TQS news cuts set stage for fight

What's being proposed by Remstar, which is in the process of acquiring the French-language network, arguably runs afoul of CRTC rules.

The plan to shut down TQS news outlets across Quebec likely won’t happen because it goes against CRTC rules and could hamper Stephen Harper’s chances of winning seats in la belle province, says a Canadian broadcasting watchdog.

The beleaguered network’s new owner-apparent, Remstar, announced Wednesday that it will close its news services in Montreal, Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières and Saguenay and lay off more than 270 employees in the name of ‘financial recovery.’ The French-language network says it’s losing $1.4 million a month, and has an accumulated debt of $71 million.

The move caused an uproar across the province and was condemned by all parties on the floor of Quebec’s provincial legislature. The Liberals, the Action Démocratique du Québec and the Parti Québécois adopted a unanimous motion calling on the government to ‘demand that the CRTC maintain the news operations’ of TQS.

The network ‘won’t be able to do it. They will be running afoul of CRTC regulations and their conditions of licence. It’s not up to them to decide,’ says Ian Morrison of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. ‘TQS’ local operations are very important in Quebec because in the world of francophone TV, they provide the only other choice in the private sector to TVA.’

Morrison also says that if Ottawa allows TQS to shut down its news-gathering system, it won’t help the Harper government’s popularity in Quebec. ‘The geographic locations of these stations overlap with the areas where the Conservative party has a fighting chance of growing.’

But Ottawa may not have a choice in the matter, as the CRTC is an arm’s-length government body. Morrison speculates, however, that Remstar may be making an extreme proposal in order to strengthen its position in front of the CRTC.

He also notes that if TQS were allowed to charge fees-for-carriage on cable and satellite systems – as the big broadcasters have been requesting this month before the commission – it would not be in such dire financial straits. The CRTC’s BDU hearings concluded Thursday after three weeks of arguments by industry stakeholders.

TQS, which has an audience share of close to 12%, was placed under creditor protection last December. Remstar has proposed to acquire all shares held by Cogeco Radio-Television and CTV, the two shareholders of TQS.

The CRTC is expected to hold public hearings in June into Remstar’s acquisition of TQS. The layoffs are set to start June 2 and the phase-out of all newscasts by Sept. 1.

‘We want the licence to be renewed under the same news-gathering requirements TQS has had for years,’ says the spokesman for the union that represents TQS employees, Luc Bessette. ‘If these cutbacks happen, the impact will be very serious. TQS is a very important source of regional news in this province. Its focus is local.’ Bessette fears that if the CRTC allows TQS to shut down its news services, Canada’s other big networks will follow suit. ‘We could be creating a monster,’ he says.

The union plans to make its case before the CRTC this summer. A spokesman for TQS wasn’t available to comment on the story.

From Playback Daily