Monday, May 09, 2005

Part 3: The Ugly - Continued

CanWest Global: Okay I'm not going to say that they are evil but the company is probably my least favourite thing about Canadian television. There are a lot of reasons but I suppose the big one is simply this they talk a good game but when it comes down to it they not only don't deliver but they seem to approach things as if they have a divine right not to deliver.

CanWest broadcasting was licensed to bring a third service to Winnipeg. In bidding for the license they were in competition with West Manitoba broadcasting of Brandon Manitoba, which was owned by the Craig family who had been broadcasters since the 1940s. According to Live To Air by Chris Wood, the Craig family put forward a package that was on local news and participation from local groups, while the initial bid from the the CanWest partnership (at the time made up of former Manitoba Liberal leader Israel Izzy Asper, Winnipeg theatre owner Paul Morton, and broadcast engineer Seymour Epstein) was based on purchasing a U.S station called KCND which had been aimed at the Winnipeg market and essentially transferring the American stations schedule along with the transmitter and equipment. Upon hearing the Craig proposal during the CRTC licensing hearing Jerry Johnson, a member of bid team who had objected to the proposed schedule, was told to stay in the hotel room and the group presented an amended proposal to the CRTC which was heavier on Canadian content. They put the blamed the original proposal on Johnson.

This was to be a continuing pattern for CanWest, which became CanWest-Global in 1989 after the company had acquired the bankrupt Global network in Ontario (really a Toronto station with a number of rebroadcasting transmitters throughout the province) and Asper had forced Morton and Epstein out of the company. They also started two stations in Saskatchewan and acquired stations in British Columbia, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Typically the company has made grandiose promises about producing Canadian programming but the promises have tended to be a lot of smoke and mirrors. Typical was their approach to two efforts to obtain licenses for fourth services in Edmonton and Calgary. While the Craig family's A Channel presented concrete proposals including a $14 million fund for Television Drama production in Alberta, analysis of CanWest Global's promise of $4 million for script development to be spent over the length of the license for the proposed Alberta stations was revealed to be less than $14,000 a year of new money added to CanWest's additional commitments.

Canwest-Global also seems to set Canadian shows up to fail. One popular program was an adaptation of W.O. Mitchell's Jake and the Kid radio series, which was well received but was cancelled after the Alberta Government ended its production fund for film and television made within the province. The extremely popular Traders starring Sonia Smits and Bruce Grey ran for five seasons, from 1996 to 2000 despite CanWest-Global running it opposite ER. It is hard to think of a bigger indicator that a show was intended to fail. At roughly the same time the company was lobbying the CRTC in an attempt to have Canadian made infomercials classified as Canadian Content. The Commission wasn't buying that argument.

CanWest-Global is one of the most profitable media companies in Canada. In 1996, at the time of the bids for the Alberta stations the company had revenues of $370 million and earnings of $125 million before interest depreciation and taxes, a margin of 35%.In 2004 the company had Canadian television revenues of over $690 million (this includes revenues for their various cable licenses as well as their over the air broadcasts). It's difficult to find earnings from Canadian broadcasting operations because the company has large overseas holdings and non-television assets in the form of radio stations and newspapers. What is apparent is that the company is not spending its money on Canadian programming. According to a 2001 briefing note from Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, CanWest-Global spent only 19.4% of on-air revenue on producing Canadian programming, while CTV spent 32.9% of on air revenue on Canadian shows. In 1999 12% of CTV's audience was watching Canadian shows in prime time which seems (and is) small until compared with only 5% of CanWest's audience watching Canadian shows.

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