Controversial choices loom as TV border skirmish escalates

“Why can’t we see the Super Bowl ads?” That’s the big question that arises in Canada early each year, as NFL fans on this side of the border come to terms with the fact that they won’t be able to see the spectacular (and spectacularly expensive) ads that air during the biggest U.S. sporting event of the year.

That question about whose ads we get to see lies at the heart of an escalating border skirmish that could bring the future of easy Canadian access to U.S. network television into question.

As the CRTC, the Canadian broadcasting regulator, points out on its web site, it comes down to a matter of programming rights.

Forty years ago, Canadian broadcasters were incensed with the actions of several U.S. TV stations that had their transmitters south of the border, and purchased their programming rights there, but had studios and sales staff in Canada to produce and sell ads during programs for which a Canadian station had supposedly purchased the exclusive local rights.

Eventually, the CRTC announced a new policy called “simultaneous substitution”, or “sim-sub”, which would require cable companies to carry the Canadian signal on both channels if the same program aired on both a Canadian and American station simultaneously.

The Canadian stations were delighted with the results, one 2009 study estimating that “sim-subbing” added about 40 percent to a Canadian station’s audience when airing a U.S.-made program in prime time. It also sent the most aggressive “border pirates” reeling: the Texas-based owner of KCND, an ABC affiliate with its transmitter in North Dakota but studios and sales offices in Winnipeg, quickly sold the station to Canadian investors in 1975, who relaunched the station on this side of the border as CKND (now Global Winnipeg). KVOS, a CBS affiliate serving Vancouver from a transmitter in Washington State, survived; but eventually had to leave CBS and become an independent station to get around the sim-sub problem, and is now little more than a repeater for a Seattle station.

The regulators at the CRTC, who have an “arm’s length” relationship with the politicians but must occasionally show some sign of paying attention to public opinion nevertheless, have made noises recently about possibly getting rid of the sim-sub rules so that Canadians will be able to see the Super Bowl ads.*

In a consultation exercise launched this week, the CRTC asked Canadians how they would feel about U.S. stations being “offered in an optional package and local stations would receive money from the additional subscriber fees to cover the lost advertising revenue” as an alternative to sim-subbing.

In addition to placating Super Bowl viewers, this idea could deal with one aspect of a looming Canada-U.S. trade dispute.

In a Feb. 14 letter to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, a coalition of U.S. TV stations urged the American government to confront Canada over “failure to provide adequate and effective protection for the intellectual property rights (IPR) of American television stations redistributed in Canada” and “Canada’s ongoing denial of fair and equitable market treatment that causes harm and damage to American television stations owners and employees”.

Part of the coalition’s letter included an insistence that Canadian cable and satellite operators cease the “unauthorized modification” of U.S. signals caused by sim-subbing, the practice that causes Canadian viewers to see lacklustre Canadian ads during the Super Bowl.

Bell Media, the owner of CTV, Canada’s largest private TV network, as well as many cable channels, takes a different view. Not only do they want sim-subbing to continue, they want to expand it.

In fact, a Bell Media spokesperson even suggested a few months ago that U.S. networks be given the boot completely from Canadian cable and satellite systems:

BCE Inc., Canada’s largest broadcaster, would support the establishment of broadcasting rules similar to those of the United Kingdom, where American channels cannot be aired and broadcasters can license and air shows exclusively, the company said.

“Canada is the only country in the world where American channels are freely carried by cable and satellite distributors, dramatically impacting the value of the exclusive programming rights Canadian broadcasters purchase. Allowing U.S. networks freely into Canada causes massive market disruption. We would be supportive of such a system as seen in the U.K.,” Scott Henderson, a spokesman for BCE division Bell Media, said in an emailed response to questions.

[ . . . ]

Hendersen [sic] said Bell Media would also support a system of “non-simultaneous substitution,” which would expand the existing regime so that the signal is replaced even when the shows are played at different times. No matter when it airs, distributors would be required to substitute the U.S. broadcast signal with the Canadian broadcaster’s signal, including its advertising, where the Canadian broadcaster has the Canadian rights to the program.

Other broadcasting groups shied away from Bell’s aggressive ideas: a Rogers spokesperson was non-committal; a Telus spokesperson was firmer, suggesting that Bell’s position “doesn’t seem realistic”.

Sometime in 2014, the CRTC will begin consulting with the Canadian broadcasting industry on the future of sim-subbing. Regardless of whether they roll back or expand the practice, they will face a backlash from either broadcasters who feel that their business model is being undermined or from a public that won’t like the idea of paying for what they’ve long received at no extra (visible) charge.

To be making that decision while a Canada-U.S. trade war over property rights rolls on in the background, with the possibility that Canadian cable and satellite operators might have to enter into contentious negotiations with U.S. stations to continue using their signals, suggests that the CRTC will be feeling the heat indeed.

* – That is not the only way in which the CRTC has found itself aggravated over the sim-sub policy. After reading a Twitter exchange in which a Rogers Communications representative faulted the CRTC for the inability of Canadian viewers to see U.S. commercials during the NFL playoffs, a “dismayed” CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais fired off a tart letter reminding Rogers that substitution is only done at the broadcaster’s request; suggesting that broadcasters educate the public about a policy that was created on their suggestion “rather than simply passing blame onto the CRTC”; and ordering Rogers to “provide a report outlining the training your customer service representatives receive on this issue”.

Time for Canadians to pay to watch ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS?

Sixty years ago this month, the young Elizabeth II was crowned as Britain’s Queen at Westminster Abbey in London. This was naturally a matter of great interest to Canadians, many of whom were either British-born themselves or were the children or grandchildren of British migrants, and thus took “the British connection” very seriously.

It was also the first televised coronation of a British monarch, a controversial move at the time not only because it amounted to technology intruding upon an ancient rite, but also because of fears that the Queen might be caught at her nervous habit of licking her lips.

The final say rested with the Queen, who approved televising the event and, as it turned out, performed well in front of the cameras.

The broadcast could only be seen live in Britain, however, as the first international satellite TV links were still years away in June 1953. As soon as film was available, it was loaded on to aircraft that whisked the reels away to North America and other parts of the world.

Even then, the reels couldn’t be aired on television stations that didn’t exist. Toronto and Montreal already had their own TV stations, but Winnipeg’s first TV station, the CBC-owned CBWT, was still a year away from its May 31, 1954 sign-on.

In southern Ontario, viewers turned to the U.S. stations from Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland they had been watching since as early as 1947. In Vancouver and Victoria, where there was still no local television, film of the coronation had been delivered to Bellingham, Wash. where it became the inaugural broadcast on KVOS, a U.S. station established to make its money delivering American programming to both nearby Canadian cities.

Having established an early foothold in Canada’s households, it was difficult to disabuse Canadians of the idea that unfettered access to U.S. ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates — and later PBS and Fox stations — was some kind of a Canadian right.

In 1969, when regulators at the Canadian Radio-Television Commission tried to restrict the use of intercity broadband microwave relays to feed U.S. network affiliates into cable systems in Sudbury, Calgary, Edmonton and other cities far beyond the border, the public (and political) response was so negative that they backed down within months.

At the same time, some U.S. stations took a dim view of Canadian cable companies picking up their signals at the border and then re-selling those signals without permission or compensation.

Others spotted opportunity, and opened Canadian advertising sales offices to compete directly with Canadian stations. When North Dakota TV stations WDAZ and Prairie Public TV were nearly kicked off Winnipeg’s cable systems in favour of clearer satellite signals from Detroit in 1986, they considered the potential financial hardship frightening enough to help build a broadband microwave link from Grand Forks to Winnipeg to improve picture quality.

An uneasy peace prevailed between U.S. stations and Canadian cable companies from the end of the ’70s to the first decade of the 2000s. The stations weren’t getting their share of what the cable companies were making by re-selling their product, but having a large audience in nearby Canadian cities was still useful to point out to local advertisers on both sides of the border.

By the 2000s, though, the plethora of cable and satellite channels were harming local network-affiliated stations. Having peaked in 1980 at 15.2 million viewing-minutes for the average prime-time U.S. network program, network viewership went into a gradual decline for the rest of the ’80s, and a more precipitous decline from 1990 onward.

In 2013, the average U.S. network program attracts, on average, 4.4 million viewer-minutes, little more than one-quarter of the 1980 peak. To make matters worse, an expensive TV ad is fleeting and easily forgotten — but a top-of-the-page showing on Google or Bing gets immediate attention from exactly the right audience, and is easily bookmarked for later perusal.

Now those U.S. stations you’ve been enjoying for years need new sources of revenue — and they’re looking at you, the Canadian viewer, as one potential source.

A proposed new tariff would require Canadian cable and satellite companies to compensate U.S. stations for distributing their signals to homes outside the stations’ normal coverage areas. For 2014, each Canadian provider offering one or more of these “distant” U.S. stations would have to pay a royalty ranging from 60 cents to $1.06 per household per month.

U.S. stations are lobbying for compensation from Canada through Border Broadcasters’ Inc., which is linked to a P.O. box in Toronto and a Michigan phone number; and an industry group called the U.S. Television Coalition, which issued a statement last November calling for “equitable and nondiscriminatory consent and remuneration rights for American over-the-air TV channels imported and retransmitted in distant markets across Canada”.

The latter organization is primarily supported by stations in Buffalo, Detroit and St. Paul-Minneapolis.

It is unclear what position, if any, the U.S. network affiliates most familiar to Winnipeggers have on this issue. Both WDAZ and Prairie Public, which have been available in Winnipeg homes since the late ’60s and mid-’70s respectively, were asked for comments when this issue first started to get media attention; both never responded.

It is equally unclear what the consequences would be if a dispute over compensation broke out between Winnipeg’s cable companies and U.S. network affiliates. A 2008 dispute between a Fargo cable operator and the local CBS and NBC affiliates over a similar compensation matter resulted in subscribers losing access to the stations’ high-definition signals. The lower-quality analog signals were unaffected.

Loss of Winnipeg coverage would be inconsequential to the U.S. stations most often watched in the community — ABC affiliate WDAZ, CBS affiliate WCCO Minneapolis, Fox affiliates KMSP Minneapolis and WUHF Rochester and NBC affiliate KARE Minneapolis — as their Canadian audiences are not counted in their ratings.

Coverage loss would be more significant to PBS stations along the Canada-U.S. border. Several of these stations, such as Fargo-based Prairie Public, Mountain Lake PBS (Plattsburgh/Montreal), WPBS (Watertown/Ottawa) and KSPS (Spokane/Calgary/Edmonton) rely heavily on support from Canadian viewers and program underwriters.

A dispute would be hardest of all on cable providers such as MTS and Shaw, which would be seriously criticized for even a temporary disruption in service.

So get ready to open your wallet a bit wider in 2014. The era of redistributing far-away U.S. signals for nothing appears to be almost over for Canadian cable companies, and you can be assured any higher costs will be passed along to you.


And now for a local commercial break, 1970 style. Target might seem exciting today, but check out the horrible production values they used 43 years ago, in the ad that begins at about the 01:30 mark.

Community TV need not rely on the CBC’s old junk

Do you live in rural Manitoba or northwestern Ontario and still pick up CBC from one of their many towers dotting the region? Then get ready, because that signal will almost certainly be going off the air on July 31.

Canadian government policy once decreed that any community with 500 residents or more should, if possible, live within range of a CBC transmitter. This led to a proliferation of CBC towers across the province in the ’60s and ’70s, extending service to remote communities that had to wait until as late as 1975 to get their first glimpse of television.

Construction slowed in the late ’70s as the rapid growth of a new technology, satellite television, gave remote mining towns and First Nations access to the same array of programming found in the big cities.

By the late ’90s, home satellite dishes were both cheap and compact, leaving the CBC’s aging network of rural transmitters increasingly viewer-less.

Thus, it was no real surprise when the CBC applied on April 4 — less than a week after the federal government cut the Corporation’s funding by 10 percent — to shut down all of its English TV transmitters in Manitoba, northern Saskatchewan and northwestern Ontario, except for the Winnipeg transmitter, on July 31.

Though the shutdown officially needs regulatory approval, the CBC “has already given notice to affected tower landlords and has terminated all of the Corporation’s leases on the sites where our analogue television transmitters are located,” according to an April 4 letter to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

“We have also formally notified all [cable companies] of the termination of our analogue over-the-air television transmission at all sites effective July 31, 2012.”

This will save the CBC the enormous cost of converting its many transmitters across the province to handle digital signals. The Winnipeg stations that had to make this change by Aug. 2011 had to spend millions of dollars on engineering studies, new equipment and channel changes in preparation.

The CBC’s decision has led a small group called the Canadian Association of Community Television User Groups and Stations — or CACTUS for short — to insist that the CBC’s soon-to-be-retired towers and transmitters be made available for local use.

“This transmission infrastructure is worth millions and has already been paid for by Canadian taxpayers,” the group says on its web site.

“Rather than being scrapped, it could be maintained by communities themselves. The transmitters and towers can be used not just to continue free TV service, but also to set up local wireless Internet or mobile service, or a community TV or radio service.”

CACTUS supporters have launched a letter-writing campaign to federal broadcasting regulators, urging them to block the CBC from shutting down its rural transmitters without offering them to local communities first.

The trouble is: the CBC’s aging transmitters and towers are of limited value.

“Analogue technology and the related equipment and parts for repair are no longer readily available in the world,” the CBC noted in its April 4 application to the CRTC. “. . . [T]he expected life of these analogue transmitters is therefore very uncertain, and limited at best.”

Community groups taking over the CBC’s old rural transmitters would essentially have to go through all the steps required to launch a completely new TV station: applying for a broadcasting licence, building studios, buying a new transmitter, hiring staff, figuring out how to get the signal from the studio to the transmitter site, and so on.

And then there would be further complications.

First, there’s the matter of the towers. Many CBC towers are aging and require regular maintenance to ensure that failed strobe lights don’t make the tower a safety hazard to pilots, and to ensure that a tower can withstand the rigours of Manitoba weather.

In 1983, CKX-TV in Brandon was suddenly knocked off the air when its faulty 1,363-foot tower south of the city snapped and fell to the ground during a snowstorm. Across the border in 2004, Prairie Public Television’s Grand Forks transmitter was wrecked when a chunk of ice fell off the tower, and smashed through the roof of the transmitter shed at the tower’s base.

Then there’s the problem of the channel the CBC’s stations operate on.

Of the 48 transmitters that relay CBC Winnipeg programming to communities all over Manitoba, northwestern Ontario and three northern Saskatchewan villages, 46 of them are on the channel 2-13 VHF band.

Those are not good channels to be on in the digital era.

VHF channels 2-13 were fine in the old analog era. Though they were prone to interference from “skip” and everyday household appliances — hence the early abolition of the particularly vulnerable Channel 1 — they provided a reasonable signal at acceptable cost to station owners.

These channels were considered far preferable to UHF channels 14-83. UHF stations offered a cleaner signal, but needed more power to match the range of VHF stations, and reached fewer viewers due to the fact that many early antennas and TVs were not designed to receive UHF channels.

It’s all different in the digital era. Unlike old-style analog signals, digital signals don’t break out in squiggly lines, “ghosting” or dots when they are suffering from interference. The TV simply gives up trying to sort out the weird information it is receiving, and crashes.

VHF is so problematic for digital TV station owners that Rabbit Ears, a blog for digital TV enthusiasts, has started keeping track of stations’ desperate efforts to move to UHF, or at least get a massive power increase approved, under the heading VHF Nightmares.

This has been consistent with some Winnipeg viewers’ experiences: little or no difficulty picking up CBC, SRC, Global or Joy TV, all of which operate on UHF — but significant difficulty picking up CTV or Citytv, both of which stayed on their old VHF channels after the 2011 digital switchover.

To sort it all out, a community group that has been handed the CBC’s old equipment would have to find a UHF channel to move to, and not just install a new transmitter at the tower base, but a new transmitting antenna up at the top, too.

That would get very expensive, very quickly.

Those interested in keeping free CBC service in their community or starting a new community TV station have better options available to them than CACTUS’s plan.

They could follow the same path as local volunteer-run stations such as UMFM 101.5, CKUW 95.9 and CJNU 107.9, which operate from low-power transmitters installed on top of existing high-rises. (UMFM broadcasts from the corner of Portage and Main; CKUW and CJNU broadcast from neighbouring Osborne Village high-rises.)

Currently, nothing stops any community organization that has the funds to do so from applying for a TV station licence, even if it’s just a shoestring-budget operation consisting of a low-powered transmitter and antenna installed on top of a high-rise or a cell tower.

From a 70-metre (230-foot) high-rise or cell tower, a community group putting out a relative low-powered 500 watt signal on UHF channels 14-51 could expect to provide decent indoor reception over about an 11-kilometre (seven-mile) radius.

That would be enough to cover most of a medium-sized city, or a small town and its surrounding area.

Double the power to 1,000 watts (still a fraction of what commercial broadcasters use) and move up to a 110-metre (360-foot) tower or building, and coverage expands further to about 16 kilometres (10 miles).

And there are channels galore available for would-be community TV station operator to choose from. In Winnipeg, there are unclaimed channels on 25, 28, 42, 43, 46, 48 and 49. In Brandon, 16, 18, 27, 34 and 49 are up for grabs. The same is true for channels 30 and 50 in fast-growing Morden-Winkler.

Using the subchannels, a community group could offer CBC, CTV and Global service to a community abandoned by the corporate broadcasters, and offer a community channel based on Shaw’s Cable 9 in Winnipeg — or even on the hilariously bad Videon/Cablevision community access channels of the ’80s.

Community-based TV is within the grasp of any dedicated group of citizens. And it need not rely on the CBC’s goodwill.

 

Why you might soon be able to kiss your cable or satellite provider goodbye

It was one of the ugliest campaigns that Canadians ever witnessed outside of an election campaign.

On one side were the country’s cable TV companies, calling on Canadians to fight the “TV tax”, which would force cable customers to pay a monthly surcharge to support their local TV stations.

On the other side were the country’s TV networks, calling on Canadians to help “save local television”, which the cable companies had charged their customers to watch without passing anything along to the content provider.

That was two years ago.

Relations between the cable operators and the TV networks have been tense ever since. But technological change might be about to bring back the acrimony of two years ago.

Here in Canada, the Sept. 1, 2011 switch to digital television went almost unnoticed by most people, less than 10 percent of whom receive their TV signals over the air.

Yet the broadcasters are in a powerful position to change that balance.

Right now, Canadian broadcasters are using digital TV at a fraction of its full capacity. They’re using it the old-fashioned way: one channel, one signal.

Go just south of the border to Grand Forks, however, and you’ll find digital television being used much differently.

For example, Prairie Public Television carries four program streams on each channel. On subchannels 1 and 2, you’ll find the usual PBS programming that you’d find on cable channel 3 here in Winnipeg — one in high-definition, the other in standard. On subchannel 3, you’ll find a channel with programs of interest to the station’s Minnesota audience. On subchannel 4, you’ll find a separate lineup of educational programming and documentaries.

ABC affiliate WDAZ carries its normal feed on subchannel 8.1, plus the CW Network on subchannel 8.2 and weather information and the audio from a Fargo radio station on subchannel 8.3.

Fargo NBC affiliate KVLY (formerly KTHI on Winnipeg’s cable dial from 1968 to 1986) carries its standard feed on channel 11.1 and a national general -interest specialty network called This TV on subchannel 11.2.

These subchannels are used inconsistently across the United States, however. Go a few hours down the highway to Duluth and you’ll find that the subchannel programming is totally different.

That’s because the U.S. networks own relatively few of their affiliates, preventing the networks from creating new national networks that can be tuned in over-the-air in every market, coast-to-coast.

The Canadian networks don’t have that problem. Tune in CBC, CTV, Global or Citytv and you’re most likely getting your signal from a local transmitter owned and operated by the national network.

Thus, if they wanted to, the networks could bypass the cable and satellite companies and deliver their specialty channels over the air in every major market in Canada, with a lineup which might look something like this:

Winnipeg

3.1 Radio-Canada Winnipeg (Standard)
3.2 Radio-Canada Winnipeg HD
3.3 RDI (all-news)
3.4 Artv (arts/culture)
3.5 (Optional audio or subscription service)

6.1 CBC Winnipeg (Standard)
6.2 CBC Winnipeg HD
6.3 CBC News Network
6.4 Bold
6.5 Documentary

7.1 CTV Winnipeg HD
7.2 TSN
7.3 CTV Two
7.4 Much
7.5 CTV News Channel

9.1 Global Winnipeg HD
9.2 HGTV
9.3 Showcase
9.4 Slice
9.5 Food Network

13.1 Citytv Portage/Winnipeg (Standard)
13.2 Citytv HD
13.3 Sportsnet
13.4 OLN
13.5 G4 (or optional audio/subscription service)

35.1 Joy TV Winnipeg (standard)
35.2 Joy TV HD
35.3 Vision TV
35.4 ONE
35.5 (Optional audio or subscription service)

Before that becomes reality, however, there are two things left to do.

The first is for digital tuners to become commonplace in your mobile and handheld devices. Handheld digital TVs are already on the market, and adapters which would allow people to watch the news or sports on their iPhones while riding the bus or sitting in Starbucks are on their way, so that day is not far off.

The second is for the stations to upgrade their signals to the same standard used by cellular providers — something they should have done during this year’s digital transition, but didn’t always do.

Global’s signal now transmitting from high above Portage and Main already meets this standard, covering all except for the outer edges of Winnipeg with a signal equivalent to what you would need to get reliable indoor cellphone coverage.

The CBC’s signal is expected to be even stronger once the Mother Corp. sorts out the problems it’s been having with its antenna atop the Richardson Building. Weaker, but still adequate signals, are or will be available from Joy TV and Radio-Canada.

CTV’s and Citytv’s signals, however, aren’t up to standard. First of all, they’re still on the VHF band while everyone else is on UHF. VHF is roughly the digital TV equivalent of using a 2400-baud dial-up modem on a static-laced phone line in the high-speed Internet era, or trying to make money playing rock music on AM radio. VHF just won’t cut it.

CTV’s problem is compounded by the fact that their transmitter is so far south of town — watch for a tall tower just off Highway 75 next time you’re passing Ste. Agathe — that even if they switched to UHF, they would have to crank up the power to half a million watts or more to match Global’s signal quality in Winnipeg.

The same goes for Citytv, which operates from out near Elie. Both stations might want to consider scouting out the rooftops of Winnipeg’s high-rises as potential second transmitter sites.

But once that’s all been sorted out, many Winnipeggers might find themselves cutting the cord.

A video trip back to the ’70s

A bit of lighter fare in this week’s View from Seven, as we take a trip back to the ’70s, thanks to the phenomenal video archive maintained and frequently updated by Vancouver YouTuber robatsea2009, and additional clips from GWhizIneedAname and ronj218.

Modern-day Zellers, Wal-Mart and Target stores look like boutiques compared to the rather ugly “new” K-Mart store featured in this 1978 ad from a Cleveland TV station. But at least the musical theme is rather upbeat.

It’s 1979, and this new thing called “VHS” has come on the market, allowing you to record movies anywhere and play them back on your TV set. Trouble is, you’ll need to lug a huge camera and recorder around with you all day.

Jeez, do they still have Saturday morning cartoons? (CBS, 1975)

A young Connie Chung makes a brief appearance during a local station break in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve 1976.

Slow news day in Cleveland? This 1978 newscast (with five anchors, including one who’s wearing a tomato-red jacket) opens with a “bad news” story: yes, the price of hamburger is going up! Check out some ’70s technology at about the 03:00 mark.

A fascinating behind-the-scenes clip showing NBC’s Jessica Savitch letting loose a rant while preparing for an evening news update, possibly in early December, 1979. It’s not clear how this clip came to be in the public domain, but probably came from an unencrypted satellite feed that network staff either accidentally left open, or deliberately left open for the entertainment of master control operators at affiliate stations and the relatively few Americans who owned satellite dishes at the time.

Savitch died in a 1983 motor vehicle accident, only a few weeks after delivering a news update in which some people suspect she might have been slightly inebriated or stoned.

An even more serious meltdown by ABC News Chicago correspondent Max Robinson, recorded from the satellite feed, after discovering that network brass had decided to have a (white) anchorman in Washington do the lead-in to his story on the May 25, 1979 crash of American Airlines Flight 191 at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

Old News

Click to view: 1977 KMBC-TV Kansas City newscast, complete with wood-paneled set and pink-suited reporter (Copyright © KMBC-TV)

Most of us can recall at least one occasion where we’ve come across something on television that was so boring or repulsive that we asked ourselves, “My God, who watches this stuff?”

The easiest way of figuring that out is to watch the commercials. If they show a bunch of young guys getting together for a good time, it’s safe to assume that the audience is heavily skewed toward males aged 18-29. If the ads are for prestigious Wall Street investment firms and high-end hotel chains, however, the audience is more likely skewed toward middle-aged and older professionals.

Spend half an hour watching CBC News Network and — despite the youthfulness of newer personalities such as Nil Koksal and Kalin Mitchell — you’ll quickly get the sense that the viewership of all-news channels skews toward the 55-plus demographic. Young adults, after all, are not key customers of no-medical-exam-required life insurance, Grey Power car insurance, contraptions that make it easier to get in and out of the bathtub or of the various other advertisers that help keep the CBC News Network on the air.

The same demographic skew exists south of the border. New research this week shows that Fox News has one of the oldest audiences among the major U.S. cable networks (median age: 65 years), followed by CNN (63 years). Network news programs also tend to attract a more mature demographic: the typical “60 Minutes” viewer is 61 years old, while the typical “Dateline Sunday” viewer is just three years younger.

Their children are more likely to be watching lighter fare when they turn on the television. The typical “Family Guy” viewer is 30 years old, making it one of U.S. network television’s youngest shows. “The Office” (median age: 35 years) and “Scrubs” (38 years) also tend to attract a younger audience.

Surely this news must give pause to backers of the proposed Sun News Channel, which some have billed as “Fox News North” in recognition of Sun Media’s small-c conservative leanings. Not only would a new all-news channel fragment a Canadian market that is only a fraction the size of the neighbouring U.S. market — and less partisan to boot — they would also be dependent on many of the same accounts that CBC News Network and CTV News Channel depend on. Then again, perhaps their plan is to force one of the two incumbents out of the game. Only they would know for sure.

It also makes you wonder if the greying of the all-news audience portends a less well-informed Canada of the future. The old way of watching the news — a 10 p.m. date with Knowlton Nash or an 11 p.m. session with Lloyd Robertson — might be old-fashioned and no longer practical in an era when you can click on the stories that interest you and ignore the rest, but at least you learned bits and pieces about politics and the economy while you were waiting to hear about the latest celebrity scandal.

Now… who cares about China or what effect interest rates will have on your household finances when your mortgage comes up for renewal? Lohan’s in trouble again!

On the bright side, we’ll simply do what human beings have always done when confronted with a changing world: adapt to it. And instead of hearing about what effect events overseas might have on Canadians’ lives from CBC’s Peter Mansbridge and CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme, we’ll get Family Guy‘s Peter and Lois Griffin to raise the subject.

On a completely different subject, several of us Winnipeg bloggers are making plans to converge later this month for beers and to finally meet one another in person. Visit the Winnipeg Bloggers group on Facebook or contact me via e-mail (mcdougak[at]mts.net) to find out more.

Share your comments and stories

(Updated May 16, 2011 with two links to posts that have been since written.)

There are a few things that I’m interested in doing some further research on for future blog posts. If you can help answer any of the questions below, please leave a comment or send an e-mail to theviewfromseven@gmail.com. (Or, if you know someone who might be able to share their insights, please share this blog post with them.)

Three Winnipeg TV outlets celebrate their Golden Anniversaries this year. CBWFT, Winnipeg’s local French-language TV station, will celebrate its 50th anniversary on April 24. CTV affiliate CKY-TV will also celebrate its 50th anniversary of its Nov. 12, 1960 debut as CJAY-TV. This year will also be both a Golden and Coral/Jade anniversary for Global affiliate CKND-TV — the 50th anniversary of its sign-on as border station KCND in Pembina, N.D. on Nov. 7, 1960 and the 35th anniversary of KCND’s becoming the first and only TV station to move across an international border to become CKND in Winnipeg on Aug. 31, 1975.

  • What were your favourite shows on these stations?
  • Were you among the young people in Winnipeg who used to check out the racy late night movies on the French station in the ’80s?
  • Are you still a fan of Bob Swartz’s Archie and His Friends and Funtown, Chiller Thriller Theater or Gordon McLendon’s strange on-air editorials after all these years?  Do you still groan at the thought of CKND’s Jackpot (a quirky ’80s game show where someone would pop up and yell “Jackpot!”) or CKY’s Debate (a weekly debating contest between teams from different local high schools, the only entertaining part being that these teenagers were generally nervous wrecks)? Dare I even go off-topic and mention 13 MTN’s early disasters? Share your memories!
  • How were these stations as places to work in the ’60s and ’70s? What was the atmosphere like? How would you describe the working conditions?
  • Had Canwest not bought out KCND, would the station have survived? What might have its post-1975 history been like?

Fly the Golden Jets! Transair — Winnipeg’s Hometown Airline. It’s been about 30 years since Transair‘s gold-coloured fleet of Boeing 737s and Fokker F28s disappeared from the ramp at Winnipeg Airport. Founded in 1947 as Central Northern Airways and renamed Transair in 1956, the Winnipeg-based airline was a vital lifeline to many northern communities and carried many Winnipeggers to destinations in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario until its merger with Calgary-based Pacific Western Airlines was completed in late 1979. It also had a Boeing 707 that it used for charters to Europe and Hawaii — which, according to one source, Transair managers conveniently managed to get out of town at times to keep it out of the hands of creditors.

Transair was also known as the first significant airline in Canada to hire a female pilot, and as the employer of a very young Peter Mansbridge, who worked at Transair’s Churchill station before going on to bigger and better things.

  • How was Transair for service — was it a good airline or a poor one? What memories do you have as a passenger?
  • How was the working atmosphere at Transair, particularly in light of the company’s struggle to survive in the ’70s?
  • How could Transair have survived or done better, if it could have done these things at all? What were its strengths and weaknesses?
  • How did the Transair-PWA merger go from an employee’s point of view?

Nude swimming at a City of Winnipeg pool in the ’80s? I heard by word of mouth that a City of Winnipeg public swimming pool was caught with its trunks down by a local newspaper in the ’80s when an intrepid reporter learned about a staff member’s by-invitation-only after-hours nude swimming club. I couldn’t find any written record of this story, but if it’s true, it would be worthy of an encore performance. Does anyone know any additional details?

Still the Troubled Y? In April 2008, Winnipeg’s Downtown YM-YWCA at 301 Vaughan St. was the subject of an unflattering article in the Winnipeg Free Press, which discussed the recreational facility’s problems with pepper spray attacks, drug deals, gang activity, vandalism and customer complaints about an indifferent management. Other member complaints that didn’t make the Free Press would also concern a lack of cleanliness, patrons asking others for sexual favours, and inattentive lifeguards. Having lost members to other Y branches, to a new fitness centre at the U of W and to the new Cindy Klassen Rec Centre, and about to face new competition from two new fitness centres in downtown Winnipeg — a GoodLife fitness centre scheduled to open at Portage and Main in April and the Sport for Life Centre preparing to open  in the East Exchange — can the Downtown Y survive?

TV stations no longer a licence to print money

Do you have any memories of KCND-TV or the early days of CKND-TV, either as an employee or as a viewer? Or any anecdotes to share about the personalities mentioned below? Please share them in the comments section or e-mail them to theviewfromseven@gmail.com, as they would be an important and valuable contribution to maintaining a written history of local television in Winnipeg and the Red River Valley.

Next week, the power brokers of the Canadian television industry will be gathering in Gatineau, Quebec to tell the government agency responsible for regulating the public airwaves what broadcasters need to survive.

The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission — better known as the CRTC — is used to hearing broadcasters tell them about threats to their viability. It has long been a tradition for existing broadcasters to tell the Commission of their concerns about “audience fragmentation” whenever a new TV or radio station sought a licence.

But this year’s talk of financial woes in the television industry have taken on a more urgent tone. Winnipeg-based media giant Canwest Global is fighting desperately to avoid bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the awkwardly named CTVglobemedia has put CKX-TV in Brandon up for sale, warning that Manitoba’s only non-Winnipeg-based TV station will shut down on Aug. 31, 2009 if no one buys it.

As Canwest itself noted in a Feb. 23 letter to the CRTC:

“For perspective, between 2004 and 2008, annual operating profit [for Canwest’s conventional TV stations] declined by $100 million (from $113 million to $13 million). Even with the proposed changes to our licences, our financial projections show that these conventional television stations will post negative operating income in Broadcast Year 2010.”

So much for the famous quote attributed to Canadian business tycoon Roy Thomson, describing the fabulous profits made by early TV stations: “Running a commercial television station is like having a licence to print money.”

Not anymore, Roy.

And it shows how far we’ve come from those heady days 35 years ago, when a hastily assembled group of men were ready to do all sorts of things to get once of those valuable TV licences.

The path to where Canwest is today started on June 28, 1973. It was election night in Manitoba, and after putting up a spirited campaign, Liberal Party leader Izzy Asper was reconciling himself to the fact that he was not going to be the Premier of Manitoba.

He hadn’t even come close. The Liberals finished the election in third place, with just 19 percent of the vote and a mere five of the 57 seats in the Legislature.

Not eager to hang around the Legislature for another four years as leader of a third-place party with little hope of gaining power, Asper began looking for other career options.

As legend has it, Asper’s assistant Peter Liba — later Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba — was reading the newspaper one day, when he spotted an interesting advertisement. The CRTC was seeking applications for a new TV station in Winnipeg. He showed it to his boss.

Asper was sold on the idea.

So too was Stuart Craig. He was the president of Western Manitoba Broadcasters, Ltd., the parent company of CKX-TV in Brandon. Craig and his associates prepared an application.

He then made the mistake of calling Paul Morton, a Winnipeg businessman who Craig thought might be helpful in starting a new station in the province’s largest city. Morton asked to see a copy of Craig’s still-confidential CRTC application, and Craig obliged.

The problem was, Morton was also in touch with Asper. Soon, Morton was on the Canwest Broadcasting team, a start-up company that was now competing with Western Manitoba Broadcasters for the Winnipeg licence. And Morton knew the intimate details of the other team’s application.

However, Canwest still had a problem to deal with. The Brandonites had two strong points in their application that would impress the CRTC: Their twenty years’ experience in running a TV station, and a proposed schedule that would feature heavy local content.

Canwest’s team had much less experience, and Asper himself was being kept out of the CRTC’s sight as he was still a member of the provincial legislature.

So, they came up with a bold plan that had never been tried before, but that might just impress the CRTC.

In the late ’50s, a group of American investors took note of the fact that while TV viewers in Fargo, N.D. had multiple TV stations to choose from, viewers in the much larger Winnipeg market had no choice: the CBC ran the only television station in town.

As foreign ownership of TV stations was (and still is) outlawed in both Canada and the U.S., the investors decided to do the next best thing. They would start up a TV station in the tiny border town of Pembina, N.D., and aside from producing some nominal local programming, run it as though it were a Winnipeg TV station, complete with offices on Portage Ave.

Their station, known as KCND-TV Channel 12, went on the air on Nov. 7, 1960 from a quarter-mile high tower located a mere 1,800 feet south of the Canada-U.S. border — roughly the distance between The Bay and Mountain Equipment Co-Op in downtown Winnipeg. They literally couldn’t get the tower any closer to Winnipeg if they tried.

By the ’70s, the vast majority of KCND’s revenues were coming from Winnipeg advertisers, even though KCND didn’t have the Winnipeg rights to the programs it bought. The Asper team knew that KCND’s practices were a thorn in the CRTC’s side.

Thus, Canwest proposed to buy out and shut down KCND, move the station across the border to Winnipeg, and launch a new station. With an existing staff and clientele in Winnipeg, the station would have an experienced staff from day one and would quickly become profitable.

Asper entered into negotiations with Gordon McLendon, the eccentric Texas millionaire who had owned KCND since the mid-’60s. He would later remember his negotiations with McLendon as being some of the toughest in his long career. Not to mention the fact that he arrived at McLendon’s ranch to find the Texan roasting an entire cow for dinner.

Eventually, McLendon agreed to sell.

It was a bold move that immediately positioned Canwest as the front-runner when the CRTC arrived in Winnipeg in May 1974 to hold public hearings on who should be given the new TV licence.

Then, everything nearly fell apart.

The Canwest team had co-opted Jerry Johnson, KCND’s Winnipeg manager, to help design a proposed schedule for the new station. Johnson knew that the CRTC would be looking for Canadian content, and ensured that the schedule had plenty of it.

Rejecting this, they asked Johnson to redo the schedule with more lucrative American programming. This schedule was then presented to the CRTC.

Brandon’s Stuart Craig and Western Manitoba Broadcasters was suddenly back in the game when their proposed schedule, with much more Canadian and local content than Canwest’s, was unveiled. Jerry Johnson had been proven right.

And then Craig dropped a bombshell, revealing that John Boler, the owner of CBS affiliate KXJB-TV in Fargo, was already planning to start a new station in Pembina if Canwest shut KCND down. Canwest’s application, based on the premise that the new station would face no competition from Pembina, suddenly seemed to be based on a questionable assumption.

The Canwest team brushed off Boler’s proposed new station, but used a more bizarre tactic to deal with the Canadian content problem. They went back and obtained Johnson’s original schedule, loaded with the Canadian content he knew the CRTC was looking for. Ordering Johnson to remain in a hotel room, the Canwest group then went back to the CRTC with Johnson’s original schedule — and proceeded to blame Johnson (of all people) for preparing a schedule with too little Canadian content, while the accused was conveniently unable to defend himself.

Canwest had recovered from a fumble, albeit in a way that might strike some as not being very nice.

By the end of 1974, Canwest had won the licence, defeating both Western Manitoba Broadcasters and a poorly financed cooperative group that never really had a chance.

KCND says goodbye, 1975

KCND says goodbye, 1975

On Aug. 31, 1975 at 9 p.m., cable subscribers in Winnipeg saw KCND’s channel 12 signal disappear as CKND signed on for the first time. Little did they know that they were witnessing the birth of a broadcasting empire that would extend to Chile, Australia and the U.K.

CKND prepares to sign on

CKND prepares to sign on

Eventually, the Craigs of Brandon would win the Winnipeg licence they wanted so much, with 13 MTN (later known as “A-Channel” and now as “Citytv Winnipeg”) going on the air in October, 1986. And Boler would get an FCC licence to launch a Pembina TV station, initially under the call letters KWBA-TV, by November 1979. However, the project would remain stalled for another six years before Boler’s Pembina station, by this time known as KNRR-TV, finally signed on in January 1986.

However, neither of them would prevent CKND from being a success for many years, financially and in the ratings.

For a while, having a commercial TV licence really did seem like having a licence to print money. The sort of thing that might justify partaking in tough negotiations, sequestering a man whose good advice was not heeded in a hotel room, and witnessing a cow being roasted by a strange Texas millionaire.

Next week’s CRTC hearings in Gatineau will show us just how far we’ve come from those days.


Related links:

YouTubers help keep Winnipeg television history alive

A collection of six posts about KCND Pembina on St. Vincent Memories

BibliographyCanadian Communications Foundation, Television Station History: CKND-TV Winnipeg
Herschel Hardin, Closed Circuits: The Sellout of Canadian Television (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1985)
Allan Levine, The CanWest Global Story: The First Twenty Years, 1977-1997 (Winnipeg: CanWest Global Communications, 1997)
Peter C. Newman, Izzy: The Passionate Life and Turbulent Times of Izzy Asper, Canada’s Media Mogul (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2008)
Chris Wood, Live to Air: The Craig Broadcast Story (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2000)