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Group aims to localize television programming through new company (2/02)

By Ian Ross In an era where escalating media convergence has created monopolies and alienated viewers, a former MCTV employee in Sault Ste.

By Ian Ross

In an era where escalating media convergence has created monopolies and alienated viewers, a former MCTV employee in Sault Ste. Marie wants to reverse that trend and is leading an effort to restore local news and programming autonomy back into his community's hands.

Frustrated by MCTV's decision to regionalize newscasts, Craig Huckerby, a 21-year Sault broadcaster, is venturing into uncharted waters by drawing up a proposal to start a new Sault television broadcasting company virtually from scratch.

The Algoma Broadcasting Group, comprised of Huckerby and like-minded colleagues, including recently laid off MCTV workers with retired broadcasters who are lending a hand, began in January researching, gathering support and organizing a local campaign in preparation to file a broadcast licence application with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Sure, Huckerby admits, it is a "major hurdle" to overcome and the odds are likely stacked against them by the television powers-that-be, but delivering a truly community-driven service that has a relevant connection and reflects the lives of its viewers is a project worth pursuing.

"We want a full gamut of local programming," says Huckerby, who served as a producer, director and weather forecaster prior to MCTV's staffing cuts late last year. "We want a real TV station with commercials that can sustain itself."

In taking a cue from community-led stations like Toronto's CITY TV, Barrie's New VR and the CHUM Television Group, Huckerby wants to recapture the atmosphere of the old Huron Broadcasting days before MCTV took control in the early 1990s.

The Sault affiliate faded to black last fall when MCTV pulled the plug on local broadcasts opting instead to centralize newscasts on a regional basis from Sudbury.

Stations in Timmins and North Bay were also affected as part of a widespread, across-the-board cut of 40 on-air personalities, management, sales and behind-the-camera people such as directors and programmers.

What was promised for each affected community was a distinct 10-minute segment of tape-delayed local news during the supper hour for each market. MCTV would continue to staff the Sault newsroom with four reporters who send their stories to Sudbury for packaging into local segments.

But Huckerby would like to see local coverage increased, and others in the community share his viewpoint, he says.

Some money was poured into new sets and graphics for the Sault, but the production remains light on local content, says Huckerby. And after an initial uproar last November, public opposition with the format is mounting again.

Phone calls to his home and e-mailed messages through a community Web site have confirmed his belief that an increasing number of Sault residents are in favour of local programming, which can be made possible through his broadcasting initiative.

They plan to circulate a survey and petition among local residents before making their pitch to the CRTC in mid-March to secure a public hearing.

Already they have garnered support from city politicians, the labour community and Sault MPP Tony Martin, and expect other organizations, who supported MCTV during their last licence renewal, to shortly jump on board.

Among the options they are exploring include either applying for a new class of CRTC licence as 'community-based media' for low-powered stations, positioning themselves as a CBC affiliate or, the more expensive and time-consuming alternative of launching an entirely independent station.

The initial price tag they had to outfit a station was thought to be around the $2 million mark, but Huckerby believes they can pare that down to $200,000 to $300,000 by employing the latest in digital technology.

"We're not doing this to become rich," Huckerby says. "We're doing this because there's a need in the community for local news and programming."

In his preferred format, Huckerby envisions a high quality, three-times-a-day newscast using live on-the-spot feeds by plugging into the city's new fibre-optic system. In copying what CHUM group stations already do, they would utilize "squawk-box" technology situated in key areas of the city, allowing TV crews to tap into the line for live on-location reports instead of relying on more expensive microwave trucks.

The station would be set up like a storefront operation similar to the street-interactive NBC Today Show set allowing the broadcasters to mingle with the public.

In comparing North Bay's effort to save their Ontario Hockey League franchise from moving to Michigan, Huckerby says the loss of regular local broadcasts represents a blow to the city's prestige and spirit as well.

"A city of this size (80,000 pop.), Timmins and North Bay need their own TV media outlet. It's the cornerstone of the community for local reflection and goings-on. We don't have that now.

"What's considered news in the Sault may not be important in Sudbury so it doesn't get on our newscast. They have full editorial control of what goes on and I believe it's very important to get that back."