The process to launch TTP Media’s talk radio stations in Montreal has taken so long that they’re now in the process of getting their licences renewed after the end of their initial seven-year term. And the publication of the application for the first of those stations suggests that the company may be moving away from its proposed news-talk format and toward health and wellness, which sounds like the kind of thing that has been tried on other AM stations in the market.
There’s not much clearer evidence of the declining industry of over-the-air television than the lack of demand for new TV stations in the country. With some exceptions (ICI in Montreal, for example), there haven’t been applications for new over-the-air stations in about 20 years. Instead, major networks like CBC, TVO and CTV have been shutting down transmitters en masse to save money.
So it’s a bit surprising that someone has submitted an application for a new transmitter, in one of the most remote places in the country: the Magdalen Islands (Îles-de-la-Madeleine), the archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that belongs to Quebec but is actually closer to all four Atlantic provinces than it is to the Quebec mainland.
The application comes from CHAU, the TVA affiliate in Carleton on the Gaspé peninsula. It’s owned by Télé Inter-Rives, which also operates affiliates of the three major French-language networks (Radio-Canada, TVA and V) in Rivière-du-Loup. In addition to its main transmitter in Carleton, CHAU operates 11 digital retransmitters in the Gaspé peninsula and northern New Brunswick. This would be the 12th transmitter, CHAU-DT-12.
(CHAU, like other independent broadcasters, made the investment to convert their over-the-air transmitters to digital even though they were not required to do so by the government’s digital transition plan because they served small communities.)
CHAU-DT-12 would be a 100-watt station, with a transmitter on Channel 12 in Cap-aux-Meules on the local transmission tower operated by GAD E?lectronique. CHAU puts the cost of the new transmission facility at $37,572. That’s about $3 for each of the region’s 12,000 or so residents.
Because it’s a retransmitter, CHAU-DT-12 wouldn’t be a local station for the islands, but CHAU says it wants to provide local programming, working with independent producers on the islands and doing reporting using technologies like Skype and FaceTime. CHAU says in its application that the residents of the islands have a lot in common with those of the Gaspé peninsula and Acadian communities in New Brunswick, including an interest in fishing.
It promises to devote at least 20 minutes a week to local news relevant to the islands.
The islands haven’t had an over-the-air television transmitter since CBC/Radio-Canada shut down its extensive network of analog TV rebroadcasters in 2012. Before they were shut down, they had two retransmitters of the Radio-Canada station in Montreal (CBIMT and CBIMT-1) and one retransmitter of CBC Montreal (CBMYT).
“In today’s difficult environment for over-the-air television in Canada, the project to extend CHAU’s signal to the Îles-de-la-Madeleine represents an investment that is unexpected but achievable thanks to technical possibilities that reduce installation and operational costs,” the application reads.
The CRTC is accepting comments about CHAU’s application until July 5. Comments can be filed here. Note that all information submitted, including contact information, becomes part of the public record.
One day before the deadline set by Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, the CRTC on Thursday released a report into the broadcasting system that proposes major, fundamental changes to how broadcasting is regulated in this country. (The condensed backgrounder is here.)
Unfortunately, that report is also quite vague, even on the parts that should be specific.
It’s not the CRTC’s fault, really, because that’s not really its purpose. The original order issued back in September by Joly is just as vague, seeking a report on “the distribution model or models of programming that are likely to exist in the future; how and through whom Canadians will access that programming; the extent to which these models will ensure a vibrant domestic market that is capable of supporting the continued creation, production and distribution of Canadian programming, in both official languages, including original entertainment and information programming.”
In terms of assessing programming distribution models, the report is pretty clear, but is also repeating a lot of stuff we already know: conventional television and radio are mature industries and have no way to go but down, online audio and video streaming services are catching on with the population, and Internet delivery of content means more Canadians are getting that content directly from foreign sources who don’t have to contribute to Canadian content or answer to the CRTC.
What’s new is what the commission proposes to do about it, but that’s where the data and charts go out the window and we’re left with vague, obvious suggestions and what often sounds like one unnamed person’s opinion.
But let’s go through them and look at the issues in a bit more detail:
Montreal’s Haitian radio station, and the AM country station it bought after its previous owner had extensive licence compliance issues, are trying the patience of the CRTC. But the commission is giving each of them another chance to get their administration in order.
On Friday, the commission renewed each of their licences for two years, with requirements that they broadcast messages on air acknowledging their non-compliance, and with three mandatory court orders each requiring them to be in compliance with their licence conditions.
“The Commission is concerned with the licensee’s ability and commitment to operate the station in a compliant manner,” it wrote in each of the decisions.
CJWI 1410 (CPAM Radio Union) was found in non-compliance with licence conditions related to:
- Timely filing of annual financial reports
- Timely response to CRTC requests for audio recordings and information
- Keeping and producing proper records of music played on air (one request for information was never answered)
- Timely filing of proof of financial contributions to Canadian content development
- On-air announcements about previous non-compliance (the broadcasts did not use the exact wording laid out by the CRTC)
This is the third consecutive licence term in which CJWI has been in non-compliance. In other words, the station has never fully complied with its licence conditions since it launched in 2002. In 2008, the commission found the 2007 annual return was filed late and gave a four-year licence renewal. In 2015, the commission found once again annual returns were filed late (four years’ worth were filed simultaneously, and the fifth three months later), as well as proof of Canadian content contributions. It imposed a $2,500 de facto fine and broadcast of shame messages noting their non-compliance.
The excuses given by CPAM for the failure to comply are also getting repetitive, usually blaming some nameless employee or accountant for not knowing the rules. (Though the excuse that records were destroyed in a firebombing is a pretty good one.) Its promise that someone will take charge of ensuring paperwork is filed rings hollow in light of its repeated failures.
CJMS 1040 was found in non-compliance with conditions of licence related to:
- Timely filing of annual reports (one year’s was never filed)
- Responses to requests for information (a request was never answered despite several reminders)
- Production of audio recordings on demand (a request was not fulfilled)
The latter to contradict mandatory orders issued by the CRTC in 2014. Failure to comply with such an order could result in a contempt of court proceeding. But here the commission seems content to simply issue new mandatory orders that may or may not be followed.
This is the fifth consecutive licence term that CJMS has been found in non-compliance, but the first under this owner. Like CJWI, CJMS has never fully complied with its licence. CJMS’s licence had already seen short-term renewals since its launch in 1999:
- In 2006, for two years (French-language music, logger tapes, annual returns, Canadian content contributions)
- In 2008, for two years (Canadian content development, annual returns)
- In 2010, for four years (Canadian content development, music lists, newscasts)
- In 2014, for three years (Canadian content development, annual returns, logger tapes, program logs, requests for information)
Both licence renewal decisions make clear that the commission is losing patience, and that a further failure to meet licence conditions could result in the stations losing their licences entirely.
In the meantime, mandatory orders have been issued requiring each station provide:
- Program logs and audio recordings on request of the CRTC
- Reponses to requests for information from the CRTC
- Full annual returns by the deadline
I’m pessimistic that either station will be fully in compliance two years from now. But hopefully they’ll be close enough that the commission decides to give them yet another chance.
Updated April 20 with a clarification from Rogers, and Nov. 4 with clarifications based on feedback from Ethnic Channels Group.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has released eight applications for national ethnic television services, and set a hearing for
Oct. 15 Nov. 26 to discuss which of them would be the best candidate to replace OMNI.
Last year, the commission caved to OMNI’s demand that it be given mandatory subscription fees from all television subscribers, under the threat of surrendering the licence and leaving the country without a multilingual TV service offering newscasts. But in giving in, the CRTC also set a limit of three years (until Aug. 31, 2020) and said that it would ask other broadcasters if they had better proposals for such a mandatory ethnic service, and consider them at a future hearing.
On Tuesday, the CRTC released eight applications, seven for TV services (including OMNI’s proposal for renewing its status) and one for an ethnic described video guide. Each makes proposals for multilingual programming including national newscasts and proposes a mandatory monthly fee.
I analyzed the nearly 200 documents submitted for the eight applications and below present an analysis of the applicants, proposals and programming:
One of the consequences of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States is that now Canada, the U.S. and Mexico are meeting to discuss amendments to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has threatened to pull out of entirely if he doesn’t get his way.
Canada has made clear that it plans to keep cultural exceptions to the free trade agreement, allowing it to continue to protect its cultural institutions from its much larger neighbour. So it might be tempting to think there won’t be any change here.
But there is one change being proposed that could make a huge difference to the Canadian television industry, and its one that proponents on both sides of the border would argue strengthens rather than weakens cultural protection.
It’s called retransmission consent.
CUSFTA, NAFTA and copyright law
When it comes to broadcasting law, NAFTA defers to the earlier Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, whose text is posted online in a PDF. Article 2006 of the CUSFTA lays out requirements and exceptions to copyright law when it comes to retransmission of distant television signals. Under its rules, each country must prohibit non-simultaneous retransmission, or altered retransmission, of signals that aren’t meant for over-the-air broadcast, without the consent of the copyright owner.
But the rules intentionally leave a big hole for simultaneous transmission of over-the-air stations without that consent. As a result, Canadian television distributors can distribute U.S. over-the-air stations (CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox and PBS) without those stations’ consent or compensation to them, following only the rules set by the CRTC.
This exception to copyright law dates back to the early days of cable TV, when providers picked up the cross-border stations over the air and distributed them to their customers. The rules have been codified since then (generally, providers can distribute two sets of what are called 4+1 stations — PBS is the +1 — and choose to take a group of Eastern time zone stations and a group in the Western time zone) but the essence remains in place to this day, enshrined as section 31 of the Copyright Act.
Some people want to change that, on both sides of the border.
On the Canadian side is Bell, which owns CTV stations. Appearing before a parliamentary committee hearing on Sept. 20, Rob Malcolmson, Senior Vice-President, Regulatory Affairs, suggested eliminating section 31 of the Copyright Act entirely, which would mean television providers would need to negotiate carriage of distant signals both Canadian and American. CTV and CTV Two stations being carried outside their markets would get some compensation as a result. (Current copyright law requires TV providers distributing distant stations to compensate rights holders, both Canadian and American, through a fund that taxes them at about $1 per subscriber per month, but that compensates the creators of the programming, not the stations broadcasting them, and it’s not optional.)
Requiring retransmission consent would change a lot for U.S. border stations. Giving them negotiation power would mean they too could get compensated, and just as important, they could set conditions on carriage, which could include things like blackouts for programs they don’t have the Canadian rights to. A content provider (like, say, the NFL) could make this a condition for being broadcast on border stations, and those border stations could make it a requirement for being rebroadcast in Canada.
Or the U.S. stations could simply decide not to be carried in Canada. And that’s exactly what some of them want.
Some U.S. border stations carried in Canada have formed the U.S. TV Coalition, a group that has been actively lobbying the Canadian government to change its laws so those stations have bargaining power or can take themselves out of Canada entirely. Its members include WXYZ-TV and WDIV-TV in Detroit, WIVB-TV and WNLO-TV in Buffalo, and KSTP-TV in Minneapolis.
KSTP in 2015 tried to ask the CRTC to remove its station from the list of those authorized for rebroadcast in Canada. The CRTC refused, saying their consent isn’t needed.
Making simsub moot
So what would happen if this simple but substantial change went through? It’s hard to say exactly, because the Canadian television system has been so reliant on the current scheme. But here are some things that could happen.
First, some U.S. stations could refuse to be carried in Canada, either because they don’t want to deal with getting Canadian rights to programming or because they don’t think they’re being compensated enough. Canadian TV providers would probably find others that would be game for replacing them, since for many U.S. markets (like Burlington/Plattsburgh or Buffalo), the Canadian market is a big source of their audience.
Then, U.S. rights-holders, probably starting with major sports leagues, could start demanding that signals be blacked out in Canada during their programming to protect the rights of their Canadian broadcast partners. The U.S. stations, which now have bargaining power, could impose this requirement on cable companies carrying their stations.
As new carriage agreements are signed with U.S. stations, they could demand direct fees for carriage (which would undoubtedly depend on whether their programming is subject to blackouts). Those fees would be passed on to the consumer, and the days of TV providers including U.S. stations for free in basic cable packages would be gone.
This doesn’t get much attention in Canada, but as Cartt.ca points out, there are also U.S. border communities where Canadian stations are carried on cable TV. Canadian stations could start making similar demands of U.S. cable providers.
If blackouts take hold during primetime series and sporting events, Canada’s simultaneous substitution system becomes moot. (Though an alternative would be to expand simsub so Canadian ads are seen on U.S. stations regardless of when the program airs or where.) If simsub is no longer a major factor in Canadian TV stations’ revenue, they suddenly get a lot more programming flexibility. Rather than CTV, CTV Two, Global and City building their schedules around having as many simultaneously broadcast U.S. network shows as possible, they could schedule their shows whenever they want.
Original Canadian series would no longer get bounced around the schedule. Programs that follow live sports (like NFL games) would no longer have to be delayed so they sync up with the U.S. network’s delay. Sports programming carried on U.S. network stations (particularly NFL games) could be moved to TSN or Sportsnet so local stations could continue to carry local news. Conversely, Canadian sports like the CFL’s Grey Cup could be moved to local stations because the Canadian over-the-air networks would no longer be reserved for simsubbable programming.
It could be a seismic shift in how English Canadians watch television, giving a lot more power and flexibility to Canadian TV networks.
Don’t hold your breath
Or maybe it won’t. Neither government has indicated it wants to press this as an issue, and though the U.S. TV coalition is pushing it, there isn’t much public support.
The reality is that Canadians like being able to watch ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and PBS, and any move that would risk taking those channels away (or subjecting them to blackouts) would be deeply unpopular, no matter how much it might benefit the Canadian system. And it’s not like Canadians are desperate to make the lives and bottom lines of Bell, Corus and Rogers any better.
So this is more of an academic exercise than anything else. Realistically, the system will mostly stay the same until the point where Internet-based video consumption takes over from regulated TV distribution as the main source for popular video content. And the Internet has a separate scheme for ensuring that video doesn’t cross the border when a producer or broadcaster wants to protect their rights.
UPDATE (Sept. 4, 2018): A report by the Globe and Mail suggests that U.S. NAFTA negotiators are indeed pushing for changes to simultaneous substitution. It’s not clear if they’re seeking to mandate consent or just allow the U.S. ads into Canada.
Bell Media, Canada’s largest television broadcaster, is getting even bigger by acquiring two French-language services from its closest English-language competitor.
The deal requires approval by the Competition Bureau and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
That could be difficult, because of the history of the two services. The two were launched in 2000 as a joint venture between Astral Media and Alliance Atlantis. Alliance was then bought by Canwest, then Canwest’s television assets were bought by Shaw. Astral held on to its half of the ownership stake until it was bought by Bell in 2013. As part of its (second) proposal for the acquisition, Bell and Shaw each agreed to sell their half of Séries+ and Historia to Corus.
Now Bell wants to buy it all back. And at a discount, too. When Corus bought them in 2013, each half was valued at about $140 million, for a total price of $280 million. This transaction would be a savings of 29%. PBIT earnings for Historia and Séries+ were $29,881,221 in 2013 and $21,427,553, or a 28% decrease. The change was due mainly to a sudden surge in Séries+’s programming expenses in 2015-16 and a slow decline in ad revenue for both channels.
Corus is selling primarily to cut down its debt, as it says in its statement, but also because the channels are “not core to advancing Corus’s strategic priorities at this time.” The main reason for that is language. Other than these channels, Corus’s only French-language assets are the bilingual channels Teletoon and Disney.
“In the 18 months since Corus acquired Shaw Media, we have demonstrated a resolute commitment to de-lever our balance sheet to 3.5 times net debt to segment profit by the end of fiscal 2017 and 3.0 times by the end of fiscal 2018,” said Doug Murphy, President and Chief Executive Officer. “We have successfully accomplished the first step in our journey through the disciplined execution of our integration plan and ongoing advancement of our strategic priorities in fiscal 2017. As we reviewed our portfolio of assets this year, we determined that while Historia and Séries+ are excellent channels, they are not core to advancing Corus’ strategic priorities at this time. Furthermore, the increased financial flexibility this transaction provides will enable Corus to accelerate our transformation into an industry-leading integrated media and content company.
Corus was embroiled in controversy recently after news came out that Séries+ and Historia would no longer be commissioning original series. It’s unclear if that decision was made in anticipation of this announcement (La Presse first reported on Corus negotiating this deal back in May 2016). Corus remains in control of the channels until the deal is closed, which Bell predicts will happen in mid-2018.
From Bell’s statement:
“The addition of Séries+ and Historia perfectly complements our broad slate of French-language channels, further enhancing our competitiveness in the vibrant Québec media landscape,” said Randy Lennox, President, Bell Media. “We look forward to taking Séries+ and Historia further than ever before, reinforcing our commitment to invest and grow in Québec, and deliver even more opportunities for francophone viewers, producers, and advertisers.”
“Bell Media has had a proven track record of investing in original French-language production, commissioning over 530 original productions from more than 70 francophone producers, and representing nearly 2,700 hours of new programming,” said Gerry Frappier, Bell Media’s President, French-language TV and RDS. “Now with the addition of Séries+ and Historia, we look forward to bolstering our commitment to both francophone viewers and the Québec television production community even more.”
The CRTC’s common ownership policy says generally that deals where a company gets control of more than 35% of the viewing share will be reviewed to determine if it’s in the public interest, and anything higher than 45% would generally be denied. According to the CRTC’s latest Communications Monitoring Report, Bell’s English-language services represent about 37% of viewing hours outside Quebec’s francophone market, and 21% in the Quebec francophone market. Corus’s French-language services (which also include Teletoon) represent only 0.4% of Quebec francophone viewing share. So mathematically, the deal would seem to meet the CRTC’s criteria for approval.
But expect those who came out against the Bell-Astral deal, particularly Quebecor, Cogeco and Telus, to argue that this deal calls into question the integrity of the CRTC’s 2013 decision and that it should be denied as being against the public interest.
Since this is a change in ownership, the deal would also be subject to the CRTC’s tangible benefits policy, which requires 10% of the value of television ownership transactions be spent on funds and projects that benefit the broadcasting system. Under this policy, Bell would be expected to spend $20 million on new projects over the next seven years. No tangible benefits proposal has been released yet, but will become public when the CRTC publishes the application for change in ownership.
It’s a new dawn in local television. CTV Montreal has a new 5pm weekday newscast, City Montreal is preparing to launch evening news at 6pm and 11pm, and ICI is getting an infusion of cash thanks to OMNI’s successful bid for mandatory distribution at 12 cents per month per subscriber.
It’s a big enough change that I was asked to write about it for the Montreal Gazette. That story leads Saturday’s Culture section.
But while the new investments are great news for people who like local television (and, indirectly, people like me who like writing about it), there’s a big loser in this that isn’t getting discussed much: community television. The additional money going into local news is coming straight out of their pockets.
Let’s not talk TV
When the CRTC announced it was undertaking a long consultation process it called Let’s Talk TV, proponents of non-profit community television were excited about the prospect of finally bringing their issues to the forefront. A complaint from the independent group ICTV against Videotron’s community channel was in progress (the commission would later find that MAtv had failed to respect its licence conditions in terms of giving enough access to people from the community). And there was a growing opinion that community channels were not fulfilling their mandate.
The Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations and other groups filed complaints about other television providers that they felt were doing the same things to their community channels, ignoring their commitments to community access and using their funds to produce professional broadcasts and give side jobs to people affiliated with the company.
But the Let’s Talk TV process didn’t talk much about community television, and when it led to its first decisions in January 2015, the commission decided to kick the can down the road on community television, announcing it would begin a separate process to consider that. And that process would also include discussions of local news.
As expected, a review of the community television process was hijacked by discussions of local commercial television. People were more concerned about whether their local station would stay on the air or how long their local newscast would be than how their local Rogers TV or Shaw TV would be funded.
And the complaints about community channels still haven’t been properly evaluated, years later. That will happen at a hearing on the renewals of their licences, scheduled for October.
Let’s step back a bit and look at what community television is and has become in Canada.
Since 1971, the CRTC has required cable television providers to support community channels. Back then, television equipment was very expensive, very large and hard to obtain and operate. Community access was the only way many people could see themselves on television and communicate with the public through video. Cable companies would set up studios at their head ends and let people from the community broadcast on a special channel they set up.
Since the turn of the millennium, the situation has changed. Getting access to equipment isn’t the biggest problem — as the CRTC says, “many Canadians now carry an HD camera in their pocket in the form of their smartphone” — editing can be done on a home computer, and distribution is much easier thanks to YouTube and other free online services.
Instead, over the past decade, the issue has been more about money.
All cable television providers are required to spend 5% of their gross revenues on Canadian programming, but most are allowed to redirect some of that money to a community channel rather than simply hand it over to a fund like the Canada Media Fund. Most large terrestrial television providers do this because it allows them to keep control of that money, create a service that’s seen to do a public good, and provide added value for subscribers.
Critics might point out some other benefits, such as billing yourself for Internet access and providing side jobs for your employees. (The CRTC limits such overhead costs, but there isn’t a bright line that says you can’t be a supplier to your own community channel.)
Since 1991, the amount of money allowed to be redirected to community channels has been capped at 2% of gross revenues. Though there were many exceptions (small cable companies could devote the full 5% to a community channel, and companies that offered community channels in each official language could devote 2% to each one).
It might not seem like much, but when you have more than a million subscribers paying more than $50 a month, that’s a million dollars a month right there going to community TV.
As budgets for community TV grew, and technology advanced, they started to get more ambitious in terms of programming. Some even started broadcasting professional sports until the CRTC put a stop to that. (The ban doesn’t affect junior sports, and many junior hockey league matches are still broadcast on community channels.)
Community television is in an odd place because on the one hand it’s supposed to be volunteer-driven but on the other hand it’s required to spend money on programming. The pressure has always been there to keep the cable-access stuff to a minimum so more popular professional-looking programming can entice people to buy or keep their cable subscriptions.
And there was the added benefit of using community channel money to benefit related productions and personalities. Bell’s TV1 had shows linked to The Amazing Race Canada, the Much Music Video Awards, the Montreal Canadiens, The Social and eTalk. Videotron’s MAtv had side projects for such Quebecor personalities as Sophie Durocher, Louise Deschâtelets and Dominic Arpin.
This is a big part of the reason why CACTUS and others wanted community television taken out of the hands of big cable providers and put into the hands of non-profit community groups. But the CRTC has repeatedly resisted that effort, believing that the cable companies have the best resources available to provide high-quality community programming on a sustainable basis.
In 2010, the commission decided to freeze contributions to community channels. It found that the amount of money going to community television had almost doubled in a decade, and “although the Commission acknowledges that various metrics can be used to evaluate the success of community channels, it nonetheless considers that overall viewing to community channels remains modest relative to the growth in contributions to this sector.” Rather than cut the funding down, though, it decided to freeze it. Existing television providers would be capped at their 2010 levels until those dropped to 1.5% of revenues, and then they would stay at 1.5%.
In June 2016, the CRTC released its new policy on local and community television. There, it cut the contribution from 2% to 1.5%.
But the bigger blow was their decision to allow distributors the “flexibility” to redirect funds from community channels to their affiliated local stations to spend on local programming. For Canada’s five largest cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton), that redirection could be 100%, since the CRTC believed that people in those areas “have access to many media sources on television and radio, as well as online and in print, that provide community reflection.” For smaller areas, at least 50% of that money would still need to be spent on community television.
By the CRTC’s estimate, $65 million a year could be redirected from community channels to local stations owned by the major vertically integrated companies.
But what about independent stations? Where do they get additional money?
To help out most of them, there was already a fund called the Small Market Local Production Fund, funded by Canada’s satellite TV providers. The CRTC transformed that into the Independent Local News Fund, adjusted its admission criteria to include larger-market stations like CHCH in Hamilton and the V stations in Quebec and Montreal (while excluding small-market stations owned by the media giants), and required cable companies to contribute into the fund. Everyone kicks in 0.3% of revenues to support independent stations.
So in the end, all independent stations get extra money from this fund, and non-independent stations get funded through TV providers who share the same owner.
News pro quo
In exchange for the extra money, there were new requirements for local stations:
- In addition to the amount of local programming they have to air each week (still set at 14 hours for major-market stations and 7 hours for smaller ones, with some exceptions), they must air a certain amount of locally reflective news programming as well — six hours in large markets, three in smaller ones.
- There’s also a financial requirement for investment in local news: 11% of gross revenues for local television stations must be devoted to locally reflective news. (This number, proposed by the three English networks, is based on previous spending on local news.)
For community stations, even though they got less money, there were stricter regulations imposed to ensure that the money they did get was spent correctly:
- Starting this year, cable companies must spend 60% of their community channel allocations on direct programming expenses. That rises in increments and reaches 75% after 2020.
- Diverse citizen advisory committees are required in Canada’s five largest markets.
- Rules on what qualifies as access programming have been tightened to stress that the community member that initiates a project must have creative control, and “is neither employed by a (TV provider) nor a media professional who is known to the public or who already has access to the broadcasting system.” They also can’t profit from the show (by turning it into a de facto infomercial for their business, for example).
The changes took effect on Sept. 1 after being formally approved as amendments to the regulations and enshrined in TV stations’ conditions of licence.
But most companies didn’t wait that long to make major changes:
- Rogers closed some Rogers TV community stations and cut back at others in the greater Toronto area.
- Shaw closed Shaw TV in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, eliminating 70 positions and sending $10 million to Global TV stations.
- Videotron cut the budget of MAtv by 25%, reflecting the drop of the maximum deduction from 2% to 1.5%. (There hasn’t been an announcement of any redirection of funds to TVA stations.) The cuts meant the cancellation of Montreal Billboard, a weekly series featuring interviews with local community groups. MAtv director Steve Desgagné told me the decision to cut that program was strictly budgetary.
- Bell made serious cuts at its TV1 community channels, which operate in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. It declined to provide specifics when I asked.
It’s hard to evaluate the impact on community television by looking at programming, because much of that programming is short-term projects. But you can expect less programming, and especially less of the non-access local programming produced directly by the cable companies, particularly in the larger markets, as a result of these changes.
On the TV side, Bell’s CTV and Rogers’s City have both announced new expansions of local news, both to make use of these new funds and to meet the new locally reflective news requirements. Global has been non-specific about how it’s using the additional money.
What definitely won’t change is the strongly held belief among supporters of community television that cable access needs to be less cable and more access.
The CRTC isn’t happy with Jean-Ernest Pierre and the two Montreal-area AM radio stations he owns, both of which have gone through a third straight licence term where they have failed to comply with their regulatory obligations.
The commission is considering further options, up to and including revoking or refusing to renew their licences.
On Thursday, the commission issued a notice of hearing for Sept. 7, during which it will consider the licence renewals of CJWI 1410 AM (Haitian station CPAM Radio Union) and CJMS 1040 AM (the country music station based in St-Constant). Both were set to expire Aug. 31, but have been extended a year to give the commission time to consider the compliance issues.
The notice lists a series of regulations and licence conditions the station has apparently failed to meet.
For CJWI 1410:
- Failing to file annual returns on time (CPAM blamed this on the accountant)
- Failing to file a form relating to the National Public Alerting System (blamed on the provider of the NPAS system and lack of familiarity with the form)
- Failing to provide audio recordings and information on licence compliance following a CRTC request (blamed on lack of clarity on the form they were asked to fill out)
- Failing to provide a detailed music list (CPAM said it sent one when asked)
- Failing to provide proof of payment of Canadian content development contributions (CPAM said it was paid on time, gave no explanation for failure to provide proof by deadline)
- Failing to broadcast word-for-word a notice of non-compliance as ordered under the previous licence renewal (CPAM said it believed it was acceptable to follow the spirit of the demand rather than the letter)
For CJMS 1040:
- Failing to file annual returns on time (CPAM blamed this on the accountant)
- Failing to file a form relating to the National Public Alerting System (blamed on the provider of the NPAS system)
- Failing to provide audio recordings upon request (CPAM said host Pascal Pourdier sent them in November — eight months after the CRTC’s request — but apparently the commission never received them)
- Failing to provide proof of payment of Canadian content development contributions (CPAM said contributions prior to 2014 were the responsibility of the previous owner, but it has paid the amount owed; for contributions after the acquisition, they were paid on time, but no explanation was given for failure to provide proof by deadline)
CJMS has requested a licence amendment to relieve it of the obligation to pay $500 a year to Canadian content development. That request might have been granted (the commission has since made it a policy that stations with small incomes shouldn’t be forced to make CCD expenditures, and the $500 a year was a commitment the group chose to make when it acquired the station in 2014) except that the CRTC also has a policy not to relieve stations of licence conditions when those licence conditions have not been met. (In other words, the commission prefers you ask for permission instead of forgiveness.)
For both stations, the owner passes the buck on responsibility, blaming the accountant, the alerting system provider, an on-air host and even the commission itself for its failure to comply with its licence conditions. The CRTC won’t like that.
But it especially won’t like the fact that these stations had already been called to order on these issues. CJMS’s last licence renewal came with two mandatory orders (which can be enforced by federal court) requiring the station comply with licence conditions. That order came after a bizarre in-person hearing during which the previous owner blamed his father’s dementia for the station’s failure to comply. Though CJMS has a new owner, this is the fourth straight licence term that the station has been in non-compliance, and the third straight time that a short-term renewal has failed to bring the station into line.
For CJWI, there was no mandatory order or tense public hearing, but there were also repeated short-term renewals because of licence non-compliance — in 2008 for four years because of a failure to provide an annual return on time, 2015 for two years because of failures related to annual returns and CCD contributions. Like CJMS, CJWI doesn’t have a single licence term where it has complied with all its licence conditions.
What will the CRTC do?
The commission has a policy on how to deal with non-compliant radio stations, based on how severe the non-compliance is, whether the non-compliance has been a chronic problem, and how the owner has responded to being informed of the apparent non-compliance.
The commission could do nothing, if it determines that the non-compliance was minor or just a communication issue. The next step is usually a short-term licence renewal, which it has already done repeatedly for both stations. It could impose additional CCD contributions (a de facto fine), it could require the station broadcast a notice of its non-compliance (which it did for CJWI), issue mandatory orders (which it did for CJMS), and in the most extreme cases, it could suspend, revoke or refuse to renew the licenses.
Normally, for that extreme measure, the commission would call the licensees to an in-person hearing to give them a chance to explain themselves. That’s what it did with CJMS’s previous owner, and for Aboriginal Voices Radio before revoking its licences. But this notice says the CRTC does not expect to require the licensees’ presence in person. This makes licence revocation unlikely.
Nevertheless, for both stations, it said: “Given the recurrence of the station’s non-compliance over the past several licence terms, the Commission has concerns regarding the licensee’s ability and commitment to operate the station in a compliant manner.”
That should be worrying to any radio station owner, and a strong sign that the commission’s patience is wearing thin.
Other stations in non-compliance
The hearing is also looking at three other stations that have compliance issues:
- CICR-FM Parrsboro, N.S. The community radio station got its first licence in 2008, and was renewed for a short term in 2015. Its compliance issues relate to annual returns, program logs and requests for information from the commission.
- CFOR-FM Maniwaki, Que. The commercial station has gone through a third licence term failing to comply with licence conditions, including a condition imposed in 2015 about broadcasting its failure to comply. The application does not include explanations for these latest failures.
- CKFG-FM Toronto (G98.7). This commercial station owned by Intercity Broadcasting Network Inc. has so many compliance issues that the commission says it “could conclude that the licensee has demonstrated that it does not understand its regulatory obligations.”
Comments on these applications and others in the public notice are due by July 31 and can be submitted here. Note that all information provided, including contact information, becomes part of the public record. The commission could choose to invite people to the public hearing if it decides based on public comments that such an invitation is warranted.
In a big step toward the principle of net neutrality, the CRTC today established policies about differential pricing of Internet data (both wireless and wired) and ruled that a Videotron promotion that offers free streaming of music from selected music streaming services is against the rules.
The Videotron promotion in question is called Unlimited Music, which it debuted in August 2015. And the way it worked was it reached agreements with several music providers like Spotify and Google Play and Apple Music and exempted that data from its data caps for premium data plans. People with those higher-end plans could stream as much music as they wanted and never worry about busting their data caps.
But even though just about anyone was invited to join the program, it wasn’t automatic. And radio stations were not invited to join in.
It took minutes for net neutrality advocates to say this was wrong. I literally came out of the press conference announcing it and was on the phone with the head of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre who immediately said it was against the rules. But it took a year and a half for the CRTC process to unfold to declare it so.
Videotron said at the time it believed that because it wasn’t giving undue preference to its own music service, that the program was legal. It was mistaken.
The CRTC’s decision not only makes Unlimited Music illegal, but any plan from any provider that treats data differently depending on where it’s going or what kind of data it is. So a plan that offered no data but free access to Facebook, or a plan that didn’t count email downloads toward the data cap, those are now illegal.
There are some exceptions. One is for administrative functions. If you’re checking with your provider how much data you’ve used up on your plan, that could be exempted from data charges. Another is for “content-agnostic” stuff, like charging different rates depending on different times of day. So long as everything on the Internet gets treated the same, it’s OK.
The commission also leaves the door open to other exceptions opening up, and providers applying for pre-approval of new ideas. CRTC staff tell me such applications would go through the usual application process.
Otherwise, the commission will use guidelines established in its policy to evaluate (after the fact, following complaints) whether a service or program is compliant. These include whether the pricing is offered only on certain data plans, whether any money exchanges hands with third parties, how exclusive the offer is for certain services or subscribers, and “impact on Internet openness and innovation.”
Under the CRTC’s analysis, Unlimited Music did not meet the criteria of agnostic treatment of data, lack of exclusivity, and lack of negative impact on Internet openness and innovation. And there were no exceptional circumstances to warrant an exception to the rules.
So Videotron has until July 19 to bring Unlimited Music into compliance with the rules. But there’s likely no way to do so, so expect it to be withdrawn.
To be clear, this decision relates to data pricing only. Promotions like Rogers offering free Spotify subscriptions to certain users are still legal. But Rogers must treat the data from Spotify like any other Internet data. It can’t exempt that data from its data caps. (And it doesn’t.)
UPDATE: Videotron says it’s disappointed in the decision, and will analyze it in the coming days to figure out how to respond. In the meantime, the Unlimited Music offer remains in effect until further notice, and it promises to keep subscribers up to date.
There was a dump of licence renewal applications posted online March 1, March 6 and March 30 for radio stations. Most were found to be compliant with their licence conditions, while some had issues. Here are stations up for renewal in Montreal and surrounding markets. For those still open for comment, you can find their applications here.
CIRA-FM 91.3 Montreal (Radio Ville-Marie) plus retransmitters in Trois-Rivières, Victoriaville and Rimouski: Several compliance issues — Financial statements using the calendar year instead of the broadcast year, financial statements reported late, annual report missing (blamed on a move and the absence of their director of finance), noisy recordings (which the station blamed on a power failure and faulty equipment), failure to properly categorize songs (which they say they actually did), failure to respond to requests for information (lost in the shuffle of other demands, they say),
One other thing they’re accused of is being “alarmist” in fundraising requests. According to CRTC policy, it is considered unethical for solicitation announcements to be unduly coercive or to suggest that a show or station would disappear from the air if enough money wasn’t received. Radio Ville-Marie (like just about every non-profit on the planet) did exactly that, saying on air that “without your financial support, we can’t continue our mission”, which sounds accurate but is apparently against the rules.
For most of the compliance issues, the station gave identical answers on how they would be solved: the creation of a committee to ensure compliance. Asked about the possibility of a short-term licence renewal or other sanctions, the station downplayed the problems as “administrative” and not affecting programming or their mission. This is the kind of statement that will likely irk people at the commission.
CKIN-FM 106.3 Montreal: Despite the station’s troubled compliance history, and controversy about its very Arabic-centric programming schedule, the commission found only one issue in reviewing compliance for its first renewal under new owner Neeti P. Ray: A programming log failed to list the start times of each song broadcast. But even then, Ray notes that the regulations don’t require listing start times, but merely listing the songs played in order. Nevertheless, Ray responded with a revised list that included exact start times for each song played on air. The commission appears satisfied with this response and believes the station is in compliance with its licence conditions.
CKLX-FM 91.9 Montreal: No apparent compliance issues. RNC Media notes it appears to have found a winning formula with an all-sports format.
CJRS 1650 AM Montreal: Radio Shalom failed to install an alerting system by the March 31, 2015 deadline, but instead only installed it in September 2016. The station’s owner blamed a lack of funds. Similarly, there was an issue with payments to Musicaction in 2014, which the owner said were solved.
CJSO-FM 101.7 Sorel-Tracy: After two straight short-term licence renewals because of failure to meet licence conditions, the station is once again in apparent non-compliance at renewal time. The CRTC’s main issues are the lack of a public alerting system and incomplete records of music broadcast, which means classification issues that put them in non-compliance with Canadian and French-language music quotas. The station’s replies were brief, noting that the new owner took control 12 days before the deadline to install the public alerting system (“I had other priorities”) and there was confusion on how some songs should be classified in terms of popular versus specialty.
CFOU-FM 89.1 Trois-Rivières: The UQTR campus station failed to provide financial reports for the years 2012-2013, 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, because the financial reports they filed correspond to their fiscal year instead of the CRTC-mandated broadcast year of Sept. 1 to Aug. 31.
CITE-FM-1 102.7 Sherbrooke plus retransmitter CITE-FM-2 94.5: No apparent compliance issues.
CFAK-FM 88.3 Sherbrooke: No apparent compliance issues for the Sherbrooke campus station.
CHXX-FM 100.9 Donnacona (Quebec City) and retransmitter CHXX-FM-1 105.5 Ste-Croix-De-Lotbinière: Radio X2 failed to comply with its 65% francophone music quota, reaching only 63.5% during a sampled week in February. It blames this on certain songs it believed were French but were actually more than 50% English. This would be its second straight non-compliance finding. The commission suggested it may impose additional contributions to Canadian content development funds (a de facto fine) as a result of non-compliance. The station also says it wants to once again rid itself of conditions of licence requiring it to maintain a presence in Donnacona, but it looks like that request will be treated separately.
CITF-FM 107.5 Quebec City: No apparent compliance issues. But ADISQ wrote in to demand access to reports Bell Media promised to file when it acquired Astral Media on its program to promote independent artists.
CJLL-FM 97.9 Ottawa: No apparent compliance issues for this ethnic station.
With less than three weeks to go until Super Bowl LI, the rhetoric is heating up about a decision made by the CRTC two years ago to end simultaneous substitution during the Super Bowl, now that it’s about to finally come into effect.
There’s good reason for this. Simultaneous substitution is worth $250 million to the Canadian television industry, according to one estimate, and substitution for the Super Bowl alone — the most watched program on Canadian TV every year with an average around 7 million (plus another 1 million on RDS) — is worth $18 million a year to Bell Media, which owns the Canadian rights through 2019. There’s a huge financial interest for Bell to keep fighting this.
And so the decision is facing an appeal by Bell Media, though the court declined to stay the decision in the meantime, so it remains in force pending a decision.
Ever more desperate, Bell Media, the NFL and other allies in the fight appealed to the government directly, lobbying them to engage in creative manoeuvres to overrule the CRTC. The government appears disinterested in stepping in to overturn a populist decision by a supposedly arm’s-length regulator.
In the arguments for and against the decision, from interest groups, newspaper columnists and others, there have been a lot of good points and a lot of poor ones made. Those who want to oversimplify this issue have taken plenty of logical short cuts that can lead casual observers to incorrect conclusions.
Here are some of the arguments used by both sides that I’ve heard over the past few weeks (in some cases I’ve included links to those who have used them or implied them), and why I think those arguments are invalid.
For the fourth time in as many years, a group owned by a trio of Montreal businessmen has appealed to the CRTC for an extension on their deadline to launch a new AM radio station, claiming that unforeseen circumstances have caused delays but assuring the commission that they’ve been resolved and the station is months away from launch.
On Wednesday, the CRTC announced that it will grant an extension, until June 30, 2017, to 7954689 Canada Inc. (TTP Media) to launch its English talk radio station at 600 AM, first authorized in 2012.
As it did with the 940 AM station a year ago, the extension was granted despite the previous extension being declared “final” by the commission. Though the previous extensions, despite being requested for only a few months, were given for a full year, this one is limited to June 30, after the group said it should have the station on air by June.
This is the first official communication from the otherwise very quiet group for a year now, so we have some information on what is causing the delays, and what their short-term plans are.
As in previous requests, Managing Partner Nicolas Tétrault blames “the consolidation in the commercial broadcasting business in Montreal,” a reference to the Bell acquisition of Astral Media that was finalized in 2013 (and did not result in any major programming changes to existing stations in the market). But here he indicates that the banks that are loaning them tens of millions of dollars needed some reassuring on the group’s business plan. (This may be, at least in part, why they abandoned plans for a third station at 850 AM, though that station is not mentioned at all in the application.)
The bigger issue has related to the transmitter itself. The group finally came to an agreement with Cogeco Media to buy all the assets of the former CINW 940 and CINF 690 transmitter site in Kahnawake, and signed a new lease with the land owner, Frances Montour. The details of the lease are redacted, but it appears to go until 2022, with clauses for renewal beyond that.
It didn’t take long after the agreements were signed in late September and early October for the 940 transmitter to be brought back to life, at first to do on-site testing, antenna tuning and impedance matching, and later full on-air testing.
The station, CFNV 940 AM, has legally launched, but a de facto launch is expected early in 2017, according to its Twitter account. In the meantime, it’s running music — currently all-Christmas music — interspersed with recorded messages every 15 minutes:
You’ll notice the station refers to itself as “La superstation”. Time will tell if it lives up to that tagline.
More work needed for 600
For the English station at 600, there’s more work needed than turning the switch back on and transmitting again. The towers that were set to work at 690 have to be re-tuned for 600, and the transmitter itself needs to be sent to the factory to be reset to the new frequency. On top of it all, parts for AM transmitters aren’t as easy to find as they used to be, and nowadays must be custom made, which causes more delays.
From Patrice Lemée, engineer at Commspec:
Concernant la station AM 600KHz, l’envergure des travaux techniques est beaucoup plus complexe. Celle-ci sise e?galement dans les anciennes infrastructures de Cogeco Me?dia Inc. ope?rant a? la fre?quence 690KHz. Par contre, un changement de fre?quence est requis afin de diffuser a? la fre?quence 600KHz. Ces changements touchent l’essence me?me du site de diffusion. L’e?metteur doit e?tre partiellement re?-expe?die? a? l’usine afin d’e?tre re-synthonise? a? la nouvelle fre?quence. Le syste?me de phasage doit comple?tement e?tre redessine? afin de diffuser a? la nouvelle fre?quence d’ope?ration. De plus, ces deux stations (600 & 940) coexistent sur le me?me site de diffusion. Ce qui entraine des complexite?s supple?mentaires quant a? la conception du syste?me.
Afin de proce?der aux diffe?rentes modifications du syste?me de diffusion de la station AM 600Khz, nous avons contacte? diffe?rents manufacturiers. Base? sur les re?ponses des soumissions obtenues, il semblerait que certains manufacturiers ont de la difficulte? a? obtenir les pie?ces requises pour effectuer la conversion dans les de?lais prescrits.
Je vous confirme cependant que les travaux sont de?ja? entame?s et que la conception est pratiquement termine?e. Par contre, la rarete? des pie?ces d’e?quipement AM est une re?alite? de nos jours. Les pie?ces sont maintenant faites sur demande et les de?lais de livraison sont beaucoup plus longs que par le passe?. Il est assez fre?quent de rencontrer des de?lais de livraison de 12 a? 16 semaines.
Suite aux informations cite?es pre?ce?demment, nous estimons qu’il sera possible d’effectuer les modifications du syste?me de diffusion du 600KHz seulement au printemps 2017. Nous demandons donc une extension de la date de mise en service jusqu’au 30 juin 2017.
The application makes no mention of administrative or on-air aspects of either stations, including launch dates, on-air talent or studio location. So we’ll just have to continue to wait.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has dismissed a complaint against CKIN-FM 106.3 by Radio Moyen Orient (CHOU 1450 AM) that it is not respecting its licence conditions by drastically increasing the amount of Arabic programming it broadcasts.
The complaint, filed in the spring by the city’s incumbent Arabic radio station, said that when Neeti P. Ray purchased CKIN-FM from Groupe CHCR (owner of CKDG-FM 105.1), it promised to maintain the station’s ethnic focus and serve the same languages. But after the acquisition closed, the station essentially turned itself into an Arabic station, broadcasting Arabic programming daily from midnight to 7pm, Spanish music until midnight on weekdays, and relegating the six other languages to an hour each on Saturday and Sunday nights.
For CHOU, this meant direct competition, which it judged was unfair. (CKIN-FM’s media kit boasts that FM is better than AM, without naming CHOU directly.)
But as I noted, and as Ray noted, and as the CRTC noted, nothing in the conditions of licence prevents them from doing this. The ethnic broadcasting policy incorporated into the licence conditions says that a certain number of languages and ethnic groups have to be served, but does not place a minimum or maximum number of hours.
The only place where CKIN-FM broke its licence conditions was (coincidentally?) during the week sampled by CHOU when it came two languages short of its required eight. The station explained this by saying that there was a schedule change, and two programs that aired on Saturday one weekend and Sunday the next were just outside the sample week (weeks are defined as Sunday to Saturday). This is a very reasonable explanation (though broadcasters should exceed their requirements to give themselves more flexibility and avoid situations like this), and the CRTC agreed.
CKIN-FM’s licence is up next August, and issues of licence compliance can come up again when the CRTC considers licence renewal.
Only minutes after it was spotted at the very end of Quebec’s 2015 budget document, the proposal to force Internet service providers to block illegal gambling websites was criticized as being unconstitutional.
In the months that followed, the bill to implement the measure was criticized, by opposition parties, by Internet providers, by public interest groups, by Michael Geist, and by anyone with even a basic understanding of constitutional law in Canada. (Though, strangely, not by some actual independent gambling sites.)
And yet, the government kept pushing the legislation along. During parliamentary committee hearings, Finance Minister Carlos Leitão assured everyone that they had their lawyers look into it and it would pass a challenge. This isn’t a telecommunications bill, he argued, it’s about gambling, consumer protection and health, which are provincial jurisdictions.
When Bill 74 was finally adopted at the National Assembly in May 2016, it was with both opposition parties noting the potential issues (which also included worries about the impact this would have on small ISPs).
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre wasted little time, applying to the CRTC to ask it to declare the bill’s website blocking elements unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association launched a challenge in Quebec Superior Court.
On Thursday, the CRTC responded to PIAC’s application, arguing that on the one hand the court case should settle the matter of whether the bill is constitutional, while on the other hand saying that blocking websites is against the federal Telecommunications Act and complying with a provincial law is not justification for doing so.
The CRTC has given parties 15 days to respond to its preliminary findings, and if it doesn’t change its mind, it will suspend the PIAC application until the court case is settled.
The law won’t be implemented until probably 2018 at the earliest because it will take a while for Loto-Québec to set up its end of the system. That should be enough time for the court to decide on this issue, assuming it doesn’t end up being appealed.
In the meantime, we can sit here and shake our heads at all the energy, time and money being wasted by the Quebec government, the CRTC, the court system, Internet providers, PIAC, Loto-Québec and others over provisions of a law that is obviously unconstitutional and probably wouldn’t work even if it wasn’t.