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New VI Massacre All Too Familiar

Sihota, Spector and a lot of other local content just got killed by CHUM in Victoria. It's the pattern in Canada, where promises melt into U.S.-made schlock.

By Adrian Dix 12 Jul 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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The Tyee.ca

It is the dance of broadcasting in Canada. A corporation makes promises to get a broadcasting license. The CRTC awards the lucrative license. The broadcaster breaks its promises to present a healthy amount of local and Canadian programming. The CRTC nevertheless renews the license.

The New VI announced last week a dramatic cut in its commitment to local broadcasting with the layoff of 29 journalists, on-air performers, producers and other staff. CHUM Television which owns the station as well as CKVU in Vancouver, 6 other local stations across Canada, 30 radio stations and 18 specialty television channels, estimates that they will cut $1.4 million annually from their investment in local programming in Victoria. Staff at the New VI now stands at 106, a 30 percent cut in less than a year.

CHUM management eliminated its highest profile shows and sent packing its most popular personalities, including former NDP Cabinet Minister Moe Sihota and respected columnist Norman Spector. Shows such as "Right On" and "VIsland Voices" have been cancelled. (For the record, I have been an unpaid guest on both shows this year.) Both programs added to the diversity of voices on our airwaves.

'Refocus our energies'

According to Brad Phillips, CHUM Vice President for British Columbia "Our plan, candidly, is to refocus our energies on doing fewer shows better, rather than doing a lot of shows not as well as we could."

"Refocus energies?" "Candidly?" This is not a matter of replacing one show with another. CHUM cut an additional $1.4 million a year out of its commitment to local broadcasting on top of previous reductions. Management slashed journalists' positions from the very news shows that are supposed to be the station's new focus.

Are viewers going to leave market-leaders CHEK or Global-BCTV for a downsized, under-financed alternative offering pretty much the same news, only less? CHUM has recently done the same thing in Vancouver, downsizing its operation at CKVU and losing two-thirds of its viewing audience for its news show at 6:00 p.m. Ratings will decline in Victoria as well. The question is: why is offering less to viewers "good for business?"

Who wants to be a millionaire?

CHUM's decision reveals the hypocrisy of television broadcasting in Canada. Stations make much of their money importing American programming. The NEW VI for example is Number 1 in Vancouver and Victoria at 7:30 broadcasting the syndicated show "Who wants to be a Millionaire?" The Canadian market to broadcast such shows is protected by simultaneous substitution rules enforced by Canadian law.

It is the right to broadcast American shows without competition from U.S. stations that makes local stations in Canada profitable and their licenses valuable. In exchange for the rights to do this and access to the airwaves owned by the public, broadcasters commit to local production and community participation. In effect, with the exception of the Global-BCTV News Hour that dominated the B.C. market and is a cash cow for its owner, most local programming is run at a net loss.

CHUM management has suggested that the new staffing and local programming investment is consistent with Victoria's small market. Phillips suggests: 'We have to swallow a nasty pill here, let's just swallow the whole thing.' We think we've got the station to the size it should be for the revenues it gets."

Marketplace of ideas?

However, it was CHUM and other broadcasters that suggested that the combined Vancouver Island and Lower Mainland markets were large enough to support a second Victoria channel when it sought the license at the CRTC.

It was CHUM that promised that it would invest in a distinctive voice in Victoria when it won the license over competing bids such as Craig Broadcasting. When CHUM acquired CKVU (Channel 13) in Vancouver, they claimed they would maintain their investment in Victoria and won an exemption from the "one company, one market, one station" rules.

Now, CHUM says "we can't do it." They aren't giving up the license however. CHUM just wants to be relieved of much of the cost of local programming so they can be free to re-broadcast "Millionaire" and other profitable foreign-produced shows at will. They want the benefits of a government-protected market without having to meet its legal and moral obligation to British Columbia viewers and communities.

The New VI will provide local programming at low cost with little interest in audience, competition, ratings or the marketplace of ideas.

We own the airwaves

The sad thing is they are likely to get away with it. CHUM's New VI license expires on August 31, 2004 and is subject to renewal by the CRTC. However, their hearing was held in May and the deadline for public comment has conveniently passed. Moreover, the CRTC has never stripped a television station of its license in Canada.

Sadly, the dance continues. CHUM is buying Craig Broadcasting stations on the Prairies and a new station in Toronto. New commitments to local programming have been made as the company seeks approval for its expansion plans; a new television production fund on the Prairies, a strong investment in local news.

Meanwhile, Vancouver Island is the loser. A major forum for diverse voices is lost. It does not have to be this way. The public owns the airwaves.

Viewers can demand that the New VI meet its obligations and invest in local programming. If they are not prepared to do this, they should give up the license. At the very least, new hearings into the New VI's license renewal should be ordered by the CRTC. If enough voices are raised, they may even hear you in Hull Quebec. Call or write the CRTC and let them know how you feel. (Write CRTC, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0N2, Call Toll-free 1-877-249-2782 or e-mail info@crtc.gc.ca.)

Former NDP aide Adrian Dix writes for the Victoria Times Colonist and others.  [Tyee]

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