I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Canada’s Own Evil Empire?

Most of the blogs I write are born in a news story or an event that grabs my interest and all but twists my arm forcing me to write something about it. This one is different. This blog is the result of an accumulation of upset that has taken years to come to terms with. I ask you, anyone who reads this column, is there a huge corporation in Canada that is more anti-consumer than Rogers?

Let me start with the easy stuff. Rogers brought the mobile phone industry to Canada, does anyone remember Cantel? They created a mobile telephone system that was ludicrously expensive and then created fictitious fees to gouge their customers even more, fees that we are still paying, for services that do not exist and never have. Sure Bell and Telus came along afterwards and jumped on board to overcharge Canadian consumers, but it was Rogers that created the pricing policies that make this country one of the most expensive in the world to own and operate a cell phone.

Canada was a leader in creating cable television. We were the first country in the world to use this system for disseminating TV signals. Many Canadians have a short memory about this industry. In fact Rogers bought into the industry, they had little to do with creating it. What Rogers added was higher prices and the inability to chose the stations you wanted. They bundled services so that if you want The Movie Channel, you have to buy a whole whack of stations you may not have any interest in. Worse, if you want Turner Classic Movies, you have to pay the big bucks for The Movie Channel to get it. It’s been close to two years since they promised the CRTC that they would give the consumer the choice to pay for only the stations they want, yet nothing has happened. The Rogers people gift to Canadians: little choice, higher prices and if I may add here, long telephone waits and poor service.

I will only mention Rogers internet service in passing. Canadians pay way too much for internet service, again, amongst the highest in the world. And, if that’s not enough Rogers has added insult to injury by using throttling to slow their service when it gets busy. You pay for fast service, but Rogers slows it down on purpose. While U.S. companies race to install fibre optic wire to help make their service better and quicker, Rogers uses old fashioned coaxial cable that in many cases is as much as forty years old. They claim the high prices are to increase bandwidth and new technology…where do we, the consumers, see the results of that money?

Don’t get me started on their television services. In a previous blog, The Rape of CITY-TV, I discussed how Rogers ruined one of the most unique and innovative television franchises anywhere. When was the last time anyone noticed CITY-TV? They also own Rogers Sportsnet. This started as a regional sports network with four channels, each aimed at a different part of the country. Then the tricky bastards at Rogers added Sportsnet One, put a lot of the most watched content on the new station exclusively and made us pay more to see the channel. Rogers also owns Omni, the multicultural channels with bases in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
What did they do with those licenses? First they got rid of most of the multicultural content and replaced it with cheap U.S. game shows and sit-com reruns. They do news in Italian, Chinese and Hindi and run some movies in those languages but they produce very little else. What you may not know is that when you see a Russian show, an Arabic show or any other minority show, the minorities buy the time from Rogers and then have to find their own advertising dollars to pay for their work and what they owe Rogers for the airtime. Many actually lose money to provide their poor communities with a service while Rogers makes millions off them and billions in total.

Rogers also owns the Toronto Blue Jays. They should be embarrassed by their involvement. They have managed to turn the largest market for any single baseball team, 33 million in Canada and 5.5 million in the Toronto area into what they call a small market. Year after year they have underfunded the Jays, in fact the Jays’ budgets are the same today, about $60 million U.S., as when Rogers bought the team. What that doesn’t take into consideration is that the Canadian dollar was at 65 cents when they took over and is close to par today. That means they are actually spending 30% less today then they spent when they bought the team. No need to ask why the Jays have never gone to the post-season under Rogers’ ownership, the answer is all too obvious.

Now Rogers wants a piece of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, TFC, etc. Here they see an opportunity to parlay ownership of the teams into television content for their channels. If past performance is any example of future performance, don’t plan for any parades on Yonge Street…ever.

Over the decades Rogers has set the example of greed and gouging that has been seen and followed by the folks at Bell, Shaw, Telus and the rest. They could have been leaders in customer service, competitive pricing, quality television and performance excellence. They never chose those routes. All they have ever shown an interest in was maximizing their bottom line at the expense of their customers.

Who do I blame? Ted Rogers of course, but I also blame the CRTC and the Canadian government for allowing them to get away with the worst of their actions. How could the CRTC allow them to create phony charges for cell phone service? How could the CRTC have allowed prices to grow out of all proportion to other countries? How could the CRTC change their own rules to allow cable companies to own television stations? How indeed?

The people who ran and run Rogers should be ashamed of what they have wrought. The CRTC should be ashamed of what they have allowed to pass. Finally, successive governments of Canada, both Liberal and Conservative should be ashamed of standing by while the CRTC allowed Rogers to gouge the Canadian public.

I invite anyone from Rogers who wants to rebut anything to contact me. I will make space available to them to explain their side. I’m sure all Canadians would like to hear any explanation from Rogers.

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Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The CRTC Must Die

Every time you think the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the CRTC, has finally been chastised and in the process, learned a lesson, the bozos who run the circus come up with a new and silly act meant to help the broadcasters. And, as is usual with these folks, somehow ends up diminishing our choices as consumers and costing us more money in the long run.

Last time the genius’ at the CRTC had the brilliant notion that behemoths Rogers and Bell should have the right to tell their sub-buyers like Teksavvy what they could charge for internet use. This blew up in the CRTC’s face when most Canadians saw through the money grab by the big providers and began a protest that made the suggestion disappear faster than a Liberal leader in the 21st century.

At just about the same time the sages who run the CRTC suggested that the need to tell the truth by broadcasters should be somehow loosened so that less honesty and less truth could become the norm. This was at a time when Sun TV was on the drawing board. Either they, the CRTC, were too stupid to make the connection, which is highly likely, or they were attempting, as some suggested, to pander to the Tory government by making it easier for a Fox-north like entity to succeed. Either way, it blew up in their collective faces.

Oh, and let’s not forget the plan to allow CTV and Global to charge cable and satellite companies to rebroadcast what is by license and by law a free service. Somehow this notion was approved but has disappeared from the landscape. It was left to the broadcasters and the distributors to somehow work out the charges. My guess is that Rogers said no way, we won’t pay and the entire issue went poof. If it had any legs after that I suspect the acquisition of CTV by Bell and Global by Shaw doomed the concept. Now the broadcasters are the distributors too. Funny the CRTC didn’t see these events coming even after they broke their own rules years ago by allowing cable and satellite companies like Rogers and Bell to own TV stations. It was inevitable. Only the egg-heads at the CRTC didn’t see the end of competition coming.

So, now that all their recent plotting has failed miserably, the brainiacs at the CRTC have come up with a new plan to strengthen the oligarchies that run broadcasting in Canada while at the same time diminishing the viewers’ options. This time the CRTC is asking interested parties, there will be no public hearings so interested parties mean those who are stakeholders, the people who will make more money, to comment on how new media should and could be forced to provide Canadian content and contribute to those people who provide Canadian content.

On the surface this sounds so sensible. Who’s against more money for Canadian shows and who wouldn’t like to see more and better Canadian TV? Apple pie and ice cream right?

Wrong! When looked at more closely the CRTC is attempting to regulate an industry that it has no right to regulate. Sure I can see why CTV, Rogers and Global want to make it more expensive for Netflix and Apple to do business. If Netflix has to charge more for their service, there is less likelihood that my fellow Canadians will sign up. In the end this means more customers for the broadcasters and distributors. Why not ask? I would if I owned CTV or Global.

Instead of looking at the apple pie and drooling, think of it this way: Netflix and Apple are really no different than your local video store. They provide access to content that is not delivered by cable, satellite or over the air. Their content, like the video store is mostly TV series’ and movies, the stuff you can buy at Walmart or rent at Blockbuster. Interestingly, Rogers provides this rental service in big video stores and Bell and Rogers both offer pay-per-view movies. Ask yourself whether Blockbuster or your corner video store should be forced to provide Canadian content or help pay for Canadian production? Obviously, this is a ludicrous idea. Well the concept is no more ludicrous at the Netflix store.

The latest argument by the broadcasters is that Apple and Netflix have begun to fund and buy programming that will go directly to their service and bypass TV, cable and satellite. Please, someone, explain what the difference is between this and videos that are made to be sold directly to the public without ever being broadcast? There are thousands of them. Disney is a big producer of this sort of content. Perhaps we should go after Disney to provide Canadian content and money for Canadian production. Hell, you can buy the Disney videos in Canadian stores. It’ll never happen. I can hear the guffaws coming from the Magic Kingdom just at the suggestion.

Seriously folks, I think we can all recognize a protectionist scam that is being devised by the broadcasters in Canada along with the CRTC. Hurt the new guys and you help yourself. Luckily the Tory government has already come out against the idea. Tony Clement has said, “…it is a way to strangle the competition.”

The time has come to scrap the CRTC. They are tools of the oligarchs who own and run broadcasting and telecommunications in this country. They have succeeded in providing Canadians with one of the most expensive mobile phone systems in the world, one of the highest cost internet systems in the world, and a national television system that is ruled by three owners who have steadfastly fought every initiative to make Canadian programs and play them in prime time. All they, the networks, really care about is their bottom line. Fair enough, they are businesses. But isn’t that why we created the CRTC? To regulate those businesses so that they serve Canadians. So far all I see is a CRTC that wants to regulate Canadians in the service of Rogers, Bell and Shaw.

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , , ,

Lie to Me…the CRTC says it’s okay

Anyone who has paid any attention to the rulings, musings and operations of the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission can be excused if they are confused and amazed. Every time I think the CRTC can’t get any worse, they confound me and most fellow Canadians with something crazier than they have ever considered before.

Believe it or not the CRTC has chosen this time to suggest a loosening of the rules that demand truth and accuracy in radio and television news. I know, I know, the first question is why the heck would anyone want less truth and less accuracy? Especially in the days of Fox News and all the havoc that they have wreaked on the American public.

Stacey Hannem Assistant Professor, Criminology Laurier Brantford wrote this in the Brantford Expositor:

The CRTC is currently in the process of proposing changes to its regulations for news media which prohibit the publication of “false and misleading” statements in the guise of “news.”
Under the proposed changes, media outlets would be prohibited from broadcasting statements that they know are false and misleading statements only if said statement also “endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.”
Let’s get this straight. This means that the CRTC is willing to allow media outlets to broadcast known falsehoods as news; that is, opinion, slander, and outright lies, as long as they think it won’t hurt anyone.
I ask you, how do they know which lies will be harmful? Can they predict which lies will cause unnecessary stigma, divisiveness in communities or between ethnic groups? Can they predict which lies will cause unnecessary fear among the public? Can they predict which lies will cause Canadians to vote in ways that they might not otherwise and completely change the political and social trajectory of our nation?
How can they define or predict the harm that will be caused by the publication of lies as news?

So far as I know, nobody, no organization has publicly asked for these changes. It is possible that some broadcasters have secretly demanded the right to be less than honest in their reporting, but I am sure they would never make this request publicly. Why? Simple, because then we would all know or be free to conclude that the broadcaster that requested the changes was willing to lie or bend the truth and the result being that the broadcaster would lose all credibility and hopefully all their viewers or listeners.

So I ask again why? Without any obvious explanation one has to wonder about the fact that the new right wing talk and all-news station is about to hit the airwaves this year. Will the new rules allow them to emulate Fox and publish inaccurate stories? Fox is still questioning President Obama’s birthplace even though the facts have been clear for more than two years. Is this unfair to the new television station? Perhaps it is, but pundits and analysts are scratching their heads trying to figure out where this came from and they are looking for the obvious when no other explanation is forthcoming from the CRTC. One Toronto Star letter writer put it this way:

It is bad enough that the CRTC is allowing a politicized Fox-like station to mount its operations in Canada, a country so admired for its standards of truthfulness and values that should not be undermined.

We are the country that should be emulated, not lowered to the standards of others. It is worrisome that the CRTC would contemplate watering down the requirement of broadcasters to air factual – not misleading information.

Janet Denton, London Ont.

Janet gets it even if the CRTC does not. But that’s not all the CRTC has been up to. Konrad Von Finckenstein’s mates have decided that Bell and Rogers are not making enough money from their internet services. Hey I know we all feel sorry for the poor sods at Bell and Rogers. It’s tough to keep squeezing more billions from consumers when there are so few new services they can offer.

So Bell and Rogers, I presume, got together with Konrad and his pals at the CRTC and came up with a great plan. Let’s allow the big internet providers to charge based on usage. We’ll call it “usage based-billing” and we will let Bell, Rogers and Telus force it down the throats of all their customers, especially the small ISPs (Internet Service Providers) who buy access for their service from the big boys. We’re not talking about small changes either. One company, Tekksavvy, which allowed its customers to use 200 gigabytes per month has advised its users that they will only be allowed 25 gigabytes from now on. That’s 1/8th for the same price. Where does that leave their customers? Canadian internet subscribers will be paying more for less in the future. That means any small company, hey, any large company, that depends on or uses the internet will have its costs driven up substantially. Guess who will end up paying for that in the end? Too easy. Us. The consumers.

Here we are in a country that already sees us paying way more than our competitors in the U.S. for mobile phone services and the internet and what does the CRTC do? Allow the corporate giants who are already making huge profits to gouge us for even more.

Peri Maric of Vancouver said all that has to be said in a letter to The Globe and Mail:

It’s a repugnant corporate money grab, sanctioned by the federal government, directly aimed at exploiting…our citizens, the most active national internet community in the world.

The mandate of the CRTC, I checked their website, clearly states that they are supposed to “serve the Canadian public.” It also says, “the CRTC works to serve the needs and interests of citizens…” Yeah right. When does that start happening?

Maybe the time has come to reform the CRTC or completely replace it with an agency charged with the primary responsibility of protecting consumers. The telephone companies and the cable companies already share very close to a national monopoly on all forms of communications and they are expanding their holdings with the help of the CRTC. Their power needs to checked not enhanced by the federal government.

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , ,

Liars Poker at the CRTC

After several months of interminable, fact free and boring ads, the CRTC has spent the last week and a few days trying to get Canada’s broadcasters and cable and satellite companies to come to some agreement on fee-for-carriage, in other words, allowing the broadcasters to get paid for what has always been a free service. As all Canadians know by now the public face of the battle is between the cable and satellite operators who claim they want to save us from the dreaded new “TV tax” and the country’s broadcasters who want to save local television.

Anyone who has paid even peripheral attention to the debate knows that both sides are, forgive the colloquialism, full of crap. The broadcasters have never shown any interest in local TV. The last time CTV cared was when it was a consortium of private owners like the Bassetts in Toronto and the Peters in B.C. who actually controlled the network. The shoe was on the other foot in those days. There was little interest in the network. Since Bell and the Globe Media bought out all the individual owners and centralized the running of the network local has been a bad word at CTV.

It’s even worse at Canwest/Global. Here, there has never been any interest in local TV. Before Izzy Asper got control, Global TV served all of Ontario from Toronto. There was never any coverage of Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Windsor, London etc. In Winnipeg the Asper station was a joke. When I was news director at Global and there were massive forest fires in Manitoba Izzy’s Winnipeg station refused to cover the fires. “Too expensive” they said. “We don’t have the manpower” they argued. We had to send a crew from Toronto.

In truth, and we all know this to be true, all CTV and Canwest/Global care about is the money. They have gone about making this abundantly clear in the past week. When Ivan Fecan, head of CTV, was asked if he would guarantee the fee-for-carriage money would go to local TV and local programming he said no. Canwest/Global said the same. So what was the point of all the advertising produced and aired by CTV and Global? Was it a false advertising? The only conclusion I can come to is yes, it was all a lie.

Further, to prove that money is the only motive, the networks level of greed showed no boundaries, they took their chutzpa to new levels demanding that on top of being paid for their free signals they want to expand simultaneous substitution. According to Michael Geist in The Globe and Mail:

“The broadcasters now wish to expand simultaneous substitution policy with program deletion…when a Canadian broadcaster purchases the rights to a U.S. program, they would have the right to air it whenever they choose within a seven day window. The hook is cable and satellite companies would be required to block the U.S. broadcast of the same program if it did not air simultaneously.
“The proposal, which would lead to millions of Canadians regularly encountering blank screens instead of expected programs, would perversely increase the attractiveness of U.S. programming…it would (also) send more Canadians away from broadcast television to the Internet…”

The broadcasters confirmed as well, they are not willing to invest in digital transmitters for all the local communities leaving residents in small cities like Kingston without any over the air signals, another slap at local TV. To add insult to injury the broadcasters are asking for an extra two years to make the switch to digital. In the U.S. that job was completed earlier this year. CTV and Global want us to wait another four years. You may wonder what difference that makes to you. Well, it means the new spectrum , 700 MHz, that was supposed to come available will not. That means Canada will lose billions of dollars in revenues from selling that spectrum and that new wireless and open internet innovation and competition will not be available to Canadian consumers.

In the face of all this, it should be a slam dunk for the cable and satellite operators. The broadcasters want everything and are willing to give back nothing.

Well that sounds like the real world. The CRTC has seldom, if ever, had close ties to the real world. The consumer is always at the bottom of the CRTC’s list of cares. The CRTC’s job, as they see it, is to protect Canadian TV. Not TV production as in new dramas and comedies, but TV distributors and stations. The reason: without a bunch of TV stations operating in Canada there is no need for the CRTC to oversee television. So they protect the millionaire owners. More important to the CRTC is cable. Every decision they make is to fortify cable. As long as most Canadians get their TV through cable the CRTC is powerful. You see, you cannot block over the air signals at the border, you cannot stop satellite feeds from entering Canadian air space, but you can control Canadian companies who distribute these signals over cable to millions of Canadian homes. Thus, over the years the CRTC has become the political arm of Rogers Cable. I have appeared before the CRTC five or six times and on each occasion at least half the commissioners were former Rogers employees. In many cases they went back to work at Rogers after their term was up at the CRTC. The connection is too obvious and has been going on for too long to call this a coincidence. CRTC decisions inevitably favour the cable companies first, the broadcasters second, the satellite companies third and I have to say it, the consumer never.

So where does this leave the entire debate? It’s impossible. The CRTC can’t hurt either side. It explains why Konrad von Finckenstein says he’s sick of the whole thing. He finds himself on the horns of a major dilemma: how to help the greedy broadcasters without harming the greedy cable companies or vice versa. To make it worse, signals from the government suggest they don’t want the consumer to pay. Tough luck Konny, you lose no matter what you decide. Here’s hoping you don’t take the rest of us with you.

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About the Author

Howard Bernstein is a former TV producer. He has worked at CBC,CTV, Global and has produced shows for most Canadian channels as an independent producer.

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