Montreal Sports Weekly is a half-hour local sports panel discussion show hosted by Elias Makos with local journalists sitting in high chairs in the City Montreal studio.
Sounds kind of familiar.
Makos hasn’t said anything publicly about this show, and his panelists — SN Central Montreal regulars Jeremy Filosa and Sean Farrell — haven’t talked about it either, which seems odd, so I’m not entirely sure what the deal is (the credits say only “COPYRIGHT 2017”). It could mean an announcement is coming, or it could mean that this is just a pilot or something and no one wants to get anyone’s hopes up.
Even the description of the show on the electronic program guide — “takes audiences beyond the game highlights for an in-depth look at the city’s professional and amateur teams, along with athlete profiles and feature stories” — is identical to the one first announced for Montreal Connected in 2013, with the exception that it’s described as an “English-language program” for clarity.
ICI’s business model involves working with independent producers who buy airtime and create shows that they can sell their own advertising for.
The first airing at 9am Saturday featured the same public service announcements and ICI house ads that generally fill the airtime. If this is really a project with a future, the show is going to need sponsors if it’s going to survive. So if you were upset that Sportsnet Central Montreal was cancelled, now is the time to get people to start advertising and supporting this.
Without the benefit of a well-staffed PR machine, Montreal’s ethnic television station ICI has been quietly launching new local programs and improving its service since it launched a year and a half ago.
Free livestreams of TV stations aren’t very common because of the difficulty securing online streaming rights to content. And livestreams of specialty services are even less so because distributors and consumers complain when they have to pay for a TV service that’s given away for free online.
ICI doesn’t have to deal with those problems, because most of its content is original or acquired cheap from foreign countries, and as an over-the-air station it broadcasts for free.
The TV distribution regulations require distributors to include local television stations, which would normally mean that Videotron must distribute ICI in analog and digital to subscribers in the Montreal area. But Videotron is in the process of phasing out its analog cable system to make room for more digital channels and more bandwidth for video-on-demand and Internet service.
Videotron told the CRTC that fewer than 7% of its Montreal residential subscribers are still on analog cable, though that number is higher if you include institutional customers like hotels and hospitals, and those residences that have digital and analog on different TVs.
Quebecor had argued that the CRTC’s recent decisions to allow analog to continue its decline, by not licensing any new specialty channels for analog TV, for example, makes it clear that the transition to digital is more important than squeezing in another analog channel which would only disappear within a few years anyway as the analog network is dismantled.
ICI argued against the application, saying it would “result in ongoing and serious harm to ICI,” which is still struggling to develop an audience:
It has become apparent to ICI since its launch that ICI’s potential audience frequently consists of individuals that subscribe to Vide?otron’s “Classic Cable” service, which is the analog service. These potential viewers do not currently receive ICI. Vide?otron’s decision not to distribute ICI in accordance with the Regulations in not in the interests of subscribers as Vide?otron suggests. These subscribers would need to pay more to receive ICI, and make the transition to a more expensive digital service far ???sooner than they might otherwise choose – and even while many other services continue to be offered on an analog basis.
ICI pointed out that Videotron’s analog service in Montreal, which is much smaller than it used to be, still carries many U.S. signals, including two PBS stations.
And it said that while 7% may be small, it is still significant for a station that relies solely on advertising for revenue, and the fact that Videotron is still offering an analog service means it does not view this number as trivial.
It also said at least one program producer “decided not to purchase airtime on ICI due to the fact that the members of the target audience and multiple advertisers have advised the producer that they cannot receive ICI on their cable service.”
Videotron countered that it has received no requests from analog clients to get access to ICI, and its contractual obligations prevent it from removing other channels from analog.
In the end, the CRTC sided with Videotron, judging that its interpretation of the commission’s intention to encourage the phasing-out of analog cable is correct. It also cited the lack of opposition from people unconnected to ICI, as well as the substantial assistance the station is receiving from Rogers as a result of the sale of CJNT, in its decision.
Videotron has already begun the process of shutting down its analog network. After dismantling the network in Gatineau, it has started in Montreal with the Ahuntsic region.
When the cooperative local ethnic television station ICI launched last fall, its website wasn’t a primary consideration. I asked its manager about posting its original programming online, but he was more concerned about getting the transmitter up and getting that programming on the air first.
Four months later, ICI has started making its programs available online in the simplest and most effective manor: By posting them to YouTube. Over the past two weeks, 171 videos have been posted, representing almost all of its local original programming, which makes up almost all of its schedule (it has only a couple of non-original programs, the Portuguese soap opera Bem-Vindos a Beirais, the dated OMNI cooking show South Asian Veggie Table, and the religious show Il est écrit).
The episodes are posted in their entirety, and for the moment anyway are without any restrictions or (additional) ads.
Being a television station that produces its own programming (or, more accurately, works with producers who create programming and sell their own ads for it) means there’s a lot more freedom to get video out without being stuck with geoblocking or custom video platforms.
Posting to YouTube is easy, offloads bandwidth costs, and is versatile, employing all of YouTube’s features from automatic captions to website embedding.
The videos show that, for the most part, ICI is doing what it promised. Many of its shows have left the confines of the green-screen studio and gone out into the field. Those that are shot in studio have unrealistic virtual sets where even the tables aren’t real, but they’re still better than anything we saw on CJNT.
Most of the shows still consist of dry interviews that demonstrate how little experience many of the people involved, particularly in front of the camera, have with television. But they’re improving. The shows are becoming more watchable as each week goes by.
The big question will be how long they can keep this up.
Sam Norouzi in the control room at ICI’s studios in Ahuntsic
Analog cable. Remember that? According to the latest statistics from the CRTC, only 11% of television subscribers get their TV that way. For Videotron, that number is higher. According to Quebecor’s latest quarterly report, 82.9% of its television customers were digital, leaving 17.1% of them using analog-only setups.
Since about 2000, the groundwork has been built for the phasing out of analog cable. The CRTC has since licensed new television specialty channels as digital-only. In 2012, Videotron stopped selling new analog cable subscriptions. And it’s expected that within the next few years it will be phasing out its analog cable network, much as other providers are, in order to free that bandwidth for more data and high-definition channels.
I bring all of this up because of an interesting situation that’s come up. The Broadcasting Distribution Regulations, the rules that apply to cable, satellite and other television providers, have a priority list of which channels must be distributed on the basic service. At the top of that list is CBC/Radio-Canada, then educational channels, then all other local television stations, then those special services like CPAC and APTN that the CRTC requires everyone receive and pay for.
The lineup of analog cable channels hasn’t been added to in the past decade. The last new channels added to it here were APTN and Avis de recherche, because of distribution orders for those channels. And with a virtual ban on new channels being forced onto analog, it seemed destined to stay that way.
But in December, a new television station launched in Montreal. ICI, an ethnic station, began broadcasting on Channel 47. And according to the rules, it needs to be added to the systems of all cable distributors operating in Montreal, on both analog an digital.
This issue doesn’t come up often because it’s so rare that a new over-the-air television station starts up. The last real expansion of over-the-air television through new stations was in 1997, which was when Global Quebec and CJNT (what is now City Montreal) went on the air. So cable companies haven’t had to add many new services to analog cable since they started the slow move to digital.
But the rules say that Videotron needs to distribute local stations, and so it needs to put ICI on its analog grid somewhere, at least in the Montreal area.
Except Videotron says it doesn’t have the room to do that. So it has applied to the CRTC for an exception to the distribution rules that would allow it to not have to carry ICI this way.
In its submission, Videotron’s owner Quebecor Media says the commission’s clear intention is to move away from analog television distribution, and that its recent decisions have made it clear it doesn’t want to add new services to analog.
“The analog programming grids for the greater Montreal region are at their maximum capacity and no space is available to add a new station to the basic service,” Quebecor’s Peggy Tabet writes. “In fact, any additional analog channel would require the removal of a channel that’s currently distributed in this format. This type of change has important consequences at the client level and on a financial and technical level. Adding ICI to the analog basic service would result in depriving our subscribers of a service they have always had access to.”
Moreover, Videotron says, removing a service from analog cable would require a 60-day notification period, and its contracts with broadcasters do not allow Videotron to remove those channels from its analog service.
Finally, Videotron says that 93% of its customers in the greater Montreal region have digital set-top boxes, and those subscribers receive ICI in standard and high definition.
Videotron’s explanation is mostly half-true. It definitely has space limitations on its network, and adding a new analog channel would take up a lot of space. And it’s right that removing analog channels is tricky because of customer complaints as well as contractual obligations.
But Videotron isn’t absolutely prevented from adding ICI to its analog network. Assuming there was no analog channel that it could part with to make room for ICI, it could repurpose a digital channel and make it analog again. That might mean fewer HD channels, or more compressed HD channels, but it’s doable.
It would probably be more accurate to say that Videotron simply doesn’t want ICI on its analog network because it would add to its bandwidth management problems and won’t be that popular among its customers.
That kind of explanation usually doesn’t sway the CRTC. But should the commission force Videotron’s hand, requiring it to start fiddling around with an analog network it’s in the slow process of dismantling? Videotron hasn’t set a date for bringing down the analog network in Montreal. It may be a small minority that still has analog cable, but many of them do for a reason, and it will be quite a process to transition all of them at the same time. Plus there are all the people who might have a digital box on their main television but analog cable going into other TVs in the house. Those will also need to be dealt with.
I suspect the CRTC will deny Videotron’s application. But it may grant the exception if it feels that the reins of analog cable need to be let loose so the format can be put out to pasture.
ICI hasn’t commented on the application. Its general manager Sam Norouzi said it will be filing a response opposing it, but didn’t want to comment further.
Afromonde host Henry Ngaka on his virtual set, as seen through a monitor in ICI’s studio.
As radio stations that were supposed to launch in 2013 seek delays in whole or in part because of technical problems, an independent startup television station has managed to get on the air just under a year after getting a licence from the CRTC.
As I’ve been watching the channel on and off on Wednesday, I notice it’s been lacking a bit of regularity right out of the gate. There were long awkward seconds of dead air, at one point a single ad or video aired three times in a row, leading to eight minutes between actual programming.
The station has very little advertising to start with, limited to some ads that look more like sponsorship messages, including one from Mike FM, whose parent company CHCR produces the Greek program. As a result, commercial breaks are only a few seconds long, enough for a station ID, and the hour is backfilled with music videos or other short-form programming.
For the quality of the actual programming, I’ll wait until they’ve had a chance to air more of it (and even then I can’t comment much on content because I can’t understand the language most of the time), but my first impression is that it’s uneven. Some of it looks like the kind of long-form talking-head shows that fit the stereotype of low-budget ethnic TV. The only thing that’s different is that it’s in a green-screen set and in high-definition, and has flashier computerized graphics (though not quite as well produced as the stuff you’ll find on the big national broadcasters). The shows are better when they take their cameras out in the field, which they do and want to do more (at least when the weather is nice).
It’s considered a soft launch, without a major marketing push behind it, and it’s being run by a group of people who, while they have experience in television production, don’t have much experience running television stations.
Sam Norouzi in the control room at ICI’s studios in Ahuntsic
“I lose more and more hair,” Sam Norouzi says with a laugh, “and what’s left is getting more and more grey.”
The manager of CFHD-DT (ICI), Montreal’s newest television station, has had to deal with all sorts of technical headaches while trying to launch it. But with the last of the technical issues resolved, he has finally set an official launch date: Wednesday, Dec. 11.
As part of that deal, ICI will receive $1.067 million from Rogers for programming, in addition to free content from Rogers’s OMNI network. It also gets a loan of up to $1 million from Channel Zero, plus five years of free master control services. All this for simply taking over CJNT’s ethnic programming obligations and clearing the way for a City station in Montreal.
ICI had hoped to launch by late spring or early summer, but a series of unforeseen problems caused delays. Like when his new antenna was delivered and parts of it were shattered in a million pieces. Or when, after finally getting a repaired antenna installed, it caused interference with a Sûreté du Québec antenna on the same tower (moving the SQ antenna up a bit solved that, but that took a long time because of all the coordination work involved).
In August, the station began transmitting a test signal. It was then pulled off the air when the SQ interference problem came up. Last week, it returned, repeating an Italian-language program about Montreal’s Italian Week. The station is still officially testing until Dec. 9.
ICI green-screen studio with new HD cameras.
When the station does launch on Dec. 11, it will meet its requirement of 14 hours of original local programming a week, though Norouzi said that some of its producers are still waiting for some acquired programming.
ICI is run as a producers’ cooperative. So the producers who work in various languages will buy airtime and produce or acquire their own programming and sell their own ads with it. Norouzi’s production company Mi-Cam Communications has been put at their disposal to help with the technical production aspects.
ICI has a small green-screen studio at the Mi-Cam offices on Christophe-Colomb Ave. in Ahuntsic, though Norouzi said he wanted as much programming as possible to be shot in the field. No more poor-quality interview shows people are used to seeing on previous incarnations of Montreal’s ethnic television station.
Shows ready to go include a Portuguese soap opera Norouzi says looks very good, as well as a cooking show and other programming from OMNI. ICI will, at least at first, carry OMNI News programs in Mandarin, Cantonese and Punjabi about 2-3 days a week. But overall the amount of OMNI programming on the station is very small, Norouzi said.
Carriage: Norouzi said ICI will be carried on both Videotron cable and Bell Fibe when it launches. (Because ICI is a local station, its carriage is required by local cable companies, and that carriage comes without a fee.) He said he’s in talks with others (notably Bell satellite TV) for additional coverage.
The 5,500-watt signal, broadcasting from a Bell-owned tower near the police station on Remembrance Rd., is showing a partially blurred time-lapse cityscape video, with the callsign, an email address and the station’s logo at the bottom. The signal has no audio.
The station is broadcasting on Channel 47.1 in 1080i high definition.
Station manager Sam Norouzi, who has been very busy the past few weeks, tells me that the station should launch some time near the end of September or early October. Part of the delay is because he needs to coordinate with cable providers Videotron and Bell (Fibe) to ensure carriage on their systems. Because it’s an over-the-air channel, ICI will be carried on both cable systems’ basic packages, without a per-subscriber fee.
Norouzi said there hasn’t yet been discussions with satellite TV services or out-of-market cable systems about carriage, so the station will launch without carriage on those systems at first.
When it does air, ICI will carry programming in 15 languages for 18 ethnic groups, with most of its programs produced by independent groups that purchase airtime and sell their own advertising. He said his family’s production company Mi-Cam Communications, as well as independent producers he’s working with, have hired a lot of freelance camera operators who have been busy shooting footage (including the recent Montreal Italian Week), and “the team is growing every day.”
“It blows my mind the quality of the stuff we’re shooting,” he said. Unlike the kind of stuff seen on CJNT during the Canwest days, programming on ICI will be in high-definition, and have superior technical quality, he said.
ICI is being helped through financial, technical and other assistance from Channel Zero and Rogers, who offered it so that the CRTC would approve Rogers’s purchase of CJNT and its conversion into an English-language station that’s now part of the City network. Rogers is giving the station more than $1 million in funding for programming, and Channel Zero, in addition to providing free master control services for five years, has offered to loan up to $1 million to the station.
Rogers also offered up to 200 hours a year of free programming from OMNI, its ethnic network. Norouzi said at first he didn’t think he’d be using much OMNI programming. Now he says he’s looking at adding three programs from OMNI (but not the daily newscasts).
Norouzi said much of the past few weeks have been spent on technical aspects, including installing the antenna (and having to fix it after it was accidentally dropped and broken during installation). “I’m going to write a book eventually about all the adventure,” he said jokingly.
“In the past two weeks, things have progressed very rapidly.”
Last fall, I wrote for The Gazette that there were a lot of changes going on at local TV and radio stations. This year, 2013, is turning out to be the biggest one for local broadcasting in decades, with new stations, ownership changes and other big plans.
Because of that, a lot of people have been asking me what’s going on with some of them. My usual response is either “I don’t know” or recapping a blog post I published or something I posted on Twitter.
As we hit the halfway mark of the calendar year, I figured now is a good time to give you an update on what’s going on at each of these stations, one by one.
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 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.
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.
“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.)
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.
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.”
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.