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From Niagara This Week

No TV Voice For Niagara

Doug Draper, Reporter's View

Dec 9, 2005

Forgive this Niagara resident if I'm developing a bit of a complex. But what is it about this region of the country that so often leaves us on the short end when it comes to getting the support we need from senior levels of government for projects that might advance our quality of life here?

Let me give a few examples.

Wainfleet has been waiting for the better part of a year now for the federal and provincial governments to do the obvious thing and grant it $35 million under its Canada-Ontario Rural Infrastructure Fund to address an environmental crisis that is swamping the drinking water of hundreds of homes in that municipality, along with the waters of Lake Erie, with high concentrations of a dangerous E. coli bacteria.

Surely a problem of this magnitude, capable of causing a tragedy as fatal as the one that left seven dead in Walkerton, Ont., five years ago, deserves as much consideration as, let's say, spending tens-of-millions of dollars on another gambling casino.

At the same time, Niagara's regional government is still waiting for the province to give its blessing to a plan it negotiated with St. Catharines-based Rankin Construction to erect five or six wind turbines along the Lake Erie shore but that plan has so far been kept in limbo by a province that talks the talk when it comes to cleaner energy, but can't seem to walk fast enough when it comes to approving a project that would generate enough electricity to serve 5,000 homes and would mean the release of about 20,000 fewer tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere every year. On top of that, Tom Rankin, whose company has already become a leader in building wind farms in other parts of the country, is willing to shoulder half the estimated $20-million capital costs of the project -- an offer one would think a province, hard-pressed to scare up enough funds of its own for advancing our energy needs, could hardly refuse.

But think again.

Another proposal, by TVN Niagara Inc., to establish a first-ever commercial television station in Niagara , dedicated to broadcasting at least 35 hours a week of programs focusing on local affairs, was refused this November by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. The CRTC denied an opportunity for Niagara to have what I remember London , Ont., having -- a community-based commercial television network -- when I attended university there more than 25 years ago.

Indeed, as TVN president Wendell Wilks noted during public hearings before the CRTC, held in Niagara Falls this June, "there are 144 English language television stations operating in 44 different markets of Canada . Market No. 12 is Niagara and it has never had a television voice of its own.... (Yet) here we are, half a century after television stations in Peterborough, Kingston and Hamilton went on the air (and) this vibrant peninsula, with over 420,000 residents (and) 40,000 visitors per day, is now asking for their first station. There are," stressed Wilks, "29 markets (across Canada ) that are smaller than Niagara and have stations licensed by the CRTC."

And that is apparently the way it is going to stay, because this November the CRTC not only rejected a TVN application that, at the June hearings made it about as clear as could be that this region will never have a commercial television station of its own.

The federal agency, as it is want to do, cited another reason for its rejection - a lack of evidence, in its view, that TVN had adequate financial resources to start up and sustain the quality and quantity of local programming it was proposing to air. As I sat there at the hearings this June, listening to some of the federally appointed hacks that make up the CRTC question Wilks and his colleagues about their finances, I could not help but wonder why an agency that should be more concerned about some of the obscene garbage and lack of Canadian content other stations are airing, should care if Wilks loses his shirt in two years.

But even if Wilks and company had more money than Ted Turner, Niagara will still never get a commercial TV station as long as this agency has anything to do with it because the region is already being served by Toronto- and Hamilton-based stations in what the CRTC calls "the Toronto extended market." And as the CRTC concluded in its ruling, "conventional television stations in the market, taken as a whole, have experienced declines in advertising sales and viewership since those stations began operations.... Given these developments, the commission is concerned the introduction of a new competitor in the Toronto extended market could compromise the ability of existing conventional television stations to fulfill their programming commitments."

Perhaps, the commission ought to consider the possibility that those stations are losing ads and viewers because they are doing a poor job of covering issues of concern, other than fatal traffic crashes or crime, in regions like Niagara. As Wilks puts it; "The only time they are interested in us is when we have a body bag issue for them."

For further confirmation of that, stay tune to the number of out-of-town television crews that will pour into Niagara if they have any reason to believe Karla Homolka may use her new-found freedom to pay a visit to her old St. Catharines home.

Doug Draper can be reached at ddraper@niagarathisweek.com

Listen to TVN's CEO Wendell Wilks on a radio interview from CHSC.
A terrific interview in MP3 format, which you can stream from our site or download in four segments.

To download these files, please RIGHT-CLICK on the link and select "Save Target As" to save the MP3 files onto your computer.
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