MASSE IN THE NEWS: Throwing salt on Windsor's wounds: The imminent closure of A-channel affiliate CHWI-TV adds another chapter to the alarming death knell for local news outlets across our country
March 8th, 2009 - 5:00am
PUBLICATION: The Toronto Star
BYLINE: Bruce DeMara
Throwing salt on Windsor's wounds; The imminent closure of A-channel affiliate CHWI-TV adds another chapter to the alarming death knell for local news outlets across our country
In the midst of an enduring slump by the Big Three automakers and a main street already pockmarked by empty store fronts, the last thing bordertown Windsor needs is to see its number one source of local television news go silent.
What makes the imminent closure of CHWI-TV - the A-channel affiliate owned by CTV and slated to go off the air in August - even more puzzling is that the station has a loyal viewership three times the size of its only other Canadian competition, the CBC.
As media companies face plunging earnings in a recession-wracked economy, the local news at noon, 6 and 11 p.m. may become the ultimate victim.
"The viewers are puzzled and they don't understand, if the station has been so successful, why it's closing," said Cal Johnstone, A Channel's news director in the city of 200,000.
"This is what's so crushing for Windsor now. We've built a following, a very faithful, loyal following," agreed anchor Jim Crichton.
"When we first realized what was happening, we had a staff meeting and I think some of the young people - for whom this is a first job - were especially shattered," said Crichton, noting that two of the 28 staff members losing their jobs are expectant mothers.
"To me, this is about the potential death of local news in communities across the country. This is not just a story about Windsor, it's really a national story," said Johnstone, also president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association of Canada.
Recent events are increasingly ominous for the industry:
Canwest Global Communications announced it's undertaking a "strategic review" - read "looking to sell or close" - five of its E! Channel stations, including the former CHCH in Hamilton, as well as stations in Montreal, Red Deer, Kelowna and Victoria.
CBC, the publicly-funded broadcaster, announced a massive $65-million shortfall in advertising revenue, only to receive a blunt rebuke from the Harper government that a bailout will not be forthcoming.
Since announcing two weeks ago it would not seek to renew the station licences of CHWI-TV in Windsor and CKNX-TV in Wingham, CTV followed up last week with additional cuts of 118 newsroom jobs, including 24 at CKVR in Barrie.
Media industry consultant Alan Sawyer, of Two Solitudes Consulting, said the pressure on local broadcast news and content is certain to increase.
"Local programming, which is very important to Canadians ... is also relatively expensive to do when you compare it to doing programming that you can replicate nationwide," Sawyer said.
"The big problem right now is that conventional broadcasting is under a lot of financial pressure to begin with and profits have been pretty much flat- lined for a long time when we were in a good economy and now that we're in a poor economy . . . it's just putting huge financial pressure on the big broadcast organizations like CTV and CanWest," Sawyer said.
"That's one of the hardest things to deal with, the fact that this was never about viewers, we have great ratings," said Johnstone. He added that the station has been flooded by calls and e-mails, especially from local organizations that rely on Crichton - who said the six-month reprieve will allow him to mark 35 years in broadcasting - to emcee scores of charity events every year.
But in fact, A-Channel Windsor - despite growing a faithful audience since its arrival in 1993 in the city across the river from Detroit - is a money- losing operation. Friends Renee Alexander, 29, and Angela Norris, 27, lunching at Windsor's famed Tunnel Bar-B-Q recently, agreed the station's closing is a shock.
"I was very surprised actually because it seems ... a lot of people talk about and a lot of people really like the news on there. It's kind of upsetting because you want to hear about your own city," Alexander said.
"Being a border city, a lot of our news is American-ized so it's very nice to have a station that you can actually hear about your own city as opposed to all the American news that goes on," she added.
Viewers are stunned because of the connection they feel to local news, said Johnstone, who has formerly worked in Toronto.
"I sat in an office in Don Mills and I would almost never hear from viewers, even if they had a complaint. Here in town, I get phone calls in the middle of the newscast, from people who liked the story or didn't like the story," he added.
Dave Cooke, a former provincial cabinet minister and Windsor MPP, called the news "quite depressing."
"Psychologically, there's a lot of things that have been happening in town that haven't really been lifting people's spirits. But the symbolism of losing a TV station ... is pretty demoralizing," Cooke said.
CTV regional station manager Don Mumford said the company was able to subsidize money-losing operations, like Windsor and Wingham, during good economic times but can longer do so with advertising revenue in free fall.
More importantly, Mumford said, the economic model for traditional broadcasters is "broken" and the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunication Commission's decision last fall to refuse the broadcasters' pleas for "carriage fees" - a 50-cent charge to cable companies - to boost revenues has only added to the industry's woes.
"I've been trying to tell anybody who will listen to me - mostly politicians at the federal level - that if we don't fix this revenue model and if they (CRTC) don't allow us carriage fees, then look out for cities like London and Saskatoon," Mumford said.
Windsor West MP Brian Masse said while broadcasters face "significant systemic problems" as a result of a lack of federal action, broadcasters should also remember how they have a responsibility to Canadian viewers.
Masse noted that Canadian broadcasters are buying "close to $1 billion in American 'junk food TV'" annually, more than they're spending on Canadian production.
"I think (broadcasters) have to start reviewing some of their decisions," Masse said.