BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Fallout from the Maritime media wars

CHRIS WOOD September 29 1986
BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Fallout from the Maritime media wars

CHRIS WOOD September 29 1986

Fallout from the Maritime media wars

A cross the country, television viewers tuning in to the local Canadian Broadcasting Corp. channel around noon can see Midday, a daily hour-long news show. But not in New Brunswick, the only province without full service from the public network. The CBC does not own a station in the province because for years the only two VHF stations available were in the hands of private broadcasters. Six months ago two more stations became available, but because of budget cutbacks the CBC could not afford to bid for one. As a result, since 1954 the CBC has contracted with Saint John’s CHSJ Television, owned by the powerful Irving family’s New Brunswick Broadcasting Co. Ltd. (NBBC), to act as a CBC affiliate station. But CHSJ runs only 60 hours a week of CBC programming, excluding Midday, Gzowski & Co., and various other network shows. Now, according to a controversial plan before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), New Brunswickers may finally receive the full range of CBC programming by 1988.

A three-member CRTC panel held public hearings in Saint John two weeks ago to consider an NBBC proposal to create a new regional television network based in Halifax and with UHF stations in Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton. In exchange for a licence in Halifax—the region’s richest advertising market—the Irving proposal committed NBBC to airing the CBC’s full weekly schedule on Saint John’s CHSJ. But NBBC’s plan raises the spectre of increased concentration of media ownership: CRTC approval would tighten the Irving’s already powerful grip on New Brunswick’s media. The Irvings also own radio station CHSJ in Saint John and four daily newspapers in the province—among them Saint John’s Telegraph-Journal.

When NBBC last appeared before the CRTC in January, 1983, during an application to renew its licence, the issue of media cross-ownership dominated the debate. In 1982 the Liberal federal cabinet had directed the CRTC not to renew broadcasting licences held by owners with dominant print holdings in the same market. As a result, the CRTC renewed NBBC’s licence for only three years, ordering it to comply with the federal directive by 1985. The Irvings’ NBBC took the matter to court, but the case was dropped last year when the Conservatives rescinded the Liberal order.

But at this month’s hearing, it was

NBBC’s plan for a new regional network, and the crucial agreement it needed with the CBC, that gained the attention of the CRTC commissioners. For its part, the CBC would have preferred to operate its own station in New Brunswick. But because of nationwide budget cutbacks, CBC executives decided that negotiating more airtime with CHSJ would be less expensive in the short term. Said Sheelagh Whittaker, the CBC’s vice-president of planning and corporate affairs: “Our paramount goal is to get our programming into that market.”

Talks between NBBC president Kenneth Clark and CBC executives began last May. But they quickly bogged down over scheduling, programming and financial disputes and Clark’s insistence that CHSJ airtime be used to promote the proposed network, called Maritime Independent Television (MITV). Whittaker said that a CBC affiliate should not promote another network. Disagreement over these issues nearly scuttled the plan. But a frantic series of predawn telephone calls took place between NBBC’s lawyer and Whittaker on Sept. 11, the second day of the hearing. Clark accepted a full range of CBC programming and won the right to promote the

new network for two years on CHSJ.

Still, during the hearing NBBC faced adamant opposition for its new network from giant Toronto-based CHUM Ltd., which operates five TV stations, two satellite networks and 24 radio stations nationwide. CHUM controls the Maritimes’ network of CTV affiliates, Atlantic Television System (ATV), which operates one station and a satellite network in Halifax, and one station in each of Moncton, Sydney and Saint John. ATV president Fred Sherratt told the CRTC panel, “The region cannot support a cream-skimming fourth limited service.”

But NBBC views entry into the Halifax-Dartmouth market as critical for its growth. NBBC has come under growing financial pressure in recent years as national advertisers increasingly pass over smaller urban markets such as Moncton and instead place their money in such major centres as Halifax—where $45 million is spent annually on TV ads. The CRTC’s ruling on NBBC’s plan for a new network is expected by Christmas. Until then it remains to be seen whether the compromises will bring the full CBC service to the province.

CHRIS WOOD