When local TV isn’t local

The local TV station in Red Deer, Alberta shut down in August 2009 after their parent company Canwest-Global failed to find a buyer for the specialty network they were part of. At its peak as a local TV station, RDTV (aka CHCA-TV) employed over one-hundred people. In less than two years, Canwest-Global had reduced staffing to less than ten. Where did these people go and what was the negative economic impact to the region as a result?

Local TV stations have been facing cutbacks and outright elimination at an accelerating rate during the past five years. This not only limits access to local news and events but has a strong negative effect on the local economy. It’s simple: stations close and people lose their jobs. Their contribution to the health of the local economy is reduced and the small businesses in the area suffer. Add to that, the loss of tax revenue for the local town or city.

There is a local TV model being promoted by Corus Audio & Advertising Services Ltd (owned by Shaw Communications) which delivers local content from a central location to a network of targeted communities and offers up advertising for local and regional businesses. Where it stops being local is in the actual production process. The Corus model makes use of production facilities somewhere in British Columbia with the broadcast signal branded and promoted as being local to the communities which receive the signal. This provides no new jobs in the communities and the dollars paid out by local advertisers leave the area. A similar model is being used by the Weather Network in providing local forecasts on cable and satellite TV along with national programing. Mostly national and not much local. They currently have an application submission into the CRTC for review.

This model appears to be an attempt to bring local TV back to life and fill the gap created by the large broadcast networks moving to non-local content but it isn’t truly local or reflective of the communities we call home. The only true local TV is content produced locally by the people of the community. The MyLocal1/Corus channel and similar models can be called local but they aren’t.

What we need is a true community access TV channel

Paul Harris, a local business owner and sustainability advocate,  is running for a seat on The City of Red Deer council. In the true spirit of social media Paul is making use of Facebook to seek input from the community. Here’s what I posted on the Paul Harris (For Red Deer City Council) discussion page on local arts and culture:

While at the recent Fiestaval, I was reminded of how diverse Red Deer’s culture is. A yearly event is a great way to share but what we really could benefit from is a community access TV channel which would give all the citizens an opportunity to showcase their activities on a regular basis.

What does the City have to do with a TV station? By using the web and new media technology it wouldn’t be that hard to do and the Public Library would be a likely venue for a true community access TV channel. One way to feature the unique and special qualities of Red Deer is to show the people of the community to the entire world through the magic of the internet.

Don’t forget, Red Deer is the third largest city in Alberta (behind Calgary and Edmonton) but we do not have a broadcast TV station. And with the current trend in Canadian broadcast media moving towards bigger is better, we probably never will.

With new media delivered via the web growing in popularity it only makes sense that we start taking some steps toward supporting local news on a locally owned community TV internet channel. This is being done in other locales, why not here?

(Disclosure: I have some involvement with RDTV.ca, a web based commercial venture through freelance video reporting but feel that a true community access TV channel would not have advertising or professional journalists reporting on events and producing program content.)

Ya snooze ya loose: Bell beats Rogers and buys CTV

In a move which surprised many of the Canadian media observers, BCE (aka Bell) just bought 100% of CTV. Although they owned a small amount of the CTVGlobemedia shares it was always speculated that Bell’s competitor, Rogers Communication would be the winner in the media wars currently being waged in Canada. The major communications companies are consolidating their control over media production and distribution which is reminiscent of the stranglehold the Hollywood studios had in the last century, of the motion picture business. Rogers is not out of the game completely since they own CityTV but compared to Bell owning CTV they come out in at best in third place, most likely fourth.

Quebecor Media owns much if not all of the Quebec telecom and media market, Shaw is in the final phase of adding Canwest-Global to their broad communications empire, Rogers owns CityTV and now Bell owns CTV. One journalist pointed out that Telus, the only other major Canadian tele-com, is left out in the cold. There are smaller regional networks out there but none that would elevate Telus to the level held by their cohorts. The last major broadcast network is the CBC and even though it is a federal government entity it might not be too surprising to have the government set them free in order to divest themselves of a chronic money loser. Strange things are happening in the world of Canadian media and this wouldn’t be all that out of line. The real big winner in this deal is Bell and no doubt the ghost of Ted Rogers is turning over in his grave at having his legacy missing a great opportunity. Sorry guys, ya snooze – ya lose!

On a side-note, CTVGlovemedia announced today that they are selling all but 15% of their ownership of the Globe and Mail, a venerable Canadian newspaper steeped in history, to Woodbridge Co. Ltd., the holding company of the Toronto-based Thomson family. In a move some say makes sense to support Bell’s consolidation of their broadcast assets it may be that they see the writing on the wall and are jettisoning a dying media platform.

Freedom of speech even includes a Fox News North

There is a lot of chatter going on within the broadcast industry regarding Quebecor Media’s announcement of the SunTV News network. Quebecor is asking the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission for a three-year specialty channel cable license to replace the current over-the-air Sun TV station in Toronto with a national channel. SunTV News network is affiliated with the Sun Newspaper chain, also owned by Quebecor. They intend to broadcast a straight talk and news format which some have called a Fox News North.

Fox News in the US is well known for it’s right-wing, ultra conservative commentary on the news. The same right-wing approach is expected from the fledgling SunTV network given that Kory Teneycke, Quebecor’s Media vice-president and promoter of the new operation, is a former communications director to Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper. There are many speaking out against the channel based on Teneycke’s relationship with Harper who is the leader of Canada’s Conservative party. There is speculation that SunTV will become a mouthpiece and P.R. platform for Harper’s Torys. Does Canada need a right-wing conservative broadcast TV channel? Why not? In a land that values freedom of speech it’s only fair that the conservatives have their opportunity to stand on a soapbox and preach their message. Freedom of speech is very important, whether you agree with the message or not. But below the surface there is another story that has a totally different take on freedom of speech.

SunTV News network has asked the CRTC to grant it special consideration by fast tracking the approval process to make the network a mandatory channel on cable and satellite feeds. Why the rapid move to bypass the lineup all other channels must undergo? The executives of SunTV claim that they can only survive financially if given special treatment. If they don’t have immediate access to a large market they can’t attract the advertising dollars required to pay the bills. Some critics claim that expecting special treatment is unrealistic and if the channel can not survive the normal market pressures of being in broadcasting then they don’t deserve to be in the business. Other critics even go so far as to charge Prime Minister Harper of exerting political influence on the CRTC to give SunTV News network the free lunch they are asking for.

There are reports that pressure has been put on CRTC Commission Chair Konrad von Finckenstein to resign before his term ends in 2012. While at the same time Michel Arpin, former CRTC Vice-Chairman Broadcasting, had his request to renew his term denied. The name at the top of the list to succeed Arpin is Luc Lavoie, former spokesperson for Brian Mulroney and former executive vice-president at Quebecor. Currently the position is still vacant and it is expected that it will remain that way even with a critical ruling coming up regarding Shaw taking over Canwest-Global. Don’t forget this is all about freedom of speech. But how free and open will our speech be if the the media industry is controlled by the government and owned by companies who maintain a monopoly on the creation and distribution of news.

Dean

Deferral accounts – telco’s rainy day nest egg to pay for rural broadband

In January of this year, the CRTC announced plans for an increase in rural broadband internet service and the telco’s reply was ‘rural broadband is nice but who’s going to pay for it?’. Well it looks like the CRTC has found a way to fund a broadband internet roll-out to non-urban customers by using subscriber fees that the phone companies were counting on for their own benefit. The CRTC has approved a plan for the deployment of broadband Internet service to 287 rural and remote communities using funds from ‘deferral accounts‘ which will also be used to provide a rebate to urban phone customers.

What are ‘deferral accounts’? In 2002, the CRTC allowed phone companies to charge above their normally regulated price caps so that new competitors entering the market for home phones — primarily cable companies such as Rogers and Vidéotron — could undercut them. The extra charges went into deferral accounts, which over the years amounted to $1.6 billion. Phone companies were allowed to draw on these accounts to lower the wholesale rates they charged competitors such as Primus and Yak to access their networks.

According to this article in Broadcaster Magazine, “The large telephone companies will use funds that have accumulated in their deferral accounts to pay for these initiatives. . . Telus Communications Company will connect 159 communities in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec.”. The telco’s have responded to the order with extreme unhappiness and maybe even a little surprise. Along with the CRTC allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars from the deferral fund, the federal regulator is setting the technical standard for rural broadband as well.

This isn’t sitting well with companies like Bell who would prefer to use  their wireless HSPA+ technology versus the DSL system mandated by the CRTC. HSPA+ is the preferred choice of carriers such as Bell because it is an easy and low-cost enhancement to their existing 3G networks and although in some tests it offers a higher speed when compared to DSL and even WiMax it falls short in two critical areas. Since it shares the same network infrastructure as heavily populated 3G networks, HSPA+ suffers from slow and inconsistent speeds in actual use. In order to manage this traffic, carriers making use of HSPA+ must implement 5Gb data limits per user. These usage caps are not required for WiMax or DSL which have proven to be successful in rural as well as urban use.