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Will big media use the economic crisis to abandon their public role?

Three of Canada’s biggest media conglomerates have announced cuts as fallout from the bursting financial bubble spreads. In November, Canwest announced it was cutting 560 jobs in its TV and newspaper operations and CTVglobemedia announced 105 cuts. This week, Quebecor announced 600 job cuts at Sun Media newspapers.

The economic crisis makes the announcements seem understandable, but the cuts are unfortunately part of a longer trend. Why invest in local programming and reporting when the real money is in newspaper monopolies, cable specialty channels and prime-time simulcasting of American hit shows?

In the midst of the debacle, the CRTC– which approved media mergers as the bubble was approaching its breaking point– has done something interesting. In late October, the regulator announced a new fund to support improved local TV news in markets of less than one million viewers.

The fund will be created by collecting 1% of gross revenues from cable and satellite providers, worth about $60 million in the first year, of which two-thirds goes to English-language broadcasters and one-third to French-language local stations. To qualify for funding, the station must be doing local or regional news already; every cent of the new money must be used to increase the station’s local programming budget from a baseline created from averaging local spending between 2005 and 2008. Public and private broadcasters will have access to the fund.

The CMG called for this type of fund, precisely to make new money available directly to broadcasters to produce more local and regional programming, and especially news. (Click here to view our submission.) Providing original local news and other shows to their audience was long the bargain that local broadcasters struck in exchange for the use of the public airwaves.

It should be noted that the fund is not what Canwest and CTV were asking for. The broadcasters each wanted 50 cents from every subscriber every month in exchange for allowing their signals to be carried on cable and satellite. They were not promising to do anything particular with the new revenue.

The crisis of local news is not an effect of the current economic climate. The CRTC points out that spending by private broadcasters on local programming has been flat for ten years, the same decade the bubble inflated and profits were healthy. In the same period, spending on “non-Canadian programming”– the stuff from Hollywood– grew by 61%.

The reality is that the media conglomerates have been chasing levels of profit that are not found by producing the good quality local programming that polling tells us people want to watch. Big broadcasters have followed a shortcut to profits by various combinations of reducing local operations, and therefore costs, lucking into the right Hollywood hits for prime-time and enjoying a steady stream of cable revenues for their specialty channels.

The CMG hopes that local stations in smaller markets, including CBC, Radio-Canada, TQS, TVA, CTV, Canwest and the independents, figure out how to make good use of the new fund to improve local news coverage at a time when Canadians are especially eager to know what is really going on in their communities. In the meantime, tough questions should be asked of any broadcaster that announces plans to abandon their local obligations and use the economic downturn as an excuse to do so.

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