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The death of local television by Tony Atherton

Mar 20, 1999

Source : Ottawa Citizen

Big broadcasters and the CRTC have killed local TV

by Tony Atherton

The Can Pro TV festival comes to town tomorrow. For two days at the Ottawa Congress Centre, private broadcasters, independent producers and specialty-channel programmers will schmooze and navel-gaze at parties and panel discussions leading up to Monday night's awards gala, to be headlined by Cory Hart.

It is a glitzy, expensive and almost pointless exercise.

Twenty-six years ago, the Can Pro awards were inaugurated to pay tribute to what was then the country's most prolific source of Canadian content: local private television.

In recent years, however, Can Pro has become little more than a painful annual reminder of how private television has all but abandoned its local audience.

Stations such as CJOH in Ottawa, CKCO in Kitchener, CFTK in Terrace, British Columbia and CFCN in Calgary used to submit programs made for local viewers in dozens of Can Pro categories: children's programming, variety series, variety specials, drama, sitcoms and community events. Winners have included such long-departed shows such as CJOH's Marie Soleil and CHRO's Teen Machine. But that kind of Can Pro competition died three years ago, after a long and painful decline.

Why?

"There is no local programming any more in this country," says John Beveridge, a former CJOH programmer and a Can Pro judge.

It's an exaggeration, but only just. Over the past decade, amalgamation and concentration among private broadcasters have put most of the country's privately run local stations in the hands of a few mega-broadcasters, with CTV, Global and WIC (ONtv, BCTV) being the biggest players. As the reach of these broadcasters became national, so did their programming aspirations.

In part, the abandonment of local programming was a response to CRTC pressure to produce more big-budget, primetime Canadian entertainment series -- dramas, comedies and performance specials.

"It was a quid pro quo," says Beveridge. "If the industry put real resources into Canadian primetime, it wanted relief on some of its other (programming commitments). The CRTC effectively agreed to look the other way in terms of local programming."

Private stations, directed by their corporate head offices, began dropping all local programming except news, which made money and was perceived to deliver audience to the network's national primetime programming.

A recent study by the lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting records a 20-per-cent drop in local programming in Winnipeg between 1986 and 1997, including a 38-per-cent drop in non-news programming.

Ten years ago, Ottawa's CJOH was broadcasting local series such as High School Confidential, Denim Blues, You Can't Do That on Television, Eye on Ottawa, and Home Grown Cafe.

Now the station's only local programming initiative other than news is Regional Contact, and it only survives because of a massive viewer backlash two years ago when it was cancelled by the broadcast chain's Toronto head office.

Private broadcasters used to share an innovative programming initiative called Canada in View. Each station would submit two hour-long local programs of any sort – documentary, drama, variety – and would get back 24 programs from other stations, enough to make a unique 26-part series that defined Canada as the sum of its parts. The initiative was effectively killed when Baton Broadcasting (now CTV) pulled out of the deal, on its way to creating carbon-copy programming at all its stations. Before CTV became private television's most aggressive producer of national Canadian content, it was the most ruthless eradicator of local programming.

The result of this erosion was that by the mid-1990s there was so little competition at Can Pro – outside of news and current affairs categories – that organizers decided to open up the awards to programs on specialty channels, and on private networks such as CTV and Global. All of Can Pro's non-news programming categories were moved to a newly created subset for shows that appear in more than one market. It was a slap in the face for any station that persisted in producing entertainment programming aimed at a local market.

For the last two seasons of Homegrown Cafe, the local talent show that was arguably the most successful Canadian variety program of the decade, there was no Can Pro category in which it could compete. Variety programming had become exclusively a multi-market competition.

Can Pro's original purpose - to celebrate local programming – has changed dramatically, admits competition chairman Brian Voss. But he argues, "our industry has changed, you can't remain stagnant."

Change has robbed Can Pro of its distinctiveness, however. As an awards competition for local stations, it made sense; now it offers almost nothing unique. The entries in Can Pro's multi-market programming categories, such as CTV's Rita MacNeil's Celtic Celebration, or Comedy Network's Improv Heaven and Hell, compete for Geminis. Locals newscasts and local new specials are honoured with awards sponsored by the Radio and Television News Directors Association.

And if the real purpose of the awards it to have a forum where private TV programming can compete without risk of being swamped by the more abundant Canadian content of the CBC, well that already exists in the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' annual Gold Ribbon awards.

The only thing that sets Can Pro apart now is that half of its awards are presented not for programming, but for promotion, awards for the best program teasers and previews.

But even this side of the competition has been sullied. Originally designed to reward stations that imaginatively sought to promote Canadian programs, it now is open to any kind of promotion. This year's finalists include a Calgary station's promotion for the U.S. sitcom Drew Carey, and History Television's promotion for its repeat of the PBS mega-series, Baseball.

During Can Pro this year, there will be sessions and panel discussions on how to promote newscasts, on new media, on expected changes in TV regulations. The sessions will feature network news anchor Lloyd Robertson, network drama producer Alyson Feltes (Justice, Traders), and CRTC vice-chairwoman Andre Wylie.

But there will be no soul-searching on the erosion of local programming, even though it is the reason that Can Pro is increasingly irrelevant.

© The Ottawa Citizen