Friday, April 04, 2008


Changes in the Canadian TV world are beginning to come thick and fast as our Broadcasters scramble to hold onto or entice an ever diminishing audience.

To be clear, the Canadian audience is actually becoming larger and exhibiting more diverse tastes. They're just not meeting their entertainment and information needs by way of what's been the norm on Canadian television.

More and more of our networks are jettisoning long running shows and established formats to chase a younger demographic, somehow missing the reality that these traditionally desired groups have less disposable income and more eclectic tastes that they find better served by Youtube, portable podcasts and assorted downloads. And very few of them park in front of a television Friday through Sunday.

In my own neighborhood, satellite dishes point in opposite directions to the "Expressvu" and "Dish" birds. Our growing immigrant population has quickly learned what any second generation Portuguese or Italian has known for decades, what they make here is white bread.

The business reality of the above plus alternative viewing options in the general population, compounded by the PVR driven self-scheduling mean our broadcasters can only count on original and finely targeted programming to make a dent in the national psyche.

Unfortunately they forgot to make any, or didn't realize they had to promote it when it came along.

So now they're down to scrounging for nickels and dimes to keep going.

Wednesday's online version of the Toronto Star featured an entertainment news article that should have been more honestly labeled as marketing spin. In it, CTV Executive VP of Corporate, Paul Sparkes, fired the first public salvo in the next Canadian broadcasting Cause Celebre -- paying for the right to "Time Shift".

Last year, the CRTC denied our Free To Air networks the right to begin charging cable companies (and in turn the viewers) for their services, gaining some additional commercial time as a trade off. But that apparently wasn't enough for them, so they're back, looking for a mere 50 cents per month per local station to allow their distribution beyond their home locales.

To this end, Mr. Sparkes tugs at our heartstrings as he lauds local broadcasters as the "backbone" of the Canadian industry and begs that we establish a "sustainable future" for these, our tireless friends and neighbors, who labor to bring the same news, weather and sports you can get from a dozen other advertiser supported sources to your home through their own, now finding it tough to compete, service.

Try not to get teary eyed as you read the following:

"Local newscasts do as much to forge the Canadian Identity as any other form of story telling, because after all, they chronicle our daily lives."

Forgive me, if I don't put the failed goalie turned sportscaster or the hot weather girl or those interchangeable meat puppets who show us how donuts get made or what it's like to be a school crossing guard up against Alice Munroe, Neil Young or Rick Mercer.

What Mr. Sparkes is tugging at isn't our national sensitivities but something else as he concocts this latest Broadcaster handjob for the CRTC.

Time Shifting is a cable/satellite initiative providing the television audience who don't own a PVR (something like 90% of us) with the ability to watch our favorite shows if the local broadcast time doesn't fit our schedule. But now that small comfort is in jeopardy so the Broadcasters can squeeze a few more dollars from the system.

In his pitch for mere nickels and dimes from cable companies that he hopes won't be billed to us, Mr. Sparkes conveniently ignores the fact that Time Shifting does more than almost any other element of the current TV landscape to increase the number of people watching a particular show on his network. And in increasing the overall ratings, it increases what CTV can charge its advertisers as well as providing the opportunity to produce more news releases bragging about how much better those numbers are than the competition.

This is already making them a ton of money at no cost. But faced with a capricious public and either disinterested in or incapable of creating programming to attract them, the Broadcasters see a new "fee" as their best chance of remaining solvent.

A couple of things really bug me about proposing that Cableco's pay Broadcasters 50 cents per local station per month to distribute them nationally, a process that would cost an maximum of $2.50 per subscriber per month. The first is that even if the CRTC admonishes Jim Shaw and Ted Rogers not to pass those costs onto us, they'll find a way, encouraging even more people to reduce the number of channels they currently purchase.

But what really gets me is this attempt to pretend providing mandated local news coverage also fulfills the Broadcaster's commitment to the culture. I mean, how sad is it when the spokesman for Canada's largest private network has so little homegrown story-telling on offer that he has to pretend footage of a Seniors sing-a-long or a truck in the ditch on Rural Route 2 are "The chronicle of our daily lives". God, even my life isn't that boring!

Nobody in their right mind or parts distant tunes in to the CTV Calgary affiliate to see who got punched out in the parking lot at "Cowboys". Likewise, I don't dial up Halifax to hear how the seal hunt's going or drop in on Vancouver to find out if it's going to rain this afternoon. I go to those places because there's a program I can't get here or watch when I'm available to watch it.

Somebody needs to let Mr. Sparkes in on a secret. With the arrival of the internet, the entire planet and near space is the new "local". In the last 24 hours, I watched a satellite dock with the space station, streamed unedited feeds from the NATO conference in Bucharest and caught a practice run for the Grand Prix in Bahrain!

I'm also beginning to wonder if the fall-off in local news viewing has something to do with the fact that we no longer have to be chained to the plasticized, gelded and otherwise cliched talking heads you find there who barely equate to anybody in the real world.

Sometimes I fall asleep watching "The Colbert Report" and wake up with the cast of "Canada AM" in my bedroom. Who are those people? Have you ever met anyone like them in real life? And why are their clones on every local newscast in the country?

Even when there's somebody reflecting the emerging face of our country, be they Asian, South Asian, Latino, Aboriginal or Black, some unbearable whiteness of being has been imprinted over them. Trust me, Mr. Sparkes, local news is the last thing reflecting, let alone chronicling our daily lives.

Through this 50 cent initiative, Canadian consumers are simply being milked to fund a corporate elite who long ago forgot the concept of providing value for money and now looks on cable subscription fees as their rightful monthly tithe. As a good friend of mine is fond of saying "Don't let the rich nickel and dime you. In most cases, that's the only reason they got rich."

Perhaps our Broadcasters should simply stop trying to sustain a broken business model and either find one that people will gladly pay for or move aside so somebody else can.

And for those who missed any local Toronto news. Here's about the only interesting thing a local broadcaster did all year...


Anonymous said...

Ha, that's actually my apartment building in the background. Riverdale Park.

I feel honored to make the Legion of Decency News.

Steve said...

Amen to this post. We need a competitive Canadian broadcasting (and cinema) industry. Rick Mercer is probably the most influential Canadian media personality today, because he's smart, funny, and entertaining. Not to mention original. There's a lot of talent out there in the trenches that gets committeed to death and replaced with the same old same old boring shows. So they put their stuff up on YouTube. You can't subsidize or legislate a culture into existence. It has to have quality.

And that's what we're missing in Canadian media.

Anonymous said...

You are right. We are being nickeled and dimed, alright. But it is the cable and satellite companies that are doing it to us as customers.

Month after month after month we get bills from them. And they charge us for the local stations in our package.

But the cable and satellite carriers pocket the money, with zero contribution to the system.

And you are right that time and channel shifting are great.

Anonymous said...


We can agree to disagree on a few things, but you've hit a homer with this post (although I'd have to say, get a PVR you cheap bastard. Seriously, the greatest thing ever invented. I haven't seen a full commercial in three months...)

The incestuous nature of "new" ownership is already starting to show the rot. The CRTC might was well be replaced with a half mannequins and a coin to make the really tough decisions. I mean, CSI: New York on the HISTORY Channel? Keanu Reeves on every other movie on APTN because he's one kabillionth Native?

The newspaper industry is dead, the body just hasn't stopped twitching. As someone has pointed out, they COULD carve out a niche by going local. I mean, I can go online and read 4,000 stories on the Olympic "relay" garbage: why would I need to read another story about it in the Star?

What I want to know is why the building just down the street from me collapsed. THAT I can't find anywhere else, and I'd be willing to pay for that knowledge.

The electronic media is just as dumb. As you pointed out (or was it Bill Brioux?) people don't WATCH networks anymore. They watch shows. And they can get them in myriad ways, and in fact the least attractive way for most folks is to wait around for a particular time, on a particular day just to be faced with a half dozen commercials every 10 minutes.

Most shows worth watching now are on DVD, and even if you are broke, you can get them from the library. Free.

And if you have a 12 year old at home, he can show you how to use Limewire, etc., to get them....

Not that any of us condone that, of course. Theft is illegal. Kinda like embedding a stolen news video or something like that...

BTW, its pretty much a Jim Henshaw Festival on DriveIn: Lions for Breakfast is on for breakfast tomorrow, Deadly Harvest and that one with all the alarm clocks too. See, I wasn't ALWAYS asleep in class...