The union representing workers at CTV Barrie says the parent company’s desire to cut back on local programming is a “media job killer.”
“The creation of Canadian content, including local news and locally relevant programming, has always been a key component of this overall policy goal,” Randy Kitt, Unifor’s media director, wrote in a submission made to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) earlier this week.
Its applications “undermine the very foundation of Canadian media policy," the submission says.
Bell Media, the parent company of the Barrie television station, is requesting “relief” from its obligation to provide local content. It has asked the CRTC to waive its obligations for the number of hours its TV stations must devote to local news.
Unifor’s response was filed just ahead of Monday’s deadline for comments responding to Bell Media’s requests, along with those by Corus, Québecor and Rogers.
Unifor represents more than 10,000 media workers, including 5,000 members in the broadcast and film industries. It has 315,000 members across Canada working in 20 sectors.
Bell Media suggested its back was up against the wall.
“The traditional broadcasting industry is in crisis, which is why the commission must act now and grant the regulatory relief we are seeking,” the broadcaster wrote in its application to the CRTC last month.
It seeks to reduce local programming, but to what extent and how it will impact the Barrie affiliate remains unclear.
CTV Barrie airs an hour-long news program at 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, with a half-hour daily newscast at 11 p.m.
“They’re down to about 30 members at the station. In the '90s, there were almost 120 members,” Kitt said in an interview. “More and more and more, what you’re seeing and what the CRTC is allowing is the regionalization of news … (which means) more Toronto news and less Barrie news.”
Bell Media indicated there are few options for the broadcaster.
The company’s news operations lost $40 million in revenue last year, communications manager Rob Duffy stated in an email.
“Bell Media is the leading provider of local news in Canada, but to sustain news operations into the future, public policy changes are desperately needed now,” he said. “Without changing how we operate to align with today’s shifting consumer demands, these operating losses will only grow.
“Now is the time for the CRTC to make reasonable regulatory improvements that will provide more flexibility in how Bell Media and other broadcasters deliver local news in major and smaller markets," Duffy added.
In its application filed with the CRTC last month, Bell Media seeks to “delete the requirement for an expenditure level on locally reflective news” as well as the “requirement for locally reflective news.”
It cites unregulated competition of foreign-owned digital media in the Canadian market. Growth of digital advertising has also "siphoned billions of dollars in revenue away from traditional broadcasters," it says.
Viewership has also fallen along with a drop in television subscribers.
In response, Unifor suggests Bell Media wait until the Online Streaming Act and the Online News Act are in force before making any major decisions regarding its operations.
In a joint submission, the Forum for Research and Policy in Communications and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre urged the CRTC to suspend the broadcasters’ applications. It indicated that at risk are the private television service provided to 24.2 million people in 37 communities across Canada.
The union earlier rejected Bell Media’s “outrageous and misguided scheme” to amend its licence conditions.
“Unifor strongly opposes Bell Media’s application to the CRTC to eliminate all regulatory requirements for local news at all of its CTV, CTV2 and Noovo stations across Canada,” proclaims a statement on the trade union’s website. “We will do everything in our power to ensure that Bell Media continues to live up to its legislated obligations to fund and create local news and programming.”
The Barrie television station has a rich history. In 1955, local radio station owner Ralph Snelgrove was granted a licence for an aerial television station in Barrie and named it CKVR — the V and R as in Val and Ralph Snelgrove.
An 8,500-square-foot building up on the hill off Essa Road became one of the largest in Canadian television at the time, and was also the first building in North America designed to integrate both television and radio into one facility.
Meanwhile, Barrie was the smallest community in North America to have its own TV station, wrote Barrie Historical Archive curator Deb Exel in a Then and Now article published by BarrieToday in May. The station featured lots of local talent in the early days, which included news programming.
At its height the station employed roughly 150 people. Estimates put the current staffing level at one-third of that.