Problem Child

As buyers circle around the struggling Toronto1, one thing is certain: any new owner will have to do something about the station's sorry news programs

April Scott
Spring, 2004 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

It's 8 o'clock on a mid-October evening, a few weeks into Toronto1's broadcasting life, and Tracy Moore, a reporter for the fledgling television station, is on her way to interview Playboy Bunnies. The release party for the trademark calendar - featuring young Canadian women - is being held at a Thomas Hinds Tobacconists shop in Toronto's upscale Yorkville district. Moore is giddy on her way there, her chuckles turning to loud laughter after she arrives.

The venue for the bash is more like Hugh Hefner's closet than his mansion. Filled with a well-dressed, all-male, after-work crowd, the small retail outlet is thick with smoke and anticipation. Around 8:30, someone announces, "The girls are on their way." A soft hum trickles through the room and a small man pushes his way to the door. Four young bottle blondes in skin-tight jeans and dress pants strut in, sporting coiffed hair and cleavage-baring shirts. The girls are average looking - no obvious fake enhancements or particularly long legs - but still, the men pant. Moore quickly introduces herself. She wants to do her interviews and get out. The party is a flop: there's no music, the fruit tray is warm and the cheese is sweaty. The smoke is stifling and the men are lecherous. "What's it like being a Playboy Bunny - does it have the prestige it used to?" Moore asks the closest girls. Apparently, the question is too complicated. After rephrasing it a couple of times, the girls finally answer. "It's everything it's always been," they insist. But after speaking with their agent, Gino Empry, a long-time promoter of Playboy in Canada, Moore gets a different answer. Turns out Hef's empire has taken a big hit since lad magazines like FHM and Maxim flooded the racks with their racy photo spreads of nearly nude women.

Moore's pitch for covering the Playboy party was to show how sex has become mainstream. "You can't turn on the TV without seeing it," she says. "It begs the question: how important is the old-fashioned embodiment of sex these days, the Playboy Bunny?" The real question is why the journalists and producers of Toronto1 think one of Playboy's occasional forays into Canada to promote new "talent" is important. If they base their coverage on "people's great talking points of the day," as Zev Chalev, executive producer of Toronto Tonight says, they missed the mark on this one. Wei Chen, the host of Toronto Today, the station's morning show, says that since Toronto1 is the new kid on the block it has "nothing to lose, no reputation to uphold and nothing to conform to." With an attitude like that, it's no wonder the critical reception to the new station has been withering and ad revenues spectacularly disappointing. News for airheads is not what the public wanted, and probably not what the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Committee was expecting when it agreed to grant Craig Media the license for Toronto1.

Back in December 2001, the CRTC heard applications from five media outlets - Rogers, Global, TDNG (Torstar), Alliance Atlantis and Craig Media (then Craig Broadcasting) - for a new television station that would serve the Greater Toronto Area and broadcast on channel 52 in Toronto. Rogers eventually bowed out of the race by taking another channel that has become OMNI 2, but the remaining four contenders pitched plans for the station. Global put forth a purely Canadian model, with little original programming and no news. Alliance Atlantis proposed a station with 60 per cent Canadian programming during the day and 50 per cent in the evening, with news from bureaus in York, Peel, Halton and Durham regions. Torstar planned to broadcast 85 per cent Canadian content during the broadcast day until 11 p.m. It would include 32.5 hours of local programming, 16 of that time slotted for news. The Craig pitch included the promise of ethnic and aboriginal programming, and 14.5 hours of local programming, 10 of which would be dedicated to in-depth reporting and investigative journalism, along with a Canadian variety show for new talent.

The CRTC awarded Craig the license based on a majority, but not unanimous, vote. It said that with the addition of the Toronto station, Craig's broadcasting reach would more than double and "the majority considers that this increase will augment Craig's ability to provide an additional strong private television voice to serve Canadians." Considering Craig's "western voice" is an obvious echo of Toronto's Citytv, the losers weren't the only ones shaking their heads at the decision. The CRTC documents are convoluted, but there is plenty of space to read between the lines. Industry insiders felt the decision was politically motivated, suggesting that CRTC favoured Craig simply because it was an existing broadcaster and had been shut out of other markets.

Whatever the reason, in mid-September 2003, Craig Media launched the first non-specialty station in Canada's largest city in three decades. And since A-Channel, Craig's western station, receives slightly less than half its programming from CHUM, Citytv's parent company, people were expecting a re-vamped Citytv. Before Toronto1 even hit the airwaves, Maria Hale, Citytv vice president, told local media that because Citytv was the leader in the market, it had everything to lose while Toronto1 had the most to gain by emulating its style. But Barbara Williams, Toronto1 vice president and general manager, says, "There's no point trying to come in and be another CFTO or Global." Maybe that's why the station more closely resembles FOX - just what Canada needs. With the addition of Toronto1 to its stations (A-Channel in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and CKXE-tv in Manitoba), Craig Media became a national player, reaching 42 per cent of Canada's English-speaking population. Larger networks like CTV and Global reach 99 per cent and 94 per cent respectively, but Craig Media also owns specialty channels MTV Canada, MTV2, TV Land and Stampede. The move eastward was a gutsy one for the family-run operation. But while Toronto1's promise was a unique perspective on local issues, current affairs and news, the reality was closer to all infotainment, all the time.

Prior to landing a job at Toronto1, Moore spent three years at CBC as a video journalist. Had she pitched the Playboy story there, she says it would have been covered from a different angle - if the idea hadn't been scrapped altogether. "CBC is the exact opposite of Toronto1," Moore says, and that's one reason why she made the switch. CBC is a news-heavy grammar stickler, while Toronto1 is an informal conversationalist. Toronto1 employees are generally younger and reporters tend to get more input on their stories. At the CBC, shows occupy separate areas and studio spaces, whereas editorial staff for both the morning and the evening shows at Toronto1 are crammed onto the same floor with the only studio. All that separates the reporters from each other are their Dell flat-screen monitors and half-size cubical walls. Silver flat-screen televisions line the wall and serve as monitors. The anchor desk is a kidney-shaped glass table and, beside the lime-green weather screen, a bright orange couch replaces interview chairs.

Toronto1 not only opted for a modern set, it moved away from traditional scheduling too. It has no 6 o'clock evening news. Instead, EXTRA and Celebrity Justice, American entertainment shows, occupy the slot. At 7 p.m., Toronto1 airs its hour-long flagship news magazine, Toronto Tonight. Hosted by Ben Chin and Sarika Sehgal, the laid-back show features current affairs with a mix of imported clips about pop culture and fashion - the latter often receiving the most airtime. Britney Spears's fly-by-night marriage, for example, warranted the same amount of coverage as the case of six Toronto police officers charged with beating a man. Hardly what you'd expect from a show boasting to be Toronto's only televised newsmagazine.

Until the recent shift to 6 a.m., the three-and-a-half hour morning show, Toronto Today, started at 5:30 a.m., getting a half-hour jump on the competition. Wei Chen, the glue that holds the less experienced five-person crew together as it provides news, entertainment, sports and weather, describes the show as "hanging out with five friends versus, 'Listen, I need to tell you something' and 'This is what's good for you.'" The group's forced perkiness is enough to wake anyone up, but the hosts repeat the material every half hour with minor updates, so there's no point trying to watch the entire broadcast - it's both redundant and annoying. It gets viewers out the door and off to work armed with the headlines of the day - apparently, that's good enough.

Terri Labelle from PHD Canada, a downtown media management agency, says local advertisers are impressed with Toronto1 because they can buy coverage just in Toronto rather than the entire Ontario region. Current affairs programming that runs at 7 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. is an advantage for some, and "based on the initial readings, Toronto1 is doing very well, better than OMNI," says Labelle. But money speaks louder than words. Since those "initial readings," Toronto1 hasn't met or even come close to its sales targets. Craig estimated Toronto1 would pull in nearly $300 million in revenues over its first seven years, an average of more than $40 million a year. It will be lucky to clear $20 million by its first birthday. The Craig brothers can't be too surprised - nobody else seems to be.

John Doyle, media critic at The Globe and Mail, summed Toronto1 up as "a whole lot of nothing," saying most of what he saw in the first weeks couldn't be considered journalism. Russell Smith, Globe columnist, wrote that Toronto1 is a "wretched excuse for a television station." Harsh words, but Moore and others at Toronto1 expected that. "Canada tends to eat its young," Moore says, "and we knew, as a young station that was doing something very different, we were going to get beat up." In the beginning, Toronto1's flagship news and current affairs show was full of witless banter and "L-I-T-E- news," as Doyle called it. Stories of speeders in school zones and raccoon problems in the city dominated the first weeks of airtime. But it toughened up quickly. Toronto Tonight dedicated an entire episode to the disappearance of Cecilia Zhang, for example, and managed to avoid sensationalizing the tragedy while keeping viewers up-to-date long after other stations had moved on.
Unfortunately, the morning show didn't catch up. Chen's story on adopting babies from China and Mark McAllister's coverage of the mayoral campaign were exceptions in otherwise bubbly banter and recycled segments from Toronto Tonight. If the show had credibility issues, then the coverage of Mars exploration made it even worse. McAllister's face superimposed on an astronaut's body broadcasting his soundbites from space didn't amuse anyone but the hosts.

But then a previously struck deal with The Toronto Star paid off during the municipal election. It wasn't clear what the country's largest daily newspaper was getting out of doing a cross-promotional deal with the fumbling Toronto1. (The alliance doesn't extend beyond promotions and marketing, according to Brad Henderson, the Star's director of communications, meaning no money changed hands.) The first joint endeavour, the November 2003 mayoral debate, was more than an advertising opportunity - it helped bolster the station's credibility. This was Toronto1's chance to redeem itself and show its competition what it was capable of. To some extent, it worked. Industry buzz declared that the new station provided the best and most interesting of all the debates that aired. It was a refreshing change from the usual feedback Toronto1 was receiving. After the election, with few exceptions, it was back to superficial coverage.

Breaking into the most competitive television market in the country isn't an easy move, especially for an underdog. Because of Craig's history out west, with its Citytv-esque stations, media critics sharpened their claws waiting for something to mangle. Toronto1 gave them plenty of opportunity. How did this happen with a station full of seasoned, successful journalists? From the beginning, Toronto1 admitted it may not have a winning formula, that it might need time to nail down what viewers wanted. Clearly someone has become impatient: in February, just five months after the station's inaugural broadcast, the entire Craig Media empire was put up for sale. Both the Star and the Globe reported that the Craig brothers were looking for a buyer for the family business. Then, CBC Online reported that the Craigs issued a memo to staff saying the whispers were untrue. News of the sale was, according to president and CEO Drew Craig, "misinformation." But as more columns and stories about the sale appeared in the major papers, Craig stayed silent, and no one except director of communications Lowell Hall is answering the phone these days to confirm or deny. "The things in the papers are all speculation," he says. "Craig Media is a financially sound company. [We] will be putting out items to the press with further developments."

Industry analysts predict 2004 will be a banner year for media sales - for those who want to unload a broadcasting company, that is. Maybe this has been part of the strategy all along. Craig Media was a successful good ol' local boy, but the addition of an urban station would round out the company's holdings and sweeten any potential sale. A Toronto broadcasting license is precious - insiders say owning one is like winning the lottery. Applying for the CRTC license, winning and then launching Toronto1 - no matter how poorly received - may have been a smooth business move for owners looking to cash out in the near future. There was no question the Toronto television market could use the competition - albeit provided by an entity capable of producing more than sporadic bouts of half-decent journalism. To its credit, Toronto1 has far exceeded its requirements on Canadian and ethnic programming - but it's the investigative journalism that lags badly. The promise of a new take on local issues was a welcome one - here's hoping someone buys the company and makes good on Craig's word.

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