Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Local TV: What Are We Saving Exactly...Again?

First, go read Uncle Jim's A Tale of Two Business Models...it's relevant to the following repost, and well worth reading. I'll wait.

A reprint, from May earlier this year, but in light of the CRTC hearings going on this week in Gatineau it seemed apropos to post again. And my story shouldn't be seen as support for the cablers or a direct attack on CTV...it's just a specific example against the argument being put forth by all OTA broadcasters now. And yes, this was written before the cabler/broadcaster battle devolved into an all out media war...but after watching a couple of days of the hearings, fee for carriage (oops, I mean value for signal) to save local TV and regional TV stations remains at the center of the storm.

On Saturday afternoon I stopped by the open house held at the CTV station in Regina which was part of the network's recent nationwide campaign to Help Save Local Television...a campaign that has seen more advertisements air on your TV set than for the promotion of any Canadian homegrown program that I can think of.

Below are the key talking points highlighted on the front page of the pamphlet they were distributing to the (unsuspecting) public:

Local television impacts everyone

Now is the time to hold the cable and satellite companies accountable

Current regulations in Canada allow cable and satellite companies to take CTV programming without paying for it. These companies then charge you, the consumer, for the programming they take from us for free. The satellite and cable companies that deliver the TV signal to your house are reaping huge profits at the direct expense of local Canadian TV stations.

Now YOUR local television station is in financial trouble, and we need YOUR help!

Local television stations should receive compensation from cable and satellite companies that carry our local programming.

First let it be said that I don't have a lot of love for the Shaw's, Rogers, and other cable and satellite companies across Canada (you can watch Shaw Cable's Ken Stein debate the issue with CTV's Jacqueline Milczarek HERE), but so much of the information in this CTV pamphlet is just dead wrong.

1) Cable and satellite companies don't take CTV programming without paying for it. Like Global and CBC, CTV is an Over The Air (OTA) network, which means you can receive it in your home with an antennae. For free. Cable, however, delivers a cleaner, clearer signal, and thus CTV chooses to have its signal/programming delivered via this mechanism because it reaches more eyeballs in a better quality form = higher ad revenue. Furthermore, because their signals are available freely over the air as per a priority carriage mandate means the OTA channels must be made available to and distributed by all cable/satellite subscribers.

2) Cable and satellite companies don't charge you, the consumer, for CTV's programming...they charge you for the pipe - the delivery mechanism for the TV signal. They built and implemented a television signal delivery system (cable or satellite) that they can provide you, the consumer, if you choose to subscribe, and that's what they are charging you for (thus, they are called 'cable providers').

3)Finally, your 'local' television station isn't in trouble, the CTV (or all OTA broadcasters for that matter) business model is in trouble. Like Global, CTV doesn't really offer much in the way of programming that consumers couldn't get if we could just choose U.S. networks on their own. It seemed only fitting this 'Save Local TV' open house took place the same time as Canadian network programmers landed in L.A. to spend spend spend on American shows for the new fall season.

There are four 'local CTV stations' in Saskatchewan, same as Alberta...whereas there is only one, CTV Winnipeg, in Manitoba and one, CTV British Columbia (essentially Vancouver) in B.C..

Regina's CTV station, CKCK, really only produces local newcasts. And between the four Saskatchewan stations they produce two news magazine-style series: the Prairie Farm Report and Farmgate, and Indigenous Circle, a weekly program dealing with Aboriginal issues at home and beyond.

How do I know this? Because I asked some of the helpful and smiling CKCK employees only too eager to Save Local TV: "What local programs are we trying to save?"

A woman mentioned the three above programs, though went on to add: "But we're just an affiliate - we just put on what the network says we have to put on. But there is the news!" I asked if the carriage fee (oops, value for signal) requested by the campaign would ensure the production of more 'local' programming. I got a lot of blank stares.

Then I asked when the Regina station was going to go HD, because even though I can view CKCK in analog on channel 6 on my cable channel dial (or channel 2 over the air), I tend to only watch my HD channels from my cable package...and in my cable package those signals come from either CTV Toronto(channel 509) or CTV British Columbia(channel 519) (...unless of course the U.S. scheduling of said program has messed with CTV's schedule and I receive the Lost or Law And Order simsub transmission from one of CTV's other 'A' Channel eastern affiliates like Barrie or Windsor or London or from Victoria in the west, complete with local commercials!).

So I asked: would my 50 cent per month carriage fee that the network is requesting of the CRTC going to support/save Regina's local station? Or Vancouver or Toronto or Windsor's local station? I again received blank stares, and some humming and hawing that they weren't sure about the HD going local but were sure that at least some of the money would come back to the Regina station.

Then I mentioned that most of the information in the pamphlets they were handing out was flat out wrong: that cable providers provide a delivery mechanism to consumers willing to pay for it...that's why they are called cable providers. And that's what we are paying for, the cable pipe, not the programming that CTV either produces or buys from the U.S. to simultaneously substitute their ads into.

I got some rather surprised looks and a lot of looking around. Then someone then asked if I was going to sign the petition (I said no). Then a hand was gently placed on my elbow and I swear someone whispered: "Look, we don't want any trouble here."

Trouble? For just asking a few questions? Anyway, I was getting some pretty cold looks so I edged my way out the door and beat a hasty retreat.

That's when I noticed yet another chartered bus arriving with another load of what appeared to be mostly senior citizens. Starstruck, they disembarked and tottered into the station gushing about how much they loved their local station. Not surprisingly, they didn't bat an eye when pressed to sign the petition. Sigh.

And I missed the balloon in the sky, Uncle Jim...but I did see them putting it back in the truck.

It was all smiles and hugs but frankly, smelled a little...funky, best exemplified IN THIS CLIP of CTV's Vice President, Corporate Affairs Paul Sparkes at the open house in Toronto answering questions from a CP24 reporter...lots of: "Oh let's not get bogged down by the details and clog our heads up with facts and truisms and regulatory lingo...isn't local TV great!"

Look, we know Toronto and Vancouver and Montreal will probably always have their own local news and some locally produced programs, but for the rest of us spread across the great land of ours, 'local TV' doesn't really exist anymore.

I get my U.S. signals from Detroit and/or Seattle. I get my Global signal primarily from Toronto and Vancouver, same for my CTV signal. CBC's feed also originates primarily from Toronto, but at least they adjust the times to fit the time zones so every show on the network comes on at the same time in each region. But I can't say the same for the U.S. feeds or Global and CTV feeds. In my neck of the woods, prime time begins either at 6pm (8pm EST) or 9pm (8pm PST).

Now it doesn't seem that long ago when our local CTV would produce daily talk shows and documentary series and even kids/drama programs. But today, other than the odd informational or newsmagazine show and a couple of newscasts a day I don't really have a local station anymore, and haven't for some time. And I would say the same goes for most of the other outlying regions in Canada.

So, the wrongness of the CTV campaign aside, whose 'local TV' would we be saving exactly?


Brett Sullivan said...

Wow... Excellent Post Will...

I kinda creeped out. Seems very 'Stepford' of them... and the herding of the seniors seems very 'Soylent Green'-y. But I don't want any trouble here... but if there is one thing I know, you spell trouble - D-I-X-O-N.

Dwight Williams said...

"Trouble": People pointing out True Facts to canvassers trained in Faith Above All.