The Business of Canadian OTA Television


Prepared for:
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission



Submitted by:
Peter H. Miller, P. Eng., Ll.b.

August 31, 2009



This report was commissioned by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ("CRTC") in July, 2009, to provide an overview of issues associated with the OTA Television Business in Canada, and in particular, to provide an independent assessment of the business model of conventional television, and its major challenges in terms of scaling costs (infrastructure, local programming, acquired programming) and regulatory obligations (local programming in particular) to current audience and revenue realities.

The purpose of the report is educational, rather than prescriptive. While the report does raise issues and options for consideration, the intent is not to offer firm or specific guidance on appropriate business or public policy response.

The following caveats should also be noted:

  1. While the Author has made every reasonable effort to ensure information is current and accurate at the time of writing, significant changes may be occurring or have occurred in some areas by the time of reading.
  2. This report addresses both the English-language and French-language markets in Canada, but not necessarily with equal import. While the basic concepts noted here are in large measure relevant and applicable to both markets, the impact and conclusions to be drawn may be significantly different. Where clear distinctions exist, they have been brought to the attention of the reader.
  3. The report takes note of the Commission's findings and conclusions (tentative or otherwise) in Broadcasting Regulatory Policy CRTC 2009-406 and Broadcasting Notice of Consultation CRTC 2009-411 (among other recent CRTC releases), but has not been bound by them.

Canada is blessed with a truly impressive broadcasting system and equally impressive people who make it function. In researching and writing this paper, I owe considerable thanks to more such people than I can mention (many of whom would likely prefer not to be mentioned in the first place). Suffice to say, you know who you are. The insights are yours; the mistakes are mine.

Table of Contents

1. OTA TV Broadcasting is Two Businesses in One

Over the Air Television (“OTA TV”, aka “Conventional Television”Footnote 1) is often referred to as the “foundation” or “cornerstone” of the Canadian Broadcasting system.  This is said as more than just a historical factFootnote 2, but an indication of OTA TV’s significance and “heft” in the Canadian TV business.  OTA TV remains  --  even today, and even under serious financial strain  --  the “bullhorn”, the basis on which most major expensive Canadian TV production is built, and many broadcast empires have risen and fallen.  It remains the best vehicle for aggregating and monetizing audiences for mass programming, for “delivering eyeballs to advertisers”, and launching, promoting and leading viewers to other exhibition platformsFootnote 3.

That OTA TV has evolved, undergone crisis and rejuvenation is hardly a surprise for a 60-year-old business.  That it is still in business, and has undergone evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, perhaps, should be.  For while the ownership and “organization” of OTA TV in Canada has undergone profound change in the last 6 decades, arguably the “craft” of local TV has notFootnote 4.

OTA TV started as a series of largely disconnected unique local business with local programming, obligations infrastructure and revenues, and some “cooperative” sharing of a limited amount of non-local Canadian programmingFootnote 5.  This model persisted for over 25 years and was only first challenged in English CanadaFootnote 6 with the emergence of Global TV in the latter half of the 70s   --  suddenly one Toronto based station could reach all major markets in Ontario (i.e. the largest Canadian market)Footnote 7 .  It only truly ended with the sale of CTV to one majority shareholder, Baton Broadcasting in 1997Footnote 8.

Up until that time, regional private broadcasting groups had certainly emerged (WIC, Allarcom, Electrohome, Baton, CHUM, Maclean Hunter etc.); each finding ways to pool programming resources regionally, and share admin overhead etc.  But until Global TV emerged as a Canadian powerhouse, and CHUM ultimately sold its Atlantic Canada CTV stations to Baton (allowing Baton and Electrohome to together take over CTV), OTA TV in Canada was not a truly national business.

By the late 1990s, however, the structure had caught up with the reality: the major players in private English-language OTA TV clearly ran OTA TV stations as national businesses with the emphasis on national programmingFootnote 9, infrastructure and revenues.  VP/General Managers of local stations, once senior heads of their own local businesses were gradually relegated to a lower status of “branch plant operators”, taking most orders from head office and with little autonomy other than managing local retail sales and local news within clear budgetsFootnote 10. The CRTC aligned with this national/centralization trend with regulatory policies emphasizing national obligations, culminating in the large multi-station group definition and priority programming obligations of the 1999 TV policyFootnote 11.

The business and public policy focus on the “national” aspect of OTA TV continued unabatedly until very recently.  WIC, CHUM Limited, and Craig Broadcasting all aggressively pursued national growth ambitions, with mixed success  --  as ultimately these ambitions directly led to the demise of the latter, and at least indirectly, the former two.

The last couple of years have clearly witnessed a renewed interest in the “local” aspect of OTA TV  --  certainly at the level of public debate and regulatory response.  Following years of indifference,Footnote 12 “local TV” is suddenly being seen as worthy of attention.  Be it the specter of local news cuts or entire local stations going dark, the significant capital costs for DTV conversion, or the renewed recognition of local presence as a competitive business advantage, the pendulum appears to have swung away from purely national TV issues and concernsFootnote 13 to local ones.

Regardless of concerns “du jour”, if OTA TV is to endure another 10 years, let alone another 60, considered public policy action must recognize and understand these two distinct aspects of OTA TV, the local and the national.  It should also recognize that these two businesses, while intertwined and mutually re-enforcing, remain nevertheless separable on both functional and purposeful lines.

a. Is the OTA TV Business Model “Broken”?

Much of the debate about OTA TV over the last year or two has been about whether the business model of OTA Television is truly “broken”, or not.

Those who believe that it is, cite flat and now declining revenues, declining profits, declining audiences, unaffordable priority programming obligations, significant unavoidable and non-recoverable capital expenditures for DTV and, by contrast, the profitability and ongoing revenue growth of specialty television with its “dual streams” of advertising and subscription revenue.   Those who argue that it is not, cite over-priced broadcast asset acquisitions, changing viewer habits and soaring U.S. programming costs over the last decade, combined with the current economic downturn as the principle reasons for OTA Television’s current “crisis”. They also suggest that, under the same corporate umbrella, OTA TV and Specialty Television can weather the current economic downturn and that OTA TV can do more to take advantage of its access to “dual streams” of local and national advertising.

Both sides are in most respects right about the symptoms and problems, but the aggregate data generally used to present one case or other provide an inadequate basis for determining whether the challenges are endemic, fatal or fixable.  Fortunately, by disaggregating the roots of these challenges, and in particular, separating the business along local and national lines, certain answers can be found.

In disaggregating the OTA TV business between the “national” and the “local”, naturally, which revenue or cost lines should be attributed to which segment of the business is somewhat arbitrary.  Nevertheless, examining OTA TV from the perspective of what can easily be run nationally (as in a specialty serviceFootnote 14) versus what either requires or is at least best served by local infrastructure and presence would appear to allow for the greatest insight into both solutions for and (as necessary) alternatives to OTA TV.

Accordingly, the approach taken for the purposes of this paper is to draw the distinction between local and national as follows:

  1. Local OTA TV Business:  That which benefits from and/or relies on local infrastructure for delivery of service and or incremental revenue
  2. National OTA TV BusinessFootnote 15:  That which can or is provided nationally, with identical programming to all and with no need for local infrastructure, and none of the revenue benefits that accrue from being able to deliver different feeds to different markets.  I.e. that which can be replicated by a specialty service.

2. The Integration of OTA TV with Specialty Television and Other Broadcast Platforms

Commensurate with its transformation into nationally owned and operated businesses, OTA TV began to integrate with Specialty Television from that platform’s origins in the early 1980s.  CHUM Limited, the first OTA broadcaster to enter into Specialty Television, initially relied on Citytv as the “mother ship” that nested and spawned the company’s fleet of specialty networks, from MuchMusic and Bravo! to the analog/digital “hybrids” (Space, MuchMoreMusic, CLT etc.) to the Diginets.  In the latter years of CHUM’s existence, however, it was the specialty services that kept the conventional fleet afloatFootnote 16.

CTV and CanWest Global followed this strategy with a combination of acquisitions and successful licence applications: in particular the acquisitions of Netstar and CHUM by CTV and AAC by CanWest.  These companies are now too in a position in which specialty now supports and cross subsidizes OTA TVFootnote 17.  In Quebec, while the Specialty Television sector remains dominated by Astral, TVA has successfully launched a handful of specialty services that complement and support the network, although apparently not to the point of cross-subsidyFootnote 18.

It is noteworthy that this transformation of OTA TV in Canada is by no means identical to that which occurred in the U.S.  U.S. networks continue to have vibrant independent affiliates, have launched specialty (“cable”) networks (often through “retransmission consent”), and have evolved from principal licensees of content to owners of itFootnote 19.  Moreover the relative market power and degree of vertical integration of U.S. TV distributors is far less than that of Canadian equivalentsFootnote 20.

The ownership of both specialty and OTA Television under the same roof has allowed broadcast companies to maintain or amalgamate larger aggregate audiences, over a period where OTA Television has seen its audience fragment and decline.  In addition to sharing corporate resources and overhead, synergistic specialty properties permit significant sharing of programming with conventional TV  --  both high price event or obligatory programs and more mainstream fareFootnote 21.

Today, “cross platform” or “multi-platform” strategies for program exhibition are common place, and can include online exhibition, VOD, mobile, specialty, pay and PPV exhibition, all depending on the type of content, its appeal, currency and cost.  TVA has been by far the most successful Canadian broadcaster to employ such techniques to monetize expensive original content effectively, using “pre-release” PPV for major event programs, followed by broadcast on TVA, repeats and VOD/online exhibition.Footnote 22

a. Corporate Accounting Methodologies and Allocations

Current financial reporting of OTA TV to the CRTC (and to some extent regulation itself) is still largely based on the original individual station model. Among other consequences, this means:

  1. National or regional program rights costs and infrastructure are usually “allocated” to local stations based on GAAP, but regardless of methodology, allowing for considerable discretion;
  2. “National”, certainly “network”, advertising revenues are also allocated based on discretionary formula (usually reasonable, but also allowing for discretion);
  3. Depending on the circumstance, corporate groups have “unintended” regulatory incentive to allocate revenues as between specialty and conventional; or as between markets, in particular waysFootnote 23;
  4. There is some likelihood that in the largest corporate groups, allocations of “overhead” to OTA TV are excessive and reflect historic subsidy of conventional to specialty, rather than current health and ability of specialty to now carry a greater portion of corporate overhead and infrastructureFootnote 24; and
  5. There is also incentive for, and strong likelihood that in any enterprise that owns both specialty and conventional services (i.e. the vast majority of OTA TV station owners) specialty increasingly carries a disproportionate amount of national Canadian programming costs, given the current absence of Canadian Program Expenditure (“CPE”) requirements on conventional TV

Implementation of the CRTC’s proposed move to corporate or “group based” CPE obligationsFootnote 25, and ensuring OTA and (at least) major specialty service license terms are aligned within major corporate groups would render much of this moot from “regulatory avoidance” perspective.  In such a scenario, corporate groups would presumably have no incentive (intended or otherwise) to allocate costs or revenues in a manner that helps “to tell a story”.

b. OTA TV as a Part of a Corporate Multi-platform Whole

Over the last 30 years, OTA Television has morphed not only from being locally driven to nationally driven; but also from being nationally driven as an independent platform to being nationally driven with specialty platforms to, increasingly, nationally driven across multiple platforms.

As a result, today an individual local TV station is generally a relatively small part of a much larger geographically dispersed and multi platform corporate broadcast enterprise. The economics or business of a single OTA station thus becomes very hard to discern, as a significant proportion of the reported revenues and expenses of such an OTA Television Station licensee will be corporate “allocations”.

Regardless of the form of regulatory obligation, however, the Commission and all parties would presumably benefit from a greater understanding of what is actually happening to the business of OTA TV, to better understand what the problems are and what solutions might be appropriate  …  hence this paper’s attempt at disaggregating the local and national aspects of the OTA TV business, and their respective revenue and expense elements.

3. Challenges and Opportunities in Local OTA TV

Examined as a separate business, the challenge facing local TV is deceptively easy to label:  the costs of local obligations, programming and infrastructure are simply out of whack with local revenue potential or at least current local revenuesFootnote 26.

Whatever the cause  --  declining audiences to local programming and hence revenues, greater competition for local retail advertising, or local infrastructure costs that do not pay for themselves through incremental revenue  --  the simplest answer would be to allow OTA TV broadcasters to scale local obligations to revenue.  Whether that means one crew shift and reduced local programming, a bureau and repeater rather than a full up local station, or even no local station/presence at all, the issue would simply be a market decision based on whether a given local OTA TV station can make money or not.

Up until the release of Broadcasting Regulatory Policy CRTC 2009-406, many if not most, OTA TV local programming obligations were set 30+ years ago in a completely “pre-Internet” eraFootnote 27 and in English CanadaFootnote 28 often included requirements for 20-25 hours or more of local programming per week.  That news and non-news programming is a “good thing” has rarely been questioned.  How much of this “good thing” a community should have, and what it should be, has received surprisingly little scrutiny  …  other than the general view that “more is better than less”, original is better than repeats and local news is best of all.

a. The Correlation between Hours of Local Programming and Local Staffing/Infrastructure

Broadcasting Regulatory Policy CRTC 2009-406 and its related specific license decisions essentially cut through the above morass by declaring, as an “interim” framework, new requirements for English Canada of 7 hours per week of local programming in small markets, and 14 hours a week in large metropolitan markets of greater than 1 million population.

The repercussions of this are not insignificant.  To produce and program 20-25 hours or more of local television per week of any quality essentially requires two week-day crews plus additional weekend shifts or part-timers.   Typical arrangements might include the following:

1st Weekday Shift:

2nd Weekday Shift plus weekends:

Independently or other in-house produced:

Thus an 8 hour morning crew shift can produce up to 15 hours a week of reasonable original local programming with some combination of a breakfast show, morning news flashes and perhaps a noon newscast and some other local non-news programming.

Similarly, a late afternoon/evening 8 hour shift plus perhaps weekend crews can produce a similar amount of local programming through a combination of supper time and late evening newscasts plus news flashes and possibly some other local non-news programming.  A quality suppertime newscast can even be repeated, or repackaged, for 6 am the following day to meet weekly CRTC requirements, and still garner some audience.

Cutting local programming costs is therefore a non-linear exercise.

When local programming commitments are 20-25 hours per week or more, the die is largely cast, and a station generally has to commit to a local news strategy with at least 2 crews.  At 14 or 15 hours per week, a station can cut to one crew and make a decision as to whether they are in the news business or not, whether they want an in-house produced breakfast show or some kind of talk show, and whether they need weekend station produced programming or not.  At 5-7 hours or less a week, a station can decide whether it wants any station produced programming at all  --  independent producers, particularly using brokered time for ethnic or religious programming, or potentially other shows with a strong community of interest and niche advertisersFootnote 29, can fill regulatory obligations without any local infrastructure beyond a transmitter.Footnote 30

b. The “Craft” of Local TV

The craft of “local TV” has arguably changed very little in the last few decades, notwithstanding huge shifts in competitive environment, viewer habits and technology.

Indeed, OTA TV’s basic approach to local news gathering, production and certainly exhibition has in many respects not changed significantly since Citytv introduced “videographers” and its “anchor desk free”/open concept production style in the 70s.  Local news still uses a (relatively) large number of people in the field & studio, typically to produce traditional “live” noon, suppertime and/or late night newscastsFootnote 31.  Technology has made this approach vastly more efficient (3 key ways:  multi-tasking: a videographer not only shoots his own story, but edits it and submits the finished segment; automation (in cameras, traffic/ad inserting and storage servers); and, the most trend, centralization of packaging/production)Footnote 32.  But technology has not really been used to change the model, only make it more efficient.

CP 24 has perhaps come closest to changing the Canadian TV news model (with its multiple text/graphic feeds and associated banner advertising and sponsorship vehicles, around a 1/3 of screen area video image) but many US TV stations and even some Canadian Cable stations (i.e. our former “community channels”) have arguably done a better job of creating cost-efficient info/news shows through, for example, server-based segment “wheel” approachesFootnote 33.

Viewing to 24 hour news channels; specialized weather networks and multiple on-line sources (including those of the broadcasters themselves) is increasingly replacing the viewing of scheduled OTA TV local newscasts (particularly noon and suppertime), as younger Canadians refuse to adopt and mid-age Canadians abandon this traditional “appointment” approach.   And yet given historically high local programming commitments, maintaining a centralized and national programming focus and apparently unsure of the right move, Canadian OTA TV broadcasters have done little to change their basic local programming approachFootnote 34.

Fortunately, with the regulatory flexibility now afforded to OTA TV on minimum hours of local programming, the opportunity to both cut costs and focus resources on the areas of greatest potential viewership and revenue now presents itself.  Available options open to OTA TV stations are many, and precedents abound, particularly in the U.SFootnote 35.  These include:

Decisions can be made on a market-by-market basis based on realistic assessments of competitive standing and advantage, and audience and revenue opportunity, all geared to building a sustainable business in local programming.

c. Identifying Costs and Revenues Attributable to a Local TV Station

Assessing the real business opportunity associated with local programming and local infrastructure requires an examination of the cost and incremental revenue aspects of each.

i. Local OTA TV Costs

Local OTA TV cost elements are relatively easy to identify, but increasingly require some allocation of centralized costs to assess. Broadly speaking, they include the following:

In even a large local station operation, a significant part, if not the majority, of costs reported to the CRTC will be allocated from “head office”: the largest being national programming amortization costsFootnote 37; second usually being corporate/admin.  These costs need to be “stripped out” to get a real understanding of the true local costs of a local OTA TV operation.

In a small local station operation (particularly one that is part of a big network) the only significant locally incurred costs will be that of a local sales team and local programming. Transmission costs, plus a reasonable allocation for incremental centralized master control, traffic and library, are practically all that need to be added to arrive at a reasonable understanding of the true incremental costs of such a small OTA TV outlet.

ii. Local OTA TV Revenues

The only revenues typically seen as attributable to a local station are local retail revenues.  Such revenues can be significant, and are clearly a direct and necessary outcome of operating a local OTA TV station.  As a matter of practicality, local retail advertising only makes financial sense when it is targeted exclusively or primarily to its local audience.  Moreover, as a matter of policy, the CRTC has had a long-standing requirement that the privilege of accessing local retail revenue is granted only to those who offer local programmingFootnote 38.

The definition of what constitutes “local retail” advertising and the boundary between that and “national spot” (i.e. that sold by a national agency and classified as a national sale) is not entirely precise.  In the extremes, there is clarity: advertising from a local single retail outlet (a particular local car dealership; an independent local jeweler) is clearly local retail, while advertising of a national brand (a Toyota Prius; Kraft Dinner) is clearly national.  The grey area is in advertising from the newly opened local Sobeys Superstore, or a coordinated regional sales effort of Vancouver GM Dealers.  While such advertising may have the characteristics of local retail (in that it is clearly related to retail sales and targeted to a certain local region), it is likely to be sold by an agency, and therefore usually categorized as national.  However it is sometimes sold by the local station and classified as local sales Footnote 39.

The significance of this phenomenon is that it leads to the first area of potential “understatement” of local OTA TV revenues  --  that is the incremental value of being able to sell national spot rather than just network advertisingFootnote 40  --  which only occurs by virtue of having a national network or system of local OTA TV stations (rather than a “single feed” specialty service).  By selling national spot (market by market) to different advertisers, OTA broadcasters receive significantly higher overall revenues, than if they merely sold one spot nationallyFootnote 41 (as is the case for specialty).  This premium, while difficult to determine, is still material despite the effect of distant signalsFootnote 42, and likely amounts at least 15-20% on what would otherwise be a single national or “network” sale.

The second area of potential “understatement” of local OTA TV revenues is the “incremental” advertising revenue arising from increased audience and revenues given the presence of an OTA transmitter.   Most broadcasters now view transmitters as an unfortunate regulatory obligation rather than an incremental revenue sourceFootnote 43.  This was certainly not always the case, as a relatively small portion of off-air viewing (as low as 3-5%) can still translate into increased audience and revenues that pays for transmission infrastructure.  While off-air TV viewers are likely not to be major TV viewers, their viewing universe is inherently limited to a few OTA channels, rather than the hundreds of channels most BDU subscribers receive.  Moreover OTA transmission is the only way many DTH subscribers can receive local programming from their local broadcaster.  Thus a small percentage of off air viewing can actually represent an even greater percentage of a station’s audienceFootnote 44

Moreover, the must carry status of OTA TV historically afforded by virtue of having a local transmitter clearly still represents a clear and material audience and revenue increment over discretionary “highest penetrated tier” carriage.  Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that in most BDUs, the combination of “basic carriage” increased penetration and a smaller number of channels would result in another 15-30% advertising revenue premium.

d. Characterizing the Local OTA TV Business

In sum, looked at as a separate business unit, the local OTA TV business can typically be characterized as having significant fixed costs in terms of equipment, infrastructure and staff, some variable costs in terms of 3rd party commissions and acquired programming, and variable revenues from at least 3 potential sources:

The local OTA TV business is, nevertheless, quite scalable over time.  Fixed local costs can be materially reduced, for example, by centralizing certain operations and cutting local programming and/or relying on independent productionFootnote 45

In addition, assuming adequate local resources, retail revenues can be an important source of incremental revenue, particularly, as now, when the national business suffers.  While the cost of sales for local retail is high relative to agency deals, empowered local sales forces can find significant incremental local revenues by being aggressive and imaginative in their sales packaging and pricing approaches.  Although local retail advertising finds its most natural home in local programming, the CRTC’s elimination of advertising limits and a soft national advertising market mean that inventory can today be available, and incremental revenue found, in even prime time showsFootnote 46.

Thus, from a purely business perspective, a local OTA TV station in a reasonable sized market and assuming a sustainable national programming strategy should, over time, be scalable to match its revenue opportunities.  There is no reason why a local TV station cannot receive a small but healthy slice of local retail revenues, through an intelligent local and national program strategy that finds a reasonable audience.  With sufficient regulatory flexibility to provide as little or as much local programming as a market can sustain, and reasonable fixed costs covered by incremental revenue, a business can still be made of local OTA TV.

e. Regulatory Implications and Potential Prescriptions

Assuming the foregoing is correct -- that a business can still be made of local OTA TV given sufficient regulatory flexibility to scale local obligations to match local and incremental national revenue --  the simplest regulatory approach would be to have no requirements for local programming at all, other than the stipulation that to access local retail revenue one must offer local programming.  Licences could be offered for local “repeaters” or local stations to any who request them, and the market alone would determine success or failure.

That market decision would effectively be two-fold:

The result would presumably be that local markets that could sustain local TV programming would receive at least some of it, and assuming the market were big enough, from multiple OTA TV stations; those that couldn’t might have a repeater or two with national and potentially regional programming; others would have to receive non-local OTA TV broadcast signals via BDUs and/or OTA TV programming from online sources.

Naturally, such an approach would be a significant departure from historic regulatory practices (and hence likely be viewed as bad public policy), for at least two reasons:

Nevertheless, this theoretical construct invites the question as to what is a necessary or appropriate rationale for intervention by the CRTC in the local OTA television market.  The issue of market entry criteria aside, there would seem to be 3 possible reasons for such intervention:

While each reason is somewhat different, the solution is essentially the same.  If public policy deems it necessary that there be more local programming than the market can bear, some form of subsidy is needed, either:

CRTC decisions on which approach is appropriate generally and for any given local market or any given broadcaster are central to the proceedings that the CRTC will hold in 2009 and 2010.  While there is no “right answer”, there are a number of clear philosophical underpinnings to such decisions.  These include:

  1. Given that local broadcasting has historically been profitableFootnote 48, and is only becoming unprofitable by virtue of changing technologies and consumer habits, does public policy really want to mandate and subsidize a dying model or should it allow it to transform into something sustainable?
  2. Does Government effectively want to get into the business of direct subsidy of local news?  Decades of firm adherence to principles of journalistic independence merit some debate on thisFootnote 49.
  3. If FFC is to be implemented based on a market negotiation, and one of the best ways a local OTA TV station decides it can maintain and enhance its local business is a 24 hour local news channel, should negotiating carriage and subscription fees for such a second channel with BDUs be deemed appropriate compensationFootnote 50?
  4. Should the CRTC care about the type, quality or volume of local programming from a local OTA TV broadcaster or emphasize only a diversity of choice through multiple sourcesFootnote 51
  5. If diversity of voices and local programming choices is the key objective, should the Commission extend its Diversity of Voices framework to provide a basis for determinations on which broadcasters should be required, or incentivized, to provide programming in which markets?Footnote 52.  Should a certain level of independent local production be required, or incentivized, if sufficient diversity of outlets is not forthcoming?

4. Challenges and Opportunities in National OTA TV

When viewed as a distinct and separate business from that of local OTA TV, national OTA TV has one key disadvantage but also a number of key advantages over specialty television.

The key disadvantage is well known.  As yet, OTA TV has no framework or ability to negotiate subscription fees, which for many specialty services represent upwards of 50% of their revenuesFootnote 53.

The advantages, often cited by BDUs and broadcasting companies with predominantly Specialty and/or Pay TV interests, are also well known, but there is little agreement among parties as to their true value.  These advantages include:

There is also no doubt that, the current economic downturn aside, the single largest reason for reduced profitability of the English-language national OTA TV business is significant increases in US programming costs. In the last five years alone, foreign, predominantly US, programming costs have grown significantly in excess of revenues, for private OTA broadcasters, to a high of $775 million in 2008 or 36.25% of revenues, from $570 million or 27.63% in 2004Footnote 58.

Keen observers and players in the industry know that this is entirely due to market dynamics and the seizing of opportunities to secure competitive advantage. What is less well understood by observers and other interested parties is the reason why such expenses would have been allowed to rise to the obvious detriment of the overall business.

This can only be appreciated by understanding the basic business model of Canadian (national) English-language private OTA TV.  Simply put, in English Canada, it is a margin business in which one first buys the best available U.S. simulcast programming, second the best available non-simulcast U.S. programming, and third (beyond news and sports, and absent other considerations) the cheapest acceptable Canadian programming necessary to fulfill exhibition requirements.  This is a business model that has made Private OTA TV profitable (and at times, extraordinarily so) for almost five decades, and requires only an opportunistic program acquisition and scheduling approach.

The French-language “national” OTA TV business, is by contrast a business built on Canadian programming, and the strategies needed to maximize its audiences with Canadians. 

The two markets are so fundamentally different that they deserve separate treatment here.

a. Underneath the Business Model of National English-language OTA TV

There are three basic ingredients to running the national side of an English-language Private OTA TV station group business.

First, buy the best U.S. programming you can to fill out your maximum permitted regulatory quotaFootnote 59, in the highest potential audience time slots, with all or as much of it “simulcastable” as possible.

Second, find the most complementary Canadian programming, which will fulfill your regulatory minima and lose as little money as possible.

Third, maximize revenues by, promoting, marketing and selling your top U.S. shows to maximize audiences and revenues and create as much lift as possible for your “run of schedule” Canadian fare.

i. U.S. Programming drives the business model

The dependency of the national business of OTA Private English-language broadcasting on U.S. programming is well known, but still startling in its degree and pervasiveness.

As Global TV learned in the late 70s and early 80s, capitalized on through to the late 90s and lost to CTV in the last decade, a string of top prime time US simulcasts guarantees viewing and revenue supremacy, and is the surest way to profitabilty, as long as competition for that programming is not too stiff, and prices can be kept reasonable.

Until recently, gross margins of 300%Footnote 60 on U.S. hits were not uncommon.  And while the buying of U.S. programming rights is wrapped in intrigue and apparent mystery, it is hardly rocket science.  The U.S. “concept to script to pilot” system already guarantees basic quality, and if the show one buys does not perform, it will almost inevitably be cancelled, and a new one put in its placeFootnote 61.  Bidding on one show may be hit and miss; bidding on a prime time schedule of up to 21 hours of U.S. programming from 4 major and one upstart U.S. network should not beFootnote 62.

Nevertheless, the fundamental structural business problem of national English-language OTA Television today can be almost entirely traced to the determination of the major groups to have the top programsFootnote 63.

The reasons that everyone wants the top shows are clear enough.  Owning the most top 10 or 20 programs is a guarantee of audience and advertising domination  --  audience levels triple that of a “normal” show, but with even more than triple the advertising revenue, as advertisers pay a premium (per eyeball) to buy spotsFootnote 64.

The trouble with everyone pursuing this approach should also be immediately evident. There are only ever 20 top 20 U.S. programs, and 50 top 50 programs.  And when all the major players define their business as requiring those top shows, competition for those shows is bound to get fierce, if not irrational.  Practices like buying shows to “sit on the shelf” or paying more for certain shows than one can reasonably make in revenue (perhaps to have a “loss leader” that lifts a schedule) may be intended only to “beat” competitors, but their ultimate impact is to hurt the entire sector.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Given that the acquisition of U.S. programming is almost a pure margin business, profitability is not assured by having the highest rated or highest revenue generating show, but ensuring a healthy average return on investment.  Achieving an average 100% margin on U.S. programming should be realistic and achievable today and still leave enough on the table to pay for “break even” Canadian programming, overhead and corporate profitsFootnote 65.

OTA TV broadcasters that stick to “margin strategies” rather than “hit” strategies for the national side of the business need never “overpay” for U.S. programming given its abundance  -- programming on five U.S. networks plus recent syndicated fare should provide more than enough volume and competition to fill English-language OTA TV station foreign programming needs at reasonable cost.

ii. Canadian programming fills holes in the schedule

With a 60% overall Canadian programming exhibition requirement, an Private OTA TV broadcaster needs to find just under 76 hours per week of Canadian programming to fill out a schedule.

With U.S. program acquisitions generally being “opportunistic” and changing over time, some of this Canadian programming will follow suit, but a good portion of it will help define and anchor an OTA TV network brand.

Foremost in this is a national newscast.  The ongoing audience, and for the most part, financial successFootnote 66, of news with Canadians is nothing to sneeze about.  The fact that Canadian OTA TV broadcasters have been able to maintain and grow that success, in the face of competing global brands like the big four US networks, CNN and BBC, is testimony to the strength of the news teams and brands they have painstakingly built, and the fact that in news, given a choice most Canadians would prefer a Canadian sourceFootnote 67.

The airing of Canadian news and information programming at similar times to that in which U.S. broadcasters air their equivalents is a sensible and natural strategy for most Canadian OTA TV broadcastersFootnote 68.  The benefits are two-fold, Canadians will watch and no popular U.S. simulcast shows would be available in any event.Footnote 69

Canadian news and information programming can thus consistently give OTA broadcasters as much as 2 hours of Canadian prime time programming per day, or typically 13 hours per week; i.e. the majority of their prime time Canadian programming quota.  The only big decisions are the mix of “headline” news vs. news magazine/talk show formats, the mix of local vs. national, and the extent to which room is left for major sports.

Sports is unequivocally the most successful and profitable Canadian programming category.  The popularity of major sports with Canadians is unquestionable.  The limited number of hugely popular prime time sports franchises, and their scheduling unpredictability, however make them an increasing challenge for OTA TV, with the risks of overbidding and audience aggravation highFootnote 70.

Eight hours of priority programming brings the rest of a broadcaster’s prime time quota.  The flexibility the CRTC has provided OTA TV broadcasters with in meeting this definition means that the strategies employed by broadcasters here can differ widely.  Typically, however, a major OTA TV broadcaster will commission and produce as much drama programming as they can get public funding for, and then commission or produce the best possible entertainment magazines, documentaries, and non-news/sports regional programmingFootnote 71.

With prime time filled, an OTA TV broadcaster must turn its attention to the 55 hours of daytime Canadian programming that needs to be foundFootnote 72.  Again, different strategies are used to fill this time; all oriented to ensuring reasonable quality at relatively low cost and, more importantly, minimal loss.  Talk shows, repeats, children programming are the staples of Canadian daytime programming.  A surefire profitable approach is often, however, to sell or broker airtime – for religious, ethnic or other programmingFootnote 73

Finally the 6 hours outside of the broadcast day are generally filled with whatever can make the most moneyFootnote 74.  With no Canadian content requirements from midnight to 6 am, OTA TV broadcasters have free rein to air infomercials and early morning fitness shows.  While those colour “sign off” bars were once commonplace, today there’s usually something on.

iii. The National OTA TV Financial Model relative to Specialty

When compared to a national specialty service, the program flexibility of a national OTA TV service is enormous.  Rightly so, as it is this programming flexibility, combined with the other advantages of OTA TV noted above, that have allowed the national OTA TV business to be viable without the added revenue stream of subscription fees, and with the added disadvantage of higher program licence feesFootnote 75.

Nevertheless, while the businesses can differ significantly in program strategy and costs, reach and revenue sources, Specialty and OTA Television have one strong business element in common.  They can have relatively low required operational costs and are, or certainly can be, run as margin businesses.

The ability to efficiently operate a highly cost effective national television service has been proven with the launch of numerous digital services, whose non-program operating costs can be as little as half a million dollars a yearFootnote 76.  While national OTA TV broadcasters may have historically been assumed to need to be businesses with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in annual program acquisition budgets and hundreds of millions in annual revenues (the majority of which could be attributable to the national part of the business), there is no particular reason why a national OTA TV business can not be scaled down by an order of magnitude and still, as in smaller analog and digital specialty services, make money.  Understandably, a weaker national OTA TV offering would have some negative revenue impact on the local side of the business, but any such major negative impacts could presumably be addressed through alternative local strategies.

Reasonable financial comparisons between the revenue and profit potential of the national OTA TV business and that of national specialty services would suggest that neither business has any great overall advantage over the otherFootnote 77.

In particular, in respect of the biggest “disadvantage” of OTA TV, the lack of subscription revenues, it is worth noting that the advertising CPM premium of OTA over specialty TV, represents a similar quantumFootnote 78.


b. The Business Model of National French-language OTA TV


The distinguishing feature of French-language OTA TV is its reliance on domestically produced programming in the vast majority of its program schedule including the highest viewing time slots, for the vast majority of its program expenditures and the vast majority of its revenues, and profits.

Yes, foreign, including U.S. dubbed, programming has an important place in the mix, but clearly a secondary one.  Moreover the most successful applications of foreign programming are not the dubbed ones, but the exploitation of successful formats to produce more Canadian French-language fareFootnote 79.

The predominant reliance on Canadian programming is a necessary, but nonetheless remarkable, feature of the French-language OTA TV business.  The necessary conditions for this success include:

Such success does not mean, however, that there are no challenges for French-language OTA TV.  There are, and these include:

As a more “market driven” model of OTA TV, without an ability to rely on profits from U.S. programming to cross-subsidize Canadian programming, the need for regulatory flexibility is arguably greater in the French-language market than in English Canada.  Imposition of additional or new regulatory requirements, say to do more local programming without LPIF funding, could introduce new internal cross-subsidies that inadvertently affects a broadcaster’s capacity to do important national or regional programming. 


c. Regulatory Implications and Potential Prescriptions

The notion that the national OTA TV business is analogous to specialty television and, at least in theory, separable from the local OTA TV business has evident ramifications.

First, it means that traditional national models of OTA TV broadcasting, and in particular, an almost complete reliance on prime time simulcast U.S. programming by English-private players, need not be adopted by all future national OTA TV broadcasters.

Second, it means that OTA TV broadcasters who want to increase their profitability should focus less on audience and revenues and more on margin potential of their programmingFootnote 83, and where necessary, take advantage of the fact that the national part of the OTA TV business is like specialty in that it can be readily scalable year to year.  This part of the OTA TV business can and should be run on a margin basis.

Third, it means that regulatory support and regulatory obligations for the national part of the OTA TV business should also be scalable, and in sync with the national revenue potential and benefits of a given station group.  If greater support, be it via FFC or signal integrity measures, is provided, it would be important that in English Canada such incremental revenue not automatically fall to higher U.S. program acquisition budgets.  To this end, the re-imposition of some form of CPE appears to be the simplest way of both introducing a cap on U.S. program expenditures and ensuring a significant commitment to funding Canadian programming.

Fourth, to the extent that competition between large multi-station groups remains clearly directed to increasing market share, rather than profitability, the Commission must question whether it needs to ensure that OTA TV on a stand alone basis is profitable.  If rational corporate players choose to operate their businesses this way, it must be that there are benefits that go beyond the specific financial picture of OTA TV.  As the “bullhorn” for other platforms, OTA TV provides a broadcasting group with huge advantages for self-promotion.  For this reason alone, OTA TV must be also seen in the context of a corporate whole.

5. The Business Model and Role of OTA TV Must be Allowed to Continue to Evolve

The question “Is the Business Model of OTA TV broken?” should perhaps be seen for what it is:  a crucial rhetorical question designed to focus the mind, not to be answered by a “yes” or a “no”.  If, for its own reasons, a party prefers to say “yes, but …” or “no, but …” the absolute should be seen with considerable circumspect.  The real answers will be found in the qualifier.

The reality is that OTA TV is a 60 year old business in the midst of an important, and entirely necessary, transition.  In some ways, the current transition is no more important than earlier ones, such as that from a more locally oriented business to a more nationally oriented one.  But in other ways, it is a far more profound one.  Because, unlike at any other time, the questions that really need to be asked today are questions like: Does OTA TV matter? Does it need to exist in its current form? Is it replaceable? Can the things that it does be done in other, better, more efficient or cost effective ways?

These are questions whose answers are far from simple.  The historical social and community significance of local TV gives it enormous local standing, as well as political power which incumbents and vested interests are more than happy to deploy. Moreover, predicting the future is a mug’s game, and what seems a clear and evident trend today  –  for example, and most notably, Canadians willingness to pay for TV services and disinterest in free over-the-air reception  --  may well change tomorrow.


What is the future of OTA TV?  The likelihood is there are as many possible futures as there are different markets and ownership groups.   This paper has noted at least four different modelsFootnote 84:


  1. The Generalist Locally-focused Multiplatform Portal. For a top local news/information provider, combining a strong generalist OTA TV station with a 24 hour local specialty channel, other local radio or print outlets and local online portal(s) should be a be a viable long term strategy.  The station and its associated other platforms would together comprise the #1 top of mind local destination for news and information about what’s happening and relevant to the community in question;
  2. The Generalist Local Bullhorn for a National or Regional Corporate Conglomerate. For the largest, highest rated corporate groups and stations, this remains a viable strategy.  Such a station does not have to be the #1 local news and information provider, or even necessarily provide local programming at all (although it would help), but must be generally seen in a community as a source high quality, top programming. Whether a station or stations is (are) independently profitable or a loss leader may be somewhat irrelevant, as long as they contribute significantly to the promotion, audience, revenues and profits of the group as a whole;
  3. The Niche/Opportunistic Local Provider.  Focusing on a target community of interest for the majority of programming (e.g. a given programming genre, or being religious, demographic or ethnic based) but opportunistically acquiring high margin "leftover" US simulcast (e.g. CW programming, popular un-scheduled sports), when possible. For marginal independent or otherwise non-viable “twin stick” affiliated stations, absent the ability to make a business out of purely local, programming, this may be the only available strategy.  This doesn’t mean it can’t be profitable; it does mean that also owning synergistic national broadcast assets, such as specialty services, would be advisable, if not necessary; and
  4. The Predominantly Local Strategy.  Proposed by Torstar in 2001 in licence applications for OTA TV stations in Toronto, Kitchener and Hamilton, and dismissed by the Commission at the time as not being viableFootnote 85, this is an approach that has yet to be attempted in Canada.  By focusing on retail revenues, an intelligent mix of original and repeat programming, and a cost effective, server based approach, such a service could nevertheless be viable in certain markets.  An “always on tap” current and breaking news and information destination, it would combine “evergreen” local information programming with text/graphic surveillance info and a reasonable amount of current breaking local news. Using a companion on line presence and making liberal use of UCG would not only engage the audience, but turn the audience into news gatherers themselves.  Dedicating 10-40% of the schedule to opportunistic simulcast/sports or other "event" or brokered programming would provide additional financial stability.

What are the alternatives to OTA TV?  These are equally evident, even if not “politically correct”.

Issues of ubiquity aside, the national part of the OTA TV business can clearly be replicated by a combination of Canadian specialty services and U.S. OTA TV stations.  There is little doubt that new applicants would line up for the opportunity to provide a general interest national free to basic mandatory carriage specialty service or non-over-the-air conventional network with mandatory simulcast and reasonable obligations to drama and other “underrepresented” Canadian programming.

The local side of the OTA TV business, that is the provision of local programming to local markets across the country, is also achievable through other means.  In addition to the purely local programming OTA TV strategy noted in 4. above, there are at least 3 other broadcast modelsFootnote 86:

  1. The 24 hr Local/regional News Specialty Service. Many major markets or regions should be able to sustain an efficiently run 24 hour TV news service along the lines of CP 24.  Ownership by a synergistic local or regional broadcaster (radio or TV) news outlet (print or radio) and/or online portal would significantly increase business viability and reduce the need for, or quantum of, subscription fees;
  2. The Nationally Licenced Local/regional News Specialty Service. A nationally licenced service, with a mandate to serve different markets or regions with different feeds, would be able to efficiently provide local, regional and national news programming as appropriate.  National synergies could be enhanced, and costs reduced, if the operator owned other national or local broadcast, print or online services;
  3. A Redefined Cable Community Channel.  In an era of almost ubiquitous online access with countless online platforms for self expression and community exchange, the historic community access role provided by cable community channels is of less and less public interest value.  Given the challenge to local OTA TV posed by those very same platforms, allowing the community channel to replace local OTA TV, where it is otherwise not viable, may only make sense.   Despite regulatory prohibitionsFootnote 87, many community channels have already effectively evolved into local TV stations with local news and information programming, personalities and (what appears from the viewer perspective to be) retail advertising.  Perhaps, on a market by market basis, it might be time to assess whether this is in the public interest, and bless that transformation, perhaps also subject to conditions such as the requirement that they be carried by all BDUs and make their programming and infrastructure available to local OTA TV stations on a non-discriminatory basis.

    (In addition, to the extent that insufficient or insufficiently diverse local programming is deemed to be available in given markets from private broadcasters, the CBC and Radio Canada could be urged to play a greater roleFootnote 88.)

In fact, in a world where consumers increasingly seek specialized services and communities of interest, there is no particular inherent reason that OTA TV’s historic “amalgamation" model, of generalized service with "everything under one roof", needs to continue.

These two findings  --  that there are different successful models for OTA TV and, failing that, different ways of providing what OTA TV provides  --  have consequences for operators, communities and the regulator alike. 

For incumbent OTA TV operators, a recognition that they themselves are replaceable might encourage the proposing of, and experimentation with, a greater range of potential answers, rather than the apparent singular focus on sustaining traditionally viable business models through mandatory subscription fees of one kind or another.

On the other hand, there are clearly markets and models that would require some form of access to subscription fees, if the provision of local television programming is considered to be in the public interest.  Critics of OTA TV broadcaster’s positioning might also, therefore, be well served by considering what those circumstances might be, and what they could propose as answers.  Incumbent specialty services obviously have no right to a monopoly on subscription fees, and BDU/ISPs who have historically pushed up basic service subscription fees well beyond inflation, strain credibility with their arguments that consumers are not, in appropriate circumstances, prepared to pay increased fees for OTA TV.

The reality is that all broadcast entities have a common interest in a future where each is able to tap into multiple potential revenue sources, both advertising and fee based.  Broadcast entities must also grapple with a future in which consumers are prepared to pay for value if they see it, but have an increasing array of bypass optionsFootnote 89 if they don’t.  Rather than merely concentrating on “slicing up the pie”, it is time for broadcast players to start placing more focus on their common interest in improving the “efficiency” of the Canadian broadcasting system, and its ability to deliver the best programming to Canadians, aggregate the largest audiences and advertising revenues, and keep subscription fees reasonableFootnote 90

For public policy makers, it is important to identify the precise market failure intervention is designed to correct. The fact that the OTA TV business is challenged, or even “broken”, is not in itself sufficient reason to intervene. Subsidizing or mandating a potentially dying model, when there are evident market alternatives, would not be appropriate or ultimately successful public policy. 

“One size fits all” solutions are unlikely to be appropriate, and identifying the precise purpose, criteria and effect of new or contemplated public policy measures is crucial. In particular, the focus should be on the needs of the market and correcting market failures (or excess concentration) rather than the requirements of a given OTA station.

From this perspective, there would appear to be three reasonable areas of potential intervention each with different rational.

1. Subsidy for local programming
That OTA TV programming may need subsidy to make local programming viable in certain markets to is a given.  That this requires the CRTC to always correct such market failure through direct subsidy should not be.  Instead the Commission should consider:

  1. Allowing OTA TV broadcasters to propose, at licence renewal, specific minimum requirements for local programming (including none), on a market by market basis, with rationale (with and without LPIF);
  2. Employing its Diversity of Voices framework to assess, in a market of a given size, whether local news programming obligations need to be imposed on any or all OTA TV broadcasters;
  3. If so, depending on the size of the market and resources of the OTA TV broadcaster, determining whether access to LPIF is warranted, and under what conditions; and
  4. Encouraging and exploring other means of providing local programming, particularly in markets that do not have sufficient diversity, including morphed former community channels, 24 hr local specialty news services and innovative national/local hybrids.

2. Redirection or increasing of resources devoted to Canadian (underrepresented) programming

In the pendulum swing to local, the Commission should not lose sight of national programming imperatives.  The Commission should introduce CPEs in a manner that increases Canadian programming expenditure and introduces downward pressure on U.S. programming expenditures.  Incentives or requirements for “underrepresented” programming, be they exhibition and/or expenditure based should be maintained or introduced.  Consideration could be given to including local programming (generally or in needed markets) in underrepresented program incentives or requirements.


3. Adopting appropriate market based negotiations/compensation regimes.  Ultimately, merely subsidizing unprofitable programming is not a recipe for a vibrant successful Canadian broadcasting system.  On the other hand, suddenly introducing a scheme like FFC merely as a matter of “fairness” ignores the history, benefits and balances in the OTA TV business.  Provided incremental revenue to OTA TV broadcasters cannot merely go to foreign program spending, there are areas where an ability to negotiate consideration for value could be beneficial.  In particular:

One thing is clear.  If, notwithstanding the above, the conclusion drawn is that OTA TV should still remain the “foundation” or “cornerstone” of the Canadian broadcasting system, then a greater “balance”  -- in bargaining power, in business opportunity  --  will need to be restored between OTA TV broadcasters and BDUs.

Today the power and the profits clearly lie with triple, quad and quint play BDUs and their ISP, telephone, broadcast and/or mobile interests. Yes, OTA TV broadcasters have made some bad (unlucky) decisions and BDUs have made some good (lucky) ones, but broadcasting in Canada is still a regulated business; and one that is regulated in the public interest.  And that means that the stronger (lucky) players shouldn’t automatically win.

Appendix A: About the Author

Peter Miller is a senior communications lawyer and consultant with clients in both the public and private sectors.  He specializes in business and policy development, broadcast regulation and planning, particularly in regards to digital media. 

Peter's professional background includes acting as Parliamentary Assistant to Members of Parliament, private practice in communications law, and senior broadcast executive positions.

From June 2008 to May 2009, Peter was Chief Operating Officer for S-VOX, the Vision TV group of companies.  In this capacity he oversaw the organization’s operations and broadcast infrastructure as well as negotiations leading up to an agreement to sell the group’s broadcast assets to Zoomer Media.  From 2002 to 2005, Peter held the position of Vice President, Planning and Regulatory Affairs for CHUM Limited, where he was the key strategic advisor on industry developments and growth opportunities for CHUM Limited, as well as being responsible for all facets of CRTC regulatory affairs and government relations.  Prior to joining CHUM in 1998, Peter was Executive Vice-President and General Counsel to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB), responsible for all policy and legal issues for radio, specialty and television.   He is also a professional engineer  --  graduating from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor in Engineering Science in 1984, and starting his career in telephone network design with Bell Northern Research in Ottawa.

Peter is a frequent industry commentator who has been actively involved in numerous industry boards and committees. Peter is a past chair of the CAB Specialty & Pay Services Board, past treasurer of Canadian Digital Television and a current member of the Board of Volunteer Toronto.


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