Could local TV troubles lead to mergers?

This past week’s public hearings in Gatineau, Que. on the future of local and network television in Canada shed some light on what kinds of changes we could see in the industry in the years ahead.

Ailing due to competition from not just other channels but the Internet as well, the owners of the country’s local TV stations are looking to cut costs and bring in new revenues to prevent their properties from turning into financial basket cases.

What little that is left of local programming could go out the window. Global Winnipeg, which did 25 hours of local programming per week when it signed on in 1975, now seeks to reduce its minimum weekly programming quota from nine and a half hours to just five hours per week.

There was even talk about whether or not it is viable to keep transmitters up and running.

The 325-kilowatt signals pumped out by many of the country’s privately owned TV stations run up the stations’ electricity bills. This is on top of the millions that the stations will have to spend to upgrade their transmitters and masts by Aug. 31, 2011. By that date, all TV stations are to shut off their traditional analog signals and go all-digital.

Why bother with all that expense, the station owners wonder, when Canada is one of the most cable and satellite-saturated countries in the world. Today, not even one Canadian in ten uses rabbit ears or a rooftop aerial to get their TV signal.

Indeed, the broadcasters are already acting. CTV Winnipeg recently announced plans to shut down its four northern Manitoba transmitters by the end of summer, and CKX-TV in Brandon came close to shutting down before Shaw Communications agreed to buy the station for the princely sum of $1.00.

A look south of the border could offer some clues as to what we’ll see next: station mergers.

It’s getting a little more difficult to find local productions like this 1989 noon-hour public affairs show on 13 MTN (now Citytv Winnipeg). The bloopers for which MTN was famous — one former employee called it “Winnipeg’s equivalent of WKRP in Cincinnati” — have also become hard to find, too!

Station mergers appear to be the latest corporate craze in the United States, with former crosstown rivals now sharing the same studios and airing the same newscasts.

This happened just across the border in Fargo, N.D., where CBS affiliate KXJB/4 and NBC affiliate KVLY/11 (once known to Winnipeg viewers as KTHI)  effectively merged in 2007. (“Effectively”, because each station nominally continues to have a different owner and licence, even though the entire operation is run under a single roof by a shared staff. They even promote each other’s programs.)

It’s also happening in St. Louis, where local stations KTVI/2 and KPLR/11 are joining forces. And in Denver, where KWGN/2 and KDVR/31 are combining.

The same has happened in Tampa, Baltimore, Syracuse, Green Bay, San Antonio and elsewhere.

Could it happen in Canada? Traditionally, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the agency that regulates the broadcasting industry, has favoured a “diversity of voices” in news and public affairs.

A move toward two TV stations combining under a single roof would mark a dramatic reversal of that policy.

But it’s not entirely out of the question that the CRTC could eventually be swayed by ongoing losses at local TV stations.

In Winnipeg, this would probably be in the form of weaker stations like Citytv or Joy 11 moving in with CTV or Global. So, if you missed Sylvia Kuzyk’s 6 p.m. appearance on channel 5, you could always catch her an hour later on channel 8.

Or, you could be reassured that your TV was not malfunctioning just because you saw Eva Kovacs anchoring the same newscast at the same time on both channels 11 and 12.

Time will tell if this comes to pass. This week’s network summit in Gatineau might have been the first step in a restructuring of Canada’s local TV stations that would take us down that road.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

One Response to Could local TV troubles lead to mergers?

  1. Fat Arse says:

    Well at least in 1989 MTN had reporters live at legislature!

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