Editorial – Did CTV Make a Big Mistake?

There has been an interesting event in the world of Canadian broadcasting last week. Bell TV, Cogeco, Rogers, Telus, Eastlink, and the Canadian Cable Systems Alliance have filed a complaint with the CRTC accusing CTV of violating the Broadcast Act when they launched their “Save Local TV” campaign in order to be granted Fee for Carriage.

As a rule, I normally remain silent about these debates. The success of my television channel depends on the Canadian television industry continuing to operate as they have for decades. The longer they continue to operate under an obsolete business model, the sooner they’ll go out of business, and the more likely there will be room on cable and DTH satellite for my channel.

So why speak up now? After investigating the matter, I have to admit that even I was a bit shocked at how CTV brought their “Save Local TV” campaign to the public’s attention.

They featured it as a news piece on their own local newscasts instead of promoting it separately.

As soon as I learned about this, I immediately realized that the CRTC complaint had merit.

Both the Canadian Broadcast Act and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’  Code of Ethics have provisions emphasizing that news broadcasts must be unbiased and present an equal and balanced view of the issues. In other words, newscasts can’t choose sides.

But from my perspective, CTV did choose sides. The videos I’ve seen on CTV’s own Web site presented their “Save Local TV” campaign as if it was just another evening’s news piece. There was no advanced warning that what they were presenting was a self-serving editorial, or a promotional piece if you prefer.

So how did all this came to be?

Currently, your cable or satellite bill includes the cost of obtaining basic service as well as extra charges for obtaining specific channels or channel packages. Most specialty channels get paid a per-subscriber fee to be included on the cable or satellite company’s network. What most Canadians don’t realize is that their local broadcast channels (the ones available off of rabbit ears) don’t get paid anything to be carried on cable or satellite. None of the money you pay every month for your television service ever reaches the local broadcaster.

Both the public and private Canadian networks have been campaigning for years to the CRTC to obtain compulsory Fee-for-Carriage status, where the cable and satellite companies would be required to pay the local broadcasters a fee for each household subscribed to their service. The broadcasters’ argument is that the cable and satellite companies have been making money off their backs for years, and they would like to be fairly compensated for carriage of their channels. The cable and satellite industry has indicated that the introduction of any new fees for local carriage will be passed directly to their subscribers, increasing their monthly bills.

Despite the numerous times the broadcasters have presented their request to the CRTC, the Commission has said “no” every single time.

Today, both CTV and Canwest Global are seriously in debt, and they continue to lose audience share to specialty channels and the Internet. On that, I can certainly understand their position even though I don’t fully agree with the way they want to resolve their financial situation. The broadcasters have never received any fees from viewers who picked up their broadcasts with rabbit ears, and I don’t see why this should be any different on cable or DTH satellite.

Even more important, after years of following this debate, I’ve yet to see any financial statements indicating the cable and satellites companies were actually making any money from the distribution of local channels. In fact, if you look at the line items on your cable or satellite bill, the bulk of your monthly payment is to cover your subscription to all of the specialty channels.

On top of CTV introducing their “Save Local TV” campaign as a news piece on their own local newscasts, there has also been a sudden increase in the number of messages posted by new members on many Canadian bulletin boards, siding with the “Save Local TV” campaign. When these new members were asked if they were affiliated with CTV or the campaign, they suddenly became very defensive.

An unwritten rule on most bulletin boards is that you’re suppose to disclose your affiliation with any corporation or public campaign before giving your opinion on any subject directly related to that same corporation or campaign. Failure to do so is normally interpreted as a blatant attempt to influence public opinion through questionable means.

That’s why it doesn’t really matter how the CRTC answers this complaint at this stage. By disguising their campaign as a news piece instead of promoting it separately as they should have done, CTV has seriously damaged its journalistic integrity in what I can only describe as an act of sheer desperation, and has also seriously damaged its national campaign before it even got off the ground. The whole situation is so mind bogglingly idiotic that I simply couldn’t keep quiet about it.

Very bad move, CTV. What were you thinking?

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