Thursday, March 12, 2009
Breaking Away from the "Broken Model"
On 03/03/09 the axe came down on the 'A' stations again. Morning shows were chopped in Victoria, Barrie, and London, where I worked as the show's News anchor. In Ottawa, everything BUT the morning show was eliminated. More than 100 jobs were lost. Not many when you look at the tens of thousands of people being thrown out of work in the province's manufacturing sector, but each job matters. Mine was one of them, but I'm not whining about my lot in life. I had the option, because of my seniority, of bumping into another job at the station. I chose severance. I don't like the look of the broadcast landscape at the moment.
Before the cuts on March 3rd, CTV had announced it was walking away from its licences in Windsor and Wingham. The same in Brandon, Manitoba. Canwest Global, teetering on the brink of financial ruin, threw its five E! stations on the heap, including the venerable CHCH in Hamilton. In the span of less than two months, 8 Canadian communities are facing the prospect of seeing their local television stations disappear, or wither to mere husks. Conventional television is not making money. I don't doubt that. The companies are demanding the CRTC allow them to charge cable and satellite providers for the use of their signals in the same way specialty channels are currently paid. The CRTC won't bite, so here we are. But where are we headed?
Like you, I'm following these latest brutal developments in the conventional broadcast industry with great interest, and I keep coming back to the same conclusion: Yes, carriage fees will help conventional broadcasters, but mega-corporations like CTVglobemedia and Canwest Global should not be in the business of local television. Carriage fees or not, these companies have presided over the ruination of local television across the country. Having read the most recent CTV licence renewal application, to be presented in April, I'm more convinced than ever that the CRTC needs to reject it. As it's written, it really offers no commitment to local television. In fact, it offers the opposite. It's full of threats and gloomy projections. It seems quite clear, by both their words and actions, that these companies have no real interest in, or commitment to, their smaller holdings. Is there any promise that the carriage fees would be directed to the stations in the greatest difficulty? If it's there, I don't see it.
A rejection of the application by the CRTC would almost certainly lead to the closure of stations like London, but I don't believe they would stay closed for long. The short term pain would lead to a much-needed revolution in the way local information is delivered. Ideally, it would also lead to local, or at least smaller, ownership which has a connection to the community it serves. It would revitalize community commitment to local stations. In a market the size of London, I'm told by those who know far more about marketing than I, that money can be made. However, it apparently can't be made by traditional media giants. We have seen more than 15 years of non-stop job losses and program cuts at a time when the number of people watching local news continues to rise.
The media titans say the conventional television "model is broken." The CRTC has apparently found religion and is now using precisely the same language. But who broke it, and why has no-one offered a solution, beyond carriage fees? Why have traditional media conglomerates, for all the talk of convergence, been so slow in adapting to new technologies and new media platforms. There's still a place for television. Tens of thousands of people in markets like London have shown that by tuning in during the now-cancelled morning news, the now-cancelled noon news, and the still-twitching 6 & 11 newscasts. But beyond the traditional is also the need for true integration of new technologies. Give the viewer the genuine opportunity to interact with its local station, and play a role in setting the agenda, not just consuming what's delivered by a very small handful of media professionals.
So, I guess what I'm saying is: a qualified "yes" to carriage fees, "no" to the renewal application as it pertains to small and medium market television. Let's turn the corner once and for all. What say you?