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Will conventional TV go extinct?
Laurel Hyatt

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OTTAWA - In the evolution of television, over-the-air stations are virtually prehistoric. But some in the industry wonder if conventional TV will soon become extinct.

"Are you dinosaurs?" industry doyenne-turned-professor Trina McQueen startled a panel of conventional TV execs at last week's annual Canadian Association of Broadcasters convention in Ottawa. "Shouldn't you just go away?" she asked provocatively.

The issue of conventional TV's longevity was a recurring theme during the two-day conference, bubbling over in at least two panel discussions.

DTH's ability to timeshift different local stations of the same network, and the fact that some local stations aren't even carried on satellite, are eating into local ratings, one panel said. Add to that the dozens of new, national specialty channels, and conventional TV could be heading for extinction.

Local TV execs lamented the clich�d 500-channel universe. "It's there and it's huge and it's killing us," Global Television Network's Steve Wyatt started off one panel discussion on a less-than-cheery note. CTV's Elaine Ali said timeshifting is a big issue.

For example, 25% of viewers in Saskatchewan are watching CTV on something other than their local affiliate, said Ali, Senior Vice-President, CTV Stations Group.

The weapon of choice to fight back: local news. No one watches their local station for The Simpsons, so having strong local news is a way to secure viewer loyalty, said Wyatt, Global's Vice-President and Editor-in-Chief.

Ali said it's not just news, but telethons and election coverage and that ilk that keep viewers watching in their backyards.

In Vancouver, Citytv has a tongue-in-cheek goal to show everyone in the city on their screen at least once, sending cameras on the streets to capture faces, said Brad Phillips, Vice-President, CHUM Television BC.

National specialty channels aren't just siphoning away local viewers, but national buys are down, too. That means local stations have to get more spots from local advertisers.

With conventional TV now "a much tougher business," CHUM Limited President and CEO Jay Switzer told one panel, "you have to be good at it� It forces craftsmanship and artistry."

And it still has to appeal to the widest possible audience, CTV President Rick Brace said.

What can be done?

"Radio has a bright future in this country, but I'm not so sure about television," said Rick Arnish, President of the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group. "We've got to take a look at a different model for small market television," including the possibility of deregulating it, Arnish said.

Panellist Marc O'Sullivan, the CRTC's Executive Director, Broadcasting, said he's "open" to discussing the idea. "Are we needlessly microregulating in a given domain?" If the objectives of the Broadcasting Act can be achieved with a "less heavy hand," that might be a good thing, he said.

It's not just small markets that are hurting. "Maybe the time has come where we need a survival review of the entire industry," mused Rick Camilleri, President, CanWest MediaWorks.

Brace called for an end to timeshifting to repatriate local viewers to their own stations and get more ad revenues. But Switzer admitted consumers wouldn't like it. "It's hard to put that genie back in the bottle."

Another possible revenue source for conventional stations is to charge distributors a fee for carrying them on cable and satellite. Broadcasters who spoke about it in one session were in favour, saying they need to gain control of their signals. But Serge Gouin, President and CEO of Groupe TVA Inc. (whose parent company Quebecor also owns cable company Vid�otron) disapproves of fees for carriage, telling a different panel that "you are just soaking the consumer" since BDUs would likely raise their prices.

One bright spot for local TV is the creation of the production fund sponsored by DTH providers, since small market stations don't have access to the Canadian Television Fund. Robert Parent, General Manager of the Outaouais division of Radio Nord Communications, said the Quebec broadcaster bought some new equipment for their local newsrooms with fund money, and Arnish's group created a popular quiz show in the spirit of Reach for the Top.

And Quebec stations seem to be doing well in part to the language barrier that makes foreign and Canadian English-language shows less attractive. "TV in Quebec is very alive and active," said Michel Carter, President and CEO of TQS Inc., which airs 4.5 hours of news a day. "We are not going to go away."

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