Ants Invade Picnic … Details at 6
Why did the newsroom at CityTV Edmonton take such a hard lite turn? An investigation into why major media mergers weaken the local little guy
Thomas showed up late but didn’t need a formal announcement to know why the Breakfast Television studio was filled with crying colleagues. He received a package: inside was severance information with a letter that read, “As of today, your services are no longer required….” Thomas surrendered his security card and was denied access back into the newsroom. He was told his personal belongings would be shipped to him. For three years he had been the face of CityTV sports, but as of July 12,2006 he was an intruder, with security guards watching his every move.
Less than an hour later, chum Ltd., the Toronto-based media company that owns CityTV, issued a joint press release with CTVglobemedia (parent company of CTVand The Globe and Mail), announcing a $1.7 billion offer for chum. Thirty-two minutes later, chumissued a second press release announcing the layoff of 191 full-time and 90 part-time employees to make way for what chum called a “new approach to local information programming.” Or, simply, the cancellation of six o’clock newscasts at CityTV stations in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Winnipeg.
In Edmonton, 47 CityTV employees lost their jobs. In Calgary, the number was about 35. Both newsrooms were gutted, but there were survivors. Edmonton’s 6 p.m. news anchor Paul Mennier became the station’s “local content manager,” a role better known as “news director” at any other station. Without a newscast to direct, he turned to Your City, a local magazine-format light news show. Mennier, along with former City Edmonton news director Chris Duncan (now local content manager at City Calgary) and Al Thorgeirson, regional vice president of chum Television Alberta/Manitoba, had tossed around ideas for a show like it over the past year. With the majority of newsroom staff gone, a traditional newscast was impossible. Attempting to make the most of what they had – and to ensure the CityTV brand lives up to its promise of fiercely local programming – the network quietly launched versions of Your City in Edmonton and Calgary on October 2, 2006, two and a half months after black Wednesday.
Your City’s news value is dubious, but the show’s launch marks the beginning of another makeover for Canadian broadcast journalism – this one affecting news programming. As media industries continue their game of survival of the fittest, the country’s television companies are consolidating further and critics are fretting over what this could mean for journalism in the public interest. They look to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (crtc) to make a move, because, while chumand CTVglobemedia have signed on the dotted line, the crtc, along with the Competition Bureau, have the power to delay or even squelch the deal. While the Competition Bureau gave the takeover the green light in March, the crtc’s decision is still up in the air – but there’s next to no chance the commission will kill the deal. What is certain is that as media giants gobble up the weak, if the news can’t rake in the dollars, it’ll be written off as collateral damage.
It’s 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, three weeks after Your City’s Edmonton debut. The station’s remaining reporters and producers are settling in for another workday; they take off jackets, turn on computers and discuss the weather. Assignment editor Randy McDonald comes around to each desk, distributes four pages of potential story ideas for the day and calls a meeting to order. Everyone gathers in a circle, some sitting on rolling office chairs, others on brightly coloured exercise balls. “It helps my posture,” reporter Sudha Krishnan says. With his thinning grey hair and quiet, serious demeanour, McDonald is like a high school teacher presiding over a class of boisterous youngsters – and compared to McDonald, that’s what the rest of the CityTV staff are. Few appear much older than 30.
“So: Rolston. I think we’re going to have to make an editorial decision,” McDonald says of the story that made the cover of that day’s Edmonton Journal. “I don’t think it’s worth hanging in there for a lot more sentencing arguments today.” The four youths charged in the beating death of Shane Rolston will continue to face sentencing hearings today but the story, while appearing early in both Global and CTV’s newscasts, doesn’t make it on Your City.
Hard news is no longer what this CityTV is about. Simply giving viewers the facts is not the idea. Instead, reporters go deep into certain angles, which means an entire show can be devoted to just one or two topics. Your City also adopts a lighter, more upbeat tone, reflected by the show’s tilted, bubble-lettered logo, anchored at two corners with spinning silver stars. Car crashes, fires – it’s not likely you’ll hear about them here. It sounds like the news on Prozac.
“We’re not going to react to the hard news of the day, necessarily,” Mennier says. “Unless we decide, ‘Yeah, that one really stands out because it has a real impact on the community.'”
When television first became popular in the 1950s, Edmontonians received only one Canadian signal on their black and white TV sets: local broadcaster Dr. G. R. A. “Dick” Rice’s cfrn-tv. The station hit airwaves for the first time on October 25, 1954 as an affiliate of CBC. It remained Edmonton’s only television news broadcaster until CBC launched a new local station in 1961. Just before disaffiliating with CBC, cfrn joined forces with eight newly licensed stations in major markets coast to coast to form a cooperative, the Independent Television Organization. Based out of Winnipeg, ITO made it easier for its member stations to share sales efforts, buy foreign programming and produce Canadian content. Eventually, as technology improved and microwave systems became more viable, ITO stations developed into a full-fledged network called the Canadian Television Network, now known as CTV. No major private competitor entered the field again until 12 years later when Dr. Charles Allard launched Independent Television (CITV), commonly referred to as ITV, in 1974. ITV would change hands twice, eventually becoming Global Edmonton in 2000.
In the early 1990s, Manitoba’s Craig Media Inc., then based in Brandon, decided to expand its television properties west to Alberta and British Columbia. However, it faced tough competition, and fought for CRTC licensing approval against networks such as Rogers Communications Corp., chum, CanWest Global Communications Corp. and Baton Broadcasting (now CTV) for a period of four years. Craig lost Vancouver, but in 1997 moved into Edmonton
and Calgary with the Alberta Channel, known as A-Channel. Craig moved its headquarters to Calgary. The stations took to the streets and became highly visible in each city. Adopting a laid-back style similar to the one CityTV in Toronto had made famous, A-Channel chose videographers in Hummers over stiff anchors behind formal news desks – and quickly established itself as a downtown presence with a grassroots approach to reporting.
Just as A-Channel was finding its footing, the station underwent a series of crippling changes. During a labour strike in Edmonton from September 2003 to February 2004, ratings plunged. New hopes were ignited when chum purchased Craig at the end of 2004. Employees were heartened by the better wages and benefits that came with being a part of the chum family. In August 2005, the station was renamed CityTV and the future looked bright. Former sports anchor Thomas remembers that the bosses at chum seemed to like what was happening in Edmonton and encouraged the station to keep up the good work. Which is why many felt betrayed when, less than a year later, the cuts suddenly came. “If they said they were happy with what we were doing in the first place, why would they try to change it eight months later?” he asked. “To me, that obviously was a lie.”
Back when Your City was still in development, the question of what the show would and wouldn’t cover came up in the newsroom. On Wednesday, September 13, the day of the Dawson College shooting in Montreal, Mennier said to his staff, “Hey folks, there’s no right or wrong answers here,” and then asked: “If we were on the air tonight, would we even cover the Dawson College story?”
The response was almost unanimous. “Yeah, it’s huge, it’s massive. We’ve got to.”
“Well, wait a second now,” Mennier said. “I was in my office today watching Newsworld and Newsnet and it was constant coverage. Our competitors would have covered it at six o’clock. What else could we possibly add to that story?”
And that’s why, at 6:30 p.m., Mennier wants to give viewers what he calls an alternative. Your City is anchored by longer stories – often taking a different angle on the days events – and franchise features: fun, quirky segments unique to the show. Every Tuesday, viewers can tune in for Celebrity Chefs, in which wellknown locals (city councillors, comedians) share a favourite recipe direct from their own homes. Every Thursday, Million Dollar Homes gives viewers a tour of one of the city’s hot properties.
Mennier hesitates to describe Your City as a newsmagazine show – but admits it fits the label. “We don’t have a format, we have a philosophy,” he says. “The show on any given day could be a complete half-hour documentary. On other days, it could look more like a traditional news offering where you’ve got seven or eight stories. It’s really about us setting the agenda.”
There is a disjuncture between what happens out west and what happens at corporate headquarters, which, for chum, is in Toronto. The complaint that the needs of Alberta and B.C. are not adequately understood in Ontario is common in many industries. No one at chum’s head office can comment on Your City, says its communications staff, because it’s “specifically a prairie initiative.” The merger, too, is off-limits at both companies. Nothing can be said, they say, because it’s still pending crtc approval. CTVglobemedia submitted the application to the regulatory board on December 18 last year but a public hearing on the deal will not even begin until April 30th. The review process can take up to a year. Meanwhile, both CTVglobemedia and chum maintain the stations will remain independent.
In a note to staff following the takeover, CTVglobemedia president and CEO Ivan Fecan wrote, “We intend to maintain and strengthen the flavour and energy of chum’s brands. We will also keep the news divisions completely separate to ensure diverse voices and the journalistic competition that serves the public interest. Both news organizations will continue to do what they do best.”
CTVglobemedia plans to divest chum’s set of A-Channel stations in small, suburban markets, but in major cities such as Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary, it will own both CityTV and CTV. It’s an unprecedented degree of consolidation. The industry is changing, says McDonald at City Edmonton, which is why his station must change with it. “All the independents have been bought out and that’s kind of a sad thing,” the veteran journalist says. “When the crtc approves the takeover they can’t have two competing news stations in one market, so who’s going to go? Probably us, so that’s why we’re trying to develop an alternative program.” The official word is that nothing has changed, but Your City is an indirect result of the CTVglobemedia-chum marriage. The same could be said of last summer’s layoffs and newscast cancellations – obvious casualties in any takeover. But in a directors’ circular sent prior to the acquisition of the company, chum investors were told that the cuts to local news were part of restructuring plans that had been in the works since September 2005, months before the decision to sell.
While CityTV had grown deep roots in Toronto, the newly acquired stations in Manitoba, Alberta and B.C. – modelled on the successful Toronto formula – could not compete against the generations-old CTV and Global behemoths. Plus, there was a divide in audience: “The concerns of suburbanites are not necessarily reflected all that well in City’s programming,” says the Toronto Star’s business and public affairs writer David Olive. Compared to Toronto, he says, Edmonton and Calgary have much smaller populations, and neither has a thriving downtown culture, which is where City directs itself.
Pressure from competitors strangled City’s newscasts, and ultimately hindered the chum empire. When founder and owner Allan Waters died in December 2005, his two sons Jim and Ron took over. The Waters boys, as they are sometimes called, announced a desire to continue their father’s legacy, with no plans to sell. But by May 2006, the brothers had begun shopping for buyers.
Industry experts say it was an issue of family succession; the brothers no longer wished to run the chum operation if continued success meant only endless efforts to expand. “You reach a certain point where you have to get a lot bigger or sell out. That’s just a maxim of business,” Olive says. “chum was becoming a smaller and less significant player in the media universe in Canada – not because it was shrinking, but because everyone else was getting bigger.” So in any expansion battle, chum would lose. For CTVglobemedia, Olive says, the attraction lay in chum’s array of specialty channels and radio properties (the merger gets CTVglobemedia into the radio business for the first time). Plus, there was the appeal of getting something before its rival, CanWest Global, could.
Back in Edmonton, the Your City story meeting breaks up after half an hour and, by 9:45 a.m., everyone has returned to his or her desk. What would be going in tonight’s episode of Your City is already in the bag, or at least halfway there. Most reporters begin work on new features for upcoming shows. Krishnan is covering the opening of a new casino for Wednesday’s show and spends the morning researching and scheduling interviews.
While Googling, she chats with fellow reporter Stacey Brotzel and producer Josephine Daniele. Krishnan says City’s newsroom works at a different pace than before and, in some ways, it’s nicer. “In terms of getting a story in and meeting the deadline, we don’t have that stress as much now,” Krishnan says. But working with features means multiple stories at the same time. “We’re juggling things a lot, whereas when you’d come in and – say, the casino story was for today – just focusing on that, and you’d just go, go, go, go.”
At noon, reporter Lana Thomson heads out with camera operator Nathan Gross to a Husky gas station down the street. She’s just scored an interview with the station’s convenience store manager, who agreed to talk about the high-tech security system she installed in her store. It’ll be part of Thomson’s package on home security. As the two jump into a CityTV SUV and Gross guns the engine, it’s the first time all day there’s been any feeling of a news rush. They have to tape quickly – Thomson has a doctor’s appointment in an hour.
In the car, Thomson confirms the staff must get used to juggling many tasks. “We’re doing this with fewer people than we ever had,” she says. “It’s hard because we’re all wearing many hats. Those who are still with the company, for the most part, are people who are able to take on a lot and wear many hats.”
Gross jokes that even though management has tried to get him to do some editing on top of camera work, he’s managed to resist so far. As he speeds through the crowded downtown streets, he says he likes the new direction CityTV has taken. “The only difference I’ve noticed is less, for lack of a better term, bullshit,” he says. “Less car accidents….”
“Less knocking on doors of people who’ve lost their pride and joy,” Thomson chimes in.
“Yeah,” Gross says. “Less bad news stuff.”
Ten kilometres west of CityTV is the home of CTV Edmonton, a sprawling blue and white building that sits on an isolated stretch of Stony Plain Road. The station’s newsroom bustles with reporters, directors, editors, producers and anchors. While CityTV has the feel of a lived-in, dishevelled newsroom, the uniform look of CTV gives the impression of a well-oiled machine. There are no runaway exercise balls here. In a hallway by one of CTV’s many production suites, a plaque hangs on the wall, with the heading “Mission Statement.” It reads: “CFRN-TV is people working together committed to great television and profitable results.” The mantra seems to work – CTV’s newscasts are continually No. 1 in ratings in Edmonton. But it would be a surprise if the shows weren’t – the beaming faces of anchors Daryl McIntyre and Carrie Doll and meteorologist Josh Classen grace billboards and bus stops around the city.
The station’s advertising blitz is representative of how parent company CTVglobemedia pervades national media. What started as one lonely telephone provider has become one of Canada’s largest private media companies. The colonization began in 2000, when Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE) chairman and CEO Jean Monty led the purchase of CTV Inc. (which had just bought specialty channel TSN) for $2.3 billion and later merged with the Thomson Corp. for control of the Globe. Later, BCE would shrink its ownership interest in the resulting mega-company (then known as Bell Globemedia) to help fund its growth, which included an alliance with MTV Canada and the purchase of chum.
Reaction to the takeover news has not been favourable. “The public is always better served when there are more independent organizations chasing stories,” says Christopher Waddell, associate director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. “You get better coverage – different sources, different angles, different approaches. You look at it differently because your audience may be different.” Waddell doesn’t buy Fecan’s claim that CTVand CityTV will continue competing head-to-head. “Would the management sit back and stand by if chum did something that all of a sudden reduced CTV’s ratings to zero?” Waddell asks. “My guess is that they wouldn’t.”
Even so, experts are certain the deal will be approved. “The CRTC has rubber stamped most of the changes that have occurred over the years because it is confronted by the fact that economic forces are moving inevitably,” says Professor Adam Finn, academic director of the Cultural Industries Research Centre at the University of Alberta’s School of Business. The CRTC wouldn’t resist the merger, only to end up with an economically unviable company. Nor can it force owners to stay in business “So, what are the alternatives?” asks York University communication studies professor Arthur Siegel. “Selling it to CanWest Global? It’s one or the other.”
The CRTC is expected to ask CTVglobemedia to sell off some stations or increase Canadian content in its programming. In its application to the regulator, the company proposed a benefits package worth $103.5 million, 74 per cent of which will go to new television programming initiatives, plus social and industry grants. The remaining 26 per cent will go toward similar radio endeavours. Promises have been made. “Right now, in the short term it will be fine, there won’t be any difference,” says the Star’s media critic Antonia Zerbisias. “The CRTC is going to make [CTVglobemedia] pour tens of millions of dollars into this. It will be six or seven years over the license term and that will be fine. But one day it will run out, and the cuts will come. Then there will be fewer and fewer newscasts, and fewer and fewer journalists. The long-term picture is not good.”
Peter Murdoch, vice-president, media, of the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP), says Canada has one of the most highly concentrated media ownership structures in the world. The news programming cancellations at chum, Murdoch says, is an indication of what will happen if consolidation continues. “We’ve had commissions, inquiries, hearings, time after time in this country, warning about the effects of concentration of ownership and that it should stop,” Murdoch says. There are real threats. “With a homogenous ownership, we run the risk that the views of that ownership filter down into the newsroom. That isn’t scaremongering, it’s a good possibility. What we need in a democracy is the to and fro of a whole bunch of ideas, a whole bunch of opinions.”
The CEP represents 150,000 people who work – both directly and indirectly – in media industries. Last August, it filed a complaint with the CRTC that accused chum of violating its TV station licenses by cutting news programs meant to fulfill the network’s local programming requirements. Media critic and former CityTV producer Liss Jeffrey takes the complaint one step further: “I regard this as a form of license trafficking.” She cites news reports that detail how Jim and Ron Waters “put up chum-City for option, essentially,” after which a bidding war for the company ensued. Jeffrey is livid: “You are not to take a public license and start auctioning off these assets, which rely on holding a license that you have to justify holding in front of a regulatory body.”
But experts and industry analysts agree chum is not the big loser in this deal. “CTVglobemedia isn’t going to take CityTV over in order to destroy it,” says Jeffrey. “If they’re out to destroy anybody it’s CanWest.” CityTV, she predicts, will become a complementary property in the CTVglobemedia stable and as such, will retain its identity – not lose it as some have been worried will happen. “CTVglobemedia can use the City properties to leverage what they already have,” she explains. “They don’t want to make it the same. If anything, they want to make it even more distinctive so it looks like there’s more choice and diversity out there.”
It’s now 6 p.m., a half-hour to show time. Your City host Mennier is in his office, staring intently at the four TV sets mounted to the wall facing his desk. Each is tuned to a different station: CTV, Global, CBC and CityTV. While his station airs CityNews International, a world news program packaged and hosted out of CityTV in Toronto, Mennier’s competitors go with their hour-long local news broadcasts.
That Mennier isn’t on the air at this moment, some say, is unwise. “To take away your news at six and run an international show that, frankly, isn’t very good, is a big mistake,” says Neill Fitzpatrick, news director of Global Edmonton. “Plus, they’ve got Gord Martineau on from Toronto,” he says. “I know who he is, but nobody in Edmonton knows who he is. So you put this strange face in front of Edmontonians when they’re used to seeing local news at six – it’s not going to work.”
Lynda Steele, who anchors Global Edmonton’s five and six o’clock newscasts, says it’s been tough for CityTV to build an audience in a city where viewers have watched CTV or Global for generations. She doesn’t think the station’s fortunes will change with Your City. “Their local magazine show doesn’t seem to have a focus,” she says. “It’s just, ‘Now we’re cooking, now we’re doing this’… I wonder what they’re doing.” Neither Global nor CTV sees City as a competitor anymore. “They’re doing some good things, but in terms of competing against daily news? I don’t think so,” says Steve Hogle, news director at CTV Edmonton. Like Steele, Hogle doesn’t seem entirely sure what CityTV is trying to do with its new show. “There’s some things that they’re doing that are day-of news and there’s others that are magazine-format, so they might be sort of feeling their way a little bit too, I’m not sure….” He trails off, frowning.
Only one thing is certain – while Your City’s features may be entertaining, they’re no replacement for a traditional newscast. According to the most recent report from the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement, Your City averaged just 1,000 viewers in Edmonton each night during the fall 2006 quarter. It’s a far cry from the 138,000 viewers CTV’s six o’clock newscast attracts regularly. A sitcom with a primetime rating of 0.1 (what Your City is averaging) would likely be axed in a heartbeat. But Mennier remains optimistic, confident that people want what he has to offer. “While the other guys have the rapists and the murderers and the pedophiles,” says Mennier, “we want to corner the market on the architects, the medical researchers, the artists and the musicians, and give those people 15 minutes of fame. They’re often overlooked in that daily grind of chasing the bad guys.
“Guess what? It’s a big city,” continues Mennier, “a million people. People die in car crashes and there are murders – does that make it news every time it happens? I don’t know.” Mennier is betting it doesn’t. And if he plays his cards right, maybe it will be enough to save his station from getting swallowed up by a giant.