TQS troubles rattle producers, media strategist

TV producers in Quebec are lamenting the possible demise of the network, which draws audiences almost unheard of in English Canada. If it goes under, at least one major media strategist believes ad rates will go up.

Quebec producers are lamenting the possible demise of TQS, the black sheep of the province’s three networks, which draws audiences to its homegrown programming that English-Canadians would die for.

This week, the French-language network – which attracts on average 12% of Quebec viewers, compared to Radio-Canada’s 15% – sought protection from creditors while its owners discuss plans for its survival over the next 30 days.

‘It will be a real loss for independent producers,’ says Céline Pelletier, spokesperson for the producers’ group, the AFPTQ. ‘In Quebec, producers have five clients: TVA, Radio-Canada, TQS, Télé-Québec and Astral. If one disappears, it’s not negligible.

‘TQS responds to a specific clientele,’ she adds. ‘Its programming is oriented towards a younger audience.’

The possibility of TQS going bankrupt is also worrying at least one media strategist. Alain Desormiers, of Montreal-based Touché! PHD, tells MiC he doesn’t expect the general-interest network – 60% of which is currently owned by Cogeco, with CTVglobemedia owning the other 40% – to go under. But if it does, he says the failure would have a negative effect on Quebec’s television market.

‘It would be – I will not use the word ‘disaster’ – very bad if TQS was not there any more,’ he says. ‘First of all for the culture and for the information side of their business for Quebecers, but over that for agencies and of course advertisers. Our belief is that it would be an automatic inflation of the TV market in Quebec.

‘Because TQS is cost-efficient, if they don’t have their air time to offer, and if they are not generating all the GRPs they are generating, we will have to buy the spots with TVA, SRC and the specialties,’ he adds. ‘So the demand will remain, and the supply will suffer, and the cost of buying TV in Quebec will go up.’

Touché! PHD is not taking any campaigns out of TQS for the time being, Desormiers says, and is including the network – which consists of five stations and four affiliates across the province – in its 2008 plans until further notice. He says filing for the 30-day order is a smart business move that will attract potential buyers: ‘A TV license is a rare asset, and to have nobody buy it would be surprising.’

Télévision Quatre-Saisons was founded in 1986, and is so named because it promised to provide fresh programming all year with no repeats. The network’s goal was to liven up Quebec TV by providing an alternative to market dominators Radio-Canada and TVA.

Although the network’s experimental mandate provided an important training ground for Quebec comedy writers and big-name stars, TQS has often been criticized for being low-brow and distasteful. One of its best-known series is the late-night soft-core porn show Bleu nuit. Its reality show Loft Story has also drawn a number of official complaints.

There is much speculation as to why TQS sought bankruptcy protection. Some observers blame declining audiences, although Loft Story regularly pulls in nearly one million viewers, and the series Elvis Gratton drew over 800,000 earlier this year.

The network blames increased production costs and declining advertising revenue. With debts of almost $70 million and an anticipated outlay of as much as $40 million to comply with new high-definition broadcasting rules set by the CRTC, TQS does face a rocky road ahead.

TQS has also been trying to convert into a specialty channel so it could charge a subscriber fee, but the request was quashed by the CRTC. It has also singled out one of its main competitors, Radio-Canada, as one of the reasons for its dire financial situation. TQS accuses SRC of acting ‘like a commercial player rather than a publicly owned television broadcaster’ and blasted the pubcaster for putting an end to its deal to rent TQS broadcast facilities in three cities starting in 2009.

The outcome of the spring CRTC hearings may see some cable subscription revenue allotted to general-interest networks, which would provide some relief. As for TQS’s immediate future, its chief executive, Rene Guimond, told Canadian Press: ‘We have the firm intention now to find the business solutions that will ensure we can continue to play our role in Quebec television.’

A version of this story appeared in Playback Daily