minimum of 15 hours per week of local programming at the radio station, above what the CBC had proposed and consistent with other stations in minority communities.
  • No more Long Range Radio Plan: The CBC says, due to its budget, it has no plans to increase its radio coverage area (including plans to make Espace Musique available to more people) and wants to discontinue the Long Range Radio Plan. This plan includes hundreds of allocations for radio transmitters that don’t exist yet. Shutting this down would save a lot of headaches for private broadcasters, whose proposals for new or improved radio stations would have to take these imaginary stations into account.
  • Public alerting system: The CBC is required to install a public emergency alerting system on all radio stations by Dec. 31, 2014. The CBC said it would issue alerts at the station level, not at the transmitter level. The CRTC said it was concerned this might lead to alerts being issued too widely instead of just to the communities affected. Similar alerting is being encouraged, but not required, on television.


  • More local TV programming: Following CBC’s recommendation, the CRTC has harmonized requirements for local programming between CBC/Radio-Canada and private television stations.
    • English stations in metropolitan markets (which includes Montreal) will have to produce 14 hours a week of local programming, and stations in smaller markets seven hours a week. In most cases, this is an increase over current levels (Montreal produces just under 11 hours a week of local programming), so we’ll need to see longer or more frequent local newscasts.
    • All French stations must produce five hours of local programming a week, including those in English markets, who must have some local programming seven days a week (except holidays).
    • CBC North (CFYK-TV Yellowknife) will have five hours minimum as a condition of licence, though the CBC says it will be more than this.
  • Non-news local TV programming: Following a suggestion from the CRTC at the hearing, the CBC agreed to require at least one of the 14 hours of local TV programming in major markets be devoted to non-news programming. The CBC hasn’t said what this would be, exactly. They said they’re starting to look at this now that they have a decision.
  • No blanket exemptions for local programming: The CBC had requested that it be allowed to calculate local programming on a yearly basis instead of a weekly one, because events like the NHL playoffs or Olympics pre-empt local programming. The CRTC decided against this (except for French stations in English markets), mainly for practical reasons (it would have to review a whole year’s worth of tapes to determine if it was meeting its licence requirements). The CBC then suggested that it be allowed an exemption of up to 16 weeks a year. The CRTC decided against that too, preferring a case-by-case approach and referring to a decision that allowed CTV and V to be relieved of their local programming minimums during the 2012 Olympics, saying that should be the model for future events.
  • Higher Canadian TV programming requirement: CBC and Radio-Canada television is now required to devote 75% of their broadcast day (6am to midnight) and 80% of primetime (7pm-11pm) to Canadian programs. They already do this now (they boast of having a 100% Canadian primetime), but it’s higher than their previous official requirements.
  • Regional television in French: Radio-Canada television is now required to devote at least five hours per week to programming produced outside Montreal. In addition, 6% of its budget for Canadian programs must go to independent producers outside Montreal.
  • More English-language television from Quebec: The CRTC is requiring CBC television to devote 6% of its budget for English-language Canadian programs to independent producers in Quebec, averaged over the licence term (until 2018). In addition, it must spend 10% of its development budget on Quebec, to give a boost to English-language producers here by having them produce more new programming.
  • No interference in The National/Le Téléjournal: The corporation’s national newscasts have been accused of being too focused on the regions they originate from (Toronto and Montreal, respectively). But the CRTC won’t interfere, saying it would threaten journalistic integrity. It will, however, ask for regular reporting on how official language minority communities feel about how well CBC and Radio-Canada’s programming reflects them, and has imposed this purposefully vague condition of licence: “national news and information programming shall reflect the country’s regions and official language minority communities, and promote respect and understanding between them.”
  • Canadian films on CBC: Following CBC’s proposal, the CRTC has imposed a requirement that CBC television air one Canadian theatrical film every month. The CBC is being given the flexibility to schedule it, which means it could air on a weekend afternoon, but it will air. The CBC is being held to its commitment to air Canadian movies on Saturday nights during 10 weeks in the summer.
  • Children’s programming: Judging that a commitment to children’s programming is more important as other conventional television networks move those shows to specialty channels, the CRTC continues to require a commitment to programming for children under 12. CBC and Radio-Canada must broadcast 15 hours per week of under-12 programming. Of that, one hour a week (CBC) or 100 hours a year (Radio-Canada) of original children’s programming (programs that air on other channels can be counted for this if CBC contributed to its financing). And three-quarters of these hours must be independently produced.
  • No requirements for new over-the-air transmitters: Despite demands for the CBC to reverse its decision to shut down hundreds of analog television transmitters across the country, and to limit digital transmitters to markets with local programming, the CRTC says it will not impose requirements on the CBC due to its financial situation. Instead, it suggests people who can’t get CBC or Radio-Canada over the air to look to Shaw’s free basic satellite offer, which expires in November. It also suggests broadcasters look to solutions like multiplexing (multiple channels on one transmitter) to offset the expense of digital transmitters.

Specialty TV

  • Renewal of mandatory distribution: The CRTC will maintain orders requiring digital cable and satellite providers to distribute CBC News Network in French-language markets and RDI in English-language markets, for $0.15 and $0.10 per month respectively. This is to ensure access to news programming for official language minority communities.
  • ARTV will be required to make 50% of its programming schedule devoted to programs from independent producers, replacing a condition that it spend all its profits on independent production. (Since ARTV’s profits are modest at best, this will be a net benefit, the CRTC argues.) ARTV will also have to devote 20% of its programming budget to programs produced outside Quebec, half of that to independent producers.


  • Ombudsmen: The corporation’s two ombudsmen (one for CBC, one for Radio-Canada) are now required by a condition of licence, which establishes how they are hired, and says they must report directly to the CBC president twice a year.
  • Digital media: The CRTC hasn’t set specific conditions as far as digital media, though it has encouraged the CBC to be more accessible (more closed captioning online, for example).
  • Terms of trade: The CBC is being ordered to come to agreements with the Canadian Media Production Association and Association des producteurs de films et de télévision du Québec within a year.
  • Consultations with minority language communities: The CBC must hold formal consultations at least once every two years with minority language communities, including the English community in Quebec. It must also report annually on such consultations.

UPDATE: The Quebec Community Groups Network praises the CRTC’s decision and the increased English-language Quebec production that will come out of it.

The war over “ICI”: CBC demands new ethnic TV station change its name

UPDATE (June 11): Read my follow-up to this story here.

Sam Norouzi

Sam Norouzi is a busy guy these days. He’s starting a television station from scratch. He’s dealing with the technical side, acquiring a transmitter and antenna, as well as the content side, dealing with show producers. The plan is to have the station on the air some time in the summer, with a formal launch in the fall.

Norouzi is the manager of ICI, a new over-the-air ethnic television station in Montreal that was approved by the CRTC when it allowed Rogers to buy CJNT. Operating under the callsign CFHG-DT, it will air on Channel 47, using the same Bell-owned transmission tower on Mount Royal that was used briefly by CFCF as a temporary digital antenna while its analog transmitter was still running in 2011.

ICI, which stands for International Channel/Canal international, wants to bring ethnic television in Montreal back to where it was before CJNT, a producers’ cooperative where people sell advertising for their own shows and the station doesn’t try to make money by pushing the limits of its licence with third-rate primetime American programming.

It’s a big undertaking, with a very large amount of local programming, and it’s being put together on a pretty short time frame.

But now Norouzi has a new headache to deal with: The CBC doesn’t want him to use “ICI” as the station’s name.

The public broadcaster sent a lawyer’s letter to Norouzi’s company this week asking it to cease and desist the use of the name ICI. A statement of claim was filed with the court on Monday noting CBC’s request to have Norouzi’s trademark for ICI expunged. (Hat tip to the Citizen’s Glen McGregor for alerting me to that.) Norouzi (whose real name is Nowrouzzahrai) wasn’t aware of the letter when I called him Wednesday afternoon, because he’s currently in Florida. After checking in with his father, Norouzi confirmed he had received the letter.

Marc Pichette, a spokesperson for Radio-Canada, confirmed that the corporation asked the station to change its name “because « ici » has been a Radio-Canada staple for decades (Ici Radio-Canada) and because it is presently featured in an advertising campaign promoting Radio-Canada’s very personal relation with its audience. In these ads, people evoke how Radio-Canada programs that they have seen “ici” have been a pivotal in finding their vocation or lifelong interests.”

There’s another reason, though. Le Devoir reported Wednesday that Radio-Canada is thinking of rebranding, and calling itself “Ici.” Needless to say that would cause confusion.

Some of the trademarks registered to CBC

Some of the trademarks registered to CBC

A search of the Canadian trademarks database shows that the CBC registered a series of trademarks last fall with the word “ici” in it.

But Norouzi also has a trademark registered for his use of the term “ICI”. That trademark was filed in August 2011 and registered in September, before the CBC’s trademark applications were filed.

Asked about that, Pichette said “ici has been a Radio-Canada staple for decades” because it’s been used with the Radio-Canada name (à la “Ici Radio-Canada“). He didn’t say why the CBC is only acting on this now while the TV station’s use of the name ICI has been known since at least last fall and its trademark dates back a year and a half.

Norouzi said he was frustrated because he’d done everything he was supposed to, making sure nobody else was using the name for a TV station and then registering it himself and getting it approved. He said he doesn’t have enough money to hire lawyers to fight the CBC’s legal department, which means if the CBC decides to make this a legal case, it will probably win by default.

All this over a three-letter word.

UPDATE (March 28): Asked about the possible name change in the House of Commons, Heritage Minister James Moore says its name is enshrined in the law and it won’t change. Though I’m not sure how much control the government has over branding. The logos above show the official name would remain “Radio-Canada” but with brands focused on “ici”.

Meanwhile, CBC announces it’s going ahead with the rebranding, but Radio-Canada’s name remains “Radio-Canada”.

CBC late local newscast expands to 30 minutes

Correction: An earlier version of this post said the Sunday night newscast will continue from 10:55 to 11:05pm. While it stays 10 minutes long, it will actually be 11 to 11:10pm, starting next Sunday.

Nancy Wood is excited, again

This weekend was the start of CBC television’s fall season, but its biggest effects will be felt starting today, as talk show George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight moves to 7pm and the late local newscasts expand from 10 minutes to half an hour.

Nancy Wood, who took over anchoring the late local news this spring, only to learn shortly thereafter that her on-air time would be tripled, tells me she’s excited but anxious about the debut.

I was curious about what kind of changes we could expect with this new newscast. Wood told evening anchor Debra Arbec that they would have two reporters working evening shifts to file reports between the two newscasts.

The biggest change one would expect for the expansion of a late newscast would be in sports coverage. Aviva Herman of CBC Montreal communications tells me there won’t be a specific sportscaster or sports reporter for late night, at least for now, but “Nancy will be reading sports highlights from a local and national perspective.”

Previously, the late local anchor would provide a voice-over recap of games involving Montreal teams, but there wasn’t a larger sports highlight package. This led to strange situations like the “CBCSports.ca update” during the NHL playoffs that spoke about upcoming games without saying what happened that night.

We’ll see what this new format has in store.

The biggest change, though, will be in timing. The previous 10-minute newscast was sandwiched between The National and George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, running from 10:55 to 11:05pm. This meant anyone watching something other than The National at 10pm would miss the first half of the newscast, and anyone wanting to watch something different at 11 would either miss the first five minutes of that show or cut out halfway through their local news.

Now, with the start at 11pm and running a full half-hour, it fits schedules better. It also goes head on against Global Montreal’s low-rated late local newscast and the high-rated CTV National News. Those wanting to be in bed by 11:30 and preferring local to national and international news might decide check out CBC.

The illusion of a set disappeared for a few seconds behind Nancy Wood during her first 30-minute late newscast

How it went

The late newscast is still very focused on local news, since it follows The National. No filling of time with packaged reports from other cities, at least not for now.

Other features taking up all that extra time:

  • Three weather segments, which have different graphics but seem to present the same information. On the first show, weather segments with Frank Cavallaro lasted 3:51 total.
  • The CBCSports.ca Update is now done as a national package of a minute and a half, rather than voiced by the local anchor. Local sports news (including Canadiens/Alouettes/Impact highlights) are still presented separately.
  • There’s a next-day news look-ahead, teasing the stories that will make news the next day. It includes both a local and national component.


People like me who really disliked the awkward anchor throws to George Stroumboulopoulos promos in the middle of the newscast will be relieved that they’re no longer doing it that way. The promos still exist (even though they’re now teasing a rebroadcast of a show from earlier in the night), in the middle of the newscast as a self-contained promo ad, and at the end where the anchor says to stay tuned for Strombo.

Though it’s an improvement, I remain very uncomfortable with newscasts being used like this for advertising, even if it’s self-promotion.

Technical growing pains

Minor and moderate technical problems continue to plague the late newscast. It would be easy to dismiss this as the kind of mistakes that happen when you’re doing something new, but it happens too often, to the point where I’m now starting to expect such errors at 11pm.

The first show saw the virtual set disappear for a few seconds, as you see above, removing any illusion that there’s a futuristic blue set that in no way resembles their evening news set. (On Day 2, they pulled away the green screen and went with the real control-room background you see on weekends or in some reporter debriefs. Wood says a new backdrop should be coming in a week or two.)

The larger mistake happened when the first packaged report was played again in place of the second, forcing reporter Alison Northcott to ad-lib.

The second show went smoother. The worst thing I saw, besides some timing issues, was a graphic with a typo (“Tobacco trial” became “Tobacco trail”)

CBC News: Montreal at 11 airs weeknights from 11 to 11:30pm. The late Sunday newscast retains its 10-minute format from 10:55 to 11:05pm, but starting at 11pm instead of 10:55pm.

The beginning of the end for over-the-air TV

See this map full-screen

  • Red: CBC
  • Blue: Radio-Canada
  • Yellow: TVO
  • Purple: TFO
  • Green: Télé-Québec

Small dots are transmitters being shut down (text appears in grey), large dots are transmitters that will keep running; dots marked “A” are privately-owned affiliates unaffected by this move.

This is a map I created (through a combination of a list from the CBC and Industry Canada’s database) of all 658 CBC and Radio-Canada television transmitters in Canada, plus those of provincial public broadcasters TVO, TFO and Télé-Québec. As of today, more than 600 CBC and Radio-Canada transmitters are no longer licensed by the CRTC and are in the process of being shut down if they aren’t already. Ditto for more than 100 TVO transmitters and four TFO ones.

The CBC’s mass shutdown of television retransmitters (all of them analog) is part of a budget-cutting process that is expected to save $10 million a year in maintenance costs.

The CBC littered the country with television retransmitters, most of them low-power, from 1977 to 1984 as part of its Accelerated Coverage Plan. The goal was to make sure that every community of 500 people or more was served by a CBC and/or Radio-Canada television transmitter (depending on their mother tongue).

But the transition to digital television and the need to cut costs has made the case for keeping these transmitters running much weaker. For one, more than 90% of Canadian television viewers have a subscription to a cable or satellite service. And most of the remaining viewers will be served by one of the 27 digital television transmitters running in markets where CBC and Radio-Canada offer local programming.

(This includes CFYK in Yellowknife, the flagship station of CBC North, which until now has been operating as an analog station. The CBC has replaced it with a digital one, CFYK-DT, effective Aug. 1.)

According to the CBC, only 2% of Canadian television viewers will be affected by this shutdown. The rest either have a television subscription or are within range of one of its digital transmitters.

What’s more, the CBC says in its submission to the CRTC, maintenance is becoming more difficult and expensive because of the lack of availability of spare parts for analog transmitters. Since the U.S. has already undergone a complete transition to digital, there’s little demand for analog transmitter servicing, and the companies that once did that have stopped. Price for parts has increased, in some cases as much as 100%, the CBC says.

And so, with the CRTC’s reluctant blessing (the commission explains in its decision that its licenses are authorizations to operate stations, and it cannot force a broadcaster to operate a station it doesn’t want to), the 607 analog retransmitters were remotely shut down Tuesday night by CBC technicians, the satellite feeds to them replaced with color bars. The equipment will be removed, says Martin Marcotte, director of CBC Transmission.

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Radio Canada Irrational

Radio Canada International is, essentially, dead.

The last broadcasts of the service on shortwave ended Sunday night. (You can listen to some of the final transmissions here and here.) Its budget has been cut by 80%, its Portuguese and Russian services are gone, two thirds of its staff has been let go, and the huge transmission site in Sackville, N.B., sits unused, to be sold or torn down eventually.

The video above is Marc Montgomery, host of the daily program The Link, at the end of its final broadcast on Friday. As you can see, he gets quite emotional at the end, explaining why cutting RCI is a mistake.

While most Canadians have probably never heard of it, RCI isn’t for them. As Montgomery explains, the shortwave service in particular is capable of reaching people who don’t have Internet access or whose Internet access is blocked or filtered. With an online-only service, third-world countries that restrict foreign media online won’t have access to it.

Does that matter? Do people in third-world countries really listen to RCI in the first place? Maybe not. Maybe RCI has outlived its usefulness, and its shortwave service was mostly just a hobby for lonely ham-radio types who like to tune up noisy distant stations broadcasting in single-sideband AM. In that case, it might as well be shut down completely.

I’ve seen enough media outlets go online-only as a result of budget cuts to know that complete shutdown of RCI is, at this point, inevitable. Few people will listen to it because it’s harder to access and has so little original programming, and that will be used as justification down the line to pull the plug completely.

Many people have been trying in vain to find some way to keep RCI going. Sympathetic stories have been written about their demise. Politicians have been conscripted into the cause. A rule mandating a shortwave service has been found and subsequently eliminated by the government. A protest has been organized with a few people showing up. Attempts are being made (unsuccessfully) to have the federal government set RCI’s funding aside from the rest of the CBC. The RCI Action Committee, started the last time the CBC tried to gut the service, is actively pushing these activities and chronicling with regret the dismantling of the service on Twitter.

But they’re all in vain. The damage is done. Any groundswell of public support will eventually fade. People will forget. The CBC isn’t going to go back on its decision and the government isn’t going to force them to. The latter will point out that it sets the parliamentary appropriation and leaves the details on how to spend it to the public broadcaster. The former will point out that its budget situation has forced it to make difficult decisions and that things like local news and current affairs programming matter more to average Canadians than an international shortwave service.

So while it’s nice to hear that RCI won’t disappear quietly, the best we can do is honour the service and regret that it’s now gone. CKUT’s International Radio Report, which aired Montgomery’s signoff in its entirety, itself got emotional talking about RCI’s shutdown on Sunday (MP3).

The CBC News Network program Connect and CBC Radio program Dispatches also aired their final episodes this week. The final episode of Connect is here, with a retrospective starting at the 36-minute mark. The final episode of Dispatches is here.

CBMT to expand late-night newscasts to half an hour

Nancy Wood is excited

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had its big bash in Toronto on Thursday to announce its lineups for the fall television season. There are some big changes coming, besides the usual turnover of primetime series. The CBC has decided to drop Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune (mainly for cost reasons), opening holes in its afternoon/evening schedule. It will fill one of those holes with George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, which moves from 11pm to 7pm, but with a repeat at 11:30pm.

Not given as much attention is that CBC is expanding evening local newscasts in some areas, including Montreal. Rather than the 10-minute rush that it has been doing since 2009, CBC Montreal will have a full 30-minute newscast starting this fall, from 11 to 11:30pm.

The time slot puts the newscast in more direct competition with Global Montreal’s News Final, which has the same schedule. (Feel free to insert jokes about whether Global’s 2,000 viewers at 11 constitutes competition.)

CBC Montreal communications manager Debbie Hynes tells me the Sunday newscast, which you’ll recall is less than a week old, will remain at 10 minutes, or at least that’s the plan.

Nancy Wood, who just started as the late-night anchor, says she heard the news on Wednesday, and is excited about having a longer newscast and one that has a real time slot instead of being awkwardly sandwiched between two others.

While CBC News Montreal Late Night gets a good lead-in from The National, allowing it to get about 15,000 viewers on average (it has 30,000 at 6pm), the 10:55pm start time means it isn’t going to attract many viewers from people who watch something other than The National at 10pm. An 11pm late newscast could mean picking up people who watch U.S. primetime dramas on CTV, Global or other channels and want some local news before going to bed.

There’s no news yet as far as what specifically a late newscast would include. At the top of that list, I think, would be a local sportscaster. The 10-minute newscast includes a bizarre “CBCSports.ca Update” segment that previews the next night’s hockey games but says nothing of the ones that finished an hour before. This is mainly because there’s no one to put together a sports roundup on deadline, but it sticks out that you have a newscast talking about sports without saying what happened in the sports world that night.

The new local newscast launches in September along with the new CBC television schedule.

News headlines and weather on screen in mornings

Also announced is that some local information will appear in mornings on CBC television. During the 6-7am hour, when CBC airs CBC News Now (duplicating content from CBC News Network), the programming will be surrounded by a local wrap with local headlines, weather and other information. Something similar is done on CJNT, and people familiar with CityNews or CP24 in Toronto will know what this looks like. CTV also inserts local content into national programming (Canada AM) through an on-screen ticker. These are “rolling out across the country now,” Hynes says.

CBC cuts will be felt on the airwaves

Nobody could seriously have suspected that the 10% cut to the CBC’s budget wouldn’t result in some significant service disruptions. Nevertheless, the Mother Corp has done its best to maintain things like local programming.

The CBC has a website explaining the cuts that are coming as a result of the federal budget.

Here, in point form, is what the CBC is doing:

  • Reduce its workforce by 650 full-time equivalent jobs
  • Apply to the CRTC to allow it to air advertising on Radio Two and Espace musique
  • Shut down remaining analog television transmitters by July 31
  • Radio Canada International will cease transmission on shortwave and satellite, cut Russian and Brazilian services, and shut down its news department, ending its newscasts
  • Cancel nighttime programming on Première chaîne
  • Produce fewer episodes (and air more repeats) of original television series
  • Reduce its real estate footprint, including reducing Maison Radio-Canada in Montreal by 400,000 square feet
  • Increase employee contributions to the employee pension plan
  • Abandon plans for an English-language children’s specialty channel and French-language sports channel
  • Sell Bold
  • Produce fewer in-house documentaries, relying more on independent producers

There’s a bunch of other things that are very vague, including reductions in news gathering and in radio programming, whose details will be known soon.

On the plus side, it doesn’t look like local programming will be significantly affected. CBC Montreal will continue, for example, with its plans to launch weekend TV and radio newscasts starting May 5. The network also seems to be doing as much as it can to keep journalism jobs (except at RCI).

On the minus side, some people will complain about ads and sponsorships on the music radio stations (and it seems an odd move particularly because Radio Two and Espace musique are usually at the very bottom of the ratings charts), and there can’t be the loss of so many jobs without affecting front-line services.

But what gets me most is those cuts to actual, physical broadcasting.

No-wave radio

The CBC’s CKCX shortwave transmission site near Sackville, New Brunswick, is a sight to behold with its giant transmission towers and seemingly chaotic spider web of long antenna wires. It’s the only station of its kind in Canada, and transmits at different times and on different frequencies toward the rest of the world on shortwave, as well as some CBC North programming toward the territories and some transmissions of foreign services as part of transmitter sharing/swap agreements.

The shortwave transmissions will be coming to an end, as will transmissions using satellite. This leaves Internet streaming as the only way for people to listen to RCI.

It’s hardly the first time RCI has felt under the knife. There’s a blog set up by those who want to protect this service from being slashed into oblivion. It points to cuts under the Mulroney government in 1990 in which RCI was almost shut down but instead lost just half its staff and half its language services.

I don’t have any numbers on how many people listen to RCI via shortwave. Maybe it’s not many. But I can’t help thinking this loss will be a blow to Canada’s reputation, and wonder why they’d bother keeping it if they’re going to make it online-only. This interview with RCI’s boss, Hélène Parent, makes it clear in its tone if not its content that this is as close to a fatal blow to RCI as one can make without killing it completely. More than 80% of its budget is being cut, going from $12.3 million to $2.3 million.

And as some have pointed out, part of the benefit of shortwave radio is to provide a western perspective to people inside third-world countries or dictatorships where their only other options are state-run television and radio stations. Many of these places restrict or block the Internet, and might do the same to RCI online. Though it is possible to jam shortwave radio transmissions, it’s a lot harder.

The analog era is over

Another big cost savings will come from shutting down more than 600 analog television transmitters across the country. In an effort to serve Canadians in even the most remote of communities, the CBC has retransmitters for its English and French television services all over the country. Many of them are low-power, transmitting just a few watts of power to cover a community of a few hundred people.

For example, here’s a list of the 40+ retransmitters just of CBC Montreal television, from Îles de la Madeleine to Blanc Sablon to
Salluit at the northern end of Quebec. All of them will be shut down, leaving only the digital transmitter on Mount Royal.

After July 31, only existing digital transmitters will remain in operation. There are 27 of them for the two networks, along with those run by privately-owned affiliates.

It’s not just tiny villages that will lose over-the-air television. Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Trois Rivières and other cities in Quebec will no longer have retransmitters of CBC Montreal, which will mean, for example, that audiences without cable or satellite television in those areas will no longer get to watch Canadiens games on Saturday nights. The CRTC gave a one-year extension on the mandatory digital transition for a bunch of transmitters in mandatory markets. Affected were transmitters for stations that did not produce any original local programming but were in markets large enough to require the transition.

When I spoke to the CBC, it said it would probably just ask for another extension once that one ran out, and that it didn’t see ever converting all or even most of its analog transmitters into digital.

With budget cuts, the hand is forced and these transmitters are going to be shut down. That will mean, for example, that APTN will be the only over-the-air television transmitters in northern Canada. It will mean that Quebec will have no over-the-air English television outside of Montreal, Gatineau and the two Global Montreal retransmitters in Quebec City and Sherbrooke. It will mean no Radio-Canada transmitter in Calgary and many other markets where you’d think they should have one.

One can hope that the CBC will mitigate the damage somewhat by providing second-language service as a subchannel in some markets where it has digital transmitters for one language but not the other. That would mean it could at least provide a standard-definition feed of CBC television in Quebec City to people with digital receivers.

Otherwise, this is really the beginning of the end of over-the-air television.

UPDATE (April 11): The Gazette has a story about the cuts to Radio Canada International.

Meanwhile, CBC has more details about the cuts to English services. They include shutting down South American and African news bureaus, eliminating drama programming from radio, and accelerating “integration” of newsrooms and other vague plans.

Quebecor’s media wars: It takes two to tango

It seems a week can’t go by without Quebecor or one of its journalistic outlets picking a fight with a competitor. Whether it’s an unwritten company rule to bias its news coverage in this fashion or simply an astonishing coincidence, I can’t say for certain. But either way the result is the same: lots of mudslinging in the direction of Quebecor’s enemies.

And, unfortunately, the response to a lot of this mudslinging is mudslinging in the other direction. Rather than see dispassionate analysis of important issues presented with balance, we’re bombarded with fact-massaging attacks from both sides and left to our own devices to try to pick out truth from truthiness.

Here’s a few examples of the battles it’s been waging recently:

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Should the CBC dump TV?

Recently I’ve been thinking about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and how it spends the billion dollars a year it gets from the Canadian taxpayer. It’s not just because Sun Media is on a mission to have it shut down. There’s also a debate over whether it should be exempt from cuts the federal government is imposing on all its services.

And there are people who think the CBC should be doing more than it does right now. OpenMedia.ca has a project called Reimagine CBC in which people are asked to pitch ideas to transform the public broadcaster and make it more relevant in this new media universe. There are things the CBC does already, like be active on social media. There are ideas that are so vague they sound like they came out of management.

Then there’s Kai Nagata, who is suggesting the CBC get out of producing television entirely and shift all those resources to the Internet so it can become an online news and cultural leader. He even spiced up his submission by posting a video to YouTube parodying the Rick Mercer rants in which he explains his reasoning.

Nagata, you’ll recall, is the former CBC and CTV television reporter who did not own a television.

His reasoning is interesting. He points out that people are moving away from TV and toward online these days, and suggests that abandoning television and focusing on online will give it more bang for their buck.

But I’m not convinced. For one thing, if the CBC succeeds in making killer web videos, wouldn’t it just make sense to put that kind of stuff on television, where it can make more money? The CBC does have a lot of infrastructure, including hundreds of television transmitters, many of them in small communities where the CBC is the only over-the-air television. It also has regional control rooms and studios for newscasts that might be less important if everyone was getting their news from the web.

I think Nagata underestimates the power of television. Canadians still watch it, and many supplement it with online consumption of media. CBC’s ratings may be low compared to CTV and Global, but they’re still high when compared to most cable networks, and more people watch television shows on TV than online.

And that’s assuming we forget all about Radio-Canada. Nagata points to the success of its Tou.tv online video website, but seems to ignore that the thing that makes it so popular is that it has a bunch of television series on it.

What should the CBC get out of?

Still, I like Nagata’s suggestion because it gets us thinking. I don’t want to start sounding like Pierre Karl Péladeau, but it annoys me a bit that the CBC competes directly with private broadcasters in some areas. Particularly areas where the private sector does a better job.

Like local news. In Montreal, the market leader among anglophones is CTV’s CFCF. It kills in the ratings. It has more hours of original local news than its competitors combined. It has more journalists, and more of its news is local.

So why is CBC trying to compete? More importantly, why is the CBC trying to compete by doing the same thing? Why not abandon the supper-hour newscast and do something else, like local cultural programming?

On the French side, it’s a bit more complicated because Radio-Canada is so popular and because the main private broadcaster already produces so much original programming. On one hand, there’s a good argument that the culture is healthy enough that it doesn’t need the CBC’s help, and that removing the public broadcaster would make the private broadcasters healthier and encourage them to invest more in original Canadian programming. On the other hand, shutting down Radio-Canada would lead to having only one major television player in French, and that’s very worrisome. It would also be a net loss for original Canadian television no matter how you slice it.

CBC television can be thought of in two ways: a creator of television programming and a conduit for that programming. For scripted series, “creator” usually means that the CBC hires a production company to produce a TV series and it airs episodes of that series. A scheme could be conceived in which those series are still produced but air on private television, on cable or online.

Or what if the funds that went into the CBC were instead transferred to the Canada Media Fund, which helps fund television series no matter what network they air on? What if we focused our money more on creating better Canadian television series, ones Canadians actually wanted to watch? What if we got rid of the overhead and gave all that money directly to the people who actually produce Canadian television programming?

And what if, instead of a network that carries the CBC network to distant communities, infrastructure was used to bring both private and public Canadian programming to them? What if CBC’s production facilities were made available to ordinary Canadians to make their own television, which could then be uploaded to YouTube or the CBC’s website for people to see?

I don’t think anything like that is going to happen. Even if we establish that it makes sense, there’s still too many unanswered questions. Cutting local stations would seriously affect CBC News Network. And communities will resist efforts to take away their television stations, even if they’re just low-power retransmitters of distant CBC stations.

But this discussion needs to start somewhere. And that means we have to figure out exactly what we need the CBC for, and what we’ll need it for in 10 or 20 years. I don’t have all the answers, but I think technology has changed enough that we don’t need the CBC to be doing the exact same things it was doing 30 years ago.

Yearning for local television

Last month, CBC television aired a half-hour special program called Secrets of Montreal.

The show, hosted by evening news anchor Debra Arbec, talked to some figures in the anglo Montreal cultural community about some of their cultural “secrets”. The guests include some pretty big local names, like comedian Sugar Sammy, filmmakers Jacob and Kevin Tierney, chef Chuck Hughes and musician Melissa Auf der Maur. They talk about restaurants, bars, urban spaces and other things they love about this city.

This, all in high definition (actual HD, not the fake HD we see on the newscasts). I actually can’t think of another program produced for a local audience by any of the three anglo broadcasters in this city that was done entirely in HD.

Secrets of Montreal host Debra Arbec

It’s not the greatest half hour of television ever (that soundtrack gets annoyingly repetitive after a while, for one, and some people have noted the Travel Travel-esque vibe), but it’s the kind of thing I’d love to see more of: local programming that isn’t confined to a newscast.

Even though Montreal has three local English-language television stations (four if you include the multiethnic CJNT/Metro 14), none of them air original local programming that isn’t either confined within the schedule blocks of their newscasts or done from their news sets. Not to take away from the quality of local news being produced by these stations, but there are some things we’d like to see that can’t be converted into a two-minute news package or six-minute sit-down interview.

Seeing this show was a breath of fresh air, a sign that maybe the CBC was starting to rediscover the idea that its programming should reflect not only the national culture but the local one as well. And I was hopeful that this was a sign the local stations were getting more control over their programming schedules and/or budgets, being able to work on special projects like this.

But I was disappointed somewhat when I discovered through Google searches that this idea didn’t come from CBC Montreal. “Cultural secrets” shows were produced across the country: Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and apparently other places as well. All were done to coincide with “Culture Days” and the CBC’s 75th anniversary. All followed roughly the same idea, and all aired Sept. 29th at 7:30pm, in the timeslot normally reserved for Jeopardy. (In fact, for Videotron illico users, the show was listed as an episode of Jeopardy, and remains labelled as such on my PVR. This may have resulted in many potential viewers missing the show.)

What bugged me about this national congruence was that it reminded me how much of what happens locally at the CBC is actually decided nationally, imposed on the regions in a cookie-cutter fashion.

It reminded me of Living [insert location here], the regional lifestyle show duplicated across the country that was cancelled during the big round of budget cuts in 2009. At least that was regular programming instead of a one-off show.

When I start giving more serious thought to proposals of radical changes at the CBC, this is one of the reasons why. The other stations are doing daily local newscasts (and, unlike CBC Montreal, they don’t take the weekends off). If this network is going to be funded mainly through government financing, shouldn’t it offer something different?

I’m aware of – and sympathetic to – the budget constraints faced by CBC and its Montreal television station. But English Montreal (and, for that matter, English Quebec) is a linguistic minority, and one would think the CBC would be a leader in giving this community a voice. Lately, it’s seemed more like an also-ran, which is particularly outrageous considering how little is done outside of news at CTV and Global.

Secrets of Montreal, directed by Vincent Scotti and Filippo Campo, and starring Debra Arbec, can be viewed in its entirety on the CBC website.

The CBC/Quebecor misinformation war

To understand the ongoing war between Quebecor and the CBC, you have to understand a bit how television works in Quebec.

In English Canada, the conventional television networks make money by buying popular American series, running them during prime time and selling commercials. It takes little effort, and brings in a lot of reward. The CBC, meanwhile, does its best to produce original series, but few of them have a chance competing against the big American shows, so CBC falls significantly behind in the ratings. (Actually, overall CBC is No. 2 in prime-time behind CTV, thanks to powerhouses like Hockey Night in Canada.)

In Quebec, things are different. Francophones here like to watch things in their own language, so American shows aren’t as popular as home-grown ones. (Generous government subsidies helps here too.) While the networks do bring in American shows, have them dubbed and aired during prime time, the big shows are original productions. So Radio-Canada television can be commercially competitive and very Canadian at the same time.

In Quebec, the two big players in television are Radio-Canada and Quebecor’s TVA network. Télé-Québec and V, the other conventional networks, fall in with specialty channels like RDS, Canal Vie, Canal D, etc. in a secondary tier.

So when TVA looks at the competition, it looks at Radio-Canada. And there’s this annoying little fact at the back of its mind when it takes that look: Radio-Canada has a competitive advantage given to it directly by the government.

Billion-dollar leg-up

Radio-Canada, along with the CBC, gets $1.1 billion annually from the Canadian government, as the public broadcaster. That money is spent on all sorts of things, but particularly radio and television programming. Because both CBC and Radio-Canada sell advertising for their television stations, the giant subsidy effectively covers the loss they incur by spending much more on production than they get in ad revenue.

Imagine being in any other business where your biggest competitor is handed a truckload of money from the government every week. Imagine that business then lowered its prices to below cost, and had the government cover that loss.

I’m not saying I agree with the organized campaign against CBC and Radio-Canada being put together by Quebecor’s media outlets. For one thing, I’m not crazy about a bunch of journalists working for one company engaging in a campaign against their employer’s competitor.

But I do understand the basics of the argument: The CBC is at an unfair competitive advantage compared to private television networks. It’s an argument that doesn’t really work in the rest of Canada because the CBC doesn’t really compete with CTV and Global. But it does work in Quebec, because Radio-Canada and TVA compete directly with each other.

The “CBC sucks” Network

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, Quebecor has been targetting the CBC. Journalists at Sun Media file tons of access to information requests against the public broadcaster – an average of more than one a day in 2007, so much that the CBC asked the government to step in because so many requests were coming from the same source. Columnists attack the CBC at the slightest whim, while staying silent on anything negative about Quebecor.

Sun News Network has been particularly vicious. “CBC Money Drain” appears in the generic opening of one of its prime-time shows, and segments about media criticism focus mostly on the CBC, which it refers to as the “state broadcaster”, despite how ridiculous that comparison is. Sun News has repeatedly called for privatization or shutdown of the CBC and Radio-Canada.

The public broadcaster has so far reacted in kind of a mixed way. It defends itself, but politely. It calmly explains its role as a public broadcaster to those who ask. It responds to a flood of access-to-information requests from Quebecor media outlets by posting all the documents online. It sends letters to the editor correcting bad facts and incorrect assumptions.

In recent months, there has been a bit more directed directly at Quebecor. Sarcasm, for one. Or taking its case to third parties, like this letter sent to The Gazette, which the CBC accused of falling for Quebecor’s misinformation. (UPDATE: Quebecor’s Serge Sasseville emails me to point out his response to that letter, also published in The Gazette)

The gloves come off

It’s only this week that the CBC has, in the words of some of its defenders, taken the gloves off and fought back hard against the Quebecor machine. It released a statement on Wednesday attacking their anti-CBC talking points. That got attention from such news outlets as the Globe and Mail, and lots of play on social media.

It also prompted an angry response hours later from Quebecor, taking on the anti-talking-points point by point. (UPDATE Oct. 21: A second press release from Quebecor, threatening legal action if the CBC page isn’t taken down)

This was a day before Quebecor boss Pierre Karl Péladeau appeared before a committee looking into the CBC’s refusal to disclose information requested by Quebecor journalists. There, Péladeau denies waging a war against the CBC, but says it has to be accountable. (See coverage from Globe and Mail, Canadian Press, Ottawa Citizen)

So who’s right?

While many people who instinctually love the CBC and hate Quebecor cheer at the Mother Corp fighting back, I find myself a bit disappointed. It feels like the CBC is sinking down to Quebecor’s level, and many of the facts they put out have the same problems when it comes to lack of context or oversimplification.

Let’s take a look at the arguments from each side individually:

Quebecor Media is waging a coordinated war against the CBC: Péladeau denies this. But he does so in sort of a self-contradictory way. Péladeau claims that his journalists work independently, without anyone telling them what to do. But then he says his journalists have never sought journalistic sources. How does he know this? How can he pretend to speak for his media empire if he says his journalists act independently?

It’s obvious that Quebecor’s outlets, particularly Sun News, Sun papers and the Journals, have a beef with the CBC. Whether that’s because of corporate edict or just because those outlets hire like-minded people as journalists is up to the public to decide.

Quebecor’s access-to-information requests seek journalistic sources: I’ve yet to see a proper accounting of exactly what requests Quebecor have filed that have been denied, so I can’t answer this question. I suspect it’s more subtle than this, and the problem comes down to a matter of interpretation. The CBC can deny requests for information about its “programming activities”, for example, but how far does that go? Is Rick Mercer’s expense account fair game? Don Cherry’s employment contract? The CBC’s deal with the NHL? Quebecor denies it is asking for the identities of the CBC’s Deep Throats, but compares its requests to asking for lunch receipts of senior executives, information which is already posted online.

The CBC is using taxpayer money to hire lawyers to fight transparency: Well, yes. Specifically, they’re fighting the access-to-information commissioner, arguing that only a judge should be able to determine what information should be released. I don’t agree with this, but the argument that the CBC shouldn’t use lawyers because they’re taxpayer-funded is ridiculous. The alternative would be to cave in to every demand, no matter how damaging.

CRTC chair Konrad von Finkenstein has called for the access-to-information law to be clarified. The CBC also says it is trying to clarify the rules, rather than admit they’re fighting them.

“Quebecor has received more than half a billion dollars in direct and indirect subsidies and benefits from Canadian taxpayers over the past three years, yet it is not accountable to them.” The CBC links this statement to a presentation (PDF) that breaks down that figure. By the CBC’s own numbers, more than half of that “half a billion dollars” is their calculation of how much Quebecor “saved” in the last spectrum auction because it bid on frequencies that were set aside to new entrants into the wireless market. The figure is based on the assumption that if Bell, Telus and Rogers were not prevented form bidding for those frequencies, that they would have gone for as much as the frequencies not set aside for new entrants were sold for. That’s a big assumption. And even if we accept that, calling this a “subsidy”, even an “indirect” one, is a big stretch.

The rest of those subsidies are things like the Canada Media Fund, the Local Programming Improvement Fund, and government tax credits for TV production. All of these are things that CBC programming is also eligible for, and is above the $1.1 billion annual subsidy from the Canadian government.

Plus, the CMF and LPIF are funded primarily by cable and satellite companies like Videotron, not by the federal government. Quebecor points out that Videotron pays slightly more into the media fund than TVA takes out of it, which means Quebecor is subsidizing the CMF, not the other way around.

I get the point that Quebecor receives public money too, but the CBC’s figures are exaggerated.

Quebecor complained to the prime minister that CBC wasn’t taking out ads in its newspapers. Quebecor said it was “false” to say they’ve complained about the lack of advertising, then proceeded to complain about the lack of advertising. Péladeau testifed on Thursday that in fact a letter was sent to the prime minister complaining about the lack of newspaper ads. (UPDATE Oct. 21: A similar strange reasoning appears in the legal letter Quebecor sent CBC: Saying the statement is false and then repeating it in different words. Maybe there’s a difference I don’t understand?)

The truth is that both Quebecor and the CBC are engaged in a boycott of each other. There are no ads for the Journal de Montréal on Radio-Canada either. It’s not absolute, but there’s a big difference in advertising buys when you compare TVA to Radio-Canada, or La Presse to the Journal de Montréal.

Quebecor Media is also owned by the government. This logic is based on the fact that the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the government’s investment arm, has a 45% stake in Quebecor Media, dating back to when Quebecor bought Videotron. This is a big stake, but still a minority one, with Quebecor Inc. having the rest. The big distinction here is that the Caisse is an investment organization that puts money in companies expecting a healthy return. The government isn’t funding Quebecor Media as much as Quebecor Media is funding the government through its profits.

The Quebecor war machine

It’s funny how all the big public media wars in Canada involve Quebecor. It’s at war with the CBC over access to information. It’s at war with Bell over specialty channel carriage (even though Bell has gotten a major competitor to vouch for its fairness). It’s at war with La Presse over the secret deal it imagines Gesca has with the CBC. It’s at war with Transcontinental over community newspapers.

If I was paranoid, I’d think Quebecor just likes picking fights.