CHEKing In: Will Local TV News Survive the Digital Revolution?

Monday Magazine | January 31, 2008
Your Island’s own CHEK News” may need a new motto come fall 2008. That’s when the real-life backdrop that sets the scene behind CHEK-TV’s ever-chipper news anchors will become a work of digital wizardry as parent company CanWest MediaWorks Inc. shifts production of local newscasts across the country to four “state-of-the-art” broadcast centres.

Richard Konwick, president of Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) Local 815, the union representing approximately 85 CanWest employees on Vancouver Island, says 15 full time CHEK-TV workers could see their positions slashed as Leonard Asper’s media monster simultaneously trims expenses and enters the digital age by introducing computer-generated sets and remote-operated cameras—a move that will transfer technical production aspects of Victoria newscasts to Vancouver. Moreover, red flags are being raised by the CEP that broadcasting newscasts from outside local stations contravenes the terms of CanWest’s station licenses.

A comprehensive November 9, 2007 complaint filed by CEP vice-president of media Peter Murdoch to the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) summarizes the situation in one fundamental criticism: “To the best of CEP’s knowledge, the current terms and conditions under which most CanWest stations operate are set out in CRTC decisions from 2000 and 2001. CEP submits that by removing production responsibility and decision-making authority about its local newscasts from its television stations, CanWest is now, and will continue to be, operating in breach of these decisions. It is essentially transforming these undertakings from originating programming stations operated for the benefit of local communities by employees located in those communities, into something entirely different.”

The CanWest plan was first unveiled to the public in an October 4 press release laden with the typical corporate euphemisms that accompany any round of job cuts: “Streamlining local production enables stronger focus on local content generation, generates substantial operational efficiencies.”

An internal memo circulated to CanWest staff the same day—complete with a “Not to be distributed outside of CanWest” caveat—describes those operational efficiencies in detail, including the installation of high definition cameras to be controlled from the Vancouver Broadcast Centre.

Stage lighting, microphone levels and teleprompters will also be controlled from the broadcast centre, as will the generation of virtual sets and graphics, while local news anchors will deliver the day’s stories in front of a green screen taking cues from a director in Vancouver. Stories edited in Victoria will be sent via broadband connection to the broadcast centre, along with suggestions from the local producer about the best order to run the stories, where it will be assembled into a consumable package, sent to CanWest master control in Calgary before being flung back to Victoria viewers.

CHEK-TV news director Rob Germain takes exception to the bleak picture painted by the communication workers union.

“Our news gathering is not going to be affected. We’re still going to have reporters and photographers here,” says Germain. “They’ll be assigned by somebody in Victoria, they’ll be edited by somebody in Victoria, news will be produced here in Victoria. We’re even creating a technical producer role here. The heart of the station is news, and news will continue to be produced as it is now.”

Under the terms of its license, CHEK-TV is required to provide 23 hours of locally-generated content every week. Given lax CRTC regulations, CHEK’s local contribution currently sits at 17.5 hours, as the 11 p.m. nightly news is repeated early the following morning. Because of staffing issues, the station had occasionally aired pre-recorded versions of its Sunday night news in 2007, though this situation has been rectified.

CanWest Broadcasting’s Vice-president of News and Information Steve Wyatt says the company is simply trying to stay one step ahead of the competition in an ever-shifting media climate where the internet threatens to undermine viewer numbers and advertising revenues. In the fourth quarter of 2007, CanWest’s media operations lost $57 million, but offset the loss by selling radio stations to fellow broadcast behemoth Corus Entertainment and divesting itself of its New Zealand television subsidiary for a combined $257 million.

“We have 15 television stations across the country, all of which were using technology that is virtually obsolete,” says Wyatt. “We couldn’t invest in every single one of them and still move forward and stay in business under the current model. Whenever you introduce new technologies to keep yourself in a forward momentum, there are job losses, and it’s really unfortunate. The challenge now is that we’re going to make every effort to ensure all those people who are facing a layoff because of this introduction of new technology will be given an opportunity to learn the new technology and move across the country to any of our various operations.”

CanWest says 200 employees will lose their jobs in the nationwide shake-up. An unofficial e-mail circulated to local media outlets claims that number could be closer to 300. Meanwhile, the company has promised to create 50 new positions at its broadcast centres.

Job cuts have also been an ongoing theme at CanWest’s print publications as well. Circulation of Vancouver’s two major CanWest dailies, the Sun and the Province, are at the same level they were in 1957, according to media analyst Marc Edge, whose book Asper Nation details the family’s slash-and-burn approach to mass media management. In November 2007, announcements were made that up to 15 editorial staff in each newsroom would be shown the door—this at publications where there are half the editorial positions today as there were 15 years ago.

The shift to the Vancouver broadcast centre is not the first salvo fired in CanWest’s move toward operational centralization at the Victoria station. In 2004, 12 employees were let go when the company moved all its master control capabilities to Calgary.

Since that time, content originating in Victoria, or any of CanWest’s 15 Canadian TV outlets, has been sent to Calgary and then bounced back to the local station for transmission. With the addition of the new Vancouver broadcast facilities, stories will originate in Victoria, be assembled in Vancouver, be beamed to Calgary and then back to viewers in Victoria. The Vancouver centre will also be responsible for the production and broadcast of CanWest’s Winnipeg newscasts.

CEP local 815 president and CHEK-TV five o’clock news producer Richard Konwick says at issue is the station’s ability to respond to the community’s needs in ways that befit a local television station.

“We have concerns about the ability of the newsroom to respond in a crisis situation like a fire or an earthquake,” says Konwick. “There have been several occasions in the past where we have broken into regular programming—sometimes for sustained periods—during snowstorms, fires, tsunami warnings. These are the kinds of services a local station should provide to the community, and we feel these will be greatly compromised if this goes ahead.”

News director Rob Germain doesn’t see it that way.

“I think the opposite may be true,” he says. “Currently there are long stretches of the day where we don’t have a technical crew available. We can break into programming at any time with our newsroom camera with just one person to give a bulletin, but to do a substantive news coverage of a breaking event, we need a large crew. With this new technology we can utilize technical crews across the country, not just the one in Vancouver—if there were a disruption in Vancouver because of a problem we could use a crew in one of the other broadcast centres to get on the air immediately to get the news out to our viewers.”

When CanWest acquired Victoria’s CH (now CHEK) Television from Western International Communications in 2000, it was on the condition the station create and broadcast local content separate from that of the former BCTV, which CanWest also acquired in the contentious deal, and whose signal also reaches Island viewers. While it may still be able to do the former, the latter seems to have disappeared from CanWest’s mandate.

Since filing its complaint with the CRTC in November, the CEP has continued to push the regulator for a public inquiry into CanWest’s plans.

“It is particularly telling that for the most part, [CanWest’s] reply simply asserts that [the company] is complying with its licenses. Unfortunately, since assertions do not constitute evidence, the serious questions we have raised about CanWest’s Broadcast Centres remain unanswered,” wrote Murdoch in a January 9 dispatch to the CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein.

It’s a safe bet, however, that the alleged safe-guard of the public interest will find some way to justify CanWest’s move.

“I have no faith in the CRTC,” says CHEK-TV’s Konwick. “I think the CRTC has shown it responds to the corporate agenda. Its track record has been to act as an industry rubber stamp.”

The regulator has been wholly supportive of untrammeled media concentration in the country over the past decades and seems willing to turn a blind eye to cost-cutting steps companies take to keep their bloated empires afloat, even when those steps damage the quality of content the Canadian public receives. This approach is reflected in comments made by the commission’s former chair Madame Francoise Bertrand when it authorized CanWest’s acquisition of WIC’s television assets.

“In today’s decisions, the CRTC has recognized the importance of consolidating the Canadian radio and television industries, while at the same time promoting the diversity of voices and choices. The stronger our companies, the more they can contribute to achieving the cultural objectives set out in the Broadcasting Act”, said Bertrand.

It’s unclear where slick graphics and virtual reality sets are mentioned in the tenets of Canada’s Broadcasting Act, but CanWest’s Wyatt is excited nonetheless.

“The really interesting part about this, and the one that will have the most immediate impact on our viewers in Victoria, is that they will see us generating on air, a dramatic new look through this virtual set technology,” he says. “It’s not so much the virtual set in and of itself that matters, but what that virtual set becomes as a storytelling tool.”

After all, in an age where style trumps substance, who wouldn’t be excited about the changes in store for “your Island’s own” local newscast? M

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 818 Broughton St., Victoria, BC V8W 1E4
  • Phone: (250) 382-6188