BUSINESS

Vancouver s air war

Baton gets set to invade a $200-million TV market

JENNIFER HUNTER September 22 1997
BUSINESS

Vancouver s air war

Baton gets set to invade a $200-million TV market

JENNIFER HUNTER September 22 1997

Vancouver s air war

BUSINESS

Baton gets set to invade a $200-million TV market

JENNIFER HUNTER

A photographer from The Province newspaper in Vancouver is standing on a desk, his lens aimed at sultry Monika Deol, former disco diva of City TV and MuchMusic in Toronto. The setting is the temporary digs of Vancouver’s newest television station, Baton Broadcasting Inc.’s Vancouver Television—

VTV, as it will be known. The offices this evening are thick with reporters and video crews, the heat is infernal. Deol, a graceful Punjabi-born woman in her early 30s, remains composed, ready to meet the press in her new incarnation as news anchor for VTV. The news goes on the air for the first time on Sept. 22. Deol, who was one of the faces of multiculturalism on local Toronto television, has become Baton’s latest salvo in its effort to take on the $200-million Vancouver television market.

Twenty kilometres away, in BCTVs studio in Burnaby, Tony Parsons, the polished, phlegmatic doyen of Vancouver newscasters, is preparing to deliver the 6 o’clock evening news. Top stories tonight: the trial of the alleged Abbotsford killer, the eternal Vancouver garbage strike, and how to get rid of the lice in your kids’ hair. Parsons, 58, and his news team at BCTV—owned by WIC Television Ltd.—have created the highest rated regional television

newscast in Canada—683,000 viewers a night. “Our News Hour equals Seinfelds numbers,” says WIC president Jim Macdonald. “The only difference is we run it five times a week.”

This is the newscast that VTV brass want Deol and her co-anchor, Paul Mennier, to take on. “It takes at least a generation to form a loyalty to a newscast,” says David Stanger, a consultant who monitors the Vancouver television market. So Deol and company will have to work hard.

Never has television in Vancouver, or in Canada for that matter, been so competitive. Baton, which launches its new station this week, has the first TV licence awarded in 21 years in Vancouver, and has taken over stations in Atlantic Canada from CHUM Ltd. In Ontario, WIC has increased its reach throughout the province with the launch of Hamilton-based ONTV, and now owns CFCF-12 in Montreal. In Quebec, Can West Global has bought an inactive Quebec City station and is stamping the Global identity on all its stations, giving them a network-like look. In Alberta, WIC and Global have teamed up to fend off competition from Craig Broadcast System Inc.’s A-Channel, which will be seen provincewide. Meanwhile, more speciality stations such as The Comedy Channel and CTVs all-news channel are coming on stream. And Baton has won the CRTC’s blessing to take control of the perennially troubled CTV network.

“It’s a fabulous time for television,” says Jim Rusnak, Global’s president of western operations. “With all the changes at Baton and WIC and properties changing hands, with specialty channels and direct-to-home satellite services—yes.” He pauses. “It’s become a wild world.” A wild world worth $1.5 billion in advertising revenue, $800 million of that in Ontario, $250 million in British Columbia.

In fact, what’s happening in Vancouver, the second-largest English-language television market in Canada, is reflective of what’s happening across the country. “As we move towards the year 2000,” says Stanger, “we are going to see WIC, Baton and Can West competing with each other for the title of number 1.”

Baton is spending $20 million to outfit its new headquarters in what was once Vancouver’s main library, in the hub of the upscale shopping district, an area equivalent to Sherbrooke Street in downtown Montreal or Yonge and Bloor streets in Toronto. That meant stopping traffic on Robson Street to haul three giant satellite dishes to the top of the building. It meant sorting through 2,000 job applications for 140 full-time positions. It meant finding capable managers, such as 39-year-old Jon Festinger, the former general counsel and secretary of WIC and a specialist in media law since graduating from McGill Law School at the age of 18. It also meant stealing talent from the competition: Vicki Gabereau from CBC Radio, who will host a national morning show; Linda Cullen and Bob Robertson, the comedy duo known as Double Exposure, also a former CBC fixture; and news reporters and newsroom managers from BCTV, the CBC and Global.

Ten days before airtime and sets are still being arranged,

y™ Z wiring and equipment installed. (Gabereau’s set was initially I conceived of as an adult Romper Room, with bright colors and funky furnishings.) “We’ll be working right up to airtime,” said Susanne Boyce, Baton’s vice-president of original programming and production, who flew in last March to get things rolling. (She will head back to Toronto in October.) What viewers will see, says Baton president Ivan Fecan, is a sort of City TV for grown-ups—how City TV might look “if it was moved from Queen Street to Bloor and Yonge.” Adds Fecan: “We want a strong local identity. We want to reflect the new ethnic reality of Vancouver.” And the achievement of winning a licence here makes Baton even more competitive with

WIC and Global, since all three companies are now significant players in the major Canadian markets. “For us, it was strange not to have a station in Vancouver,” says Fecan. “This evens things up.” Baton has taken back some of the shows it once leased to BCTV, including Melrose Place, Home Improvement and The Dini Petty Show. Meanwhile, BCTV and Global haven’t been idle. (The CBC, crunched by cutbacks, is a relatively insignificant player: its local dinnertime newscast draws only 64,000 viewers.)

Anticipating an estimated loss of $10 million in advertising revenues because of increased competition, BCTV and Global have reduced their staffs and begun aggressive advertising campaigns. WIC, which also owns CHEK TV in Victoria, created off-the-wall television spots to promote the station with the theme “CHEK TV is here in Vancouver.” One ad shows a scene at Wreck Beach, Vancouver’s nudist playground. Four young women appear, naked save for strategically placed black bars. “It’s here, where we have nothing to hide,” they announce. Another ad features two young men. The first man says: “It’s here, where the men are men.” The second is dressed in drag: “And the girls are men, too.” Consultant Stanger says the CHEK ads “are a marketing stroke of genius.”

BCTV president Art Reitmayer concedes the ads—with a checkmark logo that looks very much like the letters VTV—were meant to confuse viewers about the new Baton station, and win a younger Vancouver audience for CHEK “We did want to create confusion in the market,” he says. “We wanted to be a little cheeky and have some fun.” At Global, the station is dropping its old U.TV name, despite its popularity with younger viewers, and banking on its immensely popular SportsPage program at 11 p.m. and hit television shows such as The X-Files, Seinfeld and The Simpsons to keep Vancouverites watching. Global has 14 of the top 20 shows and is the station most people in the Lower Mainland tune into between the hours of 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Still, Rusnak notes: ‘We have strength in our programming, but we can’t afford to become complacent.” And not only because of WIC and Baton. Specialty channels are eating up the revenue pie, too. Across Canada last year, they reaped $664 million, up $395 million from 1992.

Soon, television in Vancouver will look different again. By the end of this year, WIC is expected to sell its 27-per-cent stake in CTV to Baton. And in 1999, its affiliation agreements with CTV run out. (Oddly, for viewers, the affiliation agreements keep CTVs Canada A.M. and Lloyd Robertson on WIC for the next two years, even though the network that produces them is controlled by Baton.) Around the same time, Baton’s licence will be up for renewal and it will be wondering what to do about its own CBC affiliates. “It’s all very fascinating,” Stanger says. “I spend hours going through all the different scenarios.” But so far, this fall, things look good, says BCTVs Reitmayer. “The fall has been strong for all the stations. Right now, there is a lot of anticipation about the specialty channels and what they’ll do to the mix.” WIC is crossing its fingers that new shows like Veronica ’s Closet will make up for the loss of Melrose Place and Home Improvement and keep those pesky specialty stations at bay.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the basement of the WIC building, Tony Parsons is signing off his 6 p.m. hour-long newscast. In downtown Vancouver, Monika Deol is pondering a reporter’s questions about being a working mother, parent to a nine-month-old daughter. Deol hadn’t expected to return to work full time. But the opportunity to co-anchor a serious news show, to develop a more mature TV persona, prompted her to change her mind. “This,” she says, glancing around VTV offices, “was a bit too intriguing.” □