CRTC makes it harder to shut down local TV

OTTAWA — Canada’s big TV ownership groups will have to jump over new hurdles if they want to shutter any of their local TV stations, according to licence renewals granted Monday by the country’s broadcast regulator.

Station owners will have to give 120 days notice of an intended closure, during which time the regulator will open the proposed shutdown to public hearings, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said in issuing five-year licence renewals for the major TV conglomerates.

The process could result in the regulator denying permission for closing a station, said a CRTC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. However, there are no guarantees that a station earmarked for going off the air would remain open, the official acknowledged.

“This is essentially something that is a safety net of some sort to ensure that we receive advice and that we be in a position to actually consult Canadians by our usual means,” the official said, noting that none of the broadcasters appearing before the regulator in the last year proposed station closures.

The public would be consulted through open hearings and social media if a closure were to be proposed, the regulator said.

However, it wasn’t clear how public concerns over a proposed shutdown would be weighted against a TV group’s financial pressures.

During hearings last year into the viability of local TV, the CRTC was warned that nearly half of the country’s local stations could be off the air by 2020 without a boost in revenues to pay for local programming.

Like other media players, conventional, private TV stations have seen revenues decline over the past decade. And many stations that are holding their own for now could close over the next few years, potentially costing nearly 1,000 jobs, said a report jointly prepared by the consulting firm Nordicity and communications lawyer Peter Miller.

The CRTC also announced Monday that TV stations owned by large English-language groups will be required to air six hours per week — three hours in smaller markets — of so-called “locally reflective news and information” as part of their overall commitments to broadcast 14 hours of local programming in larger markets and seven hours in non-metropolitan communities.

The TV groups must also spend a minimum of 30 per cent of gross revenues on Canadian content, with 11 per cent set aside specifically for local news and information, said the CRTC, a requirement that was unchanged from the last time licences were renewed.

Officials said the regulator will monitor news broadcasts, and will require annual reports from stations, to verify that the requirements are being met.

The new requirements are part of licence renewals for Bell Media Inc., Corus Entertainment Inc., and Rogers Media Inc., as well as French-language Groupe TVA and Groupe V, which take effect in September.

The regulator also issued a call for applications for a national, multilingual multi-ethnic television service, saying there is “an exceptional and immediate need” for programming to serve Canada’s ethnically diverse communities.

At the same time, it approved an application by Rogers in the interim to operate such a service under the name Omni Regional as a mandatory distribution channel.

“Canada’s ethnic and third-language communities do not have access to enough news and information programming in multiple languages from a Canadian perspective,” CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said in a statement.

“By approving the licensing and mandatory distribution of Omni Regional, we are addressing a pressing need.”

Officials, however, said Omni Regional’s licence was limited to three years over concerns that the service proposed by Rogers wouldn’t fully meet the needs of Canadians.

Still, Rogers appeared content with the decision.

“Canadians will get access to quality multicultural and multilingual programming no matter where they live, and Omni Television will receive a stable revenue source to build a strong voice for all ethnic audiences,” said Rogers’ senior vice president Colette Watson.