Tag Archives: Quebecor

Some truth about Sun TV News

Sun TV News, the new specialty channel being proposed by Quebecor, is in the news again because their second attempt at CRTC approval has been released to the public.

After the previous application for a Category 1 specialty channel was outright rejected by the CRTC, Quebecor has decided to put forward an application for a Category 2 channel, just like almost every new specialty channel in the past few years.

Both categories are digital channels, meaning they won’t be on analog cable and aren’t part of the basic package. The difference is that Category 1 channels must have a minimum of 50% Canadian content, and in return all digital cable and satellite providers must make the channel available on a discretionary basis. For Category 2 channels, the dealings with television providers are mostly unregulated. They negotiate carriage fees with each other, and the providers can choose whether or not to make the channel available.

But while the Sun TV News application is technically a Category 2 channel, Quebecor is asking for an exception that grants it the biggest advantage of Category 1: mandatory availability, at least for the first three years.

In both the previous and current applications, media coverage and left-wing reaction has confused the nature of what Quebecor is asking for. That’s partially understandable. CRTC’s regulations can be overly complicated sometimes, particularly when it comes to what channels providers have to carry.

This Canadian Press article, for example, states three times that the new channel would be “funded with money from cable TV fees”, even though that’s not what the application is requesting. The statements are attributed to activists, but aren’t challenged in the article, leaving readers to assume they are true. This report uses the term “must-carry”, which has a special meaning at the CRTC that doesn’t apply in this case. Quebecor isn’t asking for must-carry status. This Globe and Mail story also uses the term “must carry”, as does this National Post report.

“Must carry” vs. “must offer”

In an effort to reduce the confusion, let me explain a bit how this works.

There is a list of channels that all cable and satellite providers must provide as part of their basic packages. In addition to the local television channels, this also includes things like CPAC and APTN. Other channels like CBC News Network and the Weather Network are also included in basic packages. Fees, set by the CRTC, are charged to all subscribers to pay for these channels.

Beyond that, there are levels of discretionary tiers that have different statuses at the CRTC. Some are allowed on analog cable on a discretionary basis or can be part of the basic package. Some, like Category 1 channels, are offered only on a digital basis unless an exception is warranted.

Category 2 channels are the least regulated type, and the one preferred by both the CRTC and new channel applicants because of how easy it is and how low the minimum requirements are.

Though it might seem like your cable or satellite company has every channel in existence, it doesn’t. Bell TV, for example, doesn’t carry MuchMoreRetro. Videotron doesn’t carry Fox News Channel (somewhat ironically, if you think Quebecor is an evil right-wing empire). Shaw Direct doesn’t carry Court TV (now Investigation Discovery) or TFO. There is no regulation requiring these companies to make these channels available. They decide what their users might be interested in, based on what the channels offer and what they want to charge the TV provider. The channels, meanwhile, ask people to “call your cable or satellite provider” to pressure them into adding the channel to their lineup.

What Quebecor wants with Sun TV News is to bypass this process, and require that all digital TV providers have the channel in their lineups. The wholesale price would still be negotiated between the provider and the network, and the provider could package the channel and charge for it however it feels.

Kory Teneycke, the former Harper aide who is behind this application, calls it “must offer” to distinguish it from “must carry”. I’ll use that expression for lack of a better one.

In short, Quebecor is asking that this channel be available on all digital cable and satellite providers, but the choice to take it would be entirely up to the consumer. Nobody would be forced to pay for the channel if they didn’t want it.

The package exception

One scenario that might see people paying for Sun TV News without wanting to would be if they got it as part of a package. It would make sense for a news channel theme pack to include Sun TV News with CTV News Channel, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel, BNN, CNBC, Al Jazeera English and BBC World News. Someone might select that wanting all the news channels but having moral objections to Sun TV (and, presumably, Fox News).

But this packaging is entirely up to the TV provider. It’s not regulated by the CRTC and isn’t negotiated with the channels.

The CRTC only regulates packaging to ensure that porn channels and single-view religious channels aren’t forced on consumers as part of packages. Theoretically, the CRTC could require the same thing for Sun TV News that it requires for Playboy TV, but that seems a bit excessive.

Of course, if cable and satellite providers did away with such packages, or offered people à la carte options, this wouldn’t be an issue. But so far, only one major TV provider offers that kind of à la carte service: Quebecor-owned Videotron.

Ignorance breeds fear

What gets me most about the reaction to this application is how much people are willing to oppose it without knowing what it is. There has been no proposed program grid, not even any confirmed hosts. All we know about Sun TV News is that it wants to be a mix of news and opinion, that its creators consider the other news channels “boring”, and that those creators are Conservatives who want to create a channel based partially on Fox News.

A group of activists has already started a petition that has 68,000 signatures on it (we’re not sure how many of those are real people). It repeats the non-truth about forcing people to pay for the channel, and throws in some drama that makes it seem as if Stephen Harper is trying to force his ideological agenda into our brains through the CRTC.

Sun Media had a field day with this, saying that the petition is based out of New York and that author Margaret Atwood and her cronies are trying to suppress free speech. Even Teneycke himself weighed in.

Fox News Cheap

It’s hard to judge something like this until you’ve seen it. Sun TV News could become a quality all-news network that bring much-needed competition to the industry. It could become a Fox News North, as critics have called it, providing news coverage to make people think it’s objective, but loading primetime hours with fearmongering blowhards who care more about expressing their opinions than seeking the truth.

The arguments from Quebecor that this isn’t Fox News North are contradicted by statements in the CRTC appliction, particularly this one:

The most comparable channel to STN is located in the USA, Fox News. Both channels’ strategy is to focus hard news and commentary that raise public debates and reactions on different topics. Fox News has been USA’s most watched All News channel for years and still is. In 2008-2009, Fox News’s audience was as high as CNN’s and MSNBC’s combined. Fox News does not have extensive distribution in Canada. Therefore, this represents a true opportunity for STN.

But while their goal is to replicate Fox News, I think the more likely scenario is that Sun TV News will be an experiment in cheap newsgathering that will quickly become a laughing stock because of its horribly small budget. According to the CRTC application, the channel plans to have a budget of about $25 million, of which $15 million would go to programming and technical costs. Though it’s hard to directly compare this to CBC and CTV, since they take advantage of their local stations and national newscasts (I’m trying hard not to use the word “synergies” here), it’s still very little money. We’re looking at a staff of maybe 100 people, including journalists, anchors, producers and technicians, advertising salespeople, marketers, etc. Anyone who thinks he can run a national news network on that kind of budget is probably kidding himself.

The feared scenario, that they’ll spend little money on news budget and focus all their efforts on opinion, makes more sense considering how little they have to spend. But even then, the big-name blowhards come at a high price, and a $25 million total budget isn’t enough to get a Canadian Glenn Beck on the air if you want anything more than a webcam and laptop in front of him.

How Sun TV News describes itself

Though it’s obviously self-serving, we really can’t judge Sun TV News based on anything other than the statements of the people behind it.

Here, verbatim from the CRTC application, is how Sun TV News describes its “hard news” and “straight talk”:

“Hard News” will almost exclusively rely on live reporting and real-time conversations with journalists covering breaking news – as opposed to the more traditional news wheel format that features a revolving set of news stories. But these headlines will be analysed, commented upon and discussed at length. The host will question the reporter and will have an intelligent exchange that will often open to further debate.

News will not be read like in a news bulletin. Daytime “hard news” will be covering a broad range of political, economic and lifestyle stories that matter to Canadians both rural and urban. So even its “hard news” portion will not be “all news” like it has traditionally been done in Canada. Short traditional news bulletin may be programmed but not more than once an hour.

“Straight Talk” will be programs featuring hosts and guests that deliver strong opinions and analysis of stories that are important to Canadians that day. “Straight talk” opinion journalism at night will be clear, intelligent and engaging – featuring a broader array of television personalities and signature hosts who will challenge viewers to think – and decide – for themselves. The challenging of ideas in itself may feed the news but at least will attempt to have Canadians make their own mind on the events occurring every day in Canada.

That could easily describe either Fox News Channel or MSNBC. Or a bunch of other networks. But it gives a bit of an idea what they’re going for.

What the CRTC should do

The CRTC doesn’t have the luxury of watching this network and judging whether it’s good for Canadian TV watchers. It has to go on the application itself.

Based on that application, I would argue the CRTC should accept the network, maybe even with the exception they’re requesting (particularly since it’s only temporary).

The reason is simple: The channel proposes to create all its content. It says it will have zero foreign content. That alone should put it on a level higher than those Category 2 channels that air little but Family Guy reruns, 80s music videos, Star Trek movie marathons and ancient sitcoms.

The fact that Sun TV News wants to add to both news coverage and political debate in this country should certainly count for something as well, even though we may not agree with it.

The potential for abuse is there, but the CRTC already requires broadcasters to adhere to a code of ethics through the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. Sun TV News has already accepted that it would be subject to those rules. The CRTC can’t prohibit someone from starting up a channel because fearmongers disagree with the political leanings of its creator.

Sun TV News made sure to suggest in its application that without mandatory availability for at least the first three years on air, its business case would fall apart:

If mandatory access for a maximum period of three years is not granted to Sun TV News, one or more major cable or satellite providers might decide to not offer this service. This would be fatal to our business case as shown in Appendix 1, and would likely result in the cancellation of the Sun TV News project.

The CRTC shouldn’t let itself get bullied. But it should set policy encouraging new channels to include as much original, Canadian content as possible. Sun TV News, which seems to put this figure at 100%, should be rewarded for that, just like any other channel should.

Sun TV News’s suggestion that it get a break from closed-captioning requirements, though, should be ignored. Broadcasters routinely request exemptions from obligations to CC programming, like a high school student who wants an extension on a term paper.

Though it doesn’t specifically request relief from CC requirements, it gives this quote: “However commendable this obligation is, the sums that need to be invested in such an amount of closed captioning means a lower amount is left for Canadian programs.”

I’m pretty sure everyone else could make a similar argument.

By the numbers

Looking through Sun TV News’s CRTC application, I found some interesting financial projections I thought would be worth sharing.

  • Though the wholesale fee would be negotiated between the broadcaster and TV provider, Sun TV News uses a base fee of $0.25 per subscriber per month in its analysis, and seems to suggest that they would aim for this. (That doesn’t mean the channel would cost $0.25 to consumers though – providers charge consumers far above the wholesale rate.)
  • If the mandatory availability or “must offer” requirement is given, Sun TV News expects 17% penetration in the first year and up to 50% penetration by the end of the seven-year license at $0.25 per month. (“Penetration” defined as the number of cable/satellite subscribers who pay for the channel.)
  • Based on this analysis, the channel would get $15 million a year in subscriber revenue, which would be combined with $10 million a year in advertising to reach the $25 million budget.

Quebecor survey shows Sun TV News wouldn’t be popular

The CRTC application includes some survey data from polling they conducted. Though they do a good job of spinning it, the survey shows only 41% of Canadian TV watchers would be somewhat (36%) or very (5%) likely to subscribe to the channel. This makes its 50% penetration rate seem a bit far-fetched.

Similarly, a survey showed “Canadians do not find reporters to have an inherent bias in the news they report” (52% vs 7%), contradicting claims by Quebecor that Canadians are tired of the “lamestream” media’s biases.

When asked about their satisfaction with current news choices, 67% in Quebecor’s survey rate it six or higher on a scale of 1-10. Quebecor spins this as saying Canadians are “not extremely satisfied”, but when almost half are rating seven or eight on a scale of 1-10, I would argue that’s pretty satisfied. Postmedia’s Andrew Mayeda agrees.

Finally, even though Teneycke and company are pushing this as a competitor to CBC and CTV news channels, the application softens the stance and even argues that those networks won’t be seriously affected by the appearance of Sun TV News. Instead, it argues that it will bring Canadians back from CNN (which it simultaneously argues is winning Canadian viewers from CBC and CTV because it has more opinionative programming in primetime, and is losing American viewers to Fox News because its primetime programming isn’t opinionative enough).

“In the long run, we believe the impact on the existing Canadian all-news services will be negligible,” it says.

I’m sure that comes as a relief to them.

A new front in the Transcon-Quebecor war

The all-out war between Quebecor and Transcontinental continues. Only a few months after announcing new community weeklies in Laval and the north shore, Quebecor is opening up two other free weekly newspapers northeast of Montreal:

  • L’Écho de Repentigny (59,000 copies), serving Le Gardeur to Lavaltrie and competing directly with Transcontinental’s Hebdo Rive-Nord
  • Journal de Joliette (62,000 copies), serving Joliette, Berthierville and St-Michel-des-Saints and competing directly with Transcontinental’s L’Action

Quebecor says it will create 120 jobs with these new papers, which sounds like a lot, even from a company that is looking for creative ways around Quebec’s anti-scab law to get cheap content for the Journal de Montréal.

So far, there’s been no counterattack from Transcontinental in areas that Quebecor has historically covered, like the south shore. It remains to be seen if they will raise the stakes and create real competition in community newspapers, or if they’ll just give up and watch the media giant slowly erode what’s left of Transcon’s readership.

UPDATE: Seems I’ve missed the Rive-Sud Express, which was launched in April and competes directly with Quebecor’s Courier du Sud. Last week, Transcontinental added Point de vue Sainte-Agathe and Point de vue Mont-Tremblant, and Abitibi Express, that compete with Information du nord Sainte-Agathe, Information du nord Mont-Tremblant and La Frontière, respectively.

The Point de vue papers are actually a split-up of the formerly independent Point de vue Laurentides, which Transcontinental has acquired and turned into two weeklies, each running with a single journalist, a freelancer and a shared photographer, and a bunch of people doing ad sales.

I don’t like Sun News, but I welcome it

(Updated with more talking out of my ass)

Canadian media are buzzing today (and have been for about a week or so) about Sun News, the new all-news specialty TV network being setup by Quebecor Media.

Before its name was made public, people were calling it “Fox News North”, partly because the guy behind it, Kory Teneycke, used to shill for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The reputation that Quebecor and its head honcho Pierre-Karl Péladeau have built certainly helped fuel the rumours that a strong conservative bias would be more important to this network than a commitment to accuracy in reporting.

Though the announcement doesn’t make reference to Fox (directly) or use the word “conservative”, and Teneycke dismisses the comparison, the hints are all there. The video talks about being “strong and proud”, and Canada being “the greatest place on Earth” (I assume that’s part of their “factual” “straight talk” and they have lots of research to back that assertion up). And, of course, nobody involved with the project has denied outright that it would take a conservative, or at least strongly opinionative, stance.

The application

Quebecor says it has applied for a Category 1 specialty channel license from the CRTC. This means that satellite and digital cable providers would be required to put the channel on a discretionary tier so anyone who wanted to have it as part of their package could get it. Analog cable companies are not even allowed to carry them, except by special exception.

This is interesting because virtually all new specialty channels apply for a Category 2 license. This is entirely discretionary – cable and satellite companies would not be required to even make it available, and can freely negotiate with broadcasters to determine fees.

It makes sense for Quebecor to apply for a Category 1 license because the two biggest regulatory hurdles don’t apply to the concept. First, Category 1 channels have genre protection (and must respect other channels’ exclusivity), so people can’t launch a new weather channel or business network or cartoon network – unless it has a very specific focus that doesn’t compete directly with the Weather Network, BNN or Teletoon, respectively. But the CRTC decided recently that it would remove such protections from news and sports networks, because it judged that they had matured to the point where they were no longer needed.

Second, Category 1 channels must have at least 50% Canadian content. Since presumably all the content on Sun News would be provided by its journalists and those of Quebecor Media, that wouldn’t be a problem.

The biggest problem will be convincing the CRTC that it should grant a license in what it originally planned to be a very limited category of digital specialty channels like Book TV, Bold, Discovery Health and G4.

Think Sun Media, LCN … and yes, Fox News

I don’t doubt that Sun News Channel will have a conservative slant to it, or at least a Fox News-style sensationalist slant. They’ve already said that they want to have opinion, and the kinds of talking heads you don’t find on the other networks (CBC, CTV). But while I have no evidence to back this up, I’m thinking the model they’ll want to use for the channel isn’t so much Fox News as it is LCN.

For the Toronto-ites out there, LCN is kind of Quebec’s equivalent to CP24, a regionally-focused news network that’s the first to send a helicopter out when something happens in Montreal. Fires, car accidents, minor natural disasters, dead children, all the usual local news stuff. It’s the channel that’s usually on in the newsroom, for the simple reason that it’s the TV network closes to an all-Montreal-news channel. (LCN pretends it’s Quebec-wide, and it does have journalists elsewhere, but the vast majority of its news is based in the Montreal area, or occasionally Quebec City).

LCN also has opinion. Richard Martineau, Jean-Luc Mongrain, Claude Poirier, and anyone else who can talk loud even if they don’t really say much of substance (Actually, now that I think about it, that does sound a lot like Fox News), and can be easily pre-empted if breaking news happens during the day. After LCN changed its format to have more of these kinds of hosts, ratings apparently shot up 300 per cent.

But while I think there will be a definite fiscal-conservative slant (expect investigative stories every day based on access to information requests for CBC expenses), I don’t think we’ll be seeing the same kind of socially conservative biases you see in the United States. I don’t see Sun News praising Sarah Palin or talking about the evils of abortion or trotting out conspiracy theories that Michael Ignatieff is a secret terrorist.

Then again, I could be wrong. Sun News could turn into the press release arm of the Conservative Party. It could start simulcasting Fox News Channel. It could start running free ads for the Christian Heritage Party. Nobody knows yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.

It’s interesting to note here that although Fox News Channel is approved for carriage in Canada, Quebecor-owned Videotron doesn’t make it available on its digital service. I suspect many Quebecers criticizing Quebecor may be basing their opinions of Fox News on what they see on the Daily Show.

Conservative is better than nothing

I welcome Sun News for the same reason I welcome the National Post: It’s a different voice, and it employs journalists. If that means stories get out into the public that would have remained secret before, I’d say that’s worth hearing more of Ezra Levant. I would hope they take their role seriously and concentrate more on being honest and open than countering perceived biases in their competitors. And I think Canadians should keep them on their toes and put immense pressure on them to keep their biases in check.

But either way, adding a new voice to the equation can only make the Canadian news industry more diverse.

My biggest worry

Although a news network that seeks to impose an opinion more than inform the population sounds pretty scary, my biggest worry about Sun News isn’t that it will be conservative, it’s that it will be cheap.

During the press conference announcing the network, after Teneycke blasted so-called “elites”, he talked about, and I’m quoting directly here: “value-added content convergence with Sun Media properties across Canada”. Besides being filled with meaningless industry buzzwords, it seemed apparent that Sun Media and Quebecor believe they can use existing journalists to supply the network. They think that Sun Media print reporters can do TV spots, as part of some convergent utopia.

(Speaking of which, it’s interesting that Péladeau claims the media is in crisis – forcing him to lock out journalists at the Journal de Québec, Le Réveil and the Journal de Montréal – and then appears at a press conference to announce he’s spending millions on a new TV news network. Péladeau said during the press conference when asked directly about this that the two are unrelated. But the irony was certainly not lost on locked-out Journal de Montréal workers.)

Even CTV and CBC, which have local television stations across the country to supply a national news network, need “national” reporters in various cities to supply the national network and national evening news. Anyone who’s seen videos on Sun Media websites can’t be optimistic about the prospects of a news network relying on them for content.

I’m sure Sun News will hire anchors (the prettiest they can find), technicians and all sorts of other people to run the channel. But without that network of videojournalists, I wouldn’t expect their news operation to be able to match what the main networks can provide, outside of Toronto and (if they share resources with LCN and TVA) Quebec.

The opinion-news mix has two advantages over straight news. One is that it provides higher ratings, as the choir flock to their preachers. The other is that it’s cheap. Spend good money on a well-known host, add maybe a researcher or two, and you’re done. The big mouth blabbers about whatever, provided it’s controversial and excites or angers the audience enough that they pay attention. And if Glenn Beck demonstrated anything, it’s that those talking heads don’t have to make sense, be consistent, have any connection to reality or have any journalistic integrity to succeed.

As much as sending out hundreds of access to information requests to the CBC, then trolling through management expense claims to drum up even the most minor irregularity may seem petty and biased, it’s still journalism.

My fear with Sun News isn’t that it’s going to have those kinds of stories, it’s that it’ll have those kinds of stories and then have blowhards yelling about them for three hours, showing some clips from YouTube and then calling it a day.

Kind of like Fox News. Or CNN. Or MSNBC.

Let’s hope I’ve vastly underestimated what Quebecor has planned.

Sun News Channel is slated for launch Jan. 1, 2011, pending CRTC approval.

UPDATE: Bill Brioux is also highly skeptical of this network, particularly because of the failures at CKXT, the local Toronto station they’re trying to “convert” into Sun News.

UPDATE (June 24): Steve Proulx has some thoughts (mainly negative) about Quebecor’s convergence and conservativeness and how it’s affecting media.

Quebecor sets sights on Transcontinental with two new weeklies

Quebecor Media announced today that it is launching two new weekly community newspapers: Echo de Laval and Echo de la Rive-Nord. (Their newspaper naming team must have spent minutes on those.)

Like similar papers throughout the province, these are free papers heavily supported by advertising. Echo de Laval will be distributed to 120,000 homes in Laval, while the Echo de la Rive-Nord goes to 66,000 homes in Saint-Janvier, Sainte-Thérèse, Blainville, Rosemère, Boisbriand, Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, Bois-des-Filion and Lorraine (in other words, the middle north shore).

The papers’ launch is significant for a few reasons:

  • Quebecor decides on the business model for these publications, without having to worry about appeasing unions. They’ve already said the two newspapers will work together, and other processes might be in place that would make unions cringe.
  • The launch comes while journalists at the Journal de Montréal are still locked out. Having newspapers in Laval and the immediate north shore will give much-needed content to Quebecor’s Agence QMI, which could in turn feed the Journal de Montréal. (The Laval paper is already making heavy use of QMI stories from 24 Heures.)
  • The launch of these papers breaks an unofficial agreement between Quebecor and Transcontinental Media to stay off each other’s turf. Transcontinental has papers all across the island of Montreal, as well as the Courrier Laval, one of its larger papers. Quebecor has papers on the south shore, meanwhile. The launch of the Echo de Laval will put the two in direct competition, during a time when that’s the last thing small newspapers want.
  • The previous point is made worse by the fact that two of the people named in the press release used to work at Transcontinental’s Laurentians paper, Le Trait d’Union. Mario Marois, who was Trait d’Union’s publisher until recently, becomes publisher of l’Echo de Laval. Guy Crépeau, who has worked as a journalist and as ad sales supervisor for Trait d’Union, becomes the news director for both Quebecor papers.

Quebecor says the two papers will add 23 jobs (Sun Media VP Charles Michaud specifies this includes seven full-time journalists and one part-time journalist). Their first issues come out Thursday.

Non, l’autre pair

Quebecor’s press release says that “selon le nouveau modèle d’affaires de Quebecor Media, journalistes et équipes de ventes travailleront de pair au sein des deux publications.” Some have interpreted this to mean that the wall between editorial and advertising would come down at the two papers, with both sides working together. Cécile Gladel and the STIJM are already calling foul.

Michaud, who is the big boss of Quebecor’s community weeklies, says this isn’t the case:

Pas question de mélanger les genres. La publicité et la rédaction restent bien distincts l’une de l’autre.

Il faut comprendre que les deux salles de rédaction travailleront de pair pour les nouvelles qui touchent les deux territoires. Ce sera d’ailleurs la même situation au niveau des ventes de publicité.

In other words, the papers will work together on news-gathering and advertising sales, but there won’t be advertorials or special journalistic treatment for advertisers. The advertising-editorial wall remains in place. (He made a similar statement to Le Trente when asked about it.)

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Le Réveil lockout ends with 80% losing jobs

Le Réveil, the other Quebecor paper whose workers were locked out early last year, has ended its labour conflict after its workers voted today to accept the employer’s final offer.

Quebecor put a final offer on the table on Thursday, adding that if the workers refused, the paper would be shut down at the end of the month. (Coverage from Radio-Canada, Rue FrontenacProjet J.) The final offer would result in the layoff of 20 of the paper’s 25 unionized employees, leaving only three journalists and two office workers. The rest would get severance of two weeks’ salary for every year of service, up to a maximum 42 weeks (14 of the 20 will max out, the rest will receive less).

The union voted 68% in favour of the offer.

UPDATE: After-the-fact coverage from Journal de Québec, Argent, Le Quotidien

A similar deal was reached last week at Le Plein Jour in Baie-Comeau.

Série Montréal-Québec: Flawless, says Journal

On Sunday, TVA debuted its newest Sunday-night populist attention-getter, the Série Montréal-Québec, in which 16 players from each city (each including two women, one guy over 40 and one guy over 50) compete in a meaningless eight-game tournament to determine which city is superior to the other.

I switched back and forth a bit between the TVA broadcast and an actual sporting event that actually mattered. What little I saw of the show consisted entirely of long, drawn-out American Idol-style (or, if you prefer, «Star Académie»-style) player introductions. It’s one thing when you’re introducing two or three people you’ve never met, but it gets old after the first few dozen.

Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one to notice that. Le Soleil’s Richard Therrien and La Presse’s Hugo Dumas showed an inspiring example of Quebec-Montreal unity by panning the show and its presentation devoid of any energy. The review from Dans ma télé’s Annie Fortin was lukewarm at best, with similar criticisms.

But then there’s the Journal de Montréal.

Journal de Montréal - Jan. 25, 2010

I find it ironic that Quebecor’s new Agence QMI put together an article (one written like a ninth-grade book report or the minutes of a school board meeting) that was good enough for both 24 Heures in Montreal and the Journal de Québec website, but the Journal de Montréal decided it needed to have one of its few remaining journalists- Michelle Coudé-Lord – write a redundant story reviewing the show (one, I should add, that was reprinted verbatim in the Journal de Québec – in fact, the latter had an identical two-page spread, only in black and white).

Then again, Coudé-Lord’s story has plenty of adjectives that the Agence QMI story was lacking, and her impression was so diametrically opposed to everyone else’s (including mine) that I can only conclude that she was in a different universe at the time or has become disconnected from reality:

La Série Montréal/Québec sera rassembleuse comme le fut Star Académie. On n’abandonne pas une recette gagnante. Attendez-vous à ce que le Québec se divise en deux au cours des prochaines semaines. Les joueurs sont attachants

Guy Lafleur a résumé fort bien ce qu’allait être cette série : «le hockey est un jeu qui nous rend heureux».

La présentation des joueurs a donné le ton. L’émotion sera au rendez-vous. Stéphane Laporte et Julie Snyder, le concepteur et la productrice de cette série, savent faire de la télévision pour et par le monde. Et encore hier soir ils en ont fourni la preuve.

Le portrait de chaque joueur nous le rendait fort sympathique. … C’était même touchant de voir les parents applaudir dans les estrades …

Loco Locass a interprété avec enthousiasme l’hymne national de Québec …

Montréal commence fort avec une gardienne de but … Ça promet.

Belle initiative de Guy Carbonneau …

Éric Lapointe a donné du chien à l’équipe de Carbo avec une interprétation enlevante de l’hymne national de Montréal.

Une belle réalisation de Michel Quidoz … Marie-Claude Savard, l’animatrice, fut solide et a su laisser place à l’évènement. …

That’s 16 separate praises by my count, and not a single criticism of the show. I would have reprinted the entire article here if I could do so without fear of a copyright infringement lawsuit. It’s surreal.

If I ever get married, I’m having Michelle Coudé-Lord write my vows. By then she’ll probably be a public relations specialist.

PR is about the only way I can explain both Journals taking two colour pages to present players from both teams.

Hell, it makes Jeff Lee (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Quebecor-owned Videotron) look tame in his video blowjob.

Despite what some conspiracy theorists might think, Quebecor-owned media were not unanimous in their praise. Roxanne Tremblay of 7 jours didn’t hold back on criticisms, and followed it up with a second-day story about the show’s problems.

But still, even though I’m skeptical of theories about media owners directly affecting editorial content on a day-to-day basis, I can’t help wonder if Coudé-Lord’s article is what Pierre-Karl Péladeau envisions for his newsroom of the future – one where unionized journalists don’t stand in the way of Quebecor’s self-interest with their silly journalistic ethics.

So Metro goes to the STM, 24 Heures goes to the AMT

First edition of La Page AMT, August 26, 2009

First edition of La Page AMT, August 26, 2009

The Agence métropolitaine de transport has announced that, starting Wednesday, it will be communicating with customers via a page in the free daily 24 Heures once a week. The first such page, announcing their new train cars, is available as a PDF. It appears on Page 12 of Wednesday’s edition.

If this idea sounds eerily similar to the Info STM page in Metro, it’s no coincidence. It all goes back to how these two newspapers got started.

A tale of two free commuter dailies

Metro began publication on March 1, 2001, a partnership between Swedish-based Metro and Montreal-based Transcontinental. A key part of the business plan for this newspaper was a deal it struck with the Société de transport de Montréal (then the Société de transport de la communauté urbaine de Montréal or STCUM). In exchange for exclusive distribution inside the metro system, the newspaper would give 2% of its advertising revenues (guaranteed at $900,000 for the first three years) to the transit agency. It would also give a free page in every issue to the STM so it could more easily offer information to metro users.

Before Metro’s first issue went out the door, Quebecor Media launched a campaign against the deal. Cease-and-desist letters went out to both the STM and Metro, followed by a lawsuit. Even a letter from former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a member of Quebecor’s board of directors. Quebecor’s argument was that a restriction against other newspapers distributing freely in the metro was a violation of its right to free expression.

The lawsuit was rejected in 2003, and in 2005 the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear an appeal. (A similar lawsuit happened in Philadelphia against Metro, and it too ended up losing in court.) Quebecor was clearly not going to win this battle in court.

24 Heures from four years ago (Aug. 26, 2005)

24 Heures from four years ago (Aug. 26, 2005)

24 Heures, Quebecor’s answer to Metro, was launched as Montréal Métropolitain less than two weeks after Metro began distribution. Because of the agreement between Metro and the STM, the paper is distributed outside metro stations. And because of Montreal’s ban on newspaper distribution boxes, the company has to hire people to actually hand copies out to commuters. Without a distribution system in the metro, 24 Heures suffered, and constantly lags behind Metro in circulation figures.

At some point since its launch, 24 Heures decided to focus more on places Metro doesn’t distribute (which is basically everywhere outside the metro). One of those places is commuter train stations, where you’ll find yellow 24 Heures boxes but no Metro.

So it makes sense that the AMT and 24 Heures team up with this page.

What’s unclear is whether the AMT is paying 24 Heures for this page, or whether it’s being offered as part of an agreement with the AMT. I’ve asked the AMT about it, and will update this post with what they say.

La Page AMT will be published every Wednesday in 24 Heures starting August 26. 24 Heures is available in virtual format free online.

Journal Lockout Digest: FTQ traitors

It’s hard to argue that your employees should make huge concessions when you’re in the process of bidding for an eight-figure sports franchise. And yet, that’s exactly what Quebecor is doing.

But the Quebecor bid for the Canadiens took a new twist this week when it was discovered that it’s being supported by the Fonds de solidarité of the FTQ. The FTQ labour union.

Needless to say that’s raised a few eyebrows among the media, not to mention the folks at Rue Frontenac. The STIJM calls it immoral, Martin Leclerc is calling for heads to roll, Michel Van de Walle calls it treason, Serge Touchette is revolted and Beaudet takes a whack at the issue in cartoon form. There was even a protest, another protest at the Bell Centre, and an open letter to Jean Charest.

Aside from the union implications, the deal is also making some worried about what would happen to Canadiens games on RDS if Quebecor and its “king of convergence” at Planète Quebecor were to buy the team. The Gazette’s Pat Hickey calls it “a bit scary”, Mike Boone agrees and unions aren’t crazy about it either. There’s even a Facebook group to keep Quebecor from buying the team.

Back to the table, please

Remembering that there’s a labour conflict going on, labour minister David Whissell wants both sides to return to the negotiating table. Though he says he doesn’t take sides since the conflict is with a private corporation.

Inside the conflict

Radio-Canada’s Desautels has a piece about the Journal de Montréal conflict. The audio is online in Windows Media audio.

Défi Chicoutimi

25 of the Journal’s 253 locked-out workers have embarked on a bicycle trip from Montreal to Chicoutimi (via Quebec City) to express solidarity with their locked-out colleagues at Le Réveil. You can read about their departure, Day 1 and two reports about Day 2.

Those who couldn’t make it on bikes hit the golf course.

Bonne Fête

The Journal de Montréal is 45 years old. Not quite the birthday it expected. Thoughts from:

Rue Frontenac expands

Reinforcing the fact that they’re in this for the long haul, Rue Frontenac has added a new section, Détente, for weekend lifestyle features. It also has a special from Jean-Michel Nahas looking at the various candidates for mayor of Montreal.

TVA Publications likes this union thing

Rue Frontenac reports that ad salespeople at TVA Publications are looking to form a union. They’ve requested accreditation. TVA Publications, in addition to abusing freelancers, is mostly ununionized.

And…

Another pot shot at the Journal’s manque de rigueur

Meanwhile, at the Journal de Québec

Remember that labour board decision that Quebecor said they’d appeal? They’re appealing it.

Quebecor Fund: From the kindness of their CRTC policy

Quebecor Media has released the list of television producers who will get $2.4 million from its non-profit Quebecor Fund.

Of course, neither the release nor the fund’s website makes clear that the fund is a CRTC requirement for cable and satellite providers (like Quebecor’s Videotron) and this money isn’t being distributed out of the kindness of Pierre-Karl Péladeau’s heart. In fact, Quebecor has been fighting to change the way television is funded, shutting down the Canadian Television Fund (now the Canadian Media Fund) and allowing Quebecor to give its money only to productions for its networks.

Then again, this behaviour is hardly uncommon in the industry. Broadcasters and distributors alike keep to CRTC minimums for Canadian content, original programming and funding, and then boast how much good they do to a public that’s unfamiliar with CRTC policy. CTV’s Save Local campaign is an example of this, as is Shaw’s response to it.

But what gets me most about this release is this: the Quebecor Fund trumpets itself as supporting “shows that offer quality content and have undeniable durability” (as well as encouraging interactivity and new technologies).

The last item on the list of funding recipients: Occupation Double.

My cable bill and Videotron’s profits

My monthly bill to Videotron passed a milestone this month, crossing the $100 barrier and sitting at $100.38 for my Internet and digital cable.

In April 2008, the bill was $94.74 a month.

Nothing has changed in the amount of service I get. The increase of $5.64 a month is due entirely to Videotron’s price hikes:

I could understand this if Videotron’s costs were going up and it needed the extra money to stay afloat, but according to Quebecor’s financial statements, Videotron makes a shitload of money. Like, $800 million in profit off $1.8 billion in revenue. Not only are those numbers higher than any other unit of the megacorporation, but the profit margin is way, way higher than Quebecor’s newspaper or broadcasting divisions.

Even if you take amortization and capital costs out of the equation, that leaves $165 million of profit for Videotron, more than enough to cover interest payments on its $1.8 billion debt.

I’m not that great with quarterly statements, so my numbers might be off here. But Videotron is making a heck of a lot of money off me and other cable subscribers.

No wonder Canada is considered to have the most overpriced broadband Internet in the developed world.

Quebecor shuts down ICI (UPDATED)

The final issue of ICI, Vol. 12 No. 28: April 30, 2009

The final issue of ICI, Vol. 12 No. 28: April 30, 2009

Quebecor has just announced that it is shutting down Montreal alt-weekly ICI, with its last print edition coming out tomorrow. From then on, columns will be published online and in an insert in the Thursday edition of 24 Heures, another Quebecor paper. The move results in nine layoffs of permanent employees as well as a loss of income for 15-20 regular freelancers.

Quebecor’s release takes great pains to say that the company did whatever it could to prevent the paper’s shutdown. I guess that’s supposed to include forcing freelancers to sign abusive contracts, a move that led a high-profile columnist to leave. AJIQ, which represents independent journalists, didn’t mince words in blaming ICI’s downfall on its treatment of freelancers, which I think is pushing it a bit.

In the end, it probably made little sense for Quebecor to produce two free newspapers in Montreal in addition to the Journal de Montréal. So ICI is being canibalized in favour of 24 Heures.

The big question now is what happens to The Mirror, the anglo alt-weekly which is also owned by Quebecor. This move leaves two anglo weeklies (Mirror and Hour) and one franco (Voir). Voir and Hour are both owned by the independent Voir Communications.

Then again, The Mirror is older than ICI and the disparity in readership on the anglo side isn’t as high as it was with Voir and ICI. Quebecor confirms this, saying there’s no question about The Mirror being shut down.

It’s unclear where ICI’s voices will head now, though most are expected to stay with Quebecor in some capacity. Sophie Durocher will (continue to*) have a column in the Journal de Montréal’s weekend section, and Pierre Falardeau is expected to stay on in some capacity, according to Le Devoir. Two journalists will move to 24 Heures. ICI’s show on Videotron’s Vox channel, Ici et là, will also continue for the time being.

UPDATE: The final issue is on the stands, and sadly it looks like the plug was pulled after the issue was put to bed, because there’s not the slightest hint that this is the final issue. There are even mentions of future issues:

I don't think so...

I don't think so...

Some of ICI’s contributors didn’t find out about the closing until Quebecor’s press release caused journalists to ask them for comment.

UPDATE (May 5): Michel Vézina gives his take in his Montréal Express column.

News coverage:

Elsewhere in the blogosphere (no doubt this list will get bigger):

*UPDATE (Sept. 25, 2010): Sophie Durocher wishes to clarify that her Journal de Montréal column predates the lockout, so she isn’t replacing any unionized workers. Earlier versions of this post also contained a comment about her that, in hindsight, was somewhat unfair, and may have led people to the wrong impression about her Journal column.

Synergy at Sun Media

In an effort to cut costs, Sun Media is combining resources at its small Ontario dailies (which formed the Osprey Media chain that is now part of Quebecor). It’s being described as “synergy”, but it basically means replacing local jobs with fewer, lesser-paid jobs at larger production centres.

Among the changes:

In each case, jobs that were considered technical rather than editorial in nature are being replaced by a centralized operation that can be more efficient and work with fewer people. But the worry is that the people doing these jobs now have no connection to the papers and don’t care about the quality of what they put out. The fact that union jobs are replaced by non-union jobs with less pay and no benefits only makes that problem worse.

It’s also touching aspects of editorial too. As the Observer article points out, the papers are taking advantage of “synergy” by running national columns rather than local ones wherever possible. The Sun and Osprey chains are even copying whole pages (taking advantage of their similar layouts) from each other, and outsourcing layout work to a centralized location (which is how the Journal de Montréal is still functioning despite a lockout of 253 workers).

If this sounds familiar, a similar strategy is at the centre of stalled contract talks between my union and Canwest, which has centralized its customer service call centre, is centralizing some layout and copy editing work, and started printing standardized business pages in its major dailies.

I think some centralization (even of editorial work) makes sense, and I understand the need of these companies to reduce costs, but there’s a fine line between outsourcing a technical job to a company that specializes in that work and removing parts of what give local papers their identity, which go beyond just what names appear in the bylines and what you get in the police blotter.

In the end, it will be the subscribers who decide whether or not any cut goes too far.

Journal Daily Digest: Jack to the rescue

NDP leader Jack Layton roared into town on Wednesday and stole the show for this week. In a meeting with locked-out Journal de Montréal workers, he lent his support, denounced the use of scabs and said he’s written to the prime minister asking that federal advertising be pulled from the paper until its union conflict is resolved.

Seeing an opportunity to get his name in the media again, Denis Coderre also wanted to make sure we know that the Liberals support the workers.

[Insert rebellious song title pun here]

Eric Goulet

Quebecor sucks!

In the wouldn’t-have-been-printed-in-the-Journal category:

We like freelancers, trust us!

The STIJM makes a case for the support of freelance journalists with the Association des journalistes indépendants du Québec. Though it admits that fighting for freelancers isn’t its primary mission, it says it tried to get some union protection for freelancers at the Journal and has opposed onerous contracts that demand excessive rights waivers.

Meanwhile, in other news

Rearranging the deck chairs on the media’s Titanic

Some news today from Canadian media as they struggle to keep afloat:

Canwest still ticking

Canwest, which faced a huge debt-related deadline today, got another extension – this time to April 7. It also said it would not make a $30.4 million debt payment scheduled for Friday, taking advantage of a 30-day grace period before lenders start demanding all of their money back. The rest of the release includes a lot of news which sounds kind of good but I don’t understand.

Everyone is understandably nervous about Canwest’s future, including some independent television producers for Canwest’s cable channels who have halted production and are holding their breath.

UPDATE (March 12): DBRS has responded to the delay by lowering Canwest’s credit rating from CCC to C. Canwest Limited Partnership, which is the branch The Gazette falls under, is rated slightly higher because it has more manageable debt.

Quebecor pulls out of CP

The bigger news is that Quebecor, the huge media company that owns Sun Media and the Journal de Montréal/Québec, gave notice to Canadian Press that it plans to pull out of the news-sharing cooperative effective in June 2010 (CP requires a year’s notice before membership is suspended – Sun Media could always change its mind, though that’s probably unlikely). Sun Media is CP’s largest member since Canwest pulled out of CP in 2007. Despite that and the “millions” of dollars that won’t be paid each year, CP is downplaying the significance of the pullout, saying it is restructuring itself to become a for-profit operation, which will allow it to sell its services with more flexibility.

Since pulling out of CP, Canwest and its newspapers (including the Gazette) have relied on competing wire services including Reuters, Agence France-Presse, New York Times News Service and PA SportsTicker, in addition to beefing up its internal Canwest News Service by adding national and international bureaus. Sun Media has already started beefing up its parliamentary bureau in Ottawa and launched its Agence QMI wire service, which notably has been used to provide content for the locked-out Journal de Montréal.

Apparently the notice happened in December, but the news was leaked to the public through a memo to employees by Quebecor head Pierre-Karl Péladeau.

UPDATE: Steve Proulx notes that CP said as recently as a year ago that it was confident Quebecor wouldn’t pull out.

Meanwhile