Tag Archives: TV specialty channels

CRTC roundup: Deciding the future of TV

The CRTC continues to dominate be a footnote in the headlines as conventional television operators appear in two hearings – one for the CRTC itself in Gatineau to discuss license renewals, and another for a House committee in Ottawa to discuss the future of local television. And those discussions are heating up.

Last week, CTV and Global pressed their fee-for-carriage idea, where cable and satellite providers would be required to pay broadcasters to carry stations that already transmit their signals over the air for free. This would give broadcasters a $350-million lifeline, which is why they’re continuing to press for it even after having gotten rejected twice. They say local news simply can’t pay for itself, and it needs to be subsidized.

Even TQS jumped on board, despite the fact that it doesn’t produce local news.

Rogers, which owns CityTV and OMNI but gets much more of its revenue from its cable distributor, argued in front of MPs that CTV and Global were exaggerating their financial troubles to get a handout.

This week, Rogers repeated the accusation to the CRTC, saying the networks want money for local stations but also want to shut down small stations that don’t rake in money. It tempered that by saying that if the CRTC approves such an idea, it should be temporary until the recession goes away and a revenue goes back up. It also said fee-for-carriage means they shouldn’t be required to distribute conventional TV channels if broadcasters demand fees that are too high.

(This brings up an issue: Isn’t Rogers in a conflict of interest here? On one hand, OMNI and Citytv would benefit from additional fees, but Rogers is silencing those voices because the corporate parent has decided it would have more to lose from these fees through its cable provider than it would gain through its television stations. The same applies to Quebecor, which owns the TVA network and Videotron. In all, distributors showed revenues of $10 billion in 2008, with over $2 billion in profit.)

Pierre-Karl Péladeau, who speaks on behalf of TVA and Videotron, gave a more nuanced, have-your-cake-and-subsidize-it-too answer to MPs, saying fee-for-carriage should be allowed, but that the rates should be subject to negotiation between broadcaster and provider (no doubt the negotiations between TVA and Videotron would go amicably).

Leonard Asper of Canwest argued the problem is a regulatory system that allows distributors to flourish while broadcasters falter. He said debt and the recession are problems too, but they’re not the whole answer.

Ivan Fecan of CTVglobemedia said the Local Programming Improvement Fund, a special fund setup by the CRTC to subsidize local television stations in small markets, would need to be tripled, and that even then this would only protect the status quo and would not result in any increase in local programming. That angered Rogers and CRTC members.

CTV and Canwest also pointed out that cable and satellite providers are constantly increasing their rates without the “revolt” that the providers say would happen with a fee-for-carriage.

The Globe and Mail’s Grant Robertson, who has been covering this issue better than anyone, has a list of some of the issues that may come up in discussions about the future of television in Canada.

Why not just shut them down?

An interesting point was made in discussions of license renewals: If CTV and Global are so jealous of specialty television channels, why don’t they just become specialty channels?

It’s not quite so simple, but with 90% of Canadian television viewers having cable or satellite service, the added expense of setting up transmitters and local news stations isn’t worth the added viewership and ad revenue that comes with it. (Not to mention the cost of transitioning to digital television, which has caused broadcasters to decide to shut down dozens of retransmitters across the country.)

CRTC chairman Konrad von Finkenstein asked if CTV would prefer the specialty channel model to the conventional TV model. Conventional stations require a certain amount of local programming, while specialty channels are required to spend a certain percentage of their revenues on creating original programming. CTV suggested it would prefer the latter, though it wanted some recognition that having local stations is much more expensive than rerunning old Seinfeld episodes.

CRTC wants more transparency from big guns

The CRTC is seeking comment on new rules that would require large broadcasters and distributors to disclose more information about their finances than they currently do.

Currently, the CRTC collects lots of information but only releases “aggregate information” to the public. So we know how much all broadcasters spend on U.S. programming, but we don’t know how that breaks down per broadcaster or broadcasting unit.

Since broadcasters are arguing that they need more money because their business model is broken (and the distributors are arguing that the can’t spare fee-for-carriage payments without raising prices), it makes sense that they should let us see their books.

The CEP labour union certainly agrees with that reasoning.

Broadcasters want changes on the air too

In addition to fee-for-carriage, television broadcasters are asking for a relaxing of regulations about how much Canadian content they have to air and what kind of programming they must create. One of the proposed changes is to include reality programming in the list of “priority programming” (scripted comedies and drama shows) that the CRTC gives special attention to because it costs more to produce. This would go against the entire point of distinguishing expensive from cheap programming, and encourage private broadcasters to cancel expensive dramas in favour of cheaper reality shows.

Meanwhile, Bill Brioux wonders if CTV and Global will be reducing their big-budget U.S. programming purchases in light of their apparent financial woes.

StarChoice really dislikes CBC Regina

Last year, the CBC got all up in StarChoice’s face because of a decision by the satellite distributor to remove CBC Regina (CBKT) from its channel lineup. The CBC complained to the CRTC, saying that the removal meant StarChoice had more CTV channels than CBC channels, and this represented a violation of one of its conditions of license.

In November, the CRTC ruled that CTV’s main network and its A Channel network should be considered separately for the purposes of this rule, and that StarChoice was still in compliance. It dismissed the complaint.

But the CBC pressed on with its case, arguing that the CRTC got the numbers wrong and that even excluding the A Channel network, StarChoice has more CTV-owned stations than CBC-owned stations. These include CTV-branded stations as well as CJCH in Halifax (formerly ATV, rebranded as CTV Atlantic) and MCTV’s CICI (rebranded as CTV Northern Ontario).

What followed was a war of words betwen CBC and StarChoice, with the latter accusing the former of using incendiary language.

Now, StarChoice is asking for an exception to be made to its license to allow it to continue not distributing CBC Regina but still distribute all its CTV stations (including CTV Regina). I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest the CBC will oppose this request.

In other news

CRTC Roundup: The American retransmission consent model

Another term to add to the zeitgeist of CRTC talks about conventional television funding is the “American retransmission consent model,” thanks to a comment from Rogers during hearings this week on whether conventional television broadcasters should be allowed to collect fees from cable and satellite companies for retransmission of their channels.

Asked by the commission a House committee whether Rogers would approve of a U.S.-style system in which cable companies have to seek permission (and therefore pay fees) to carry conventional television stations, Rogers said it would, provided carriage was optional.

CTVglobemedia pounced on this, issuing a press release in which it praised Rogers for agreeing to fee-for-carriage in an “industry-to-industry solution” that follows the “American retransmission consent model.”

I personally think this is a better idea and could live with this kind of compromise. If broadcasters choose to demand fees that are too high for carrying their signals, the cable and satellite companies (or better, the consumers themselves) could decide it’s not worth it and use their rabbit ears instead to get the channels for free.

Not that I think the CRTC and all the players involved would support such a system.

Michael Geist also weighs in on this issue.

Conventional television pros and cons

For those who want to keep track, here are the various pros and cons to running a conventional television station instead of a cable specialty channel:

Pros

  • Over-the-air reception: This used to be a no-brainer, but with only 10% of Canadian TV viewers still using antennas (and most of them probably not watching TV all that much), this incentive becomes a lot less powerful than it once was.
  • Simultaneous substitution: Hated by most Canadian TV viewers, it’s the practice of replacing U.S. feeds with Canadian ones when both are running the same programming, in order to ensure that only Canadian commercials are watched (and Canadian networks get all the ad money). The problem is that it’s not done properly a lot of the time (especially during live events) and can end up cutting off programming. Still, it’s a huge cash cow to have a monopoly on the Canadian ad money when you air a new episode of House.
  • Spot on the dial: It’s mentioned often, though I think its effects are trivial. The CRTC requires that conventional television stations have low spots on the cable dial (channels 3, 4, 5 etc.). Perhaps there’s a minor psychological effect, but my TV viewing patterns are the same whether it’s channel 3 or channel 125.
  • Mandated carriage: Simply put, the cable companies must include these channels as part of their basic packages. This means there are no homes in a local area that don’t have access to these channels. (Well, almost. Satellite carriers don’t have to carry all channels, and Bell still doesn’t carry Global Quebec.)

Cons

  • Cost of transmitters: This is serious because of the mandated switch to digital television. It’s not an issue so much in major centres like Toronto and Montreal, but small markets don’t have enough size to justify such huge capital expenditures. A recently-released report puts the cost of converting all stations in the country to digital at between $200 million and $400 million.
  • Cost of local production: The CRTC mandates a minimum amount of local production, usually in the form of local newscasts. Even with huge cuts to newsrooms and increased use of technology to reduce the need for technical jobs, broadcasters say being forced to produce local programming is hurting their bottom line. With some exceptions, local newscasts are money-losing operations.
  • Lack of subscriber income: Ironically, even while being forced to spend more on programming, conventional television doesn’t get access to subscriber fees from cable and satellite companies, having to rely on advertising alone for income. Before the explosion of cable and the Internet, that wasn’t a problem. Now it is.

A plea for local TV

Richard Therrien in Le Soleil asks what purpose the CRTC serves, which is kind of a misleading title because his article advocates stronger regulation of private broadcasters. He argues that TVA is abandoning Quebec City, asking the CRTC to reduce its local programming requirements and producing generic non-regional shows out of its Quebec City studios.

Journalistic Independence is here (kinda)

Global TV, TVA and Sun TV have received final approval from the CRTC to suspend parts of their licenses relating to cross-media ownership (Canwest and Quebecor also own newspaper properties) and replace it with a standard policy called the Journalistic Independence Code. The code provides for an independent body (half controlled by the industry it’s regulating) to adjudicate complaints related to independence of co-owned media outlets. The outlets are to have completely independent news management, but there are no restrictions on news gathering, which means corporate management is free to force as much convergence as it likes, provided editorial boards are separate.

The CRTC mentioned it got complaints from concerned citizens who were up in arms over these firewalls being taken down, but the commission essentially argued (as I have) that these complaints should have been brought up when the Journalistic Independence Code was discussed in the first place.

Minority-language communities are well-served

The Governor-in-Council has issued a report about minority-language broadcasting in Canada (English programming in Quebec and French programming outside Quebec). The report, which is in no way binding, concludes that in general, language minorities have sufficient access to programming, mainly due to the CBC, national specialty channels and the Internet.

It does, however, also bring up a few suggestions for strengthening access to French-language programming in English areas. Among them:

  • Requiring Ontario cable companies to distribute both CBC French-language stations in the province (CBOFT in Ottawa and CBLFT in Toronto)
  • Encouraging cable and satellite companies in English-language areas to provide the option of a single package of all francophone services to subscribers
  • Encouraging negotiations between the CBC and CTV/Rogers/TQS consortium regarding distribution of French-language Olympics programming to minority French communities outside Quebec using CBC transmitters. (The consortium has already said it would air all programming on RDS and allow cable and satellite providers to distribute the station for free during the Games)
  • Requiring that TFO be distributed as part of the basic service on all cable and satellite services.
  • Consider expansion of CBC Radio Two to serve minority linguistic areas
  • Find a way to support funding of minority-language community radio stations
  • Find ways of increasing spectrum available for radio stations, either by reassigning TV channels 5 and 6 (which sit just below the FM broadcast band) or by encouraging the adoption of digital radio

None of these are binding, and most aren’t even formal suggestions. But they might come up in more formal contexts at the CRTC in the coming months and years.

As for the flip side – English programming in Quebec – the report concludes that anglo Quebecers have ample access to English-language programming.

Fox Business coming to Canada

The CRTC has approved a request from Rogers to add Fox Business Network to the list of foreign channels eligible for rebroadcast on Canadian cable and satellite services. This means that Rogers Cable and others can add FBN as an option on digital cable or satellite (assuming they can negotiate a reasonable price for carriage).

Fox Business Network is a competitor to CNBC (and a really bad one at that if you look at the ratings). CTV argued to the CRTC that it would also be a competitor to its Business News Network (formerly Report on Business Television). The CRTC determined that this was not the case because BNN focuses on Canadian business and there is no programming common to both networks.

Besides, they’d already approved CNBC, which is a far more formidable competitor than Fox Business will be.

Specialty channels raking in the dough

The CRTC has released financial figures for specialty, pay and video-on-demand services. It shows increases in both revenues and profits, but no increase in the number of people employed (in fact, it went down by six people). The headliner was that for the first time ever, spending on Canadian programming by these services topped $1 billion.

Community TV station in Laval?

Télévision régionale de Laval has asked for a license for a low-power (50W) television station serving the Laval area, on which it would air programming it is currently producing for Videotron’s Vox TV.

The station, which currently has a budget of about $400,000 a year and is affiliated with local media and the city of Laval, would broadcast on Channel 4, which would cause interference problems with CBOT (CBC) Ottawa and CFCM (TVA) Quebec City, both on the same channel (not to mention analog cable reception of Radio-Canada’s CBFT for homes very close to the transmitter).

The main motivation for this move, according to TRL, is that Vox isn’t giving its programming enough play, especially during prime time viewing hours.

It’s an ambitious move, and one wonders if the small group behind it would be up to the task of keeping such a station running (they’ve already asked for an exemption from a 100% closed-captioning requirement). But it’s nice to see some people still think locally-produced over-the-air television is worth something.

Al-Jazeera trying again

Though the CRTC hasn’t issued a call for public comment yet, news about Al-Jazeera English’s bid for CRTC approval is making its way around. It started in the Globe and Mail back in February, and has since hit the Toronto Star, Sun Media, LCN and Cyberpresse.

Al-Jazeera’s Arabic-language network is authorized for distribution in Canada, but with unique special requirements that put the onus on distributors to monitor its content. That made it too difficult (read: expensive) for cable and satelllite operators to abide by, so none have picked up the channel.

Al-Jazeera is trying to clean up its image as a radical jihadist network, launching an online campaign and even lobbying the Canadian Jewish Congress, which says it’s on the fence about supporting the network’s bid. Despite its reputation (many of its critics have never even watched the network), it is based in a relatively pro-U.S. country (Qatar), employs Western journalists for its English network, and reports on a lot outside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even PBS affiliates have used some of its reports (though that caused a kerfuffle).

Canadians will have their say when the CRTC opens the application for comments. The issue probably won’t be whether the network is approved, but whether the same onerous restrictions will be placed on its carriage.

General changes to broadcasting laws

The CRTC is asking for comments about a list of minor but general changes to its broadcasting laws, which provide for:

  • Cable and satellite companies inserting targetted ads into programming (with the agreement of the broadcaster)
  • Establishing the Local Programming Improvement Fund, which will be funded by a 1% tax from broadcasters to help small-market stations
  • Prohibiting networks from withholding programming from cable and satellite companies during a dispute
  • Removing the distinction between small cable companie (fewer than 20,000 subscribers) and large ones when it comes to minimum financing rules for community television initiatives (such as Videotron’s Vox network).

In other news

And on the telecom side

The CRTC has approved changes to the National Do-Not-Call List so that numbers added to the list stay for five years instead of three. It also clarified that independent politicians (who are not connected to political parties) are also exempt from the do-not-call rules. Arguments for these decisions are here.

The commission has also launched a public consultation on ISP traffic management, namely asking whether Internet providers should have the right to use traffic shaping during high-usage times to slow down peer-to-peer file sharing so that regular users have a chance to use more bandwidth. This comes at the same time Bell says it will charge independent providers metered rates instead of flat ones, effectively ending the idea of unlimited Internet access.

CRTC Roundup: Global, porn and death

In response to a complaint issued by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada that Canwest’s* decision to centralize master control of local news at four broadcast centres violates aspects of local stations’ conditions of license requiring a certain amount of local programming, the CRTC has ruled that while it can’t make a final decision because the broadcast centres aren’t fully operational yet, it sees no evidence that Global TV is violating those conditions of licenses, and that the impact of this reorganization should be brought up during license renewal hearings.

For those of you who couldn’t get through that massive sentence, here’s some background: In 2007, Canwest announced that it was laying off 200 people across the country, mostly technical positions at small stations (including CKMI in Quebec City/Sherbrooke/Montreal).

To save money, it decided it would centralize master control operations for all its stations at four broadcasting centres in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto. These stations would be responsible for cueing up reporters’ packages and even controlling the movement of cameras remotely. Though editorial decisions would rest with local stations, local reporters would continue to do reporting and the newscasts would be anchored locally (well, kinda), the CEP argued that this still didn’t qualify as locally-produced programming and complained to the CRTC.

The new reorganized system and green-screen sets launched last March.

Canwest stated that the allegations set out above were incorrect because control of and responsibility for the broadcasts will remain with the local television station:

Canwest submitted that the decision to move some production elements (for example, camera work, lighting, microphone levels, generation of virtual sets, physical assemblage of news run-downs) to the Broadcast Centres would not, in any way, abrogate its individual licences or take decision-making capabilities away from the local stations.

Canwest further submitted that, while the Broadcast Centres will control technical production support, all material decisions regarding the content and presentation of the newscasts, with the exception of set design, will continue to occur at the local level, as will local news gathering.

While not making a final decision on the matter, the CRTC essentially agreed with Canwest’s assertion that this still qualifies as local programming. It also said that for most stations, while there are “commitments” to local programming, these haven’t been part of their conditions of license since 1999.

But the CRTC does leave the door open for the CEP to bring this up during Global’s license renewal hearings this year, where their commitment to local programming will be a factor in the CRTC’s decision of whether or not to renew stations’ licenses.

Considering the current financial crisis facing media and conventional television in particular, I don’t expect the CEP will get too far.

More porn!

And now for something completely different. The CRTC last week approved the creation of a new digital specialty channel called Vanessa which is devoted to sexuality:

Its adult programming would be devoted to the themes of charm, sensuality, eroticism and sexuality and might also include documentaries, news and magazines covering the industries that exploit those themes and the personalities that revolve around them.

The channel got through the approval process without a big fight. No one filed any interventions opposing the channel, and the only hiccup is that it asked to be free of closed-captioning requirements and the CRTC said no (closed-captioning and porn has been an issue before).

Sex-Shop Television, the company behind Vanessa, is a creation of Image Diffusion International aka Productions IDI, the company of Marc Trudeau and Anne-Marie Losique that produces content mainly for MusiquePlus. It got approval in 2007 (after originally being denied) for a French-language pay TV channel of the same name. But discussions with Videotron were … ahem… anti-climactic. The cable provider said there was not enough capacity or enough interest to distribute a service like this that they don’t own. (The CRTC theoretically has rules that prohibit cable companies form offering preferential treatment to other services owned by the same company, but I guess they don’t apply here.) The goal is to launch an English service which would get picked up elsewhere and force Videotron to get on board or lose customers.

The content of the channel isn’t entirely clear. It’s limited to only 10% of its programming being feature films, and can only broadcast explicit adult material between 11pm and 6am. So expect this to be like Sex TV: exploring sexuality in a tasteful (or even fun) way during the day and in a raunchy way after dark.

UPDATE (April 17): Presse Canadienne reports on the approval only a month and a half late.

Je me souviens is coming

Canwest’s Marianne White has an interview with the guy behind that Quebec obituary channel that was approved last week. He says he wants to have it up by the summer and, if all goes well, start a similar English-language service at some point in the future. It also talks to funeral home owners who say they like the idea, so long as it’s done in a tasteful way.

CP also has an article on the channel in which the guy says basically the same things. That in turn is expanded in a Globe piece which points out how unlikely it is that people are going to sit in their living rooms for hours on end watching obituaries scroll by (though I could see a Weather Network-like model, repeating them every 10-20 minutes and people checking in once a day when they want to see who’s died recently)

Magdalen TV

Diffusion communautaire des Îles, the company behind CFIM radio on the Îles de la Madeleine, has gotten approval to setup a community cable channel, which would be distributed through the only cable operator on the islands which have a population of about 13,000. Their goals are modest: two hours a week of local programming, rising gradually to five hours a week in 2012-2013.

New approved channels

  • CNN International, the sister network to CNN that broadcasts stuff other than U.S. politics to the world outside Canada and the United States (usually with anchors who have British accents). We sometimes see this network late at night when breaking news happens. Now we’ll have access 24/7, at least for those with Shaw Cable or StarChoice, as Shaw was the one who requested it.
  • AUX TV, a channel devoted to emerging music artists. The CRTC rejected a request that they be partially exempted from having to close-caption user-generated content.
  • TREK TV, a channel devoted to “world cultures, travel, geography, exploration and anthropology” (sadly, not space travel). Again, the CRTC rejected partial exemption from CC for user-generated content.

All these networks will need to negotiate with cable and satellite providers before they’re carried on those systems.

Global getting on the digital bandwagon

Canwest has gotten approval to setup digital transmitters for CICT in Calgary and CITV in Edmonton, two of its biggest stations. Both stations would broadcast in high definition.

CTV and Global have been slow to setup digital stations, even though there’s a deadline looming in 2011, because of the cost, the current recession and the instability in conventional television broadcasting.

More HD, please

The following networks have applied for permission to begin distribution of HD versions:

Barrie examined

The Barrie Examiner looks at conventional television and CKVR-TV in Barrie, the CTV A-Channel station that survived being shutdown but has laid off a third of its staff and cancelled its morning show.

We didn’t get called!

I don’t usually look at the telecom side of the CRTC’s affairs, but a recent survey shows that 80% of Canadians have noticed a drop in telemarketing calls since Canada’s Do-Not-Call list was launched.

Speaking of telecom, the company behind the Weather Network told the CRTC that mobile providers are putting up walls to control what kind of content (i.e. theirs) can be accessed through wireless networks.

*For the three of you unaware, Canwest is my employer through my contract at The Gazette (though they weren’t my employer in 2007 when I commented about changes at Global Quebec).

CRTC roundup: broken television

Canadian television network breakdown

The big news this week is the release by the CRTC of submissions from major Canadian private television broadcasters whose licenses are up for renewal in August. This includes CTV/A, Global/E!, TVA, Sun TV, Citytv and OMNI. (TQS is the notable exception since it had its own dealings with the CRTC after it went bankrupt).

The CRTC has suggested having one-year license renewals (instead of standard seven-year ones) and dealing with the TV financial crisis in the meantime. The networks have gone along with that and are recommending status quo until August 2010.

The private networks (especially CTV Globemedia and Canwest) are re-repeating all of the please-give-us-money talking points they’ve been sending toward the CRTC for years now, including bringing up their pet project of forcing cable and satellite companies to give them money for putting their free over-the-air channels on their systems, mainly because they can’t find a way to make a profit off advertising and say the system is broken.

Among their other money-grabbing and money-saving ideas:

  • More access to the new Local Programming Improvement Fund (deigned to help with local programming at small-market stations) by expanding them to larger markets (Canwest even argues that CJNT Montreal should have access to the fund even though it doesn’t provide any local news.)
  • Having the ability to own their own production companies instead of being forced to use independent production houses
  • That the proposed 1:1 ratio of spending on Canadian vs. non-Canadian programming is “not viable” because it would mean cutting back on the very thing that is generating the revenue to keep the networks afloat (and besides, CTV argues, they’ve already signed contracts for the 2009-2010 broadcast year)

Canwest proposes a “5 and 10” rule that would require 5 hours a week of local programming for stations serving markets of under a million viewers, and 10 hours a week for stations serving markets of over a million. Since most Canwest stations already have local programming requirements far in excess of 10 hours a week, this would save it a lot of money. (It counts only four stations as being in large markets – even Global Quebec is considered small because it only counts English-speaking viewers, which means it would drop from 18 hours a week of local programming to only five)

Even Quebec’s TVA, which does plenty of local (or at least regional) programming, wants to cut back. It’s asking to reduce the amount of local programming at its Quebec City station from 21 hours a week to 12 UPDATE: They now say they only want to cut it to 18 hours a week.

Canwest even proposes going further than its continued demand for money from cable companies, and throw out some new ideas that nobody has suggested before, including:

  • Non-simultaneous substitution, which would replace U.S. signals with Canadiens ones showing the same programming, even if they’re not being broadcast on both channels simultaneously.
  • Banning commercial advertising from CBC
  • Government assistance for digital conversion
  • Tax cuts

UPDATE: More coverage from the Globe and Mail, which also looks at how much the networks are spending on Canadian versus foreign content.

Canwest wants Global Quebec to become Global Montreal

As part of its submission to the CRTC on license renewal, Canwest said it wants to convert only primary transmitters of its 15 major stations to digital by 2011, and as part of that it wants to convert regional networks Global Ontario and Global Quebec into local stations in Toronto and Montreal, respectively. CKMI-TV is actually based out of Quebec City (and also serves the Eastern Townships through a transmitter in Sherbrooke), but all its programming, including its newscasts, originate in Montreal.

The change wouldn’t affect programming but would allow CKMI to attract local advertisers, even though Canwest says they would not be taking advantage of this much.

CTV wants to pull the plug on CJOH-8

In its submission to the CRTC, CTVglobemedia put forward a long list of television transmitters it said it would not apply for licenses to renew past August. Included in that list is a retransmitter for CJOH Ottawa in Lancaster, Ont., on Channel 8. Montrealers and off-islanders with good TV antennas will note that this transmitter serves southwestern Quebec since it is just across the border. Shutting the transmitter down means those near the Ontario/Quebec border will have to tune into CJOH’s Ottawa transmitter or CFCF-12 in Montreal.

The Obituary Channel?

The CRTC has granted approval for a regional Quebec cable channel called Je me souviens, which will be devoted essentially to obituaries and related public notices. The CRTC did not agree to a request to carry local advertising in addition to the obits, however.

The channel (which is a private venture unconnected to the major broadcasting companies) is interesting because it’s an original idea and because it’s a regional network (most cable networks are national in order to reach as broad an audience as possible).

But if Astral Media couldn’t keep its TATV shopping channel on the air, does a regional channel of nothing but obituaries stand a chance?

UPDATE: I see CJAD reads this blog.

Pay up, CFAV

The CRTC has denied a request from Laval radio station CFAV 1570 AM, which wanted to be excused from the $8,000 a year it has to pay to promote Canadian artists. Its excuse is that it’s not making a profit. The CRTC says rules are rules.

Rogers wants carte blanche on OLN

Rogers has asked for some very radical amendments to its license for the Outdoor Life Network (OLN). Among them, it wants to be able to use sitcoms, comedy shows and animated shows, reduce its restriction on televising live sports, and reduce requirements for Canadian content. The proposal was so radical it caught the eye of the Globe and Mail.

TVA wants carte blanche on specialty channels

Speaking of radical amendments, TVA has filed requests to add more programming categories for three of its specialty channels: Mystère (mystery), Argent (financial news) and Idées de ma maison (home/living). While some might make sense in a world where various forms of programming blend together (say, a game show about science), it’s hard to see some of these categories as being requested solely so that TVA can stretch the envelope and provide programming that has only a tenuous connection to the mandate of the channel.

Among the categories they’d like to add:

  • Religion programming
  • Professional and amateur sports, including live sporting events
  • Drama, sitcoms, comedy programming, animated programs
  • Music videos

I’m all for flexibility, but can you imagine a program that has music videos about mysteries? Or a sitcom about financial news?

The Weather/Emergency Network

Pelmorex, the strangely-named owner of the Weather Network/MétéoMédia, is asking for the CRTC to require that all cable and satellite companies operating in Canada have the networks as part of their basic digital services (it’s already required on analog cable). In exchange, the networks will act as “a national public alerting aggregator”, distributing emergency information.

To sweeten the deal, Pelmorex gives idle threats about how their existence will be in “jeopardy” if they can’t force that $0.23 per subscriber out of us, even though most Canadians already (happily) get the Weather Network by default.

Still, having the Weather Network distribute emergency information makes sense, if only because many such emergencies are weather-related and TWN already deals with emergency weather alerts.

The only problem is: Shouldn’t it be the broadcast networks (like, say, CBC/Radio-Canada) who distribute emergency information, so it’s over the air where everyone can receive it?

HD vs. SD

While Canal Évasion wants to start an HD version of the channel, the owners of three HD-only networks – Oasis HD, Treasure HD and Equador HD – want to distribute those channels in standard definition. This isn’t the first request of this kind I’ve seen, and is probably a reflection of the fact that while most Canadians have cable or satellite service, the number with HD service and sets is not as high as they had expected by now, and offering a downgraded SD signal will allow them to reach a larger audience.

And finally

The CRTC has approved a request to add five networks, all of third-language programming originating from east and southeast Asia, to the list of eligible channels for satellite providers.

CRTC Roundup: Rogers gets its own CP24

The big news this month is that Rogers has been given permission to launch its own 24-hour all-news channel in the Toronto area called CityNews.

Now, you might think, doesn’t City already have a 24-hour all-news channel for the Toronto area?

No, silly. CP24, the existing all-Toronto, all-news station, was owned by CHUM, which also owned City. But CHUM was acquired by CTV, which was forced to dump City as a result to satisfy the CRTC. For some reason known only to the CRTC, that didn’t include CP24, even though it was heavily linked to CityTV. Rogers ended up buying City, and is now the one behind this new network.

Even under CTV, CP24 is very much a City network. It even airs City News three times daily. Now, not only does CTV have to figure out how CP24 and CTV Newsnet are going to coexist, it has to deal with this new channel from Rogers which is no doubt going to take all the City content for itself.

Oh, and how does the CRTC justify having two Toronto all-news stations like this? Well, they split hairs like I’ve never seen before (emphasis mine):

CITY News (Toronto) would provide a niche news service targeted to Greater Toronto. In contrast, CP24’s mandate is and has always been to serve the region of Southern Ontario.

Yes, that’s right. CITY is for Toronto, while CP24 is for Southern Ontario. Therefore they don’t compete directly with each other. Yeah.

I might have understood if the CRTC pointed to its recent decision to allow more competition for news and spoirts programming. Instead, it came up with the flimsiest excuse in the book to pretend like the obvious isn’t true.

The application was opposed by CTV (for obvious reasons) and by The Weather Network, because of City’s unhealthy obsession with providing information on the weather.

Elsewhere in the news/blogosphere:

CTV wants HD loophole

CTV is applying for special permission from the CRTC to distribute HD versions of its local stations (including CFCF Montreal) to cable and satellite networks, even though those stations do not have digital broadcast licenses (and the CRTC normally requires that before distributing HD feeds). CTV offers excuses for not getting those licenses, and says that they should be granted this loophole to keep Canadians from seeking the same programming on U.S. networks. Deadline for comments is Jan. 9.

TSN2 is OK

Following complaints about the launch of TSN2 by the CBC and The Score, the CRTC has concluded that, though TSN is essentially exploiting a loophole to create a new channel, it has every right to do so. TSN2 takes advantage of time shifting and a special allowance to replace up to 10% of its programming on split feeds (presumably to get around regional blackouts for live sporting events) in order to create a second channel which shows 90% identical programming (though time-shifted three hours from TSN) and 10% different live sporting events from TSN.

Two new French-language networks

The CRTC approved Category 2 digital licenses for two new French-language networks:

Category 2 networks, which most new specialty channels are approved as, has no protection from direct competition (though it can’t directly compete with existing analog channels). They also have no guaranteed carriage rights, which means they have to negotiate with cable and satellite providers for a spot on their grids (and then get subscribers to add them).

More HD!

The following networks have received approval to setup high-definition versions of themselves:

West Wing is back on CLT, only it’s not CLT anymore

Before I could get a chance to delete CLT from my cable subscription list since it was no longer running The West Wing and there wasn’t anything else worthy of my attention on it, the newly Corus-owned network has rebranded itself “Viva” and has gone from “Canadian Learning Television” to “television for boomer women”.

Apparently boomer women are all about political/legal dramas, which also include Judging Amy and Commander in Chief.

But since I am neither boomer, nor a woman, should I not be allowed to subscribe to this channel?

The West Wing has come back, Mondays to Thursdays at 9pm and 2am. They’re starting it at the beginning of Season 6, which means you’ll be able to see as it re-enacts Barack Obama’s Matthew Santos’s campaign through the Democratic primaries and his narrow victory (sorry if I spoiled it for you) over an old fiscal conservative Republican senator with a wacko Christian running-mate to become the first coloured president of the United States.

(Of course, Santos is latino, not black; he was running to replace a very popular Democratic president; and he beat two opponents through multiple ballots at the convention who were men who had served as vice-president; not to mention the fact that Santos won Texas and his opponent won California)

Broadcasting regulation nerdgasm

The CRTC got real busy last week making some big announcements/decisions/suggestions about television broadcasting regulations. Many of them are boring, minor or technical, but here are a few that aren’t:

Over-the-air carriage fees

The big one for broadcasting companies like Canwest/Global, CTV, TQS and Quebecor is the decision to reject the suggestion that “broadcast distribution units” (i.e. cable and satellite companies) should be required to pay fees to TV broadcasters who broadcast over the air freely.

This idea came out of the whole TQS saga, when the network’s owners decided that it needed the ability to somehow blackmail cable companies into giving them money. Since cable specialty channels get per-subscriber fees in exchange for their content, shouldn’t broadcast networks – whose budgets are supposedly higher because they need to produce local news – get money too?

The flip side of the coin is that these network broadcasters are broadcasting freely, using public airwaves. Cable and satellite companies are required by law to carry local broadcast channels on their basic packages. Subscribers don’t get any added value from getting over-the-air stations on cable (except, perhaps, not having to deal with rabbit ears), so why should they have to pay for them?

The CRTC’s decision was tough (emphasis mine):

CTVgm and Canwest proposed that any FFC only be made available if broadcasters meet monthly local programming requirements. However, they did not commit that the FFC, or any portion of it, would result in incremental spending on Canadian programming.

While OTA broadcasters have shown a recent decline in profitability, they, as other enterprises, might first look to their own business plans before making a request for increased revenue from the Commission. In the Proceeding, no business plans suggesting new sources of revenue were provided to the Commission. Neither the rationale for strategic initiatives by OTA broadcasters, such as recent major acquisitions, nor the basis for financing those initiatives or the impact of those initiatives on profitability were explained to the Commission at the public hearing.

The CRTC did cave on one point though: It said that so-called “distant signals” (e.g. CTV Vancouver for us Montrealers) should be able to “negotiate” carriage, in order to offset the trouble that this time-shifting business has caused. What that effectively means is that broadcasters can set rates for out-of-market broadcast stations and simply not allow their channels to be carried on other regions’ cable networks unless they pay their fees.

Broadcasters are happy with the parts of the decision that give them money, and unhappy with the ones that don’t. They’re for less regulation in the broadcasting industry, but they want corporate socialism for the “ailing” over-the-air broadcasting sector.

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Cash Cab and other Discovery Channel cash grabs

Back in January, I worried with my infinite wisdom about an application to the CRTC by Discovery Channel Canada to allow game shows as part of its programming categories. I worried that this might be an excuse to import a U.S. British trivia show called Cash Cab into Canada, stretch the limits of the channel’s mandate and suck up some easy cash.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. The CRTC approved the change in its license, and Discovery announced that it was carbon-copying importing the format for use here. I still held out hope that the format would be predominantly educational in nature, and/or that the subjects of the questions would deal with science, technology and nature.

After watching a couple of episodes (you can see complete episodes online here), it seems my original fears were more than justified.

For those who haven’t seen it (or don’t want to see it), Cash Cab’s format has a guy driving a van through the streets of Toronto, and then surprising people who come aboard by telling them they’re on a TV game show they’ve never heard of (a part that’s either hilarious or awkward depending on your tastes). He then asks them questions, gives money for each right answer, and when they get three wrong they’re booted out of the cab.

It’s nothing more than a cookie-cutter trivia show with a lame hook. Some of the questions are certainly scientific in nature, but others relate to sports, business, history and even popular culture. It’s hard to distinguish these questions from the ones on every other trivia-based game show out there.

Discovery’s reputation: Destroyed in Seconds

For how bad Cash Cab is, Destroyed in Seconds is worse. This embarrassment of programming is essentially a carbon copy of World’s Most Amazing Videos (which currently airs on Spike TV), in all the bad ways imaginable. Here’s how both shows work:

  1. Find a video that shows some catastrophic event: a plane crash, a bridge collapse, an explosion. Usually this will be amateur video of poor quality, but that’s ok. In fact, it adds to the realness of the show.
  2. Ensure that nobody dies in the event that took place. You wouldn’t want to be accused of profiting off someone’s death, after all. You want miraculous escapes and/or recoveries here. Exceptions can be made if the video is really good and you don’t actually see any bodies.
  3. Show the video as a man with an exaggerated voice explains the situation (usually something along the lines of “it looks like an ordinary day, but in a few seconds their lives will be in mortal danger”), until the surprising, terrifying event happens.
  4. Have the narrator explain, as briefly as possible, what caused the catastrophy, as well as the aftermath.
  5. Show the moment of catastrophe over and over and over again. Slow-motion, zoomed-in, any different way you can think of. Have the narrator point out how the people on the video were “inches from certain death” or “moments from disaster” or “lucky to escape with only minor injuries”
  6. Move on to the next clip.

There is no educational value to this show whatsoever. You learn nothing other than what an explosion looks like.

Compare that with a show like Mayday (my personal favourite) which re-enacts airplane accidents (with cool computer graphics) and then explains very seriously and clearly what caused them and what has been done to ensure they don’t happen again. Or Mythbusters, which tests sometimes silly hypotheses, but does them in (mostly) scientific ways. Both have the idea of teaching viewers as the main focus, and entertainment is a convenient medium to do so.

For Cash Cab and Destroyed in Seconds, the main focus is to entertain. That’s not a bad thing, and these shows have their homes (Cash Cab on the Game Show Network, Destroyed in Seconds on Spike TV), but neither belong on the Discovery Channel.

If we’re going to continue with the idea that specialty channels should have protected formats (and you’re well within your rights to question whether that’s necessary anymore), we should honour those formats, not try to find ways around them to pad the bottom line.

HBO Canada coming, but it won’t be any cheaper

Corus and Astral have put the word out that they’re creating HBO Canada, a channel that will be part of the Movie Network/Movie Central premium packages that will offer all-HBO programming (when it’s not fulfilling its CanCon requirements). This will mean simulcasting of HBO shows and, for the first time, the legal airing of Real Time with Bill Maher in Canada.

Reports from the Globe and Sun Media.

UPDATE: Digital Home has a good history of satellite TV in Canada and why HBO is illegal.

When is a channel not a channel?

Hey, remember back when I said you should expect CTV’s competitors to get mad when it decided to brand a regional split of TSN into a separate channel called TSN2?

Yeah, they got mad.

TSN says it’s respecting the letter of the law, and that only 10% of programming will differ between the channels. But Score Media wants the CRTC to clarify that this should apply to advertising as well.

Either way, TSN is selling this as an entirely separate cable channel, not as a split feed. And that, at least, seems to be going against the spirit of its license.

CRTC Roundup: Shaw seeks CNN International license

Shaw Communications has asked the CRTC to add CNN International to the list of eligible channel imports for Canadian cable and satellite companies. Canadian viewers’ exposure to CNNI is currently limited to the British-sounding people they sometimes hear behind an anchor desk during a noon-hour show or when breaking news happens late at night. The programming is distinctly different from CNN’s U.S. channel, and obviously focuses much less on U.S.-specific stuff.

The CRTC’s notice suggests it is ready to approve the channel, since it doesn’t compete with Canadian networks and is unlikely to have any program licensing issues.

No HD for you

Also from the CRTC this week is a denial for a new channel called Canada HD Network, which I mocked back in July. Back then I suggested the CRTC would likely deny the request unless it got much more specific about programming. Otherwise it would compete with conventional general-interest broadcasters.

Sure enough, there were objections from CTV, Canwest, Rogers, Astral Media, The Score and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, and Canada HD Network was shown the door. Similar decisions were made against its Diversion channel in high-definition and standard-definition (which were for some reason filed separately)

New HD channels coming

The CRTC has approved high-definition versions of the following CTV-owned specialty channels:

  • CTV Newsnet
  • Business News Network
  • MTV Canada
  • Comedy Network
  • travel+escape
  • Outdoor Life Network

This is only the first step in the process. The HD channels must now be created and CTV must negotiate with carriers to have the HD versions added to their lineups.

Good news, bad news for CMT

CMT Canada (Country Music Television) had a few requests for amendments to its license:

  1. It wanted to make changes to the categories of programs it can air, by adding animated programming and improv/stand-up comedy, by increasing (slightly) its cap on drama/comedy programming and by removing restrictions on the number of feature films it can air (though those films must still feature country music artists). All programming would still have to fit in with the country music theme and fit existing limits on non-music-video programming. Since no opposition was voiced and the proposed changes are not huge, the requests were approved.
  2. CMT wanted to change the criteria by which videos are deemed “Canadian” to judge only the music and not the video itself. For music video television stations to consider a music video as Cancon-compliant, not only must the music be produced/written/performed by a Canadian (similar to the criteria radio stations use), but the video itself must have been produced by Canadians. This means that a Shania Twain music video wouldn’t be Cancon if it was entirely produced in the States, even though the song itself counts as Cancon for radio stations. This request was denied because it would change policy across the board.
  3. CMT wanted to change its required financial contribution minimums. Currently it must spend 22% of gross revenues, half on creating new Canadian country music videos and half on creating new (original) programming. It wanted to shift the balance toward programming and away from videos. Partly this is because CMT is less of a music video station (its requirement dropped from 90% to 50%), and partly this is because it would have to spend less of that remaining 78% on original/Canadian programming to meet CRTC requirements if it could shift that budget over. This request was also denied, as the CRTC pointed out that CMT’s revenues have gone up and the network is hardly in a financial crisis.

Télétoon Rétro launches

Videotron Illico subscribers get their first taste of Teletoon Retro on Channel 97 (French) and on Channel 159 (English). (Data for the channels apparently haven’t been input yet into the on-screen guide, but the channels are live.)

Teletoon Retro was initially approved by the CRTC back in 2000, when all the networks were scrambling to come up with new specialty channels. It was then re-approved in 2005, when Teletoon actually wanted to launch it. The English version launched last year, and the French version launched today, hence the inclusion of both on Videotron’s Illico service.

In case it’s non-obvious, Teletoon Retro is a classic cartoon network, with repeats of Spider-Man, Scooby Doo and The Jetsons, Rocky & Bullwinkle and others.

Sadly (and curiously), the channels are not being offered as free previews to subscribers. Instead, Videotron has added the channels to the popular Anglo and Franco packages, and both to the digital Telemax package at no extra charge. (This means your humble correspondent gets access to the anglo version but not the franco one.)

UPDATE (Sept. 9): Richard Therrien points out that the franco channel doesn’t have much home-grown cartoons, and prefers to have dubbed Bugs Bunny instead.

UPDATE (Sept. 11): Therrien adds that Bell TV (formerly ExpressVu) has no plans to add the channel in the near future due to lack of interest.

For sale: TATV channel

The channel grid is going to change a bit in the near future. Astral Media announced on Tuesday that its Tout acheter tout vendre specialty TV channel is suspending operations effective immediately (via Steph). Le Soleil rewrites the press release, which notes that 18 full-timers and 10 part-timers are now out of a job.

Needless to say, it’s the Internet that led to the network’s downfall. Putting ad on Craigslist is much cheaper than the $20 it’ll cost to put your old dresser or used car on TV where nobody will see it.

The immediate question is what’s going to happen to that spot on the dial. The station is at channel 12 on Videotron basic cable (despite its low number, the channel is actually among the worst to be assigned to because of interference from the very powerful CFCF transmitter) and channel 27 on Videotron’s Illico.

The network is still running its existing advertisements for clients who have already paid, though it isn’t taking any more listings (even if it’s putting its phone number out over the air and asking people to buy ads).

It’s unclear at this point whether the channel will be released back to cable companies to do reassign as they please or whether Astral will try to do something else with it.

This leaves all-infomercial network Shopping TVA as the last of its kind on the cable dial. Any bets on how long it’ll survive?

CRTC roundup: Cancon porn, TSN2 and the Rural Channel

Lots more fun out of the CRTC this week:

Insert “beaver” joke here

The biggest news (or at least the most titillating) is the approval of a new Canadian-based pornography channel. Called Northern Peaks (cute), it would feature 50% Canadian content (i.e. Canadian-produced porn) from various categories, including pornographic sitcoms and game shows (that actually sounds like fun, but it’s really just the company covering all bases, so to speak).

The 50% mark is actually quite unusual, and is well above what would normally be required for such a network. But apparently it was the applicant’s request, according to the National Post:

Mr. Donnelly said he was required to offer as little as 15% Canadian content to appease regulators.

But because he wants “to legitimately be Canada’s adult channel,” he started at half Canadian. He said there is a huge unfulfilled market in Canada for local porn. Beginning last year, he began getting calls from cable companies looking to license his Canadian productions.

“I’ve always found there’s a real turn-on to watching and knowing it’s people you could run into in the grocery store,” he said.

But with more than 200 titles (and presumably they can be replayed over and over again, since most viewers wouldn’t mind repeats of classic programming), he thinks he can do it.

Quoth the CRTC: “The Commission did not receive any interventions in connection with this application.” Really? Not even from the pizza guy? Or that nosy peeping-tom neighbour you’re just waiting to have sex in front of so they can masturbate to it?

Needless to say the media had a field day with this one, the National Post turning it into a front-page story (complete with photo) and an opinion piece that’s pretty tongue-in-cheeks (sorry) asking readers to comment and either denounce the channel or come up with some programming ideas for it. (A funny side-effect of the latter is offhand mentions of Sheila Copps and Avi Lewis, which means searches for these two under “related stories” brings up a comment about a porn channel they have nothing to do with.)

One comment posted to the Post:

When do the adults at the Post return from summer holiday?

Of course, it wasn’t just the Post. The Globe and Mail also had a lengthy article on it (about 12 inches), and the news was picked up by Canadian Press and Reuters and Agence France-Presse and reached news outlets all around the world (well, those two anyway). It also got a mention on an anti-abortion (but still pro-women) conservative website.

The channel is being run by Real Productions (apparently not this Real Productions nor that Real Productions, which appear lower in the Google raking and I’m guessing confused or offended at least a few potential customers), which is run by a man named Shaun Donnelly (but not this Shaun Donnelly, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Europe and the Middle East).

Due to the nature of the channel, it can’t be included in any channel packages and must be specifically requested by the subscriber. The network also promises to spend at least 25% of revenues on developing new programming.

Also of note is the 100% closed-captioning requirement, which may foreshadow a fight with Videotron concerning their demand that they not have to closed-caption on-demand video porn.

UPDATE (Aug. 18): The Globe has more on the channel, including an idea of what a broadcast day would look like. And then even more on the channel here. (They won’t let this story go, will they?)

UPDATE (Aug. 24): Farked. With suggestions on Canadian porn titles. Some of these people should write headlines for a living.

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CRTC roundup: Videotron doesn’t want to closed-caption porn

Lots of fun at the CRTC:

  1. Videotron has applied for a change in the license for its illico video-on-demand system. They want a change in the requirement that it broadcast closed-captioning with 90% of all programming during the day to add an exception: “adult movies and programs for pre-school children.” In other words, they don’t want to have to waste money closed-captioning on-demand porn and baby programming that nobody is going to read anyway.
  2. Rogers, which owns CITYtv but not the CP24 all-news cable channel that CITY started (that station belongs to CTV after CTV bought CHUM, even though it shares a newsroom with Rogers-owned CITYtv — complicated enough for you?) wants to create a new all-news, all-Toronto digital specialty channel with the imaginative name CITY News (Toronto). Presumably, this would replace CP24, which would then be properly absorbed into CTV, which would have to decide what to do with it since it already has its own all-news network.
  3. The Fight Network wants to create a new digital specialty channel Le Réseau des combats, which would be a French version of its existing programming.
  4. Application for a new digital specialty channel Chaîne Ethnoculturelle Clovys Entertainment Channel, which would broadcast mainly francophone music from urban, world and latin music styles.
  5. CTV wants to amend the license for MuchMusic to allow it to carry game shows (presumably music-related, but then again this is MuchMusic we’re talking about)
  6. The CBC (and its gajillion partners) are applying for a license to broadcast the Documentary channel in high definition. Considering the channel is mostly NFB archives from the 70s, this would seem to have limited use.
  7. VidéOptique Inc. wants to create an on-demand programming network in Drummondville and nearby areas.
  8. Corus Entertainment wants to move its talk radio station 102.1 FM from Montmagny to Quebec City to make it a Quebec City station and have access to the much larger urban market.

UPDATE (Aug. 2): Pat Lagacé has some comments about Videotron and porn CC. He says deaf people will have to start reading lips of the porn actors. I’m not quite sure which lips he’s referring to.