Some broadcasters are more equal than others

Heritage Minister is reportedly considering lending a hand to Canwest after turning a deaf ear to the CBC

by Jonathon Gatehouse and Philippe Gohier

Some broadcasters are more equal than othersGood things come to those who wait. At least that’s Canwest Global Communications’ perspective on Ottawa’s new-found willingness to consider assistance for Canada’s beleaguered private television networks.

On Wednesday, Heritage Minister James Moore confirmed that the Harper government is looking at loosening broadcast regulations and changing tax rules to help the media giant stave off bankruptcy. But the spin from the company’s Winnipeg HQ is that this is less a bailout than a righting of historic wrongs.

“It’s a sign that the government is hearing the growing chorus of voices—consumer groups, organized labour, the Opposition, special interest groups—who are all saying that the way consumer dollars are collected for viewing cable are not being adequately and fairly sent around to everybody,” says John Douglas, Canwest’s vice-president public affairs. “Our position on this is the same as it has been since 1971.”

Canwest, along with CTV and Quebecor, owners of the private French TVA network, have long been asking the CRTC to treat their conventional channels more like specialty networks, which receive a share of cable subscribers’ monthly bills known as carriage fees. Cable providers like Rogers, which owns Maclean’s, are opposed to the idea, claiming the system could inflate customers’ bills by as much as $10 a month. The conventional broadcasters say the estimated $300 million a year fee-for-carriage would generate is essential to their survival. The CRTC categorically rejected that argument last fall, saying the networks failed to prove they really needed the higher revenues. But as the global economic meltdown has taken its toll on advertising, broadcasters are finding that Ottawa is a lot more receptive to being—rather than crying—poor. “We have the CRTC admitting now that the model is broken,” says Douglas. “And anything that would be contemplated by the federal government, I’m assuming, would be in recognition that the state of the industry is what we said it was two years ago.”

But deep cuts to local news coverage by all the private networks, moves by Canwest to sell its five E! channels and threats by both CTV and CanWest to walk away from unprofitable smaller markets, are also clearly forcing government’s hand. And the message that immediate help is needed has been taken directly to 24 Sussex Drive. Both CanWest CEO Leonard Asper and Quebecor’s Pierre-Karl Péladeau, have personally met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of their companies in recent weeks. The federal lobbyist database also shows meetings with Minister Moore, senior CRTC executives, and former industry minister Jim Prentice. Douglas would not comment on specific meetings, or reports that Canwest has engaged the lobbying services of Ken Boessenkool, a former senior Harper adviser, but said the company has always kept Ottawa in the loop about its concerns: “The amount of dialogue we’ve had is no different that what we’ve had over the previous years.”

If the government’s aim in saving Canwest is to preserve local programming, easing content restrictions is a curious way to go about it, argues Canada’s largest media union. In a statement released Thursday, the Communnications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada says the federal government should be wary of bailing out from under the weight of its “bad business decisions.” In fact, if the CRTC does eventually allow the broadcasters’ to collect carriage fees, the government agency should use the opportunity to tie the extra funds to “new, original news and information programming,” says Peter Murdoch, the union’s vice-president, media. “Local programming is not the cause of Canwest’s debt problems, nor should it be made its victim.”

The prospect of doling out government aid to Canwest also raises the question of just what the government should be doing to help other types of media struggling in these uncertain economic times. Canwest, for example, also owns 39 daily and community newspapers in Canada. And while they don’t appear to be lobbying Ottawa for assistance on that front (the lobbying database lists “broadcasting” as the subject of all recent meetings), given the industry’s current difficulties south of the border, it is not inconceivable that Canada’s papers will also soon find themselves at a crossroads.

David Black, president and CEO of Black Press, which operates more than 150 community and daily papers in Canada and the U.S., declined to comment on any possible assistance for his competitor (“You don’t want to go there”) but said there is a case to be made for Ottawa helping print too. “I don’t believe that government will work very well without daily newspapers,” he says. “If the opposition raises its voice in the House and no one is there to report it, what good does that do?” Given the current crisis, journalistic ethics may have to take a back seat to economic realities, says Black. “You want to be able to run editorially without fear or favour, but on the other hand we’ve got a problem.”

The one place where the Harper government is emphatically drawing the line, however, is public broadcasting. Moore has already said Ottawa will not provide more money to the CBC after the network disclosed that it is facing an estimated $100 million hole in its budget due to shrinking ad revenue. Ditto to requests for an advance on next year’s funding or a bridge loan. “The only way we’ll get the financial flexibility we had asked for,” says CBC spokesperson Marco Dubé, “is to sell some of our assets.” For his part, the Heritage minister suggested earlier this week that the CBC would have to cut between 600 and 1,200 jobs to balance its books.

Whether the public and private broadcasters—long bitter enemies—will find common cause in these troubled times, remains to be seen. One of the issues that Leonard Asper is registered to lobby on is the future mandate of the CBC. But at this point, CanWest has no position of whether its rival deserves some assistance too. “That’s not for us to comment on,” says Douglas. “We’re in a position to comment on our situation and the realities of our network.”




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Some broadcasters are more equal than others

  1. I can’t expect Harper to keep in mind the wishes of Canadians who want to keep CBC, because he doesn’t care about anything else that Canadians want. CBC is able to produce award winning journalism, second to none in the world, it links the country together, and contrary to what the paranoid Conservatives believe, they are impartial. Just not impartial to the muzzling of the press that’s been going on since Harper moved in.

    So let’s just drop all that nonsense – like first class journalism, along with science, and gun control. Maybe we can just have Fox News cover our politics. Get rid of that pesky Terry Molefsky – who asks such uncomfortable questions of the PM. Bring on some male and female bimbos who won’t challenge anyone, and who won’t ask any tough questions, and we’ll fit right in with Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh.

    After all – the education system is going down the tubes, so being first class isn’t going to matter to anyone.

    • CBC provides a “national conversation” for us the ppl who fund/subsidize *everything* (it’s why we have a country); the national conservs divide to conquer
      .
      the two are obviously incompatible.

  2. I agree, Elizabeth. The CBC is a lifeline for Canadians.

    I was very disappointed tonight to hear Coyne on CBC trying to make the case for information for money.

    Good to see that his view wasn’t well-received.

    If Canadians only get what we pay for then CPC 10%ers fit that bill!

    Long live the CBC!

  3. If they want to prop up a private broadcaster, then CTV would be more deserving. CanWest has demonstrated nothing but lousy programming decisions and short-sightedness in all those years (converting successful CH to crappy, reality-porn E! was the final straw).

    Also, in the way they have shuffled shows around or pre-empted them, often at short notice, they have also demonstrated a total disregard for their viewers.

  4. It’s like watching Dynasty reruns.

  5. Keep CBC Newsworld and Radio One, dump everything else!!

  6. Can networks not charge more for advertising if they have more eyeballs via cable and satellite? I watch west coast feeds of all of the networks through my dish – doesn’t help local advertisers, but I’m seeing all of those Tim Horton’s and Ford ads too. Seems to me they already benefit from cable, without the need of carriage fees.

    I would sincerely hope that the CPC isn’t using the economic situation as a way to hit the CBC. Mind you, it seems that the CBC would benefit from these carriage fees as well, even they didn’t lobby for them.

  7. “The Aspers and Harper have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Harper ensured that the family patriarch Izzy Asper’s dream of a human-rights museum would come to fruition in Winnipeg, courtesy of massive sums of public funding.
    And the Aspers helped ensure that Harper would remain prime minister when Canwest newspapers provided supportive editorials before the 2008 election and then hammered the idea of a Liberal-NDP coalition government supported by the Bloc Quebecois. ”
    http://www.straight.com/article-207275/stephen-harper-risks-his-career-if-he-gives-away-farm-canwest

    • Apparently media moguls can flip-flop along with the politicians. Scroll down here to Open Letter To David:
      http://warrenkinsella.com/
      The grovelling and toadying and hypocrisy that underlies what goes on here can only be imagined. Just wait for the day when it’s all exposed – somewhere. Perhaps it will make Adscam fade into obscurity.

      • wow. just wow. that sort of thing is unacceptable and beneath the dignity of our public institutions. ppl are finally beginning to wake up, including politicos like the NDP who had much to gain from “in and out” since they were the (perhaps unwitting, i’ll give the benefit of the doubt) beneficiaries of the no-hope 3rd place advertising from the national conservs in the legal election (not counting 2008). from the get-go i knew something was up with the national conservs (Joe the Good warned Canada; Petey dissed Orchard; Steeephie got to rule).

    • the consortium of mutual admiration happy to print whatever? and a “human rights” museum? somehow that seems like a giant oxymoron.

  8. (1) I HOPE that CONSERVATIVE supporters will scream bloody murder if the government gives one ‘bailout’ penny to CanWest, at least until they shut down the Post and divest non-performing assets.

    (2) The CBC is a tricky one. I like CBC radio in particular but I struggle with it being on the taxpayer’s dime. Additionally, CBC does not do a good job of taking advantage of synergies between radio and TV – they send four reporters to everything (one radio, one TV, in each official language). I’d actually like to see the CBC sold or else evolve into a self-funded not-for-profit organization. Selling it is probably the best bang for buck for taxpayers.

    However, it makes no sense to sell it during a downturn, nor does it make sense to cripple it. But I bet they are a little fat. I find myself supporting the minister’s position on this one. Force them to become more efficient, then sell!

    • 1) I hope so too.

      2) We need the CBC for emergency broadcast, so we can’t sell it. However, I do think that they should have to stay within their budget and a lean budget is a good way to force the CBC to make changes for efficiency. They have the capability to sell advertising after all, so if they can’t interest advertisers to gain money that the government isn’t willing to give, then that’s their problem. I can’t think of anything that has come on the CBC that is worth watching in over a decade. It seems like they pathologically stifle and punish creativity at that network.

      • about your 2)…
        .
        Canada is being forced into leanness by the recklessness of this current min-con govt; that’s not the CBC’s fault. CBC’s problem becomes *our* problem when yet another manufactured crisis (synchronized global recession) forces us into the red and servitude.
        .
        i agree that the ppl in charge, many appointed by “Stephen”, made shall we say *interesting* choices in programming. set up anyone? e.g., Paris Hilton; they spent at least a million on that one didn’t they? has she fallen on hard times too?
        .
        tired of Political Disaster Capitalism yet?

  9. Trust Canadians to be so blind to what they’ve got in Canada, that they’ll destroy it, give it away, or flush it down the toilet. Goes along with giving away our natural resources, doesn’t it? You know – Albertan lumber to Japan for a pittance . . salmon, oil and gas, doctors, teachers and nurses to the US.
    Like the Arctic, and didn’t we sell Alaska for peanuts? How about all the celebrities who give up on making it in Canada, and leave for the US? Now we can put a whole bunch of great journalists out to pasture.

    Peter Mansbridge obviously should have taken the bigger financial rewards of moving to the US when it was offered.

    So we’ll just sit here and allow the paranoid, destroyers-of-free-speech Conservatives – eliminate the CBC. Let’s not be smart like the British, and make it into the largest broadcasting corporation in the world. No – let’s bitch and complain about it for whatever insular, small-minded reasons we have – sit in our doughnut shops and talk about the US — be easily influenced because we are apparently anti-education, and anti-intellect . . and watch the rest of the world pass us by, while Harper changes the country for us. Happy little Walmart and Home Depot consumers.

    Doesn’t anyone see a connection between Harper’s distaste for being asked questions by the media and his desire to get rid of the CBC? Don’t you think it’s great that a state-supported media has the balls and the guts to ask uncomfortable questions of the person who is in charge of funding?

    Here’s a helpful video reminder of Harper’s contempt for the media, including his own views where you can just see the disdain oozing from his demeanour in an exchange with Terry Molefsky of CBC:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvE9EN4YPGM

    And this:
    “The Prime Minister’s Office, which has long had a rocky relationship with the national media, has been working on a secret project to build a new, government-controlled briefing room at the cost of $2 million, documents obtained by the Star show.

    Long kept under wraps, the plan – codenamed the Shoe Store Project – is in the works by the Privy Council Office and the PMO to establish a new government-controlled media briefing centre near Langevin Block.

    The yellow-brown building that now houses Stephen Harper and his senior staff would supplant the current National Press Theatre, just a block away.

    The National Press Theatre, used by prime ministers and cabinet ministers since Lester B. Pearson opened it in 1965, is a venue with simultaneous translation where on-the-record news conferences are moderated by press gallery executive members – not Harper’s political staff.

    Yes, ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in over 40 years, a Prime Minister is no longer able to face the media mano-a-mano. He’s afraid and must control.

    Wake up and smell the brimstone.

    What a sorry, authoritarian state of affairs.

  10. The CBC and its taxpayer-funded operations are the most valuable use of tax dollars I can think of in Canada. $33 dollars a year from every Canadian? I’d be happy to pay $50 a year! If you don’t like it, then don’t listen to it and quit complaining. I don’t complain about taxpayer-funded bridges, roads, and wars that I’m not involved with and that have no benefit for me. Further, I sure as hell didn’t get a single benefit from the reckless GST cut to 5%. I would much rather pay 7% GST and have a healthy CBC rather than a government making wasteful tax cuts just to follow discredited laissez-faire theories. Give the CBC an advance!

    Or better yet, let’s spend another $300M and get some people in government who actually respect Canada and her institutions. We need a government who sees the value of arts, culture, entertainment, and most of all, freedom of the press to report on the government and tell it how it is.

  11. a lot of conflict of interest goin on here. Asper, a private concern, can lobby vis a vis the CBC? did i read that right?

    and journalistic ethics to take the back seat? i think it already has with just the suggestion that it might be necessary for survival. a pox on their houses.

  12. I think the CBC can perform a role in making us better citizens in Canada. On television, radio, and through the internet, the CBC can offer news, entertainment, and sports programs that will help Canadians think how we, ourselves, can make our country better politically, economically, culturally, and environmentally.

  13. My view of the media;

    In the media, the advertisers are the consumers; the people are the products.

    • brilliant observation.

  14. The CBC started cutting back on local news back in the early 1990s when the internet was in its public infancy. For example, the corporation had local news that covered both Calgary and Edmonton. The viewers didn’t like the format and preferred their local CTV stations instead which had separate news programs for each city.

    If we did not have the internet today, there would still be convergence in the media, TV stations would be cutting back or shutting down. Newspapers would be sharing wire stories. Local radio in small-town markets would be gone or at least replaced by automated programming from some distance place.

    For newspapers, I think if they want to survive, they are going to have do less quantitative reporting and wrote more qualitative investigative stories that give the facts but expands on the whys (or whies). Yes, they can charge for their services over the internet. The basic reporting news stories will be free; the investigative reports will cost money. The latter may become free after one day or week.

    The Hill Times has about three stories that are free each week. The other stories, one must pay for an online subscription.

  15. Funny how trendy it is to bash Canwest.
    They’re not exactly the only media company having trouble in this economy. They’re also not the only company that’s argued for changes to the carriage fee system.
    There have been layoffs at CTV and Global, and at just about every network in the US.
    You know the only broadcaster in North America that seems to think it should be immune to the recession? Yep… the CBC.

    Oh, and why would the word “bailout” apply to this? As I understand it, no one’s asking for a cheque… simply better conditions for all private broadcasters.

    But… if you’re going to bash someone while they’re down… use bailout. It’s a very effective word.

    • Jess, “bailout” may not be the most accurate term. However, the private networks are asking for policy changes that, if implemented, will almost certainly increase my cable / satellite bill and send the difference to the private networks for no increase in service. These are the “better conditions” you’re referring to. Oh, and this on top of regulations that force cable companies to substitute local broadcasts for US ones when they’re the same, ensuring that CTV and Global don’t lose out on ad revenue when they buy US programming. Instead of rebroadcasting US programming, they could actually try to create some watchable Canadian programming, but no, they do the bare minimum (and less) required by the CRTC. If they had bothered to create something unique over the years, they might be in a better position to weather the ups and downs of the economy.

      The government should be careful. Remember the negative-option billing protest? People don’t like it when someone messes with their cable.

  16. There used to be a fantastic magazine called “Life”. It was a window on popular culture, politics, art and science. Eventually it failed. Thousands of magazines have filled the gap left by “Life”. All streamlined to specific topics.

    Broadcast channels used to be community based feeds that would show us what happened in our neighborhood, our province, our country and our world.

    Now, specialization of channels is the most successful model in broadcasting. Unfortunately, with specialty tv matching viewers to advertisers more efficiently, maybe its time for the ‘over the air’ stations to admit they are done. They are already dismantling their programming and are ‘hat in hand’ for the government to bail them out.

    Local news and programming has succumbed to the fiscal axe – trying to maintain the 3 Canadian networks that make the majority of their money from American Programming. They are taking the money (and jobs) from local news, public affairs and entertainment programming and putting it towards purchasing American programming at rates highest in the history of Canadian broadcasting.

    If there is to be a radical shift in broadcast delivery that will affect all Canadian tv watchers, please make it a well thought out option, not a response to media conglomerates trying to squeeze the last drops out of an outdated broadcast model.

    If ‘pay for carriage’ is the immediate solution, give the consumers choice. If we are going to have to pay for ‘basic cable stations’, give us a choice. Eliminate the basic cable tier and let consumers pick and choose what channels we want to be our new ‘basic local specialty’ channels. That way we can control the financial impact and ‘vote with our wallets’.

    Doug Slack

  17. Advertisers need to sell dog food; show TV viewers dog shows.

  18. Advertisers need to sell. they will do anything to do so!

  19. Jess, do you work for Canwest?

  20. Pubic communication is so important in this day and age do to the fact that it is difficult to get the full truth from the private media broadcasters. It is clear by the preponderance of the evidence that private media is under the control of special interest groups. Prime Minister Harper and his governments intransient behaviour when it comes to support for the C.B.C. borders on malicious contempt ,no doubt fostered by his close relationship with the mayor private media players. One therefore has to question, him and his governments suitability to be in a leadership position in Canada when he and his government entertains the request for bailouts by the media lobbyist.

    • ahem (big grin), i assume your “Pubic” is a regrettable “typo” and that you meant to type “Public”? (giggling) because i have no doubt that certain intimate communication is important; just hopefully not too public. we all typo GH. sometimes to great comic or tragi-comic relief. gallows humour.
      .
      on a more serious note,
      we have lots of work to do once we get rid of this min-con type of radical political cancer of self-serving and apathetic indifference to the voter who funds/subsidizes its govt; we have no choice or Canada becomes *terminal* as an idea and a ppl.

  21. CanWest is a deleterious influence on Canadian democracy. They should be registered as a Foreign Lobby group.

    Seize these propagandists funds, and use them to set up real local media across Canada that actually serves the people, not supra-national interests.

  22. how the high have fallen! now that Canwest has begun to reap what it sowed, loss of income because ppl aint blind to their owners’ “symbolic” association with the national conserv embarrassment, they come with hat in hand begging for $$ and expect to be paid right? pathetic. and oh so very Fucci, i.e. F(ake G)ucci for the slang-impaired. .

    • excuse me, “symbiotic relationship” not “symbolic”

      eyes are dancing
      lured by the siren call of the electrons
      dancing across my screen

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