Screwing Bell Canada out of their Superbowl advertising revenues wasn’t just a enjoyable thing to do, it was the first step in fixing Canadian television.
Last month, for the first time in a generation, Canadians watched the Superbowl the way Gaia intended — with American advertisements. Reacting to years of complaints, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ordered cable companies to allow the broadcaster, Fox, to transmit freely, without substituting the channel holding the Canadian Superbowl rights, Bell Canada’s CTV, in its place. Canadian viewers experienced US advertisements, an American folk art form, instead of the generally lame and uninspired Canadian ads.
This hit CTV’s advertising revenue hard as viewers chose to watch Fox instead, tanking their ratings. Unsurprisingly, Bell Canada is crazy mad about this and has taken the CRTC to court. This situation is exactly what the CRTC’s simultaneous substitution policy was created to avoid.
The CRTC implemented the simultaneous substitution rule in 1972 as a favour to Canadian broadcasters, primarily CTV. TV channels would license US programmes for a pittance—in those days, US producers didn’t consider foreign licensing a lucrative business. The Canadian channels argued that they had paid the fee, however, for Canada – so they should get the advertising revenue from US channels that also showed the programme in Canada. The CRTC bought the story and ordered cable channels to make sure Canadian feeds were shown. Literally, there is some guy at each cable company who has to work out when to turn the feeds on and off. And this is pretty effective as 92% of Canadians get their television from cable or satellite.
In the 21st century, Canadian commercial television doesn’t work the way that you probably think. You probably imagine the channel commissions a TV programme, they make it, and they put it on the air. Then they sell advertising against it. If the ratings are of a reasonable number, they can sell advertisements at a reasonable rate and everyone makes money. If they show is a dog, it gets cancelled. That’s the way it’s done in the United States.
No, in Canada, the TV stations and networks are merely a delivery system for exchanging American programming and collecting Canadian advertising. Look at CTV, CTV 2, Global, and City. Each hour of programming from 7pm until midnight (excluding the 11pm news) is simultaneously substituted with an American station.
The only spanner in the works for the stations is another 70s CRTC rule, that 50% of the broadcasting hours 6pm – 12am must be Canadian made. So you get two hours of news, at 6pm and 11pm and one hour of insipid entertainment news presented by human garbage: eTalk on CTV and Entertainment Tonight Canada on Global. With those three hours accounted for, Canadian TV is free to fill the other 19 with another country’s wares.
It wasn’t always this way. On the old days, the people who ran TV stations wanted to be broadcasters, even if they didn’t have the money that their US counterparts had. Mornings were filled with game shows like Acting Crazy, The Mad Dash, or Definition, the last filmed in Toronto with the grand prize being a dinner at a local restaurant. CTV and Global were proud to create prime time dramas and comedies like The Star Lost and The Trouble with Tracy during the hours that people actually watch TV. They were terrible, no one is arguing that, but they were ours. If you wanted to watch American TV, you had to go get cable and watch a US channel.
By the 90s, the money people figured out that licensing formula: why spend money producing Canadian television, when you can license American TV for cheaper and force the cabled US channel to show your advertising? It was the move of evil geniuses and it’s been lucrative but at the price of Canadian culture.
Wait, you ask. There are all sorts of Canadian programs: Rookie Blue or Mary Kills People on the air. Don’t they show a robust and healthy culture? No.
The funny thing about shows like those is that whether they are every broadcast at all is irrelevant: each broadcaster must pay into a Canadian production fund. That production fund money is partnered with the federal Canada Media Fund and buckets of provincial tax credits. If they’re lucky, they’ll get some cash from a foreign broadcaster. But the production is paid for before even airing. Whether there is anything Canadian about their stories is debatable.
The solution to this televised imperialism is wickedly simple: remove the simultaneous substitution rule. When Canadian TV cannot just license an American hit and collect the advertising money, they will be forced to come up with content of their own to compete. This, of course, is an anathema to TV executives but fuck them.
You can see an example of Canadian TV executives haplessness in the Shomi debacle. Rogers Communications and Shaw Media looked at Netflix and said, ‘Doh, we can do that. We know how to license stuff.’ And they did, filling it with hours and hours of old TV shows and movies. Meanwhile, Netflix spent millions on creating new programming. Rogers and Shaw, despite them owning over 30 cable channels (including, ahem, Viceland), and TV networks between them, they could not create TV programmes that people would pay for. Shomi shut down in November.
Retracting simultaneous substation would cause carnage across the Canadian TV landscape, of this I have no doubt. But a new TV world, growing within the shell of the old, will more than make up for it.
This tweet and and article by the CBC has been annoying me all day.
CBC News (@CBCNews) February 6, 2017
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is the public broadcaster of Canada. Yet it refers to Queen Elizabeth’s 65 year slog as being spent on the throne of Britain*, which while true, ignores the horrible reality that she also spent that 65 years on the throne of Canada.
This isn’t Buzzfeed or Mic or The Rebel or some impertinent start-up that could be backhandedly forgiven for not knowing basic facts. It’s the fucking CBC, which ought to know better.
This isn’t a new annoyance to me. In my Grade 9 social studies class, before the lesson, the teacher walked up and down the aisle “Who is Canada’s head of state.”
Someone said “Trudeau”. Pierre, the then-Prime Minister. Someone else tried “President Reagan.” A third tried “Premier Bennett.” And then there was an uncomfortable silence.
It’s crazy – this isn’t an mind numbingly hard question in Britain or the US.
Anyway, she got to me. “Darren?” “Queen Elizabeth,” I said. To howls of laughter.
It annoys me to this day. How do you get rid of her if people don’t even realise she’s there?
Also, 65 years is not a real anniversary.
During the short visit to my hometown of Vancouver, I did something most Vancouverites rarely do: read the two daily papers, the Vancouver Sun and the Province.
These two papers were unusual in Canada in that they were both owned by the same company, with combined back offices but adversarial newsrooms, a situation that had been going on since the 50s. However, last year the papers’ latest owner, Postmedia, combined the two newsrooms with one editor in chief, a scheme that was replicated in the half dozen other cities which have dual Postmedia papers.
Sure, we all like the idea of two or more daily newspapers clashing it out every day, where hard bitten journalists expose corruption in bits of paper, printed by ink stained craftspeople in the press hall and delivered by bright eyed paper carriers to eager citizens. Almost all of that fantasy has been outsourced now: delivery is by adults in cars, printing is by a low-bid third party printer and the hard bitten journalists have mostly taken their buy outs.
Unlike many people, I’m not opposed to the combined newsroom. Combining the newsrooms was an opportunity to finally create two distinctive papers, assign stories based on the best person for the job, and distinguish them by editing and by story focus. But rather than reinvent themselves the Sun and the Province chose to create two newspapers that are essentially the same. Same articles, same bylines. No difference in point of view.
So, as a favour to the bean counters of the hedge funds who own tranches of the debt of Postmedia, here are my recommendations to salvage the Sun and the Province to keep them in business and, possibly, daily journalism alive in Vancouver.
1. Bring back a proper newspaper nameplate.
It was bad enough in the 80s when the Vancouver Sun replaced its gothic lettering with an soulless serif typeface, but the current logo is a green abortion. Created by Winkcreative (owned by Monocle magazine editor and Wallpaper* founder Tyler Brule), Postmedia has replaced all its broadsheet daily paper logos with a shitty icon. The Sun’s is supposed to represent the seawall.
The Sun needs to bring back this logo, from the 40s. This nameplate says ‘local newspaper’ and not ‘we’re planning on merging all our broadsheet newspapers together in the near future and the only thing that will change city to city is the shitty logo.’
Better yet, an updated version of the Sun’s predecessor, The World.
The Province never had a fancy nameplate. Since 1898, it’s name was always in plain type so it can keep the current one.
2. Make them both tabloid-sized
The broadsheet is dead. You can’t read it on the bus, it’s annoying to read in coffee shops or bars and if you’re not reading in those places, where are you reading it? You don’t have a kitchen table anymore as you’ve rented out the kitchen to gain a fourth roommate so you can stay in Vancouver.
All publications are better in a smaller format. In my current city, London, the Times, converted to a tabloid size long ago much to the pleasure of its plutocrat readership. As did the Evening Standard, which took the extra step of going free and increasing its circulation sevenfold. The Independent also went tabloid in the 90s, although it recently took the extra step of dying.
3. Edit the hell out of them and make them different
In a city that spawned Greenpeace, Adbusters, plain-clothed punks, property-rich hippies, COPE, and keeps electing Gregor Robertson as mayor, the Sun and the Province both maintained a right-wing, Fraser Institute friendly editorial stance. It’s an old journalist koan, “is a newspaper a mirror or a window to the community?” The Sun and Province were neither – they imposed a view from far away owners that was alien to Vancouver’s DNA. The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Winnipeg Free Press, are all example of non-Postmedia newspapers that found the middle of the road.
The Sun should be edited as the paper of Richard Florida’s creative class. Report and support development of buildings, condos, transit and bike lanes, call out anti-Vancouverism measures like the Massey Tunnel replacement without Skytrain or replacing the Patullo bridge. Make education a true beat. Cover arts seriously. Make the video game and film industries the focus of the business section, and make them must-reads by those in it.
The Province should be edited as the paper of the proletariate. Stand up for working people and expose unfairness , whether it’s financial, racial, or gender based. Make it funny, as nothing scours like humour, but don’t ignore politics – make it personal. Those working class voters from Surrey to Chilliwack that constantly vote Tory,they need a champion. How about a champion that doesn’t work against their interests.
Or vice versa the editing style. They’re identical right now.
4. Kill filler
When readers are online and they see something they have read already or is boring, they are instantly gone. Stop training print readers to do the same.
You have a whole day to figure out what is going into your paper – don’t get lazy and fill it with Canadian Press or Postmedia pieces. We don’t need to know about a school strike in Sarnia, unless it is about something other than money or class size and, for that matter, something isn’t a story just because it happens in ‘Canada’s largest city.’ Although that’s really more for my rant about the CBC.
Every single story should be deliberate and edited to the length it should be, not the length that fits.
And, for god’s sake, stop running tweets. It looks like space filler, it reads like space filler, and, if any one wanted to read them – and they don’t – they could have read them yesterday.
5. Explain with photos and graphics
Here is something positive to say about the Sun and Province: they have great photographers, who have talent and experience, and the papers have the equipment to support them.
Yet page after page is tombstone type or stock photos.
Unleash the photographers and graphic designers, make every story a visual story as well. You have the space because you killed all the stories comprised only of Tweets.
6. Unleash the reporters
Here is another positive thing to say about the Sun and Province: they have great writers, who have talent and experience.
I can sympathise a little with the problem of editorial staffing: you can only afford so many heads.. But if you don’t buyout some of the longest serving staff, you have no room for new eyes and new passions. However, your longest serving people are also the ones that know how the damn city works. Not to mention writing is a craft that gets better with experience.
Reading the Sun and Province lately, the reporters are obviously constrained. Maybe they just feel hopeless.
But read the New York Times or The Guardian or even, to a lesser extent, The Globe & Mail and you can see boring old inverted pyramid writing style sing. People pick up newspapers to read, ergo, make that reading enjoyable to read.
7. Admitting that you are dull is the first step to healing
Look, I love you guys at the Sun and Province, you’re working at a big city daily, it’s a household name, you think that you’re the creme de la creme.
But there is something you need to admit to yourself: you’re not the top of the print-lover’s food chain, you’re the bottom.
Here’s an apt analogy:
Sun and Province: you’re Group 2. Surprise!
People who want world news do not go to the Sun or Province first. Or culture. Or politics. Or local news. Canucks and Lions news, sure, but sports in general no. Do you feel good that only local sports fans consider you as their main source?
But now that you know how the world views you, you can change.
8. Make the weekend your showpiece
The Sun and Province have seemed not to notice that their weekend papers are their best sellers, by tens of thousands. Yet the actual papers are basically the same as the daily product, expanded sightly as more advertisers wish to benefit from the higher circulation.
Forget about why circulation is higher on the weekend. Just note that on the weekend, more people want to buy the paper, people who aren’t buying it the rest of the week. Make it the greatest edition of the week, make it a showpiece. Tens of thousands more people are buying it already, but more than that want to but don’t because it sucks.
Give them the long features, give them the greatest graphics. More people want it, so make it so people want more.
9. But but but… everything’s on the web now
Fuck the web. If you are writing stories that mean something to people, they’ll walk over broken glass to get to it. They’ll even pay a $1.25.
What they won’t pay for is stuff that they can get for free already. I’m not sure why this isn’t really understood – but the Sun and Province have page after page of stories that I have already read online. Not the exact same article, but the gist. I paid you for this – why are you insulting me?
Don’t put the articles on the unpaywalled web until enough time has passed. A week? A month? It’s a good advertisement for future readers. But don’t miss the significant part: only paywall the stuff worth paying for. Paywalling the garbage doesn’t encourage newspaper sales and why were you printing garbage in the first place?
But have a daily blog. Hot take every single thing throughout the day, whether it is by your own giant combined newsroom or linked to someone else’s reporting. Stick that on the front page of the website.
Those nine points should cover it nicely, but I think I could conflate them all into one simple point: ‘give a fuck about what you’re printing’.
But I fear that other wheels are turning, and this is just a step to clear away union problems and other hurdles. I half believe the end game is to kill off one Vancouver paper—obviously the Province, as it was the most starved of resources—and ultimately have the Sun as a local news section wrapped around the National Post. What makes it less convincing to me is that even this has a local news section, and that may be a cost that the hedge funders don’t wish to bear.
Due to the protections of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, American-based websites with strong freedom-of-speech ethos will ignore people who claim that they have been defamed by user-created content unless they have a successful court decree of libel.
How weird then that someone in the US seems to be filing cases of libel against possibly fictional people with the same name as real writers, having these possibly fictional people agree to the court that they have committed defamation, and then the ensuing decision is used to have real reviews on Yelp or Google or wherever removed.
Somehow, my memory was jogged of a 1990 SPY Magazine piece in which Joe Queenan wrote of his four years editing Better Living, American Business, and Moneyworth magazines, three terrible newsletters that existing solely to sell and resell their mailing lists. But because they had circulations in the millions, Queenan was invited to luxury junkets, meetings with world leaders, and endless free swag. These crazy magazines kept Eros and Avante Garde magazine publisher, Ralph Ginsburg, in the black.