News stripped down at TQS

'They are on the brink of bankruptcy, [and] we had to make the choice between no TQS or minimal news,' says federal regulator chair Konrad von Finckenstein.

The CRTC is allowing Montreal-based Remstar Diffusion to buy Quebec’s flailing TQS network and replace local newscasts with shows that may look like CNN’s opinionated Lou Dobbs Tonight, says federal regulator chair Konrad von Finckenstein.

Last Friday, von Finckenstein gave the film production and distribution company permission to buy TQS stations in Montreal, Quebec, Trois-Rivières, Sherbrooke and Saguenay and temporarily scale back their local news-gathering operations.

‘Rather than a traditional newscast, there will be a show, perhaps like Dobbs on CNN, where he interviews people and has analysts. It’s a mixture of hardcore news and commentary,’ says von Finckenstein. ‘Will this work in Quebec? I have no idea. The market will speak.’

Under the CRTC’s terms, stations in Montreal will have to produce at least two hours of local news out of 15 hours of local programming; in Quebec City, it’s two hours of news for every 10 hours of local shows. Stations in Saguenay, Sherbrooke and Trois-Rivières are each required to produce one hour of news out of 90 minutes of local shows. TQS-affiliated stations will also have to broadcast 30 minutes of current affairs on Saturday and Sunday.

‘It’s an amazing loss,’ says Eric Levesque, head of the Quebec City TQS union, a division of CUPE. ‘TQS broadcasts 10 hours of news per week in Quebec City and about 15 hours in Montreal; now they will only have two hours. There won’t be daily local newscasts.’

The CRTC says these requirements, which are indeed much lower when compared to other conventional television stations, will be reassessed in three years. ‘It’s below the minimum,’ says von Finckenstein. ‘But we felt that because of their precarious financial situation we can’t ask them to continue as it was. They have to find a new operating model.’ He added that TQS’s case was ‘exceptional,’ and didn’t set a precedent. ‘They are on the brink of bankruptcy. We had to make the choice between no TQS or minimal news.’

TQS was placed under creditor protection last December. The CRTC’s decision follows public hearings in early June, when Remstar officials requested to amend the TQS licence and shut down newsrooms in five cities, laying off nearly 270 people. The company was heavily criticized by journalists, union leaders and politicians. The federal regulator will revisit Remstar’s news programming commitments during a public hearing in spring 2011.

From Playback Daily