Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Saving CTV: The Grandest Astroturfing of All

We Canadians are presently bearing witness to one of the most daringly overt astroturfing campaigns in recent history, at least that I can think of, in the form of CTVglobemedia's efforts to build public momentum for its faltering bid to increase revenue. One of Canada's two largest media conglomerates, you see, is currently in the middle of a campaign to cast itself as a populist hero defending local television from heartless government and big corporations.

We were told for years that the mainstream media was in serious trouble, reeling from the double-whammy of technological change and the fallout from its collective decision to advocate from its critical democratic responsibilities. It took the financial crisis, however, for the real problems to start. At least for the time being, the vultures are really only circling CanWest, the Asper giant which controls most of our major dailies in this country, including the American National Post. The only real reason CanWest is alive, actually, is that none of its big creditors really want to pull the plug on the Aspers and take over for themselves the onus of running a network of marginally profitable papers and other media outlets. But from the latest developments, I guess the Thomsons are sensing the writing on the wall, too.

My girlfriend and I saw a truly shocking advertisement on TV a couple nights ago, which has prompted me to write about this. I think it was on A Channel, but I really can't remember, and that's not the point - there's dozens of such ads being hastily thrown together by CTV's local affiliates across the country, and streamed through the central website for the campaign, Help Save Local Television. Now, I guess the current scheme devised by CTV isn't nearly as disastrous for taxpayers as the bailout being demanded by CanWest, but I think we should still be clear: this is an enormous corporate titan, wounded, attempting to do an end-run around the CRTC.

Current regulations in Canada allow cable and satellite companies to take CTV and 'A' programming without compensation. These companies then charge you, the consumer, for the programming they take for free... Local TV stations, like CTV and 'A,' should receive compensation from cable and satellite companies that carry our local programming.

To be clear, the fact that this isn't done right now isn't because, in some mysterious and undescribed process, evil cable companies swooped in and started stealing local TV signals. It is a longstanding practice that cable companies do this, and the distribution of profits was intended to mirror the distribution of work: the stations get money from advertising in exchange for providing content, and the cable companies get money from subscribers in exchange for laying cable to individual houses. To get a sense of just how silly the CTV's position really is, consider that most of these local channels are also available free of charge over the air, albeit with the added difficulty of having to fuss with your rabbit-ear antennae.

Even more galling, perhaps, is CTV's attempt to portray themselves as simple local journalists beset by Big Cable and the unsympathetic CRTC. To this end each local outlet has contributed a "testimonial" ad defending local TV, which you can see on the campaign website as well as, for example, here. You can move through them and listen, if you like, as CTV makes its case that it's a simple local broadcaster appealing to the people against the predations of Big Cable.

Or not. Oddly enough, CTV kept its "Save CTV" site hosted on the main website, which means, for example, that their gigantic network of other, non-local channels is also plainly visible, which includes such names as BNN, Much, MTV, TSN, Bravo!, Discovery Canada, Space, and so on.

Let's move up another level and take a look at the corporation that's now presenting itself to the public as a simple local player. CTV's and A's local channels are subsidiaries of, as I said before, CTVglobemedia. That's a private company, unlike CanWest, but we can guess at its value. TorStar says that it's 20% stake is worth $200 million, even after the econmic carnage of the past year, which means that at its current "low" point, the company is still worth around a billion dollars. (CanWest, by contrast, was harder hit and is now worth just around $175 million.)

The president and CEO of this conglomerate is Ivan Fecan, a former NBC and CBC executive. Not sure what he's being paid now, but this commentor thinks it's around $5 million now. I think he's wrong, because it was already $5 million (plus stock options and bonuses) way back in 2000. (At the time, Fecan also netted an additional tidy sum of $17 millino during BCE's corporate takeover.) You could save a lot of local TV jobs with some of that largesse.

Ironically, when this populist hero Fecan took his company on a buying spree gobbling up
outlets a few years ago, it was accompanied by massive cuts to the news staffs and lineups of the very local channels he now says he's trying to save. Whoops!

In the grand scheme of things, though, Fecan is just small fry. The whole shebang used to be controlled by the massive Bell Canada Enterprises, until a few years ago, when Bell divested, keeping 20% for itself and gave matching percentages each to the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan and to Torstar, another media giant which has suffered but is still worth around half a billion dollars on the stock markets. In the process, by the way, Bell made an agreement that would guarantee Bell TV access to CTVglobemedia content, which presumably means that those cable subscribers, anyways, can't be forced to "save" CTV whether they want to or not.

Bell's decision to reduce its exposure meant that the largest shareholder in the conglomerate became its previous partner, Woodbridge, which is the holding company used by the fabulously wealthy Thomson family. When patriarch Kenneth Thomson passed away in 2006 and left the business to his two sons, it was valued at around $20 billion, and he was the ninth-richest person in the world. Other major Woodbridge holdings include Thomson Reuters, the merged beast which emerged from the Thomson publishing arm and the newswire-turned-financial-services-giant Reuters in 2008.

This is the "local" company CTV wants us to save.

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