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Canada’s local TV stations in the red as ad sales slump

Canada’s private conventional TV broadcasters posted a loss of $69-million before taxes last year, according to the CRTC.

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Canada's private conventional TV broadcasters lost money last year as they suffered a slump in advertising that some executives predict is only going to get worse.

The loss – $69-million before taxes – represents a worsening slide for the industry, according to data for 2013 released Tuesday morning by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Collectively, the country's privately owned over-the-air television stations have now turned a profit in only one of the past five years.

Total revenue was down 4.6 per cent since 2012, to $1.9-billion. National advertising sales dropped 5.3 per cent, from $1.35-billion in 2012 to $1.28-billion in 2013, while local ad sales slipped 1 per cent, to $351-million.

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National and local ad sales are now down just over 10 per cent since the peak of $1.82-billion in 2011.

The stations cut their losses in part by cutting back on Canadian programming: expenditures for domestic programs dropped 8.5 per cent, from $661.8-million in 2012 to $605-million in 2013. Part of the drop was due to lower costs for sports programming, in the wake of the 2012 Olympics.

TV stations in the Atlantic region are doing especially poorly, seeing revenue from national advertising decline more than 22 per cent since 2010. National ads for dropped 16.5 per cent at prairie region stations, about 15 per cent in British Columbia and the Territories, and almost 11 per cent for Ontario stations.

Quebec stations are doing far better than their English-language brethren, with revenue of about $429-million keeping the province's TV stations basically flat since 2010.

The figures put hard truth to recent talk of a structural shift in the industry. In a presentation to the CRTC last month, Rogers Media president Keith Pelley said: "Advertising on conventional (television) is declining rapidly. Last year it declined six per cent. This year has a similar trend and it is not cyclical. This is a structural change as advertising dollars migrate to digital opportunities."

The president of CBC, Hubert Lacroix, echoed Mr. Pelley's comments in announcing 657 layoffs at the public broadcaster last month. CBC also saw its advertising revenue drop last year, by 11 per cent from 2012, in part because of a shortened hockey season.

The conventional TV losses are especially stark in comparison to figures released last week by the CRTC, which showed the country's specialty channels thriving. Revenue in that industry reached a record of almost $4.1-billion in 2013, with a profit margin before interest and taxes of 26.5 per cent. On Tuesday morning, Bell Media announced it is adding three extra channels to TSN, the industry's most lucrative service, with more than $400-million in 2013 revenues, bringing the total to five.

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The conventional broadcasters are beginning to feel the loss of the Local Programming Improvement Fund, a special cash pool set up in the wake of the 2008 recession to help local stations. Paid for by levy on cable and satellite subscribers, the fund, which paid out more than $100-million to private broadcasters and local CBC stations in 2012, was axed by the CRTC and is now being phased out.

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