Home > Uncategorized > The Great Fight North

The Great Fight North

-first posted at RTDNA.org on June 30, 2009

Out the window I could see the suburbs of Detroit slip by, followed by a brief crossing of Lake Saint Clair.  Then, as it moved in under us, I could see the orderly fields and neat highways stretching out ahead.  Ontario.  Canada.  The flight eased into Pearson Airport and I was on the ground in Toronto.  The trip had been so short—less than an hour from Chicago.  And everything seemed so much the same as back home.  I would soon learn that was not the case.

The trip to Toronto last week was to attend the RTNDA Canada regional meeting there.  The RTNDA chairman usually attends the RTNDA Canada national convention.  But tight budgets led this year to efficiency in convention production, and our north of the border sister group was making the four regional conventions work in place of the national event.

I was happy to go represent our side of the border, hand out some regional Murrow awards, and make a big announcement about some national winners from Canada.  I also sat in on the RTNDA Canada board meeting and some of the educational sessions going on that weekend.  Boy, was I in for an interesting couple of days.

You see, as we American news managers and journalists are struggling with tight budgets, layoffs, and uncertainty about our future, north of the border they’re dealing with problems of a whole different magnitude.  Our layoffs seem minor compared to the threat of whole stations closing in several Canadian cities.

The problems stem from the financial woes of some of the country’s largest media owners, namely CanWest and CTVglobemedia.  The latter made headlines across Canada in May for selling three station for one dollar each.   Workers at the stations, in Wheatley, Ontario, Wingham, Ontario, and Brandon, Manitoba had been told by CTVglobemedia to prepare for closing before that fire sale.  The buyer, Shaw Media, is a Calgary-based cable operator.  The irony of the sale is that cable companies in Canada are rolling in profit compared to their broadcast counterparts.  Broadcasters say the reason for that, in part, is that cable and satellite operators there can retransmit the signals of local broadcasters without paying fees to the local stations originating the signals.  Called “fee-for-carriage” in Canada, broadcasters see a change to this sort of plan as a much-needed shot in the arm for local stations to be able to continue to cover local news.  The fees could raise between 200 and 300 million dollars (Canadian) for local stations.  But the head of the regulatory body that governs Canada’s broadcasters does not favor a fee-forcarriage plan, saying that money would not be enough to solve local broadcasting’s problems.  But Konrad von Finckenstein, who heads the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CTRC), has not ruled out those fees are still a possibility.  And broadcasters in Canada are praying they might be part of a long-term solution to get them back on their feet.

Some hope may come next week when the CRTC releases a report on its latest plan to put local broadcasters back in the black and change the regulatory environment in the county.  Central to the report will be local stations and particularly local news.  Political arguments in Canada’s parliament have focused on the loss of local news in communities that would lose local broadcasters should the big owners close down the stations there.  The CRTC countered with a Local Programming Improvement Fund aimed at stations in smaller markets. The money comes from a one percent tax on distributors’ gross revenue.  But broadcasters say that isn’t enough do any good, suggesting instead a 2.5 percent fee.  Furthermore, broadcasters would also like a crack at getting back the so-called “Part-II” fees they pay to help run the CRTC each year.  These fees exceed what it costs to run the regulator and are piling up,  now totaling $100 million per year and going into the government’s general revenue accounts.

Caught in the middle are a lot of passionate news people who just want to tell important stories.  All around the conference center those two days I spent in Toronto, I heard people talk about the constant fear in the business, wondering whether anyone in the newsroom would have a job in the weeks ahead.  RTNDA Canada President Cal Johnstone, my counterpart north of the border, himself faces a very uncertain future. His station, “A” London is owned by CTVglobemedia and may be subject to closing soon.  The station has already cancelled its morning news and cut back the rest of the news day to just one and a half hours.

What can you do if you’re reading this on my side of the border?  I say we join the Great Fight North.  After my trip, I know RTNDA (what the Canadians refer to as “RTNDA International”) should do all it can to provide expert information to the Canadian government about new models and practices we’re trying here to get out of the recession and keep local news strong.  Personally, I now have a legion of Canadian news managers I want to stay in touch with to find how things are going and to offer any personal help I can.  What if every member of RTNDA did the same?  Pick the Canadian TV market closest yours and get in touch.  It need not be a lot of work, just an e-mail or phone call to a counterpart of yours across the border.  Offer a little support and let them know we’re thinking of them.  If you have advice, share it.

American TV programming floods north across the border into every market in Canada.  Some say its presence there is part of what’s robbing Canada of its own strong, locally-originated broadcasting.  Isn’t it time we export something else from American media?  How about shipping some good will and support to our friends to the north.  My first package is already on its way.

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