“The math didn’t work,” Colette Watson said matter-of-factly. She is the vice-president of television and operations at Rogers Television.
It wasn’t a question of math, insisted the Cantonese, Mandarin, Italian and Punjabi-speaking viewers whose newscasts had been chopped. It was a betrayal, pure and simple.
In their view, the media giant’s latest cutback broke a long-standing commitment by Ted Rogers, the founder of the network. It violated the broadcaster’s 35-year pledge to champion diversity. It threw Canada’s ethnic minorities off the bus to make room for big-bucks sports franchises and lucrative digital platforms.
“Rogers has stripped bare the first-ever multilingual television licence,” said Dr. Joseph Wong, founder of the Yee Hong Foundation for Geriatric Care and a longtime member of the Chinese Canadian National Council. “We are asking the federal government and the CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission) to make sure Rogers does not systematically dismantle an important part of Canada’s multicultural broadcasting heritage.”
He spoke for a coalition of community groups — the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, the Canadian Ethnocultural Council, the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants and the Toronto chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council — fighting to the reverse the cutback.
There is no simple truth in this cash-verses-culture battle.
Rogers is right that OMNI, its ethnic television subsidiary, is losing money. So are most other conventional broadcasters. As Watson put it: “People are not turning to linear TV anymore for news in ethnic languages.” They can watch programs from other countries online. Their children, like the rest of the millennial generation, use digital streaming. It is primarily older immigrants who rely on OMNI’s local newscasts.
But the protesters are right that Rogers can easily afford to subsidize a handful of ethnic newscasts. The broadcasting conglomerate reported an operating profit of $1.1 billion in the first quarter of 2015 alone. They are also right that the media giant is systematically dismantling its multilingual programming. First it cut its Portuguese and South Asian newscasts. Then it eliminated OMNI’s dedicated sales and marketing staff. Now it is chopping four more of its daily newscasts.
What lies at the heart of this dispute is whether OMNI remains a vital bridge for newcomers seeking to understand Canada, participate in the democratic process and integrate into the community. The coalition, citing the experience of its members, says yes. Rogers, pointing to OMNI’s plummeting ratings, says no.
It is unlikely that either the government or CRTC will take sides in this conflict.
The Conservatives are loath to meddle with market forces unless they see a big political payoff. In this case, they don’t. Neither do the opposition parties. The Liberals and New Democrats have not rushed to the defence of Canada’s linguistic minorities. (A handful of individual MPs with large concentrations of ethnic voters in their ridings have taken a stand. Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino issued a statement urging Rogers to reinstate its Italian-language newscasts. New Democrats Jenny Sims and Jasbir Sandu, who represent constituencies with significant Punjabi populations, have urged Rogers to reconsider its decision. But they were not speaking on behalf of their parties.)
Canada’s broadcast regulator is equally reluctant to get involved. Last year the CRTC renewed OMNI’s operating licence, despite the cancellation of 21 shows affecting 12 linguistic minorities. Even Unifor, the union which represents the 110 employees whose jobs were cut, opted not to challenge Rogers. Had it believed there was any chance of winning the support of the CRTC, it would have gone to bat for its members.
The coalition’s best hope — a slim one — is to take its case to the electorate. That is what it is attempting to do.
It is off to an inauspicious start. Only a few journalists — two from Chinese newspapers, one from a Jamaican newspaper, and one from the Canadian Ethnic Media Association — showed up at its kickoff news conference. Only a few voters realize one of the original pillars of multiculturalism is crumbling.
No one thinks the digital revolution can or should be stopped. The question confronting the electorate is how much minority voices matter in the multimedia universe. The question confronting Canada’s next government is how do policy-makers protect Canada’s much-envied brand of pluralism in a strife-ridden world.