Friday, March 06, 2009

SCORCHED EARTH


On January 18, 2002, a Canadian Pacific freight train loaded with toxic chemicals derailed near Minot, North Dakota, releasing 835,000 litres of ammonia. One man was killed and hundreds were injured by exposure to the spill.

The impact of the accident would have been much less severe, but police were unable to reach anyone at the designated emergency broadcaster, local radio station KCJB because the station had been swallowed up by American mega-broadcaster Clear Channel and was staffed only by "cyberjocks".

A cyberjock is one of the ways big broadcasters save money, eliminating hundreds of local jobs by having one DJ or newscaster serve dozens of affiliated stations across the country while sounding like he's just down the block.

CTV and CanWest Global want to bring this kind of broadcasting to Canada.

On April 29, 2007, a tornado struck the Texas border town of Eagle Pass, killing seven, injuring 80 and leaving hundreds homeless. A National Weather Service warning of the approaching danger had not been broadcast to the people of Eagle Pass.

Eagle Pass residents get their TV news from San Antonio, 142 miles away, where the forecast was for extreme weather but detected no tornadoes in the immediate vicinity.

CTV and CanWest Global want to bring this kind of broadcasting to Canada.

This week, our financially troubled broadcasters, CTV and CanWest Global, filed license renewal applications with the CRTC. Both requested "relief" from their obligations, seeking to eliminate local news, reduce Canadian content in Prime Time and pretty much everything else we've come to expect from their current slate of channels.

Except the imported American series.

They're safe because they're locked into iron-clad distribution contracts which run through 2012.

Oh, and they'd really like the CRTC to take another look at those "carriage fees".

For, contrary to what they told the Commission six months ago -- that such fees would allow them to vastly expand and enhance their Canadian programming, it now appears that without a buck a month from each and every TV viewer in the country, they can't even stay on the air.

As I've posted so many times I'm becoming bored by my own writing, and most recently here and here, the problems of the Canadian networks are the result of myopic mis-management. And with these new applications, both CTV's Ivan Fecan and CanWest Global's Lenny Asper are making it crystal clear that they and their enablers mistook a Bull market for brains.

Still, CTV backed up its case by firing 108 more people and dialing down local news on their "A" Channel circuit. This included a brush back pitch aimed right at the Commission's chin by reducing newscasts in the heart of the Nation's Capitol.

I'm sure this would have had more impact if members of the Commission actually watched television. But, during last week's hearings on New Media, already aware that Commissioner Michel Arpin prefers curling up with a good book to Cancon, we were treated to Chair Konrad von Finckenstein asking a Writers Guild of Canada panel "This "ZOS", that's a Canadian production?" revealing he's never heard of The Movie Network's most heavily promoted recent mini-series.

The next day the Commissioners fell all over themselves telling an attractive intervenor from Sirius Radio that they were big fans of what she was offering. Howard Stern must have been laughing his smut lacquered ass off.

These are the people who run our lives, folks. The blind leading the blind.

A writer friend looked at their prediction for the future landscape of the industry and muttered, "It's a scorched earth policy. I want no part of it". And I agree with him on both counts.

The recent moves of both CanWest and CTV are a desperate, panic-inducing strategy designed to convince everybody that the broadcast television model is broken and only by throwing more money at their particular coterie of failed executives can things be returned to normal. It's a card often played by an entitled few willing to destroy thousands of lives and careers in order to keep their own cold, dead fingers wrapped around the levers of media power.

Let's just think about this reduction of local news for a second.

In the places they aren't outright closing the stations, the broadcasters intend to replace local newscasts with "regional" ones or just reduce the number of broadcasts. The 6:00 p.m. newscast thus repeats at 11:00 p.m. or the 11:00 p.m. repeats at 8:00 a.m. the next morning.

I realize that to a lot of the Toronto network executives making these decisions, cities like Barrie, Red Deer, Victoria or Ottawa seem like bucolic backwaters where nothing much happens anyway.

But they're not.

I get most of my news coverage from one of those expendable stations and can give you a ton of examples of those local newscasts coming in handy.

For starters -- how many "Snow days" have you had in your part of the country this winter?

We had 3 or 4 pretty big storms blow through in the middle of the night. Most of the kids around here walk to the nearest rural road where a school bus picks them up for school. Is that pre-storm 11:00 p.m. news repeat gonna tell their parents if that bus is even coming this morning?

What's the traffic like? Are any roads blocked? Is there more snow on the way?

I can find any number of Toronto stations (less than 40 clicks away) with live newscasts, but you know what -- sometimes we get a whole lot more snow than they do and sometimes the streets are buried there while we have sunny skies and Hummingbirds on the balcony.

So, if their news isn't relevant and my local "A" Channel is only serving yesterday's leftovers, where do I turn?

Wherever it is, you know it won't involve a television.

As some wag commented the last time this version of cyberjocking was floated, "Gee, the next time there's a flood in Winnipeg, I can turn on my TV and find out how much fun people are having at the street festival in Toronto".

Or how they're dying because they didn't know a tornado was coming or a train load of toxic chemicals had derailed.

What neither our broadcasters nor the Commissioners willing to give them relief seem to accept is that local broadcasting is the heart of the system and culling it will put even more of their assets on life support.

If I want to watch a major sporting event, a nearly new movie or a documentary on Antarctic seabirds, chances are I'm not watching it on CTV or Global. I'm getting that from a specialty channel or niche operation much further up the dial. Maybe I'm watching their simulcast of "House" or "CSI: Miami" but more likely I'm DVRing those to access the American broadcaster's better quality HD version.

What pulls me to my local Global or CTV outlet is either a local newscast which is informative and engaging enough to get me to linger on that channel, or Canadian programming I can't see anywhere else. Unfortunately, the CRTC has allowed both networks to wangle their way out of doing that sort of stuff.

So I found it somewhere else. And they have lower numbers that begin attracting fewer ad dollars.

No local news equals not only less local ad revenue but also less reason for people to watch. It's a self fulfilling suicide mission.

And providing CTV and Global with "Relief" only prolongs their inevitable demise. It also ill serves the public the Commission is mandated to serve and prevents those who might better run the media in these local markets to take over those licenses.

Would it be difficult for a new owner to make money? Of course it would. But it's tough making money anywhere these days and in order to make it, you'd need to figure out who your neighbors were, what was important to them and how to give them programming they couldn't get anywhere else.

It really doesn't have to be this hard.

When I first moved to Regina as a kid, the city only had one TV station. The next year, a second one opened in Moose jaw, serving the same region. One of the things the new guys did to find an audience was to put on a late movie on Friday and Saturday nights.

Late movies were something we kids had heard about on "Leave it to Beaver", but we'd never actually seen one. And now they were right here in Butt-kick.

The movies were always pretty crappy. A Horror film on Friday and a Western on Saturday. But we watched and in the process were introduced to our first local media sensation -- Roman Vimy.

Just before the movie started and at every single commercial break throughout, this slight little man with a pencil thin mustache and coke-bottle glasses would stare into the camera and say, "Men's underwear shorts -- three for a dollar!" in a thick Yiddish accent. Then standing next to a single, badly dressed mannequin, he'd point to socks, ties, T-shirts and suits with two pairs of pants and a belt available at Vimy's Men's Wear.

The "Shorts" line always cracked us up. It was a time when you never saw a pair of jockey shorts on TV let alone mentioned them by name. And elsewhere in our lives, be it a classroom, hockey locker room or bus loaded with kids from schools you didn't go to, any pause interrupted by "Men's underwear shorts -- three for a dollar!" always got a huge laugh.

At some point in early high school, a couple of buddies and I needed to get dressed up for something and decided to visit "Vimy's". It was a tiny store near the railroad tracks with the famed TV dummy standing in the window. One of those places so small you could touch both walls by spreading your arms out -- even at the age of fourteen. And true to his word, Vimy was able to outfit each of us to respectability at a cost that never got far into double digits.

It wasn't until much later in life that I thought about those continuous commercials and that store and wondered how Vimy afforded advertising on television and how all those ads endeared me to movies like "Werewolves in a Girl's Dormitory" or any Audie Murphy duster.

The answer was simple. It didn't cost him much and the station didn't need much because nobody wanted those movies. But as a result of serving a local need, they both did okay.

That's because the TV business was about getting people to watch what they put on.

Nobody had to fund convergence acquisitions or copy trendy celebrity magazine shows. Nobody needed advertisers targeting their core demographic or their brand image. Nobody was trying to make as much money as possible for the least amount of risk.

But local is television's future. Just as it has always been its successful past. And in this context, local can mean one small urban market or one underpopulated country.

We already have a vast array of options for the big stuff, the sports, the movies, the series with the big stars. They're available from their original broadcasters, through time-shifting, online and on a mobile phone. We don't need CTV and Global if all they are going to do is simulcast and repeat that product on endless platforms. Their only hope is in being better at something the big guys aren't already doing. Give me "Trailer Park Boys" and "Corner Gas" and "Mayerthorpe" because I won't ever get that from FOX, ABC or CBS -- and tell me what happened down the street before I go to bed.

And if you can't do that, give your licenses to people who will. Because somewhere, there's a guy with a fistful of underwear who'll advertise them so I can watch something I can't see anywhere else.

3 comments:

Dwight Williams said...

I'll second giving the licenses to people willing to provide the local content. News, drama, comedy, whatever you like.

JA Goneaux said...

Two years ago this month, my local barber packed it up and closed his shop.

Part of that was age (he's in his late 60s), part was health.

But mostly it was his landlord jacking up his rent.

His right, of course, but dumb economics, as the "Store for Rent" sign has been there ever since. I'd really like to see the business case where an empty shop makes you more money than one with a rent-paying tenant.

(Rumour has it that its for tax purposes, with one guy owning most of the block and waiting for the condos to move east from Greektown.)

Now, what links my former barber with your post? Mostly the local part. He was my main link to local "news" (gossip, rumour, what have you).

For instance, there was a building under renovation just up the street last year, and it collapsed, almost killing the people inside. I've heard NOTHING as to the reason, and short of Google News Alerts, I'll probably never know the cause. And since we're renovating soon, I'd kinda like to know if anyone responsible might be working inside my house...

The MSM turns its nose up at blogs, but if it doesn't want me to rely on alternative sources of neighbourhood intel, its pretty much a "put up or shut up" argument.

Dwight Williams said...

Shades of Somerset House here in Ottawa, M. Goneaux. I'm hoping that that particular building can yet be saved and renovated. It almost got demolished by City Hall in defiance of its owner's stated plans.

Anyway, enough of that sidebar topic. I think we're in agreement here.