Monday, May 04, 2009

MAY THE FOURTH BE WITH YOU

Uh…it’s a play on words causa the date and…anyways…

But that title also parallels the good wishes I want to offer my old hero, Jim Shaw, for the dramatic little industry game changer he pulled off at the end of last week.

                                                                         swear toast

Our non-fiction Al Swearengen played a little poker with CTV’s Ivan Fecan on Thursday night, called the net exec’s “the conventional television model is broken” bluff and came away with not only three local licences, (stations, transmitters, equipment and staff all rolled in) but a whole lot more than Fecan and all the high paid and bonused execs at CTVBellGlobeMediaEtc may even now be realizing they have lost.

Actually, a lot of us in the industry were picking up the obvious “tells” as Fecan appeared before the CRTC in Ottawa and turned up for highly unusual interviews on CTV News, BNN and even CBC Radio’s “The Hour”. “Methinks the fellow doth protest too much” quickly devolved to “He’s got nothin’…”. I was all set to truck up to Agincourt with a couple of Toonies myself, but gentlemen elites such as Jor-el do not sit down at cards with the likes of me.

But Jim Shaw can cadge a chair at the high-rollers’ table and anted in his $3 for Brandon, Wheatley (Windsor) and Wingham. Even knowing full well that Fecan was playing with his own deck didn’t matter. Because an old poker player like Jim already knew that his opponent’s cards would never be turned over. Fecan couldn’t let the Canadian public really see what he was holding and would therefore have to fold.

Fecan’s bluff had been confirmed by another player earlier in the day when CRTC Commissioner Leonard Katz asked CTV exactly which of their licenses were not going to be renewed. The previously named three were placed on the sacrificial block and then, in detailing why each station was being cut free, Fecan let it be known that if the Local programming support fund already in the pipeline arrived sooner than expected, at least one of those stations might be welcomed back into the CTV fold.

Both Katz and I (and apparently Jim Shaw as well) experienced a profound “WTF?” moment. Was he saying that the funding already in place made any lack of Carriage Fees moot? And if the Wheatley station was that close to being okay, just how exaggerated were the broadcasters’ other claims of poverty???

Fecan’s argument had already been hard to swallow on a number of levels. In trying to appear as the fair haired champion of all things local, he’d argued that if the Cable companies had room for Porn, there should be room for stations like Timmins – neglecting to mention that the Sympatico satellite division of his own conglomerate would laugh him out of their cubicle down the hall for suggesting that the money rolling in for “Debbie Does Don Mills” should be used to shore up some Northern Ontario backwater.

Their argument would parallel Fecan’s own that the money rolling in from his Specialty channels could not be spent to support another division of the same company. Even though CBC had made clear earlier in the hearings that those Specialties still needed the Free to Air net’s much wider audience in order to initiate programming.

Katz’s pulling back of the corporate veil at CTV was followed up by the next Commissioner to question their arguments. Peter Menzies asked for a simple assurance that the network had done all it could to lower costs. If he was going to make a ruling that dipped further into the public pocket, he just wanted to know that Canadian TV viewers weren’t sustaining somebody else’s lifestyle at the expense of their own.

The CTV group assured him they had cut their expenses “to the bone” – somehow missing the obvious optics that Fecan had opened the festivities by introducing the eleven (count ‘em – Eleven) senior network executives who flanked him – all of whom apparently had the day free from their now crushing workload of new multiple responsibilities in order to be in Gatineau.

Also telling amid this series of “tells” was that despite ample opportunities offered by Commission Chair Konrad von Finckenstein for input on how the broken conventional model of television could be fixed, Fecan offered nothing but “give us more money”.

Seemingly unable to articulate how that money could be spent, be it on local news or maybe even drama, to bring back both audience and advertisers, he raised the same question a lot of people have been asking about auto industry bailouts -- “If nobody’s buying the product, how does keeping the company afloat a while longer solve that problem?”

Even when von Finckenstein mentioned that it’s been a downhill slope for “ten years”, Fecan couldn’t come up with one idea on what might change things.

Anybody remember what happened ten years ago? 1999? The year the nets won a reprieve from doing expensive dramas in favor of cheaper to produce and mostly unwatchable pap?

And throwing more money at this guy, just like the CRTC did back then, is going to make it all better. Uh-huh.

So Jim Shaw made what he knew was a winning bet, and immediately further pissed on Fecan’s parade by stating that his Kenora station (another small market outfit) had managed to end up $200,000 in the black last year.

Huh?

You mean local TV can make money?

How come the CTV affiliated Globe & Mail never mentioned that? Is there some odd reason Canwest’s National and Financial Posts both missed it as well? Whatever could cause such a journalistic lapse?

                                                                               swear water

Jim says $200,000 isn’t a lot of money. Maybe not to him. But it’s more than GM or Chrysler made last year. And suddenly a lot of people who pay Cable bills or work at the CRTC have begun wondering just how well those other stations could be doing if they weren’t saddled with a schedule of lame celebrity magazine shows and derivative reality offerings their viewers can already get elsewhere.

In addition to immediately shifting the Public and regulatory mindset by undermining Fecan’s claims of poverty, Shaw has a couple of other immediate gains in winning the argument that he shouldn’t have to pay and/or pass on Carriage Fees.

First, he’s now got several local markets that can tell the Commission that carriage fees will be detrimental to their audience.

Moreover, he’s now in line for those local programming funds, carving the allotment for three stations that CTV now has to subtract from their windfall total.

And with the offer to buy even more stations from Canwest, Shaw’s making it clear that he thinks there’s gold in local markets – and if somebody says they don’t need public money to do what the locals do, the CRTC is going to be hard-pressed to justify a Carriage Fee.

But there’s more here. Last year, Shaw dumped a number of local CTV and Global affiliates off the Shaw Cable dial in Western Canada because he could prove his audience was adequately served from other venues.

Now he’s in a position to drop even more – further eroding CTV and Global’s reach, audience numbers and all important ad rates.

Moreover, his own reach is spreading close to the point where he can link all of his new and potentially soon to arrive stations into another national network. And where will that leave CTV and Global?

A year ago, Shaw was scathing in his condemnation of what our private networks offered his subscribers, demanding they do more Prime Time programming that was unique and Canadian.

"You repeatedly hear that CTV has a better US line-up than Global. They never talk about Canadian shows being part of a competitive slate."

By pooling the local programming support he’ll get for 4 stations, he’s now in a position to create something competitive of his own.

                                                                             swear box

Nobody really knows how Jim Shaw’s mind works or what he’s got planned for this little gift he’s been given. But instead of winning his argument that there’s “too much competition” for conventional Canadian television, Ivan Fecan has just succeeded in creating even more of it.

And if Jim Shaw lives up to his demand from one year ago that "We need more opportunities for creative people in Canada to be creative", we just might be at the dawn of something very special.

May the Force be with you, Cable Cowboy! I think I hear a couple of Death Stars beginning to implode.

2 comments:

JA Goneaux said...

As a consumer, I sorta feel like Poland in 1939: Germany on one side, the Soviet Union on the other. And I'm about to be carved up...

Nick said...

It's all well and good to believe Jim the Cowboy is the saviour of local television. And I applaude him for trying. But look closely at what he purchased -- Windsor and Wingham are run out of London. The newsrooms, local advertising departments, Traffic etc all centralized somewhere else. It will take millions to bring either of those operations up to speed, and by September of 2009? Are we to believe they'll be producing 10 hours of local news per week? And if not, will the CRTC relieve them of that license obligation? The Kenora operation barely does a 1/2 hour of local programming a day; a fraction of what is being done at most local stations. And they rent programming from CTV/Global.
Don't get me wrong, this is exactly what is needed -- someone to step up for the operations that CTV are blackmailing the CRTC with. But to say they are profiting from local TV (and will continue to do so) seems a stretch. Just sad that there's a nasty corporate pissing match going on and we're the ones getting wet.