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Rogers’ cuts to OMNI chip away at Canada’s cultural mosaic by Jerry Dias

Mar 26, 2014

Despite cuts to OMNI, Rogers Communications has the necessary resources to make quality local ethnic broadcasting work.

Source: Toronto Star

Rogers Broadcasting Ltd. is right now asking the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (our national broadcast regulator) to rewrite the rules governing ethnic television in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta – and not to the benefit of ethnic communities.

Rogers wants to direct its multilingual OMNI programming to fewer ethnic audiences, eliminating those it deems unprofitable. They are asking for the ability to remove half of the ethnic communities served. Rogers wants more flexibility to broadcast non-Canadian programming and feels that local community-based programming is too onerous, and wants to cut that, too. That likely means less local news for ethnic and third-language communities.

The company (one of Canada’s largest and wealthiest media corporations) says ethnic broadcasting isn’t paying the bills, that it’s a money loser.

We know that multicultural and multilingual television programming is vitally important to many newcomer communities across Canada. Ethnic broadcasting not only fosters a sense of connection to Canada’s cultural mosaic, it builds communities (through native language story-telling), provides employment opportunities (with in-house technical production, journalists and on-air personalities) and informs the public (through local news reporting in various languages).

Above all, it fosters greater participation in Canada’s democratic life.

It’s no surprise, then, that Canada’s immigrant and newcomer communities were stunned when Rogers announced job and program cuts impacting OMNI stations in May 2013, the latest in a series of ethnic television cuts over recent years.

Our union filed an official complaint with the CRTC, arguing that Rogers had breached the terms of its license. Canadians agreed. Many expressed frustration with the declining level of programming quality and local-ness in community ethnic television.

At OMNI-1 in Toronto, for instance, local programming has been cut in half since 2000/2001, according to the Forum for Research and Policy in Communications. Since 2005, staff in Toronto (arguably the most multi-cultural city in the country) has been cut by 80 per cent – barely above a skeleton crew today. In Alberta, OMNI stations in Edmonton and Calgary don’t employ a single local journalist reporting community news. In 2010, Rogers decided to dissolve community advisory boards, originally created to solicit input and feedback on OMNI programming – losing touch with its ethnic audience.

This consistent decline in resources dedicated to OMNI raises serious concerns about the future of ethnic broadcasting in Canada. Young viewers won’t tune in, if what they see isn’t relevant. And it won’t be relevant if it continues to be starved out.

In fairness to Rogers, the playing field among ethnic broadcasters is tilted. OMNI’s main source of revenue is advertising, and that’s becoming less lucrative as new ethnic specialty channels come online. Some specialty channels can charge viewers subscriber fees, a source of revenue not available to “over-the-air” broadcasters like OMNI (meaning that programs can be watched, for free, through a television antenna). This imbalance must be addressed by the CRTC, and we hope it frames part of the commission’s Ethnic Broadcasting Policy review set for 2016.

But if Rogers thinks the best way to solve its competitive woes is by taking away airtime for ethnic communities (to broadcast more lucrative U.S. programming), then that begs the question: Is Rogers still the most appropriate carrier of Over-the-Air ethnic programming?
Ultimately, we think it is. Not only because Rogers has ethnic broadcasting experience, but also because it has the necessary resources to make quality local ethnic broadcasting work.
Rogers Communications is a multi-billion dollar operation that raked in $1.7 billion in profits in 2013. Rogers Media, its subsidiary, earned a healthy $161 million in profits. Dividend payments to shareholders topped $870 million.

If Rogers continue to produce ethnic and multilingual programming, without any changes to its license, it would cost OMNI $2 million annually – a relatively small price to pay so that small-market and third-language communities are well-served. Ethnic broadcasting is about serving the public interest – not solely about padding a corporation’s profits.

The voices of our ethnic communities must speak out. The CRTC is holding hearings on April 8 to decide on Rogers proposed cuts. Rogers has had the privilege of delivering this vital service to our communities, for years. Let’s ensure they continue providing quality service for years to come.

© Toronto Star