Monday, March 30, 2009

Saving the original small screen

With more and more of my life taking place on the Internet (e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc...) and a lot of work done on the same computer screens I sometimes forget there are people who don't live online. Or spend as much time online, anyway.

It certainly explains the anger and frustration across the country in cities and towns now threatened with the loss of their local TV station. There's the newspaper debate too; but that's for another day.

I can remember watching Barrie, Ontario's CKVR (as CKVR and its "The New VR" incarnation) through my early and teen years. There was news out of Toronto available but this was as close as it got to my home on Georgian Bay. Even now, after working in newsrooms around the country I'm impressed by the geographic range this station covers from its headquarters in Barrie. Sometimes a newsroom rarely ventures outside of its base city for a story but VR reporters have to rack up the kilometres to cover central Ontario. It's stations like this that are threatened as large broadcasters CTV and Canwest try to save money; and try to survive the information revolution.

Some may argue the same news can be provided with an online venture (I have thought the same) but long-standing London, Ontario TV newsman (and broadcast journalism teacher)
Bob Smith, a man I would consider wiser than myself, mentioned the reality is there are people who still come home at 6pm and turn on the news. They aren't yet living online and they are in danger of losing not just a part of their daily routines but a source of local news and information. Perhaps in five or more years, Bob pointed out to me in a recent phone call, they'll be on the Internet looking for local news, but not yet.

It's a point that has me taking a different look at my recent e-mail conversation with the General Manager of Brandon, Manitoba's CKX-TV. That's a CTV-owned station that broadcasts a mix of local news and CBC programming. The station may be more important (at least in the next few years) than I had thought.

I talked to Alan Cruise because I wanted to get a sense of what's happening at a smaller station that really is one of the few news links in Western Manitoba. Winnipeg TV news is popular out in "Westman" but CKX is still the place people can tune in to get a sense of local happenings. Cruise notes the potential loss won't take long to sink in.

"Initially, I think the main impact on the Westman area will be the 'drop in status' as we become a city without a TV station," he writes.

"Beyond that, people will notice very quickly that they’ve lost an important link to their local governments and municipal boards as well as the day to day coverage of events happening in all parts of the region. Viewers in towns 50 miles south of Brandon will become uninformed about what is happening 50 miles north. A sense of community will be lost."

It's been business as usual at CKX, Cruise notes; lauding the 40 employees of the station. In fact, it's been business as usual at all the stations on the verge of going dark, even as employees see co-workers lose their jobs and others spend their free time on the streets trying to drum up local interest in preserving their broadcasts.

Hamilton's CHCH is possibly the most visible example of such. As Canwest looks to sell the long-time southern Ontario fixture (and its other second-tier stations) staff and people in Hamilton have risen to offer the CRTC an option of selling and licensing the station to them as more of a public or local access broadcaster. It would actually return CHCH to something akin to its roots.

Cruise notes there are options which might end up enticing owners to buy individual stations.

"Each broadcaster has the right to have one station per province on satellite (Express Vu and Star Choice). With carriage on satellite, CKX would immediately double its reach in our market."

"Twice the viewers (or more) would obviously convert into increased revenue from advertisers," he concludes.

And since the CRTC looks to offer more money later this year for home-grown programming there's yet another option for a smaller broadcaster or at least one staying out of Canada's largest cities.

"An owner without a station in a major market would also be eligible for the Small Market Programming Fund," notes Cruise. "This fund would likely yield anywhere from $350,000 to $700,000 per year."

Cruise wouldn't detail the costs of running the local programming, but one could estimate that in the range of $2-3-million dollars at a station around the size of CKX or slightly larger. That’s a guess at providing a few news shows a day. A full day of programming will, of course, cost more.

CKX's deal with the CBC complicates matters. That affiliate deal expires at the end of August which is when CTV plans to shut down the station. That would leave the station with nearly a full day of dead air to fill. And they've got little time to find that new programming or a way to pay for it.

Another cost that's not really mentioned, but is likely a factor in CTV and Canwest's decision to close stations, is the conversion to a digital broadcast. Canada has a couple more years than the U.S. on the conversion of all television broadcasts to digital signals, but 2011 isn't that far off. Cruise notes the cost for his Brandon station to convert its on-air signal might be around $2-million and with CTV having to convert stations around the country he thinks they "...must channel their resources to larger markets."

I'll go with his numbers since the CRTC couldn't ballpark a figure for me, instead telling me to get an engineer to provide estimates.

There are plenty of financial options for a small station like CKX. Especially if a new owner isn't currently running a station in a large city. There's the possibility of being picked up on satellite, the Local Programming Improvement Fund and an old idea likely to come to fruition.

"The CRTC is being pressured like never before to grant a 'fee for carriage' system," types Cruise. "And that would probably amount to another $350k per year to CKX."

It's an idea the regulator has rejected. Broadcasters like CTV and Canwest are expected to ask again at hearings set for the end of April. It would allow the companies to ask broadcast providers (Shaw, Bell, TELUS, etc...) for a fee for every subscriber to their services. It was last requested to be 50-cents per subscriber to a cable or satellite package. That number is now likely to be a minimum request. The last time the request was made it was tied into using the proceeds of such a fee for local and Canadian programming.

The good news from Cruise is there are "interested parties with the capability to run the station" in the process of "due diligence" to see if that can become a reality.

"We'll see..." he said over the phone Friday, during a conversation to confirm his e-mail responses.

CHCH in Hamilton also has some potential white knights, outside of the pitch for staff and community to buy the station.

The world may be moving to a more connected online format, but we're not all there yet. And thankfully there appear to be people ready to fight for those options. There also appear to be people ready to fight for local news and information, even as the larger broadcasters say it's a money pit. Time will tell if local TV can survive but I'll bet local news certainly finds a way to thrive. It just might not fit into a larger corporate picture.

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