Rogers confirms Canada-wide layoffs and programming cuts at Citytv stations

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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TORONTO - Citytv will no longer produce local newscasts in Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton, and Toronto's will be severely gutted, after the company announced programming cuts and the elimination of about 60 jobs Tuesday.

Citytv, owned by Rogers Communications Inc. (TSX:RCI.B), announced it is restructuring television operations, cutting newscasts and jobs in cities across the country effective immediately.

Jobs and programming have been affected in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton, and there will also be job losses in Winnipeg.

Rumours of the cuts were widely reported on Twitter postings and blogs early in the day, but the company remained tight lipped until it released a sparse statement Tuesday afternoon.

Rogers said the restructuring is due to "shifting viewer patterns coupled with the overall state of the economy," in a statement Tuesday.

"Citytv continues to face financial challenges, and we are confident that this situation will be reversed in the upcoming business cycle," Jamie Haggarty, Rogers' executive vice president of television operations wrote to employees in an email obtained by The Canadian Press.

"We believe in local television...We will focus on quality over quantity and build on the strengths of our top performing local programs. "

But Peter Murdoch, national vice-president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union, which represents many of the laid off Citytv employees, says the massive cuts to local news is out of line with Rogers' assurances to the CRTC that it would defend local programming.

"It's always an easy decision for big companies just to axe people, the tough decision is to find ways to keep them going and producing programming that people want."

The cuts reflect continued restructuring in Canada's conventional television broadcast industry, which has been squeezed by a slump in advertising and viewership shifts to specialty channels that have made it more difficult to make money.

Canwest Global Communications has been cutting jobs at its TV stations and put its conventional TV business under bankruptcy protection from creditors. Meanwhile CTV has cut jobs and streamlined its conventional broadcasting business to improve its finances.

Both broadcasters have also been pressing for new sources of revenue - a so-called fee for carriage charge that would be applied to cable TV operators - to help make conventional TV profitable.

Local broadcasters say the carriers like Rogers, a cable firm that also owns TV stations, pay nothing for the privilege of distributing their popular and expensive programs, including local news.

That proposal is still being studied by the CRTC.

Rogers spokeswoman Koreen Ott says six per cent of the 1,000 employees across Canada, or 60 people were laid off at meetings Tuesday. The shows were to go off the air later that night and the bios of on-air personalities on the company's website were removed Tuesday afternoon.

Citytv will no longer carry local news in some of the country's largest cities.

"(But) our Breakfast Television, which is available in every market, is still strong in news," Ott said.

David Lewington, spokesman for CEP local 723M in Toronto, said veteran news anchors Anne Mroczkowski, Laura DiBattista and Merella Fernandez were laid off, along with reporters Marianne Dimain and Pam Seatle.

Twenty-nine full-time employees and seven part-time employees including associate producers, editors, cameramen, and writers have also been laid off in Toronto.

"We have an indication that some (senior) people will volunteer and that will save some of the junior people from being laid off," he added.

Citytv cancelled Toronto's noon hour news, five'o' clock news, and a program called City Television International, a half hour program that aired after the 11 o'clock news, Lewington said.

The programs will be replaced with repeats of CityLine at five and other content.

He added the company advised the union that while television advertising has been improving coming out of the recession, it is not enough to save the local programming.

There will be no Citytv newscasts on the weekends. Toronto's six and 11 o'clock newscasts are cancelled.

"News doesn't stop happening on weekends, so if there was another propane blast, if there was an earthquake somewhere in the world, and there were people in Toronto that wanted information on the weekend, they can't go to Citytv any more because they're not going to be there," he said.

"They've made an important strategic decision for themselves, but what concerns people in the business is where will that audience be on Monday morning if there's no 11'o' clock newscast on Sunday night."

He said while there have been layoffs in the broadcasting industry since the fall of 2008, this is the first layoff since the recession began at Rogers' Citytv and Omni.

In November 2008, CTV laid off 62 people, mostly production employees, at his bargaining unit.

Stephen Hawkins, president of CEP local 830M, says the six job cuts, including four on-air personalities, in his Vancouver unit come after the station, like many of its Western counterparts, was whittled down in 2006.

Citytv in Vancouver has reduced Breakfast television from four hours to three and cut its lunch hour news show and a program called The List, in which four comedians discussed the news, he said.

"We need more feet on the street to better reflect what's happening in our community. One reporter and a handful of camera operators, I don't think we do the same job we'd do if we had higher numbers and more of a commitment to local news."

Citytv television stations in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg will continue to deliver Breakfast Television and CityLine.

Hours after Citytv announced the cancellation of its 5 p.m. newscast in Toronto, former sister station turned rival Cable Pulse 24 announced it would offer two more news programs on the radio and web.

Rogers Media purchased the five Citytv stations in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg for $375 million in 2007 from CTV, which had to divest the stations, part of the former ChumCity empire, due to media-ownership regulations not allowing the same company to own two stations in the same market.

Rogers is one of Canada's largest communications companies and has cut hundreds of jobs over the last 18 months at its various operations. Those range from cable TV and wireless phone operations to magazines and the Toronto Blue Jays baseball club.

Organizations: Citytv, Rogers Communications Inc., CTV TSX CRTC Canadian Press Paperworkers union Canwest Global Communications The List Cable Pulse 24 Rogers Media Toronto Blue Jays

Geographic location: TORONTO, Vancouver, Canada Calgary Edmonton Winnipeg

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