I'm Mad as Hell


and I can't do a thing about it

The more things change…

It never ceases to amaze me how big corporations can be so oblivious to what is happening on the streets just outside their fancy headquarters. We’ve all been disgusted by the big U.S. banks taking billions or trillions of dollars in bailouts and then turning around and handing out million dollar bonuses to their executives and top performers.

We are gob struck by hospitals in Canada who take all of their top doctors to meetings in Florida or Las Vegas rather than using the fancy boardrooms they have had built and furnished in their facilities.

All we can say is: what were they thinking?

So why are we surprised to learn that the CBC is sending twice as many people to a TV and media festival in Banff than any other Canadian network? That’s the way the CBC works. Some will go as a form of bonus or reward. Others will go to raise the CBC flag. A few will even go to Banff to do some valuable work. Heck, at the CBC they probably think they are saving money because they are likely sending fewer people than they sent in the past. While the profligacy boggles our minds, the CBC brass will be truly surprised by the mild uproar. It’s how they have always done their business. What’s new?

For years I traveled to conferences, markets and conventions all over the world. A few when I was with CTV, a few more at CBC, and regularly when I helped run a private company that produced television programs. Several things became obvious to me on my travels: first of course, was that CBC always had the largest contingent of any of the Canadian broadcasters or producers, most of whom were there for reasons that I, as a participant, could not fathom.

Further, except for a tiny group of people who were there to look for programs to buy or sell, it was a complete boondoggle. Most of the participants go to the conventions to see old friends, have fancy lunches and dinners with the same people they see at every convention, and to party…I know people, including CBC types, who never showed up at any of the serious convention events, in fact they were probably sleeping off last night’s party so they could be fresh for tonight’s party.

In truth, because the broadcast people already know most of the other participants, it would be far cheaper and way more effective to telephone the people they are meeting with or to travel to their offices, whether they are in New York, London or Paris. They would not have to pay huge entrance fees. They would not have to compete with hundreds of others for face time. Most important, they could do all their business in one quick meeting and then head home.

The problem with these organizations, like CBC, the big banks, hospitals, is that they have developed a culture that took years and years to grow and it is almost impossible for them to see beyond the way they have always done their business. You can see it in Richard Stursberg’s book, Tower of Babble. Here’s a guy who claims to have had massive money problems. He says he begged the CBC Board of Directors to allow him to create new sources of revenue to combat millions and millions of dollars in shortfalls. Yet, here’s King Richard, crowing about the results of studies that he personally ordered. He names at least three studies he called for. Each one probably cost over a million dollars. In all my years at Global and CTV I do not remember even one study bought and paid for by the broadcaster. That’s what they paid their execs to do: make decisions based on experience and intelligence. Yet to Stursberg it is normal. He sees it as part of his job. He never once puts two-and-two together to come up with the possibility of saving money for programming by shutting down the useless studies he is commissioning. To be fair, the CBC has been doing studies since long before Stursberg showed up. When I was at CBC local news we received the results of a study that said the viewers wanted more international news. There was another study that said The National should be moved to seven p.m. Yet another study told us that our viewers were slightly older than those of CTV, Global and CityTV. All of this was “cover-your-ass” information. It meant CBC bosses could say decisions were not based on their ideas, a study said they should do what they did. At CBC some expenses are never questioned.

I use the idea of studies as just one example. I could talk about the fact that although it is true that CBC programming dollars have been cut to the bone and production staffs are below the minimum needed to do the work in many cases, CBC management is still bloated. There are too many bosses for too few employees. I know of one unit at CBC news that has one producer and three bosses. I know the CBC documentary unit has over a dozen people to buy docs from independent and foreign producers, when it is a job for a maximum of three people at most broadcasters in the world. But hey, this is the way the CBC has always done its business.

The way for the CBC to survive the future cuts has little to do with the measures being taken today and much to do with a complete change in the culture and the way of doing business. I see no signs of this happening. I hope I am wrong. If you know of examples of changes in the culture that could save the CBC please share them. I for one would be ecstatic to hear about them.


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

The Rape of Citytv

I have been intending to write about the rape and pillaging of Citytv for many months now. In what has to be a series of the most heinous crimes perpetrated on a network of successful television stations in Canadian broadcasting history, CTV and Rogers have systematically cut and chopped what was once the most distinctive service available in Canada.

Most Canadian TV aficionados are well aware of the pioneering little station that grew up in Toronto under the unusual but brilliant tutelage of Moses Znaimer. Citytv was always true to its name. An urban, downtown feel and a more than slightly cheeky presentation style characterized the station. As long as Znaimer was running the place and CHUM Ltd. were the owners the station had a youthful, multicultural approach that seemed to win a strong local audience that remained very loyal long after viewers hit middle age.

Long before CFTO in Toronto and Global abandoned what looked like a racist “all white” presenter policy, Citytv was hiring an eclectic mix of visible and non-visible minority reporters and anchors for their newscasts. When CFTO tried to get Gord Martineau to change his name to Gord Martin Citytv hired him away and insisted he go on air with his full name. Ann Mroczkowski, Jojo Chintoh, and Thalia Assuras were part of the ecumenical fabric of the station that dared to be different.

Sure anyone who was in Toronto in the mid-seventies remembers the “Baby Blue” movies, the first soft porn anyone I know had ever seen on broadcast television, but what really made Citytv stand out was the outstanding Canadian shows the station produced. The station claimed to produce more local television than anyone else in Canada, which I suspect was true. Some of those groundbreaking shows included Fashion Television, MediaTelevision, SexTV, CityLine, the amazing Speakers’ Corner that allowed citizens to record their thoughts for replay on the weekly program and my personal favorite, The New Music which I liken to a TV version of Rolling Stone Magazine.

In today’s broadcast world, it seems darn near impossible that just one little station could accomplish so much quality local programming.

Citytv didn’t just produce new and interesting content, it changed the way content was presented, and not just in Canada, but in the U.S. and around the globe. First came the hand held cameras that gave the newscasts a “street” feel while everyone else was insisting on using tripods and looking perfect. Then came the news videographers, one person acting as camera person, sound operator and reporter. That allowed Citytv to cover way more stories than anyone else who had to send out three and eventually two person crews. Then the in studio performance began to match the “in the streets” feel. The news desk disappeared. Gord and Ann were free to roam the newsroom live, to deliver the news standing or sitting on stools. It was groundbreaking, unconventional and most important, felt natural and interesting to watch. It only took CBC News thirty years to attempt something similar and they managed to thoroughly screw it up.

In news it was not only style that won audiences, it was Citytv’s famous speed. They developed the slogan: “Citytv, Everywhere,” and they were everywhere. I remember one crew at CBC local in Toronto coming back to the office flabbergasted when they were sent out to cover a fire right around the corner from our offices. They reported back shocked that Citytv had beaten them to the story even though they had to cross town to get it. We were in serious awe of Citytv’s ability to get to every story first.

I have to admit here that I was never a fan of the quality of Citytv’s journalism. Most often it was tabloid coverage that never dealt with context or answered the question why the event happened or was important. Pictures and style took precedence over story telling. But that’s what they were aiming for. It wasn’t a thoughtless failure to produce great journalism, it was a thoughtful decision by some very smart TV people.

After three decades of success in Toronto, City finally expanded to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg. It also picked up affiliates in Western Canada and provided its Canadian content to stations in the Maritimes. The CHUM-City group was actually making money in 2006 when everyone else in Canadian broadcasting was complaining of losses and blaming the 200 channel universe. True City was not making as much as they had in the past, and perhaps they saw the writing on the wall because in that year they sold all their stations to CTV Globemedia and that’s when the rape and pillaging began. On the very same day that CTV announced it was buying the Citytv stations, it was announced that supper hour, late night and weekend newscasts would be cancelled in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. This meant that hundreds of news staff could be laid off almost immediately.

The CRTC did not allow the sale to go through as is, because they deemed that CTV should not be allowed to own two broadcast stations in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg. So a deal was quickly made to sell the City stations to Rogers. I guess the fact that Rogers already owned Omni stations in Toronto and Vancouver was overlooked by Konrad von Finckenstein and his colleagues at the CRTC. Oops, that’s fodder for another blog.

It didn’t take long for Rogers to wreck what was left of the old Citytv. Rogers blamed the global economic meltdown in January of last year (by the way, at a time when the economy was already beginning to make a strong comeback) and announced the cancellation of Lunch Television in Vancouver, CityNews at Noon in Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto, Your City in Calgary and Edmonton, City OnLine and CityNews at Five in Toronto, The CityNews List in Vancouver and Citytv’s national and international newscast, CityNews International. That meant another 60 CityNews people could be laid off, most shockingly, including long time anchor Ann Mrocskowski.

The obvious questions have never been answered. How can huge money making conglomerates like Rogers or CTV Globemedia justify the massive cuts? How could these TV giants take a small network that was making money and turn it into a failing asset so quickly? Why did Rogers buy City if they had no intention of keeping what was so special about it? How can the CRTC sit on their hands when two of the broadcast giants in this country dismantle something that was so special?

Citytv still has the gall to use the slogan “Everywhere.” How can you be everywhere when you are not on the air on the weekend? The news looks tired and its ratings are dwindling. All those great Canadian shows I talked about were either taken by CTV or are gone. Citytv is just another Canadian broadcaster now, or should I say just another American rebroadcaster. U.S. sitcoms, reality and dramas make up the entire prime time schedule. It’s a more than a shame, it’s a crime.

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

A New TV Tax

Okay, stick with me for a second, when the Canadian government creates a regulatory body who are the men and women appointed to that body supposed to protect? If you think, like I do, that it is the Canadian people then you may be wrong.

If the CRTC, The Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Committee is any example, then we the citizens have got it all wrong. These guys seem to think they have been appointed to protect the interests of the industry giants. The bigger the giant, CTV and Canwest/Global come to mind, the more protection they need. At least that’s what it appears to be looking from the outside in.

Their latest move, and it has nothing to do with the media, is to keep secret the names of companies that violate the “Do Not Call” regulations. These are the telemarketers that break the law and call you even though your name and telephone number is on their “Do Not Call” list. Why is the CRTC protecting the scofflaws? Well, if they were to be put out of business who would the CRTC regulate?

The answer to the last rhetorical question is what’s behind the CRTC considering forcing the cable and satellite companies to pay CTV and Canwest/Global for delivering their signals. Never mind the facts, that their licenses clearly state that they are free services. Never mind the benefits that these companies already have given to them, like “must carriage”, that is they have to run the “over-the-air” stations, sometimes delivering them to places that would not normally get their signal. They get the best spots on the TV dial, ensuring higher ratings and more advertising dollars. And, let us not forget the simulcasting, that is substituting the Canadian feed for the U.S. feed when they are running the same program, perhaps the biggest dollar give-away to CTV and Canwest/Global of all. Simulcasting is the single biggest reason the Canadian networks grew and prospered in the past. Oh yes, that and the shameless hawking of U.S. programs that were picked up for nickels and dimes compared to the cost of actually producing something. All these benefits and the networks want more. They want the cable and satellite companies to pay them for their “free” service.

Guess what folks, the cable and satellite companies will not pay CTV and Canwest/Global. You will. It’s estimated that your cable bill will rise six dollars before taxes and you won’t get a single new service or program. Oh, and even worse, you won’t have any choice in the matter. Remember, the new charges are for “must carry” services. You can’t opt out of getting CTV or Canwest/Global or paying for them.

So here we go again. The CRTC who are supposed to be protecting our best interests have created a new hidden tax on all of us that will go straight into the coffers of the two largest media conglomerates in the country.

Now let’s get back to the original rhetorical question, why is the CRTC doing this? They are protecting the big guys because if they go down the CRTC will have nobody to regulate. That sounds like they have been regulating them in the past. Fat chance. When I worked at Global we had gone at least a dozen years without meeting our CRTC regulated license agreements. Did the CRTC shut us down. No. They renewed license after license on the promise we would do better next time. We never did.

The same is true for all kinds of stations. Omni, Vision, History TV and Discovery Channel to name just a few, are channels that have at best played semantic games with their license agreements and at worse flouted the terms of their licenses. Have any of these guys been sanctioned? Sometimes they get a five year license instead of a seven year license. Poor babies.

The TV industry in Canada is facing tough times. Advertising is way down because of the recession. But most stations are holding their own, making do, like they have in half-a-dozen recessions in the past.

What’s changed? CTV is in trouble. Why? Is it the recession? Only in small part. The biggest problem CTV has is that they went on a buying spree for two decades. They bought lots of local stations and they bought and opened lots of cable stations. Buying Chum/City was the last and biggest purchase. This has left them with a huge debt they can’t service in tough times. Is that our fault? Why are we paying for their greed? They got into this trouble because they wanted to keep others like Canwest/Global out. If they had taken care of their own business instead of worrying about Canwest/Global’s they would be in far better financial shape.

The dummies at Canwest/Global are even nuttier. They are in big trouble, on the verge of bankruptcy. Is it the recession? Absolutely not. These Bozos continue to keep The National Post going despite the fact that it is robbing millions of dollars from their primary business. The only people in Canada who don’t realize The National Post has failed seem to be the owners. They also bought Alliance Atlantis paying way too much for a company that was itself reeling and doing it at a time that Canwest/Global could not afford to add to their debt.

So the new tax on TV the CRTC is imposing is to help two large private media conglomerates get out of predominantly self-inflicted problems. I ask again, is that the CRTC’s job? Are they there to protect CTV and Canwest/Global or are they there to protect us?

The answer my friends is obvious…

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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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