Television: Local (TV) hero

Channel Zero specializes in movies and porn. Their fix for CHCH? More news.

Cal Millar admits he doesn’t know much about running a local television station. But he better be a fast learner. His company, Toronto-based Channel Zero, is the new owner of Hamilton’s CHCH and Montreal’s little-known ethnic broadcaster CJNT, having acquired the two stations in June from debt-laden broadcaster Canwest Communications. The price was right: $12. Operating the channels over the next year, however, will cost about $26 million, and Millar, who is president and chief operating officer of Channel Zero as well as a co-owner, expects to end up $3 million in the red. “I can name dozens of people who know way more about over-the-air television and local news than we do,” says Millar. “We have no idea what we’re doing.”

What Channel Zero does know, however, is specialty television programming. The company has broadcast the Silver Screen Classics and Movieola channels since 2000, as well as distributing a number of adult channels. Now Miller is out to prove that local television is its own kind of specialty.

It’s a notion that flips so-called conventional television on its head. Those who have been in the local TV business for more than just a few weeks say that it’s in dire straits. Broadcasters CTV, Canwest and the CBC want a new funding model for local programming, calling on the CRTC to require TV service providers Rogers, Bell and others to pay for conventional channels. The cable and satellite companies counter that broadcasters just want a bailout.

Amid the war of words, CTV and Canwest have threatened to switch off some channels this summer. CHCH and CJNT were among five stations Canwest announced it would close: CHBC in Kelowna, B.C., was granted a reprieve; a last-minute local deal saved Victoria’s CHEK. In Red Deer, Alta., CHCA stopped broadcasting on Aug. 31.

Into the fray rides Channel Zero. What drew Millar and chairman and CEO Romen Podzyhun to CHCH and CJNT was that the stations already had specialties: CHCH’s was local news — its evening newscast had better ratings than the prime-time shows it aired as part of Canwest’s E! network — and CJNT offered popular ethnic programming. Channel Zero is focusing on those strengths. CJNT, which has six employees, now runs music videos and movies in 16 languages or dialects other than English and French. CHCH has news programming all day, then switches to movies billed as “comfortable favourites” in the evening.

Conventional broadcasters lament the high cost of local news, but Millar argues they just don’t do enough of it. “It’s a lot more expensive to buy a prime-time series that flops than it is to do news that people are already watching,” says Millar, whose station hired 15 people on top of its existing staff of 140 to support CHCH’s news operations. “It’s not cheap to do local news, but it isn’t prohibitively expensive when you keep the cameras running and do news all day.”

The test is whether it draws advertisers. The first couple of weeks have gone better than expected. But Millar doesn’t have the experience to predict how well the experiment will work. “Sometimes just being naive and stupid enough allows you to do things you’d otherwise be scared to do.” He’ll learn soon enough.