Too much star power

Torstar is mad for Ontario media domination

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Building a media empire hasn’t been easy for Torstar. The company that publishes the Toronto Star is schizophrenic when it comes to the issue. The country’s largest daily newspaper has long editorialized against media concentration in Canada, even while its corporate parent has desperately attempted to increase its market reach beyond T.O.

However, since its pitch for three new local TV stations in southern Ontario was snubbed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in favour of Alberta-based Craig Broadcasting, the paper has barely been able to conceal head office’s outrage — playing stories upfront as if the fate of the GTA hinged on who got the licences.

As much as the Star is going to make its appeal to the federal cabinet an indictment of the CRTC, this is really about Torstar’s need to dominate the southern Ontario media market.

Some among the local intelligentsia share the view that Torstar got hosed. Of course, if Canwest Global owned the only major daily newspapers in Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo as well as Toronto and were the ones applying for new TV licences, you can imagine the uproar around media concentration.

“As opposed to making a very large acquisition where the multiples were very high, Torstar’s approach has always been to build convergence versus buying it,” explains Torstar spokesperson Catherine Yates.

Torstar watched with convergence envy as Rogers ate Maclean Hunter in the mid-1990s. Then CTV and the Globe and Mail got hitched (thanks to Ma Bell), and finally Canwest Global bought out Hollinger’s nationwide newspaper chain.

God knows, Torstar has tried to find a mate to broaden its horizons.

When it finally worked up the moxie to pitch the feds on its own mini-network of TV stations in Toronto, Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo, it was rejected.

On the face of it, when CTV, Canwest Global and even the CBC have severely cut back local programming, it’s hard to knock the Star’s proposal to open three new local stations, each with its own staff and airing at least 80 per cent locally or regionally produced fare.

“There are many positive aspects to the Craig proposal, but it’s not likely to lead to innovative and community-based programming, unless by community-based and innovative you mean Toronto, because that’s where Craig is going to have its station,” says Hamilton MP Stan Keyes, a Liberal who has also filed an appeal to cabinet in favour of the Star proposal.

But can the Star deliver? Three out of five CRTC commissioners had enough doubts about the financial plan to deny the application.

Even some outside observers doubt whether the Star can make it work.

“We don’t think the revenues that they’re talking about are going to be available,” says one Bay Street media analyst who doesn’t want to be identified.

The other private broadcasters argue that letting Torstar in would only weaken the advertising pie and therefore the broadcast industry in southern Ontario. But Torstar put up its own study at the CRTC refuting that.

Of course, it’s also likely the major networks don’t want any competition upsetting their market share and forcing them to spend more on programming.

It’s now up to cabinet to either uphold or overturn the CRTC’s decision. If they do overturn it, a whole new round of hearings may be held.

“(Torstar’s) instituted a process that we’ll obviously have to be engaged in,” says Craig’s vice-president of regulatory affairs, Jennifer Strain. “But as far as we’re concerned, we’re moving ahead on our plans for Toronto.”

There’s a lot of chatter about the Liberal-loving Star’s friends in Ottawa — including Heritage Minister and Hamilton MP Sheila Copps — coming through for Torstar.

The question for locals in Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto is whether, for the promise of more community coverage, it’s worth giving an already dominant media player a bigger megaphone.

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