Rogers Media is resisting pressure from the Harper government to reinstate ethnic newscasts on its OMNI TV channel, after a member of Parliament called for company executives to justify recent cuts to Italian-language programming at the station.
Julian Fantino, MP for Vaughan, which has a significant Italian-language community, said in a statement last week that the elimination of ethnic news programming was "devastating."
"Throughout the years, this programming on OMNI has been a vital link to local community television news for the Italian-Canadian population of the Greater Toronto Area and throughout Ontario."
Mr. Fantino raised his concerns in a letter to Guy Laurence, the president and CEO of Rogers Communications, but said the company's response was unsatisfactory.
"As a result, after discussions with my colleagues in the Harper government, our Conservative members of Parliament will call a special parliamentary committee meeting in the days ahead on this very issue – where we will force Rogers to explain themselves to members of Parliament and the Canadian public." Mr. Fantino said Rogers executives would be expected to appear before June 18 at the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage.
But Colette Watson, the vice-president of television and operations for Rogers, said the company had already made it clear in appearances before regulators that OMNI needed to make drastic changes to stanch millions of dollars in annual losses.
Last month, Rogers said it was cutting 110 jobs at its City and OMNI operations, replacing OMNI's Punjabi, Mandarin, Cantonese newscasts with cheaper current affairs programming, and entirely eliminating Italian-language news programming. At the time, Ms. Watson told The Globe that the newscasts were costing $9-million per year and bringing in only $3.9-million in advertising.
Ms. Watson suggested the government's move was politically motivated. "Mr. Fantino is in an election year. He's doing what he's got to do, with respect to responding to his constituents," she said in an interview with The Globe on Tuesday after a presentation of Rogers's fall programming.
"This is a private sector business. Does Julian Fantino go to Wal-Mart and say, You need to have more stuff in a certain language?"
In a presentation to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission last year, Rogers Media president Keith Pelley said OMNI was in a "financial crisis," as ad revenues for the multicultural network had plunged from $80-million in 2011 to $35-million in the 2013-14 broadcast year.
While Ms. Watson said she was sympathetic to the community's reaction, and she recognizes Rogers has obligations stemming from its government-issued license to broadcast on public airwaves, "the other model wasn't sustainable. We did ask for some regulatory relief, over two sets of hearings, and we didn't get it. It's not like we didn't tell anyone that we were in trouble."
On Tuesday, OMNI unveiled an evening schedule that includes glitzy shows such as Planet's Got Talent, a Chinese-language adaptation of Glee, and an adaptation of Fox's 24 thriller series set in India. "We've got a prime-time lineup that's not The Simpsons, and that celebrates different cultures from across the planet," said Ms. Watson. "Maybe that'll work."