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A television control room (Sheryl Nadler/Sheryl Nadler/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
A television control room (Sheryl Nadler/Sheryl Nadler/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The battle over local TV Add to ...

"We're up over 70 hours a week of local news. Maybe people don't understand what 70 hours means. It's a lot," says Mike Katrycz, CHCH's news director. The output amounts to 10 times the local programming that the station's CRTC licence requires. "There's not another local station or conventional broadcaster that does anywhere near that."

What's more, Mr. Katrycz and the staff were given just six weeks to prepare to go live 14 hours a day - a feat one manager likened to asking a sprinter to run a marathon.

"It was bedlam," Mr. Millar admits. But he says the change is working, and the station has the ratings numbers to prove it. "All of a sudden during the day, when the channel was doing a lot of goose eggs previously, we now have viewers."

The numbers are small compared to what American prime-time shows rake in. But for daytime hours, 10,000-20,000 viewers is good, Mr. Millar says.

Mr. Katrycz argues the response is a sign there's money to be made with news. "There seems to be this pervasive wisdom that says local news is not the thing to be doing and it costs too much money. Hopefully we can prove that we are the exception, if not the rule."

After only two months on the air, the new format hasn't proven anything yet. Mr. Millar expects to lose about $3-million by the end of the first year, but says the station is on track to break even on a month-to-month basis by next spring.

That is an ambitious forecast. Indeed, Canada's larger broadcasters have argued the traditional, advertising-dependent model of conventional broadcasting is no longer viable.

Mr. Millar insists the model still works close to the ground. About half the spots sold at CHCH are for local businesses, which either can't afford to advertise on bigger Toronto stations or find that the stations don't reach their customers sufficiently.

As for CHCH, "It deals with the region we're in," says Dan Cowan, a sales representative at Haldimand Motors Ltd. in Cayuga, about 30 kilometres south of Hamilton. The used car dealership runs a half-dozen ads on the station, mostly during the day. "Their viewing audience is the one we sell to."

The station's reach actually goes well past the Golden Horseshoe. Seven transmitters - including a 1,000-foot tower perched on the Niagara Escarpment in Hamilton's east end - beam the signal to four million homes across the province. It's also picked up by cable and satellite services from St. John's to Vancouver - a potential audience of up to 20 million, though most of those viewers would tune in for the movies, not Hamilton news.

But local news is really the core of CHCH's strategy.

"This is really a model of what is going to work, not just in Hamilton," Donna Skelly says. "It's much more cost-effective to produce local programming than it is to purchase American programming. … We are what keeps people watching television."

"For the individuals that live here that can't afford cable - and there's a lot of them - you can watch and get the news," says Patty Fraser, a local resident who likes watching CHCH's personalities, including tanned and square-jawed "weathercaster" Matt Hayes, a "constant Hamilton man."

Hamilton audiences aren't served by bigger stations up the road in Toronto, city councillor Terry Whitehead says.

"Most media tend to focus on the larger centres," Mr. Whitehead says. "That really does disenfranchise [other]communities."

"Ultimately, we survive or fail on whether this is a business," says Mr. Katrycz, "as does every other journalistic endeavour, with the exception, perhaps, of the CBC. If we can prove there's revenue to be made, yes, this all may grow bigger. That's what I look forward to."

IN RED DEER, A STATION GONE DARK

Mike Sinclair has no trouble recalling the last time his family's store advertised with Red Deer Television. It was 16 years ago, and he was 11.

"I remember," he says, "because I was in it, standing on the staircase over there."

He points to steps leading to the second floor of his family's 55,000-square-foot furniture store. As best he can recall, the commercial went something like this: "Merry Christmas! Come to Sims Furniture and buy a couch!"

But the store, the second-biggest of its kind in Alberta, hasn't advertised on local television since. Mr. Sinclair, now Sims' sales manager, says the logic was simple. "In my opinion, nobody watches local TV. And obviously, with [the station]going out of business, I was partly right."

On Aug. 31, the local station closed. After 52 years of serving as the only station to ever operate in Alberta's third-largest city, Red Deer Television, operated as CH television affiliate CHCA, was terminated by CanWest Global Communications Corp. in the fallout of that company's financial turmoil. The station's closing has been seen by some as proof that in the battle between broadcasters and cable providers, communities are suffering.

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