Saturday, January 03, 2009

Changing picture - CHCH-TV - Jan. 3, 2009

Changing picture

CHCH was once a giant locally and
nationally, but it's been on a long, slow decline

By Eric Kohanik
Special to The Hamilton Spectator

(Jan 3, 2009)


These simple words would proudly identify Hamilton's television station to viewers throughout each day.

That was back in the early 1970s, the glory days for CHCH - a time when the broadcaster was a major force on the local media scene and on the verge of dominating the entire Canadian TV spectrum.

In the 1960s, it became the first independent TV station in English Canada. Later that decade, it became one of the first stations in North America to broadcast in colour.

By the 1980s, satellite technology had helped the Hamilton channel beam its signal to viewers across all of Canada, making it a veritable satellite superstation.

Most importantly, few could match its impact on local programming and dedication to community. Viewers simply knew it by its place on the dial, Channel 11.

It's a different story today.

Over the years, the face of CHCH has become battle-scarred by competitive assaults, rising program costs, advertising declines and audience fragmentation. Added to that are several ownership changes, staff reductions and budget cutbacks, all diluting CHCH's national identity and diminishing its once-forceful local presence.

Today it is called E!, one piece of a Canadian mini-network that includes stations in Victoria, Kelowna, Red Deer and Montreal. All are owned by Winnipeg-based Canwest Global Communications Corp. , with other TV properties across the country, including 21 cable specialty channels.

The E! moniker comes from the American-based cable network whose programming is made up mostly of entertainment coverage, Hollywood tattletale shows and low-rent reality programming. Canada's version of E! is a hybrid, combining that fare with major American network shows and other syndicated programming. Rounding out the daily schedule are shows that have been repurposed from Canwest's various cable channels.

And then, there's the shrinking slate of news and other local programming. In the past month, the station lost two longtime fixtures, news anchors Connie Smith and Dan McLean. More than a dozen other positions have been axed as part of nationwide staff reductions by Canwest.

The cuts will see CHCH's local programming reduced to 37 hours per week from 41.5 hours. That's just a notch above the 36.5 hours required for the station'slicence.

So, what happened to Hamilton's TV superstation?

Some might see the story of CHCH as a maudlin tale - the decline and fall of a once-mighty local television entity. Others will simply view it all as a necessary transition in an era in which young viewers are ignoring traditional TV in favour of laptop computers or other technology that can access TV shows via DVDs or online video streaming.

In either case, the picture is far from CHCH's beginnings, when station founder Kenneth D. Soble had a vision of creating a TV giant that would call Hamilton its home.

Soble started out in radio, in his native Toronto, back in 1927 at the age of 16. In 1936, he moved to Hamilton to manage radio stationCHML, which he ended up buying in 1944. A few years later, he set his sights on the new medium of television.

Soble came up with a unique idea, a privately owned station that would be a CBC affiliate. He teamed with the Southam newspaper company, then owners of The Hamilton Spectator, and with local media mogul Clifford Sifton, whose company, Wentworth Broadcasting, then owned and operated radio station CKOC. The consortium, which would become known as Niagara Television, got its licence in March 1953 and set up shop inside the old Southam mansion at 163 Jackson St. W.

At 8 p.m. on June 7, 1954, "Lucky Channel 11" went on the air for the first

CHCH remained a CBC affiliate until 1961, when Soble felt Hamilton was no longer well served by that arrangement. He pulled his station out of the network and, instead of jumping over to CTV, Soble surprised the industry by turning CHCH into the first independent English-language TV station in Canada.

Soble had already hired a former theatre manager named Sam Hebscher to buy movies for his station when it first went on the air. "He figured I bought movies for the theatres, so I could do the same for TV," Hebscher told The Spectator several years ago.

"We were known," Hebscher said, "as the most successful movie station in the world."

By the 1970s, long before Toronto's CITY-TV built a schedule around movies, and long before DVDs, video cassettes or pay TV brought theatrical flicks into homes, CHCH was famous for showcasing "world television premieres" of blockbusters such as The Ten Commandments and The Godfather, often beating American networks to the punch.

But CHCH was always about much more than movies. It was all about local programming.

To help fill his station's schedule, Soble fostered a huge breeding ground for local production. Out of that came numerous productions, such as Tiny Talent Time, Saturday Night Jamboree, Club 11 Dance Party, Cap'n Andy, Schnitzel House, Ein Prosit, Party Game, The Hilarious House Of Frightenstein, Don Messer's Jubilee, The Palace, Comedy At Club 54, Smith & Smith, Pasquale's Kitchen Express, Boogies Diner, Don Cherry's Grapevine, The Red Green Show ... the list goes on and on.

There were interview programs (The Pierre Berton Show), public-affairs programs (Under Attack), political debates (Full Circle), lifestyle-women's programs (The Jane Gray Show) and even late-night telephone call-in shows (Hotline). They were all key building blocks in CHCH's schedule.

So, too, was its news presence. The roster of talent boasted big names such as Tom Cherington, Norm Marshall, Jack Burghardt, Bill Lawrence, Harvey Kirck, Bill Knapp, R.O. Horning Jr., Geoff Scott and many others.

CHCH's commitment to local production got a big boost in the 1980s when the station expanded its Jackson Street facilities, replacing its old studios with a huge state-of-the-art production centre in time for its 30th anniversary.

CHCH was often ahead of the curve on technology fronts. Satellites were still in their infancy in the 1960s, but Soble had been working on a plan to use them to form a third national TV network. Those plans came to an abrupt end when a heart attack claimed Soble's life on Dec. 16, 1966.

Decades later, there are those who still argue that Soble's death delivered a blow from which CHCH never recovered.

Although the station did begin beaming its signal to cable systems across Canada via satellite in the early 1980s, CHCH never fully capitalized on it, in terms of advertising revenue, marketing strategies and plain old bragging.

Increased competition in the 1980s from CTV and the new Global TV network in Ontario saw CHCH waging, and often losing, bidding wars for American shows.

The station fought back in 1988, spending more than $50 million on an ill-fated two-year pact to hang onto national rights for a handful of hit American shows that included L.A. Law, ALF and Knots Landing. Plans to recoup costs by selling off regional rights to other stations across Canada faltered after a writers' strike in the U.S. put a halt to most big Hollywood productions that year. As well, CHCH's cross-country presence, via satellite, would beam the same shows into those other regions, thereby lessening their value to stations that were potential buyers.

Perhaps the most significant impact of Soble's death, however, was its effect on CHCH's ownership. The next 25 years would see the station change hands several times among major corporations until, in the early 1990s, CHCH finally
ended up in the stable of TV properties owned by a Vancouver company called WIC Western International Communications.

In 1997, having added over-the-air transmitters that extended CHCH's local
reach into Ottawa, London and parts of Northern Ontario, WIC then decided to rebrand the station as ONtv. It was a controversial move that significantly downplayed the station's Hamilton focus in favour of an Ontario-wide emphasis on news coverage and viewership.

Canwest purchased WIC and its stations in 2000 and restored ONtv's local focus. It also rebranded the station again in early 2001, this time simply as CH.

The move was actually the first step in setting up an entire CH "network" made up of Canwest's secondary stations across Canada. Those same stations were rechristened again as E! in 2007, after Canwest inked a deal for the American channel's brand.

The future is uncertain, particularly in light of the current economic downturn and less-than-stable advertising environment. Budget and staff cuts over the past few years have left CHCH's big production complex sitting mostly empty. Given the most recent cuts, that isn't likely to change.

Topping things off, both Global and E! are facing licence-renewal hearings
with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in April. Those hearings could certainly get feisty.

In a conference call with financial analysts in November, Canwest Global CEO Leonard Asper said his company will renew a request, turned down by the CRTC in October, to charge cable and satellite companies and their subscribers a fee for its local TV signals.

Asper also said that Canwest would lobby for a reduction in local-programming requirements that his stations "really can no longer afford."

The CRTC may well have a different view at the April hearings.

"Holding a licence to operate a conventional television station comes with certain responsibilities and obligations," CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein said last June, "one of which is to provide viewers with a significant amount of local news."

Half a century ago, Ken Soble ran his station with that sensibility.

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