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Breath of fresh airwaves
December 29, 2011

On the verge of extinction two years ago, Hamilton's CHCH staked its future on news. It was a good move.

The Jackson/Hunter Street home of Hamilton TV station CHCH seem a lot happier and more upbeat these days.

“It’s nice to be at a place now that is expanding and growing and hiring, rather than one that is imploding,” confides Brian Wood, a veteran on-air personality. “I’m very pleased to see it like that — and to be still a part of it.”

“There’s a big difference now,” echoes camera/microwave operator Nick Garbutt, another senior staff member. “It’s almost like the old days. Being independent again, decisions get made right away, here rather than at ‘corporate.’ Because this is ‘corporate’ now.”

It’s been a little more than two years since a small, relatively unknown Toronto-based media company named Channel Zero Inc. breathed new life into CHCH, bringing the beleaguered station back from the brink of broadcast extinction.

According to figures obtained from CHCH, the station has 141 full-time jobs on its payroll now, roughly a 20-per-cent increase from the 117 full-timers in 2009.

Today, CHCH is healthy again, insists Cal Millar, Channel Zero’s president and chief operating officer.

“We’re really thrilled with how it’s going,” Millar explained during a recent telephone interview from his Toronto office. “The progress, over two years, has been fairly steady. It’s going well in terms of viewership.It’s going well in terms of the kind of programming we’re doing. It’s going well in terms of the team in Hamilton. It’s going well in terms of the new shows we’ve launched. It even went well in the digital transition, the million-dollar-plus investment we made in new transmitters across the province.”

Numbers from BBM, Canada’s ratings service, bear that out. CHCH’s 6 p.m. newscast often pulls in anywhere from 100,000 to 140,000 viewers per night in the Toronto-Hamilton extended market. Both the 6 p.m. and11 p.m. newscasts regularly beat out those from CBC, CP24 and Citytv. In fact, CHCH’s newscasts usually rank third, behind CTV and Global, and sometimes even outperform Global enough to land in second place.

And although the balance of CHCH’s schedule may not be breaking ratings records, the shows are managing to hold their own.

“We’re sustainable at this point,” says Millar. “Nobody’s getting rich over night, but we’re making money.”

The story of CHCH-TV has been one of tremendous ups and downs. “Lucky Channel 11” signed on the air in1954 as a CBC affiliate before becoming English Canada’s first independent station in 1961.

Building its fortunes and audience with a lot of local programming, the channel grew in popularity during the1960s and 1970s. In 1982, it expanded its horizons further, becoming a superstation distributed across Canada via satellite.

During the past two decades, increased competition and changes in ownership and on-air IDs — TV 11, ONtv, CH, E!, CHCH News — were accompanied by a steady stream of budget cuts and staff reductions that eventually gutted the station.

CHCH was on the verge of being shut down in 2009 when Channel Zero acquired it, along with Montreal’s CJNT-TV, from the bankrupt broadcasting division of what was then the Canwest media empire.The total cash price of the deal: $12 — which included an $11 price tag for CHCH.

“We had to pick a number for allocation purposes,” Millar recalls with a chuckle. “We thought it was so cool to buy Channel 11 for $11.”

In reality, the investment was substantially more. The deal saw Channel Zero assume the assets and, more significant, the considerable fiscal liabilities of both stations.

Sept. 1, 2009 the revamped CHCH was launched, with a new “Your Superstation” moniker and a new on-air look inspired by a logo from the past.

The relaunch also banked on a schedule heavily weighted with local news.

For the CHCH news team, it was an exhilarating vote of confidence.

“As you can imagine, there was a lot of excitement,” CHCH executive producer John McKenna said during an interview inside the station’s newsroom. “We were all thinking we were going to lose our jobs. Then, these guys came in and, suddenly, we were not an afterthought. We were the centre of their universe. Suddenly,we were important again.”

CHCH filled evening and weekend schedules with another throwback: classic movies that served as “comfort food” for viewers.

Last season, CHCH expanded its lineup to include such American programs as Chuck, Supernatural, 60Minutes, 48 Hours Mystery, 20/20 and Jimmy Kimmel Live. This fall, the American content grew some more with two new drama series — Hart Of Dixie and The Secret Circle — along with The Insider, a nightly entertainment-news show.

But CHCH has kept “comfort movies” as its evening/weekend centrepiece. It expanded local programming with this fall’s launch of Morning Live First Edition, a 90-minute show that hits the air weekdays at 4 a.m.

The new show means CHCH now airs 84 hours of local programming each week, a milestone the station trumpets as more hours than any other local television station in North America. Although ratings for Morning Live First Edition are still minuscule — about 1,000 viewers each day — Millar is willing to be patient. After all, he says, CHCH’s resurrection has really been a simple process.

“My analogy for a long time was that CHCH was like a tiara that somebody had painted with green paint,”Millar quips. “People thought it was just a plastic throwaway for years.

“All we did was kind of peel the paint off and go, ‘Wow! A nice gem!’

“There is no reason CHCH can’t be the juggernaut it has been in the past.”

The station’s overall reach certainly has that potential. As well as satellite distribution across Canada, CHCH has transmitters that beam its now-digital signal directly over the air into such markets as Ottawa, Windsor, London, Barrie-Orillia and Kitchener-Waterloo.

“We are in four million homes across Ontario and 7.5 million homes across Canada.

“But we also haven’t forgotten our roots. It’s a Hamilton station. It’s relevant from the Humber River to the Niagara River. If you want to call that the Golden Horseshoe, go ahead. But it’s centred on Hamilton.”

(First published in The Hamilton Spectator- November 5, 2011.)

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