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Mediacheck

Local TV News: Who Should Pay?

Why are big broadcasters like CTV holding public rallies? They want a piece of your cable bill.

By Garrett Zehr 25 May 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Garrett Zehr reports for The Tyee.

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CTV's news studio in Vancouver, B.C.

CTV and 'A' Channel stations across the country flew open their doors on Saturday for open houses and meet-and-greets with the personalities they broadcast into viewers' homes each night.

More than 1,000 guests streamed through downtown Vancouver's CTV BC station for studio tours and photographs with the likes of anchor Bill Good and company. Journalists and station staff were also on hand in Victoria and Nanaimo to schmooze 'A' Channel fans.

"It's really a celebration of local TV, which we think has tons of value and does a great job," said Tom Haberstroh, vice-president and general manager of CTV BC.

But the purpose of the event was much more than just entertainment and celebration. Above all it was to promote the stations' Save Local Television campaign and the day was used to solicit political support.

Follow the money

CTVglobemedia and its station affiliates have been trying to gain public sympathy for their position that cable and satellite distributors should be forced to pay for airing the commercial broadcasters' signals through a monthly subscription levy known as fee-for-carriage.

Conventional broadcasters, including CTV and Canwest Global, argue they should be entitled to the same revenue that specialty channels, such as TSN and Discovery Channel, receive from the distributors.

"We think that our content has value and our proposition is that we should be compensated for other people distributing our signal and profiting from that signal," said Haberstroh.

The CTV stations have mounted an extensive online and on-air campaign with advertisements, endorsements and newscast promotions to gain public sympathy, and have encouraged viewers to sign an online petition and write to Heritage Minister James Moore and other MPs in support.

Stations from Victoria to Cape Breton could face extinction, according to the campaign, which would have a devastating impact on local news and information.

"Local programming is what we do," said Haberstroh about CTV. "I think this company more than ever realizes that the roots of television are community television."

Corporations tried to lessen local progamming

But the debate over fee-for-carriage aside, CTV's self-promotion as a gatekeeper of local programming has been largely dismissed by some media critics.

"It seems a bit cynical that they're rallying people to support their campaign for local television because they're also out of the other side of their mouth asking the CRTC to be relieved of local programming obligations," said Michael Lithgow, research associate for the Campaign for Democratic Media.

CTVglobemedia has already sold three local stations this year, including Windsor, Brandon and Wingham and during a submission to the House of Commons heritage committee last month asked for a reduction in the amount of local content required of broadcasters.

"I would be a little more enthusiastic about [the campaign] if the commercial broadcasters didn't have basically an unimpeached history of always clamouring for less local programming responsibilities" said Lithgow.

Nonetheless, the current broadcasting model needs massive restructuring, he said, and fee-for-carriage would provide new revenue for media producers.

"I think it's emerged clearly over the last 18 months that the cable companies are the bottleneck in the Canadian broadcasting system -- that's where all the money is."

A better 'fee for carriage' approach?

Putting some of this money back into media production would be a step, Lithgow said, but his support for the levy is quite different than what is advocated by CTV and Canwest Global.

"What we're opposed to is fee-for-carriage that only goes to the commercial broadcasters and that goes without any significant and substantive local programming obligations and without any kind of enforcement and oversight, which is largely what's been happening," he said.

Instead, the organization would like to see the revenue go towards a diversity of journalism organizations in Canada, including independent media, with local requirements attached and enforced.

But any form of fee-for-carriage is bound to face significant resistance from the distributors. The cable companies have already fought back against the conventional broadcasters' proposal during their own submissions to the heritage committee and through public statements about CTV's campaign.

"The issue is they want to tax television viewers to shore up the bottom line of their businesses," said Jan Innes, vice-president of communications for Rogers Communications.

Conventional broadcasters already receive substantial benefits from distribution, she said.

"It's a very good deal for them. We're required to carry them and we ensure that they are low on the dial."

The cable companies also provide simultaneous substitution, which ensures Canadian signals are carried in place of competing American signals if the same programming is being shown. This means greater exposure for Canadian advertising.

Cable companies file bias complaint

Innes acknowledged that the conventional over-the-air broadcasters no longer bring in as much revenue as they used to, but said records show CTV is still making huge profits from its specialty channels, which much more than compensate for any losses from local stations.

"It's hard to look at one part of the business and not the other."

The cable companies will go on the offensive with their own advertisements and other responses over the next few weeks, Innes said.

On Friday, cable companies including Rogers, Bell, and Telus filed a complaint with the CRTC for what they argued was biased and one-sided coverage when the CTV campaign was talked about on newscasts.

And the cable companies have been also quick to inform the Canadian public who they think would pay for a fee-for-carriage levy if it was implemented.

"If we're required, it will go right to customers," Innes said. The broadcasters are asking for regulations to ensure the fee is not passed on to consumers.

The CRTC has twice rejected calls for fee-for-carriage but the conventional broadcasters are hoping for a change of position or that federal politicians will step in with new legislation in their favour if the federal regulator fails to act.

CTV is hopeful the public support from its Save Local Television campaign will help convince Ottawa to provide them with the new revenues.

The power of local

But whether or not fee-for-carriage becomes a reality, Lithgow said the Campaign for Democratic Media is hoping for a much broader overhaul of the system.

"We've had the long-standing position that there is a lack of diversity in the Canadian broadcasting system as it exists," he said.

His organization would like to see massive changes to what Lithgow says is a "broken model" of private broadcasting to ensure local programming is maintained and increased.

"The shareholders and the owners of the large media companies are almost always not from the small local markets, so you've got people from outside of the communities worried about problems and financial concerns that are making decisions ostensibly about local programming," he said.

Revenues should be made available to independent broadcasters, producers and new media journalism organizations, he said, as well as a significant increase of funding for the CBC to ensure enhanced local programming.

The Campaign for Democratic Media is hosting a panel discussion in Vancouver on Wednesday to discuss the current state of Canadian media, including what it says is the essential role of local programming.

"The importance of the production of local knowledge is we live in local settings," said Lithgow.

"When there are problems in Canadian society like racism or poverty these things happen in local context," he said. "The production of programming that's responding to these needs and the joys and the celebrations as well in the local settings is profoundly important."

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