Monday, May 25, 2009

Local TV: What Are We Saving Exactly?

On Saturday afternoon I stopped by the open house held at the CTV station in Regina...this 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 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, CTV (or all OTA broadcasters for that matter) and their 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 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, only produces local newcasts. 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, but went on to add: "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 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...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: is 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.

Anyway, 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 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 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. Primetime in my neck of the woods begins either at 6pm (8pm EST) or 9pm (8pm PST).

Other than the odd 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?


Disgraced Media Baron said...

"Look, we don't want any trouble here."

In 21st century Canada. And from a news outlet. This is all they could come up with for an answer to a legitimate question?

I am now beyond disgusted with the morality of those who operate, or speak for, most of the larger operations in Canadian television.

In the case of CTV's operations in Regina, you could have asked if not having cable revenue over the previous 20 years resulted in the cancelation of every other locally produced show save for the evening news. Or if not having cable revenue was the reason that the staff was thirded from what it once was. I suspect you would have been rewarded with further blank stares.

But good on you for going and asking questions.

Trevor B. Cunningham said...

Great post. And I'm guessing the bus would have high-tailed the seniors to Casino Regina right after.

Dono said...

Then a hand was gently placed on my elbow and I swear someone whispered: "Look, we don't want any trouble here."

Haha, that totally just made my day!

Unknown said...

So you've been running a conventional television for how long? Have you read the financials of these companies? And what qualifies you to make these comments? I have the same experience as you plus inside conventional experience and I 'don't feel qualified. Why don't you just whine about good or bad shows and leave the business to those who are qualified?

Juniper said...

Interesting post Will.

Watching the "save local t.v." ads, I had thought those were community based and were intended for all of my local news shows. Like the old days - there were local protests when CBC and CKCK were going to cut staff and reduce programming.

Learning that it's CTV asking me for more money through my cable bill has me suspicious. I thought that some of that money went to them for programming already.

I think local programming is important.... I just don't like it when I'm being played - making me believe that if the local news closes that it's the cable companies fault instead of financial management.

Disgraced Media Baron said...

Wow, Michael. Will was asking reasonable questions, was not getting ANY answers, and then was asked to "not make trouble". And you're doing much the same with your post. Don't ask questions, because somebody else knows better than you sweetheart, here's a pat on the head, go run along now and play.

I will take your word for it that you have "inside conventional experience," because boy oh boy, you've sure had that patronizing broadcaster executive attitude rub off on you some. Go redact someone else's comments elsewhere, honey.

Skinny Dipper said...

Thank you for causing all that trouble. Canadians need more people like you to dispell the fallacies that CTV presents.

If I am correct, basic cable fees are regulated. If you only order the basic channels that include your "local" CTV and Global affiliates, plus the CBC and a few American channels, you pay a rate that is regulated by the CRTC.

You can go to my blogsite to read my thoughts about CTV's local television campaign:

Skinny Dipper said...

In case my comments don't get posted on the moderated Blog on Nanaimo blogspot, here they are:

First, these local channels are available via rabbit ears.

Second, the cable companies are required by the CRTC to include the local channels in their basic cable packages. The rates for basic cable are regulated by the CRTC.

Third, over-the-air stations are allowed to air about 12 minutes of commericials per hour; specialty channels can only air about 8 minutes per hour.

Four, there is very little local programming on these stations other than the suppertime and late evening news. Some stations do have the news at lunchtime. The A-Channel in Victoria missed airing the voting results on election night. Instead, it chose to air US programs.

There is nothing local about this campaign. It all comes from Toronto.

Kay said...

I printed the Schedules for all the A Channels to see just what local programming they're currently airing - aside from news. It appears they do air some "local" programming - but it's recycled across most if not all stations. I couldn't help wondering what the audience for "Prairie Farm Report" might be in Barrie, Ottawa, London or Wingham. Moreover, I had to write the station location on each print-out so that I'd know which was which 'cause the schedules certainly didn't provide that info. Of course is there WAS some truly local programming, I might not have had to do that.
So then I got really curious & printed out the schedules for the CTV stations I get thru time-shifting. Out of 8 schedules, I could only identify 2 or 3 shows which I'm sure are local.
So I'm left w/ the question - exactly WHAT local programming are they trying to save?

To Michael: Will asked questions which need to be asked - too bad he didn't get any answers.

Corey said...

In Regina, who produces more "local programming", CTV/Global or the cable company? Does the news count as local programming? If it does, how many minutes are actual local news stories? Not counting the weather, the first 5 minutes or 3 stories of the 30 minute news case is local, the rest is national or international.

The cable company gives hours of daily local programs. That is all they carry. So truly, who are the heroes and who are the villains here?

Fred said...

As someone who's worked in local TV for over 3/4 of my life I have a couple of sides to this.

I have no sympathy for the cable compnies and more (but still little) sympathy for the broadcasters.

Firstly the cable companies have had it too good for too long. Carrying local stations in order to provide a superior picture was their initial model. They may have initially charged for "the pipe" as was noted but now basic cable has expanded exponentially so that they'll gleefully force you to take a pile of channels you may or may not want in order to get your local stations and thusly increas their profit line immensely.

The "bundling" model is archaic and well past it's time, guys, it's time for a la carte.

If the cable companies had a legitimate defense for this they'd go back to a "basic cable" package which was just that... basic - and only included the "must carry" channels for a fee reflective of paying for "the pipe."

As for the broadcasters themselves really they only have themselves to blame for their financial woes. Firstly their programming is hardly innovative and unique. When I can watch the same show on my CTV or Global affiliate that I can on 25 other channels (Canadian and US) on cable or satellite there's a problem. The broadcasters have all seen their audiences shrink over the past 15 years or so and it's basically only gone one place... the specialty channels. Why? Because their programming is (generally) unique, well produced, and in a lot of cases intelligent and thought provoking. Yet the convential broadcasters blindly go forth buying up the same stuff from the US networks as they always have instead of changing their model toward what seems to be attracting more and more audiences. Its no wonder they're in trouble.

Do they have a legitimate claim against the cable and satellite companies? I think so. Since they've been bundled into a package deal with the specialty channels they should get a cut of the cable companies profits. After all the conventional broadcasters were there first and they were the only reason that the cable companies came into existence in the first place.

The argument that the cable companies take the signals that are freely available and provide a superior picture just doesn't cut it anymore.

Now, that said IMHO I think a couple of other things need to happen. The conventional broadcasters need to go to the cable companies and negotiate a carriage deal for a per subscriber fee just like any other cable specialty channel has to. Of course that means they're going to have to justify why the cable company should carry them and that can only happen if they truly offer something different and unique to the cable company's audience. Why should the cable company carry them if they offer the same pap that everyone else does?

So with that in mind, if we're to save "local" television (which I think is extremely worthwhile but I am biased because that's how I make my living) perhaps the broadcasters could make an attempt to give us something more "local" to save than just the nighly newscast which is really a network-designed promotions vehicle. Give the local stations the mandate to do more production of talk shows, local events and issues and let them design their own news shows again so that they don't look like every other station in the network. Quite frankly we're tired of all the local stations looking like a low budget vision of some Toronto graphic design intern. Local TV used to be unique market to market. Make the local stations just that... LOCAL again!

Thanks for listening.

Dan Andersen said...

You said, "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..."

That is no longer true for digital TV (DTV) broadcasts. DTV received over-the-air (OTA) via antenna provides clearly superior image quality to both cable and satellite. It's back to the future.

Do yourselves a favour: Put that antenna back up and get superb HDTV for free.