Afromonde host Henry Ngaka on his virtual set, as seen through a monitor in ICI’s studio.
As radio stations that were supposed to launch in 2013 seek delays in whole or in part because of technical problems, an independent startup television station has managed to get on the air just under a year after getting a licence from the CRTC.
As I’ve been watching the channel on and off on Wednesday, I notice it’s been lacking a bit of regularity right out of the gate. There were long awkward seconds of dead air, at one point a single ad or video aired three times in a row, leading to eight minutes between actual programming.
The station has very little advertising to start with, limited to some ads that look more like sponsorship messages, including one from Mike FM, whose parent company CHCR produces the Greek program. As a result, commercial breaks are only a few seconds long, enough for a station ID, and the hour is backfilled with music videos or other short-form programming.
For the quality of the actual programming, I’ll wait until they’ve had a chance to air more of it (and even then I can’t comment much on content because I can’t understand the language most of the time), but my first impression is that it’s uneven. Some of it looks like the kind of long-form talking-head shows that fit the stereotype of low-budget ethnic TV. The only thing that’s different is that it’s in a green-screen set and in high-definition, and has flashier computerized graphics (though not quite as well produced as the stuff you’ll find on the big national broadcasters). The shows are better when they take their cameras out in the field, which they do and want to do more (at least when the weather is nice).
It’s considered a soft launch, without a major marketing push behind it, and it’s being run by a group of people who, while they have experience in television production, don’t have much experience running television stations.
But the move has been so universally condemned, from the left, from the right, from its enemies and its friends, that I feel the urge to play contrarian and find some reason to support it. But I can’t.
The reasons to dislike it just pile up:
It’s confusing. Are they changing the name Radio-Canada? No. Except yes. They’re not changing their name, but just adopting a new “brand identity”, or using a “term”, or “denominator”. Just the list of synonyms for the word “name” they used (including the word “name” itself) created needless confusion. Even CBC and Radio-Canada journalists couldn’t figure out what “ICI” was, exactly.
It’s expensive. This rebranding exercise cost $400,000. You can see that as a tiny part of the corporation’s $1-billion annual subsidy from the Canadian government, or you could see that as a handful of well-paid full-time jobs for a year. Rebranding is an expensive endeavour that does little to further the CBC’s mandate.
It’s unnecessary. The closest thing I got to a reason for this whole thing in the first place is a video (now deleted) in which someone put a confused look on their face when explained that “Radio-Canada” means both radio and television. I get that, in a sense. You’ll recall that Télé-Québec used to be called Radio-Québec. But is this really a problem for a brand that’s existed for 75 years? Does anyone who lives in Canada and speaks French actually get confused?
It’s consultantism at its finest. The CBC loves consultants. People who tell them that newscasts have to look a certain way, or that Peter Mansbridge should stand at all times. Some consulting is good. You want to focus-group television shows or expensive concepts before putting them into motion. But consultants are also good at convincing people to buy things they don’t need. I don’t know if that happened in this case, but it certainly gives that impression.
It’s abandoning a strong brand. Rebranding is something you do when your brand isn’t working. Maybe you’re involved in a scandal, or your name doesn’t reflect what you do anymore, or it’s not politically correct. But Radio-Canada is a very strong brand. People know what it is and expect good things from it. Why would you mess with that? Even the federal government got involved to complain.
It’s a generic word with little meaning. The Abbott and Costello routine from Jean Lapierre and Mario Dumont might be a caricature of the problem, but there’s a very serious lack of meaning in the term “ici”. It’s a generic word, an adverb, and they’re trying to use it as a noun. “ICI” has been the name of a bunch of things, including a weekly alternative newspaper in Montreal. “ICI Montréal” was even registered as a trademark by Télé-Métropole, which is now TVA, in 1985.
But the biggest problem with this rebrand is this: It’s screwing the little guy.
Here’s that little guy. His name is Sam Nowrouzzahrai, but he does business as Sam Norouzi because he wants to save people the trouble of always looking up how to spell and pronounce his name. He’s the man behind a new ethnic television station in Montreal. It’s a mom-and-pop shop, owned by his family and run as a producers’ cooperative. He’s not looking to get rich off of this, just find work for some ethnic broadcasters and bring local ethnic television back to one of Canada’s most diverse cities.
He wanted to call the station International Channel/Canal International, or “ICI” for short.
As I explain in this story in The Gazette, Norouzi did his homework, applying for a registered trademark and waiting for it to get approved as the CRTC application process followed its course. Now, weeks before the station is set to go on the air, he has to deal with the CBC’s lawyers who are trying to take his name from him. And while he has a legal team to deal with that, it’s taking up a lot of his time too. “There’s not a day that goes by that there’s not an issue I have to deal with” involving the case, he said.
“We have full rights to go forward with the name and we intend to do so,” Norouzi told me. “We will defend ourselves. For us it’s really a question of principle.”
CBC by a technicality
So what kind of case does the CBC have here? Can they really force Norouzi to give up his name?
Companies don’t have to register their trademarks for them to be legal. They just have to use them. Same thing with government bodies and their “official marks” according to the Trade-marks Act. But it helps. And Norouzi’s application for ICI came a year before CBC’s 31 applications for ICI-branded services. (The only CBC mark that predates Norouzi’s is one from 1969 for “Éditions Ici Radio-Canada”.)
I spoke with Pascal Lauzon, a lawyer and trademark agent with BCF. He said most of the case is “very debatable on both sides.” He pointed out that the registrar of trademarks looks through the database when a trademark is applied for. The process also includes a two-month waiting period so opponents can file oppositions to proposed registrations.
But Lauzon also said that there’s a five-year period during which someone can apply to the federal court to expunge a trademark.
Obviously not in a position to prejudge a case like this, Lauzon said the CBC has a strong case, not so much because it can prove it used the name first, but because of what amounts to a technicality.
Part of the trademark registration process is the filing of what’s called a “declaration of use.” This tells the Canadian Intellectual Property Office that you have actually used the trademark you’ve applied for on a good or in connection with a service. Norouzi filed this on Aug. 20, 2012. But his station wasn’t on the air at that time. We didn’t even know it existed because the application for it wasn’t published until a month later.
The CBC alleges in its lawsuit that, because Norouzi did not appear to be actually using the trademark, his declaration of use was “materially false.”
That, Lauzon said, is enough to have the entire trademark registration thrown out. If that happens, Norouzi would have to file for a new one, but that would put his application behind those 31 marks of CBC-Radio-Canada, and would weaken his case considerably.
“He should have waited” until the station was on the air, Lauzon said. He had three years to file a declaration of use, and waiting would not have made his initial filing date of August 2011 any less valid. “If he had waited, he would be in a much better position,” Lauzon said.
An amicable solution is the best solution
There is another way for this to end: The CBC could see the error of its ways and abandon the whole “ICI” plan entirely. Or it could offer to pay the costs associated with Norouzi’s station taking another name. I don’t know if either of those are likely.
Norouzi tells me he has had no communication with the CBC other than through its lawyers, who first contacted him last November complaining about possible confusion. (Norouzi dismissed those claims since they came long before anyone had any idea that Radio-Canada would be rebranding.) The CBC won’t comment except through written communication that goes through its legal department. Which means I didn’t get a response from them by press time. (I’ll update this post with what I hear back.)
It hurts to throw away a $400,000 project. But sticking with a bad idea isn’t a better option.
UPDATE: I asked for additional comment from CBC about this case. Hours after the request, I was asked to submit written questions. Almost 24 hours later, I finally got this as a response from Radio-Canada’s Marc Pichette:
In response to your questions sent yesterday (and I apologize for the delay), the term “ICI” has been closely tied to Radio-Canada’s identity for over 75 years. That it has risen to increased prominence recently is only a reflection of the close association our audience makes between that word and our brand.
Confusion is in no one’s interest. That’s why the matter to which you refer is part of an ongoing legal process which is before the Federal Court. I hope you will understand that I cannot comment on the specifics.
While the Gazette stories are long and contain a lot of information, there were a bunch of other little facts that I couldn’t cram in there that would probably be of more interest to people who follow local media a bit more closely. So here are some answers: