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Report On Business Rogers seeks to revive multicultural OMNI newscasts in CRTC proposal

Satellite dishes on the roof of a Rogers building in Toronto.

Brian Kerrigan/The Globe and Mail

A year after enduring backlash from the public and Parliament for cancelling daily foreign-language newscasts, Rogers Media is proposing a way to revive them – if the federal broadcast regulator will grant a form of mandatory carriage to help its multicultural OMNI television stations generate more money.

The plan, outlined in an application to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), puts the ball in the regulator's court to help shape OMNI's future. Rogers wants to make it a national channel with four regional feeds, tagged with a rare designation requiring it to be included in all basic TV packages.

Rogers Media, a division of Rogers Communications Inc., is bluntly asking for "a quid pro quo," said Colette Watson, the company's vice-president of broadcast and TV operations, in an interview. Rogers would pledge to restore daily, half-hour newscasts in Punjabi, Mandarin, Cantonese and Italian, add more ethnic programming to its schedule and invest in Canadian programming, including in-house production. In return, the special status would allow Rogers to expand OMNI's viewership and charge TV distributors a fee of 12 cents per cable or satellite subscriber, bringing in $14-million in new revenue each year.

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Ms. Watson called the application, which was in the works for seven months, "a break-even proposal," with three-quarters of the new funds going to restoring the four foreign-language newscasts. The goal, she said, is to make OMNI sustainable in the long term, while responding to the outrage voiced by OMNI's viewers and some members of Parliament when nightly news was replaced by cheaper current-affairs shows discussing local events without original reporting.

Yet, Rogers faces a high bar to convince regulators that OMNI deserves status under Section 9(1)(h) of the Broadcasting Act. The CRTC reserves that privilege for stations meeting a special need that would not likely survive on their own, such as the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and the Cable Public Affairs Channel.

"You saw the reaction to the news cuts – most people felt that we were shirking our public service responsibility. They don't view OMNI as a business, which it is," Ms. Watson said. "We believe that ethnic programming has a place in public policy in Canada."

A CRTC spokesperson declined to comment. But the timing of the application is noteworthy, coming just one day before the federal regulator is expected to announce its decision from a hearing into local and community TV held earlier this year.

If Rogers succeeds, viewers in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto would still be able to watch existing OMNI channels for free over the air. Programming would be repackaged between the local stations and the regional feeds – Pacific, Prairies, East and Quebec – with "a little bit" more Canadian content.

Last June, Julian Fantino, who at the time was the Conservative MP for Vaughan, just north of Toronto, led the public outcry against cuts at OMNI, calling the decision to axe ethnic news broadcasts "devastating." He convened a parliamentary committee meeting, in which MPs grilled Rogers executives, only to have Rogers reply that it had given ample warning about the financial woes plaguing OMNI.

Advertising revenue from the multicultural network plummeted from $80-million in 2011 to $35-million in the 2013-14 broadcast year, and Rogers has said the discontinued third-language newscasts cost $9-million to produce, bringing in only $3.9-million in revenue.

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With many TV executives pleading for help sustaining local stations in crisis, the Liberal government has shown concern for the fate of local news, holding its own committee hearings. OMNI is "not sustainable in its current state," Ms. Watson said, and if the CRTC rejects its proposal, there is a "very real possibility" that what exists now won't survive. At the very least, some of OMNI's more ambitious programming – such as the cop drama Blood and Water, which uses dialogue in Cantonese, Mandarin and English – may vanish.

"If we don't get this, we won't ever do Blood and Water again, or something like it," she said.

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