Pulling plug on CHCA

The demise of CHCA-TV has seemed certain for more than two years — and perhaps even longer if local programming and staffing decisions are any indication.

The demise of CHCA-TV has seemed certain for more than two years — and perhaps even longer if local programming and staffing decisions are any indication.

It may just be incidental that the station, which has operated for more than 50 years under various owners and call letters, was caught in Canwest Global Communications Corp.’s financial maelstrom. In terms of community value, unfortunately, it has long since stopped being essential.

Certainly the media giant’s financial mess has hastened the end of this small-market television station, and the constricted advertising climate in general can’t have helped. Throw in three new radio stations and the market becomes very crowded.

And certainly this market’s close proximity to Edmonton and Calgary made survival difficult for the station.

But CHCA was given no favours by the parent company.

Canwest Global was once worth more than $2 billion. Eighteen months ago, its value was pegged at $600 million. Now, it has a stock market value of about $7 million. Under massive debt ($4 billion), the Winnipeg-based company could end up filing for bankruptcy protection.

Saddled with questionable business choices and a faulty model, Canwest Global must be desperate to win a battle with cable operators over a fee-for-carriage plan. Broadcasters would be allowed to charge cable operators for their programming under the plan now being examined by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

But who could imagine paying a higher cable bill for the kind of programming CHCA-TV was providing?

Earlier this decade, the station and four others were rebranded as the E! network, with a new lineup of trashy entertainment-related programming.

At about the same time, the CRTC gave permission for the E! Red Deer signal to be rebroadcast in Edmonton and Calgary. As a local transmitter in those larger markets, the station could replace American advertising in U.S.-originating programs with its own ads. Management believed the strategy would make the station more attractive to national and regional advertisers. But the Red Deer station couldn’t carry local advertising from Calgary or Edmonton.

Obviously, the strategy wasn’t enough to make the station viable.

From a local perspective, the station was also becoming less vital. Over the years, local programming has all but disappeared. Award-winning programs for children and rodeo fans are long gone. So too are sports talk programs and morning and noon-hour venues for community news and groups.

Over the years, quality staff have drifted away. A once aggressive, competent news gathering group has been stripped to a skeleton. Even technical staff have been replaced by remote operators and directors.

And so little CHCA gets tossed aside, one of five stations in the E! network that have been deemed surplus. CHCA couldn’t be sold, and so it will close on Aug. 31 and at least 20 people will lose their jobs. They are the last in a long line of staff to leave the once proud station over its final two years.

“We have to become more efficient so we can stay viable in each of our markets,” former general manager Stan Schmidt said in 2007 after a round of parent company layoffs that cost 10 technical staff their jobs. More layoffs followed in subsequent months, but no more obvious efficiencies, until the end came.

The closure will leave a void in the Red Deer market — it is a void often found now in smaller markets, which are overcome by a changing media world that can make local seem irrelevant, unless you live there. In a satellite-driven, online-fuelled world, how much value did CHCA have?

A great deal when it was driven by a community-minded, veteran group of broadcasters.

But despite the presence of such institutions as the Canadian Television Fund (with $100 million available for local programming for 2009-2010) and the Alberta Film Development Program, CHCA was nothing more than a relay station for programs originating elsewhere. Only 10 and a half hours of the average CHCA week was recorded in the Red Deer studio.

And satellite customers in the area don’t get a glimpse at the station, so a critical local market was never tapped.

More than 50 years ago, the fledgling CHCA-TV made itself known by spearheading a fundraiser for the victims of the mine disaster in Springhill, N.S. The community rallied to the cause and an integral part of Central Alberta’s identity was established.

In a little more than a month, it will just be another chapter in this region’s history.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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