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, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Poor Sports

As anyone who regularly reads my blog knows I am obsessed with the fact that daily news on television and in the newspapers has not kept up with the times. I am amazed that Canadian broadcasters continue to produce national newscasts in the same style that they were produced 30, 40 or even 50 years ago. This despite the fact that the internet and all-news television has made the way viewers watch TV news change dramatically.

Newspapers have added style and shrunk their pages but they too continue to pump out their daily editions as if the internet had never been invented and they choose stories as if we, the consumers of news, have not seen any TV news or looked at the web.

I sometimes wonder what it will take for a few modern ideas to take hold. For the various media to assess what they do well and just as important the ways in which they can’t compete or even provide a valuable service. National newscasts, for example cannot possibly compete with the speed of all news television. All news on the other hand, does not have the time or the staff to look at stories in depth. I should not have to spell out the direction each should go in.

The internet pumps out volumes of information from all kinds of sources. The problem is an internet reader cannot always know or trust the sources of that information. I have a hard time watching the national newscasts because it seems like déjà vu. I have seen or heard the stories all day long. Newspapers are even slower. I sometimes feel like I have seen every story in my newspaper, it is yesterday’s news. I would love to see my newspapers filled with more opinion, more columnists from all across the political spectrum and because they have the staffs and the time, way more investigation and in depth stories.

This is all a long preamble to what I consider the most archaic and outdated source of news that exists today: the local news sportscast. Look, I am a huge sports fan. I love all the major sports and a few of the minor ones too. I am constantly surfing the web for the latest scores and sports news. I take part in hockey and baseball pools and have been known to make a bet on the NFL. So I am not coming at this as an artsy elitist or a news purist. I understand where the sportscast came from. In the “old” days there was no TSN, no the Score, no Rogers Sportsnet. The only opportunity most TV viewers had to see the scores and highlights was on their local newscast. In five to eight minutes the local sportscaster would let the audience know how their local teams performed, if there were any injuries and of course, show the best goals, touchdowns and home runs. If he, it was always a he until City-TV came along, had time, he would tell you whether the rival teams won or lost. In some cases local sports ran a crawl or put up a list of all the scores. They had a job to do and they did it well enough.

Can someone tell me the point of the local sportscast today? If I want to see highlights I have the choice of eight sports channels on television in Canada. I can go to the internet and find the scores to any game, whether finished or still playing. Heck I can even find out who is at bat as we speak or what yard line and which team has the ball in the football game. At the end of the day I can see an hour long sportscast that gives me all the scores, all the highlights, a few feature stories and even a panel discussion. If I want to just find out whether the Blue Jays or the Stampeders or the Canucks won or lost I can tune in The Score and look at the bottom of the screen. In a matter of minutes I will see every score in every game in every sport.

If you are a sports fan you have all kinds of ways and means of keeping up to date and truth be told, you find the local news sportscast inadequate at best and laughable at worst. If you are not a sports fan you probably could care less.

So why waste the time, money and the resources it takes to produce an inadequate and obsolete portion of the show? Wouldn’t local news be better served by hiring three or four more news reporters and dumping the three or four sports hosts and reporters? Wouldn’t the newscast love to have the camera operators assigned to sports available to news? I haven’t even mentioned the editing time that is currently gobbled up by sports. I don’t know anyone who watches their local newscast to see the sports news anymore yet we are still pouring all kinds of resources into the sportscast.

None of this means I want sports to disappear from local news. I would just like to see sports covered like all of the other news. When something important or interesting is going on, send out a journalist to cover the event. A good feature on the small crowds at the Blue Jays games would be of interest. The fight over a new stadium for the Tiger Cats in Hamilton is news. If the Leafs ever win the Stanley Cup the rash of heart attacks throughout Toronto and Canada will be a lead item. These stories can and should be handled by the journalists who cover their cities every day. There is no need to waste a long portion of the newscast on badly produced, incomplete and archaic segments that are available elsewhere to anyone who is really interested in the information.

So if anyone knows the answer to my queries I would love to hear from you. In the meantime I suspect the only answer is: ‘you know we have always done it this way and we haven’t really given it any thought.’ Isn’t that how most of the Canadian media works today?

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Badly Served in Canada

My wife is constantly amazed that I read every page of the newspapers that are delivered to my door every morning…seven days a week. Of course I watch a lot of news on television too. That makes me a bona fide news junkie. According to the statistics I read in one of the newspapers, it can be difficult to differentiate when you are plowing through so much news, I am not an uncommon Canadian. It seems we are a country of news junkies in comparison to our American neighbors. The market for quality news coverage is still very strong here. So why are Canadian news outlets from print, TV and radio following the U.S. down the road to coverage of non-events, non-stories and celebrity garbage…I mean gossip?

Each day it feels like it takes me less and less time to read the papers. The Sunday Toronto Star is an empty shell that can be perused cover to cover in about ten minutes. I barely know who Lindsay Lohan is and what makes her famous yet I am bombarded with her brush with the law and her impending jail term. I’m sure Lohan’s incarceration will have little effect on the world economy other than to sell a few more newspapers.

When I was at CBC my bosses conducted a poll of news viewers; which station they watched, why they chose to watch a specific newscast, their age, education background and yearly earnings. The results were obvious. The CBC’s viewers were older, richer and better educated than CTV, Global and CITY viewers. CITY-TV viewers were the youngest, poorest and least educated. But put that way, it is highly misleading. The difference in average age from CBC to CITY-TV was about 5 years, 44 for CITY and just under 49 for CBC. CBC had the most university grads but most CBC viewers barely finished high school.

I remember thinking at the time that CITY’s rock and roll news was a great thing for CBC. Younger folks got hooked on the news watching Gord Martineau and his gang. They developed the news viewing habit in simple bite sized, picture stories. The way I saw it, when they matured and wanted more, they would graduate to CBC News. CITY was news with training wheels. CBC was the 18 speed racing bike.

The world of television and TV news is far more complicated today. It is as much about style as substance. There are far more choices. The internet and all-news channels provide way more options. A friend told me that watching network news in Canada today is like watching yesterday’s newscast. He has seen all the stories during the day on the net and has no time for the déjà vu provided by the TV newscasts.

Given all of the above I have to ask what CBC, CTV and Global are doing. Instead of creating a new kind of in depth version of a newscast with fewer stories and more context, they are still competing with CBC NN, CTV News Network and the internet. They are still trying to cover all the stories without getting down to what is important and giving those stories more time and effort. In Canada this is doubly stupid because the networks own the services they are competing with.

When Newsworld was first created I believed it would be the best thing that happened to national newscasts. It would free them from having to be everywhere covering stories large and small from across the country and around the world. I expected the news bosses to choose six or seven important stories and give them in depth coverage. Why not? The small stories about the snow storm in Calgary and the 20 car pile-up outside Chatham were now taken care of. There would be more time to look at the cost of the G-20 and whether we really need a census any more. (By the way, we still have not seen a single investigative report on how our government spent $1.2 billion on a summit that cost everyone else a tenth of that sum or less.) Alas, this has not happened. Today’s newscasts in Canada look very similar, in coverage, to what they looked like before Newsworld and CTV News Network. If anything, CBC especially, has taken many steps backward. They have done away, for the most part, with their excellent long form journalism and replaced it on most nights with fillers and fluff that should not have a place on a serious national newscast.

Why did I expect change? Because CBS, NBC, and ABC changed when CNN came along. They realized the futility of challenging CNN for speed. They understood that they couldn’t cover in half-an-hour what CNN had 24 hours to report on. Before CNN a typical network newscast in the U.S. packed 12 to 14 stories into their 30 minutes minus ads every night. Since the advent of CNN, the average American network newscast averages 6 to 8 stories and on many nights an investigative feature on an important subject is one of those stories.

In Canada we may be a nation of news junkies but we are not being well served by our national institutions. The CBC, Global and CTV are mired in formats that were out of date in the 90’s. The Globe and Mail seems to be providing less and less serious news coverage and little investigation into important stories, in some cases preferring to be touts for their own (CTV Globe Media) Olympic coverage or even stooping to stories on which dance team was eliminated from a CTV reality(?) show. CBC Radio is the lone exception but rumors abound that Richard Stursberg is coming to make radio news as inane as he has made TV news.

With new hosts coming to CTV and Global and a renewal process at CBC TV that is an abject failure, perhaps the time has come to take a long look at what network news is doing and look to the future rather than the past to bring about the kind of change that a news hungry population craves.

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Bye, George

There is one show on Canadian television that I just do not get, that’s The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos.

It’s not the content. The interviews are generally light and fluffy and even fun befitting a late night entertainment show. The guests are generally good, I would even say better than most of the Canadian talk shows that preceded The Hour. The format is just about right. And George, he’s glib and engaging in the way a late night TV host should be most of the time.

So what’s my problem?

In fact I have several, but they are so interconnected I don’t know where one ends and the next begins. I’ll start with the fact that while the CBC and the Canadian media treat George Stroumboulopoulos like he’s a media star he in fact, can’t draw flies to his show. There is no real audience to speak of. The show’s numbers are similar to those of the dismal local news on CBC. Considering the advertising dollars and promotional time the show gets it should be a late night staple challenging Lloyd Robertson and CTV National News. I think Lloyd gets more viewers in Calgary than George gets coast-to-coast. It’s not a bad show. So where is the audience?

I believe the CBC and George Stroumboulopoulos are doing each other a grave disservice. The CBC chose George to be host because he is young and hip. He never wears a sports jacket, let alone a tie. The earring and the haircut are supposed to speak to the youthful viewers the network is trying to attract. As usual the idea was much better on paper than the reality on TV for the CBC. After several years it should be painfully obvious to all but the most indifferent observers that young people are not going to tune in to CBC for a talk show, even if George is the host. The other painful side of that coin is that typical CBC viewers are not going to watch the likes of George Stroumboulopoulos. He just doesn’t speak to the 50-somethings from Fredericton and Saskatoon who just finished watching Peter Mansbridge grasping for every last political straw in Ottawa for close to an hour.

George works. We know that from his days at Much Music and City-TV. Young viewers loved his work and flocked to any show he was associated with. If George did the exact same show at City he would have a hit on his hands. Most people in the industry I talk to understand this. What nobody seems to get is why the CBC has allowed this failure to continue and why George Stroumboulopoulos stays with a gig that clearly puts him in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Hour’s numbers are a black hole for the Corp sucking up advertising time and dollars with little or no payback. George’s street cred has to be hurting. Cool people just don’t work for the CBC. He must know this. I’m sure George would be grabbed up by any one of CBC’s competitors given the opportunity to get him. The end of The Hour would surely be a win-win situation for both George and the network.

The first time I heard the CBC was trying to attract a more youthful audience was in 1984. The powers-that-were tried to get me to dumb down my newscast, cut the length of news stories, be more sensational. I refused then because I believed CBC viewers had expectations of high quality news and information they could trust. I was proven right when we more than doubled our audience. But now, even though the network has never succeeded in drawing younger audiences, 25 years later the CBC is making the same mistaken assumptions.

In the 500 channel universe it is more important than ever to know your audience and keep them happy. A niche is a good thing. Especially if the niche, in CBC’s case, is the largest portion of the available audience: baby boomers and the elderly. By abandoning them, the Corp is abandoning any hope of success. We are all taught to play to our strengths, focus on what we know, so why isn’t the CBC doing this? Is it the ad dollars that won’t be forthcoming because CBC is not attracting females 18 to 49? That’s silly. No network in Canada is less dependent on advertising. A huge audience would go far further to cement their future. It would be very difficult for Harper’s Tories to cut CBC’s budget if more than a million people were tuned in to all or most of CBC’s offerings.

Okay, maybe it’s because they worry about their future. If the entire audience gets old and dies who will watch? The truth is CBC has always had an older audience. When people reached a certain age they somehow began to watch more CBC. It has been a natural progression for over 60 years. Be happy with that natural progression. All the other networks have been TV training wheels for CBC viewers. At a certain age the viewers expect more depth, more quality and CBC has been there to give it to them. With this quest for youth CBC is giving away its niche, losing its advantage and perhaps throwing away its future.

If you want proof look at CBC Radio, it has never done better. CBC Radio One is number one in several markets. And what shows are selling? Metro Morning, As It Happens, Sunday Morning. In fact most of the newer edgier programs are anchors pulling the network’s ratings down. Radio Two’s changes have cut their ratings in half. I am told by avid listeners that Radio Two has been sneaking on more and more Classical music and dropping the nutty content. They have not admitted their mistakes with words but their actions are speaking for themselves.

The CBC’s future and its success depend on being the best CBC possible rather than trying to be a bad U.S. network imitation. Perhaps the bosses will wake up one day and realize this. Perhaps I am dreaming.

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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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