It's going to be a cold Christmas and holiday season in the Canadian TV racket.
Last week's layoffs by Bell Media shocked a lot of TV viewers and the public in general, who witnessed familiar faces and experienced hands being let go. People such as Dan Matheson, a long-time anchor at the CTV News Channel, and Suneel Joshi, who has done the weekend sports report for the CTV Toronto affiliate forever, and Bill Hutchison, another veteran Toronto TV anchor.
Across Canada at Bell Media-owned local stations – Bell Media owns 30 local TV stations, many radio stations and 34 specialty channels – the axe fell. Viewers might feel discombobulated, especially if they know that Bell Media recently reported revenue growth and a profit of $183-million in its latest quarterly report.
But here's the thing: This is likely just the start of a radical downsizing in mainstream Canadian TV. What Bell Media did will very likely be done, eventually, by Rogers and Shaw.
Canadian TV is screwed. For now. The old advertising model has been shattered and nobody knows what the looming pick-and-pay change is going to do to the specialty channel menu. Nothing will ever be the same. Profits can be achieved but nothing like the vast, vast amounts that have been made in the past.
Fact is, the Canadian TV business has been smug about its business operations for years and that smugness has meant that the viewer shift toward digital and streaming services is far more of a calamity than it should be. It's a truism that complacency sets in when a business is making a lot of money with little effort. It's just that Canadian TV is a particularly startling example of that truism.
The Internet seems to have caught Canadian TV executives by surprise. I've been writing about the Canadian racket long enough to know that, years ago now, while this newspaper was putting enormous effort into an online paper, Canadian TV execs appeared to be under the impression that the Internet was a fad that would fade away.
There was little effort to keep up with technology. Why bother when commercial TV broadcasters simply bought dozens of American network shows, sold ads on those shows, and people watched and the money poured in? The only tricky part of the business plan was keeping the pesky CRTC happy by fulfilling an obligation on Canadian content.
One day, not long ago, it seems that a number of Canadian TV execs woke up and shouted, What fresh hell is this?" All changed, changed utterly in the TV business. Viewers were ahead of the TV bosses, keeping pace with technology that made more TV content available across more platforms. Even the CRTC was ahead, which is why the Commission had little sympathy for various commercial broadcasters bleating complaints about Netflix and other innovations.
Meanwhile, English CBC TV is undergoing its own trauma. While the promise of more funding from the new government is bound to be welcome news, CBC TV is finding it extremely hard to gain viewers for new productions. Two very good series, This Life and The Romeo Section, are pulling in around 250,000 viewers. But Murdoch Mysteries can draw around 1 million viewers, Rick Mercer Report is usually around 890,000 and This Hour Has 22 Minutes has about 755,000. Murdoch, Mercer and 22 Minutes can't carry CBC TV forever.
There's no doubt in my mind the Canadian TV racket will recover, after a long and brutal battering. Profits will never reach the ecstatic levels of the past and fewer people will get rich, but Canadian TV will remain what is, essentially: a protected business arena. It has been protected from the vagaries of a truly competitive market place for decades, and that isn't going to change.
What has changed already is viewer taste and the technology to shape taste. There is little patience with commercials. There is an appetite for seeing new, critically acclaimed series soon, not later, when some Canadian exec figures out a way to stream it or air it in Canada. There's a wealth of great TV being made and viewers want it.
What has not changed is the popularity of television itself. Whether the viewer is watching content on a giant flat-screen unit on the wall, or on a tablet, it's still TV content. There is a hunger for it and television is the defining storytelling medium of this century. The lights have been dimmed in the Canadian TV racket, but they haven't been turned off. Yet.