Canadian television is currently tackling two major issues: Multilingual broadcasts and the rating system. In the midst of these issues, two old-fashioned media brawls have broken out. At stake, in this multicultural nation, is who will emerge as the ultimate license holder of Canada’s main multilingual network, and what the new role of the rating system is going to be.

On the subject of the first issue, heavyweight players such as Rogers — whose OMNI multicultural channel license is up for grabs — and Bell are in the mix, but so are scrappy bantamweights Telelatino (TLN) and the Asian Television Network (ATN). In an attempt to double their odds for the purposes of this bid, those two have teamed up to form Canada World TV.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has called for and are refereeing this tag-team smackdown, with ongoing hearings between the eight applicants. A winner in this linguistic lottery will be announced this spring. One big question remains, however — who will watch?

As TLN Media Group president Aldo Di Felice said, “Ultimately, it’s not what the executives like me or OMNI or anybody else says about what’s important to multicultural audiences; it’s whether [audiences] are watching it or not. Are they watching the content that we’re putting out there that we say is important to them?”

The reason for the potential audience uncertainty is that the current industry standard of measurement — as calculated by data research company Numeris (formerly BBM Canada) — is almost entirely focused on English- and French-speaking households in Canada. Numeris’ survey method — which relies upon a panel of 4,500 households totaling roughly 11,000 individuals — is weighted by age and gender, but not by languages other than English and, to a lesser extent (in one region only), French.

In order to calculate the national survey average, Numeris basically divides Canada into six regions: Vancouver-Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto-Hamilton, Montreal (English) and Quebec (French). In addition, some data is surveyed from outside those regions. The only time an attempt is made to seek out survey representatives from a third or fourth language community, as Numeris’ general manager Anita Boyle Evans explained, is when a particular linguistic group rises above a 10 percent threshold in any one region.

Boyle Evans said that currently only happens in Vancouver, where Asian-Canadians exceed a 10 percent threshold as established by Stats Canada, the country’s government statistical agency. Other linguistic groups in Canada come close, but fall short. In Brampton, Ontario, for example, the Southeast Asian population soars, but lumped in with the greater Toronto total, that group fails to get weighted by Numeris.

As Di Felice pointed out, the Numeris survey data is vital to every one of the bidders. “All the media buying agencies use that as the currency for media pricing. You’re buying audience as measured by Numeris.”

It’s a tough sell, therefore, if the numbers simply are not there. The survey’s shortcomings have existed ever since the current incarnation of personal people meters were introduced in Canada in 2010 and, really, for decades before that. A quick look at OMNI’s current daily overnights reveal not numbers, but a sea of white space.

“No kidding,” said Colette Watson, senior vice president, Television and Broadcast Operations at Rogers Media. “OMNI is not rated; never has been because of that,” said Watson, who is spearheading Rogers’ attempt to retain the multicultural brand.

Greg Dinsmore, director of Brand and Product Insights at Rogers Media, concurred.

“The sample size is simply too small,” he said. “With a station like OMNI, which has programs of multiple languages, each individual language group could represent less than one percent of the Canadian population. To make a panel representative at that level would require many, many more times the number of panelists that they have, and it would be incredibly costly.”

The CRTC is aware of the shortcomings inherent in the survey data system. For years they’ve heard the same complaints from other niche networks across Canada who felt their viewers were underrepresented.

As Di Felice said, “That sample-based system is always using a smaller sample to extrapolate bigger numbers, and it becomes difficult to do that when you have more channels, and even more difficult when you have channels in different languages.”

In other words, there comes a point when projecting the viewing habits of 35 million Canadians based on less than five thousand households just doesn’t add up — especially when you’re trying to cover ethnic diversity.

Still, Di Felice and others calculate that there are already close to five million Canadians who do not speak English or French as their first language. That’s a potential viewing audience that can only increase with Canada currently welcoming approximately a million new immi-grants every three years.

How to more accurately count these viewers? Many in the industry, including the CRTC, feel a solution is already at hand. As Di Felice suggested, every set-top box in every carrier household in Canada already provides census-based data, which reveals “who is actually tuned to what channel and for how long.” Carriers such as Rogers and Bell, therefore, already see real numbers rather than projected estimates.

As Dinsmore said, “partial views” of the actual audience are already happening, “but you can’t get a view of everything from any one cable company data check.”

That could soon change. The CRTC has established a working group tasked with aggregating the set-top data currently received by Canada’s various carriers. If, by September of 2019, the group hasn’t come up with a shared data solution, the Commission will compel that data be provided to broadcasters on demand.

“The visibility of audience log jam is temporary,” said Di Felice. “Sooner rather than later we’re going to be able to get that data from the carriers and then be able to have a feel for how popular our channels are.”

How soon, however, remains in question. Some suggest that executives at the big broadcast networks — including Bell’s CTV, Corus’ Global, and Rogers’ Citytv — are in no hurry to dismantle a survey system that may favor the main players.

Dinsmore cautions that while “there’s a good chance that the data for smaller stations on the one hand and third-language stations on the other could be greatly improved, the devil’s in the details. I don’t want to say that that’s going to solve the problem because it very much depends on how it works and how it’s implemented.”

Di Felice, for one, is fed up with what he sees as foot-dragging. “All of those problems are not like sending a rocket into space. Nobody’s tackled it before because nobody was being compelled.”

Complicating matters, some in the industry suggest, is the fact that the same big media companies who own major broadcasters such as CTV, Corus, and Citytv also have ownership stakes in Numeris. Boyle Evans told VideoAge that despite the CRTC’s September 2019 deadline, the company is still only in the “initial stage” of looking at what a set-top box sharing data system would look like.

“We are working closely with the CRTC working group at the moment,” she said. Numeris will report back to the group in the spring, at which point the company hopes to determine “whether it’s feasible to do something like this.”

In any language, the message back from some of the multilingual network bidders can be translated into one phrase: “Hurry up.”

(By Bill Brioux)

Audio Version (a DV Works service)