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Zero to hero

THE C21 INTERVIEW: There have been major changes at Canada’s Channel Zero, thanks to a borrowed business model. Sean Davidson reports.

Cal Millar

Cal Millar and Romen Podzyhun clearly believe in giving credit where credit’s due. The co-founders of Toronto’s Channel Zero freely admit they looked south, to Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) in the US, and across town, to CityTV, during their recent expansion from specialty to over-the-air broadcasting.

 

The small Canadian company bought CHCH in nearby Hamilton and Montreal’s CJNT in 2009 and since then has been turning both into TBS-style ‘superstations’ that complement strong local news with a mix of movies, music videos and acquired programming – often low-hanging fruit from the US.

The resulting schedules resemble those of the Turner-owned outlet in Atlanta and the CityTV station group when it was owned by Chum. “We make no bones about it – we happily ripped off their entire model,” says Millar with a laugh. “There’s very little difference between what they do and what we’re doing.”

“People say it’s an original idea. No, it isn’t,” adds Podzyhun, nodding to Moses Znaimer’s work at CityTV in the 1970s. Channel Zero, together with Znaimer-led ZoomerMedia and Glassbox TV, is now one of the small but ascendant broadcasters doing business in the shadow of Canada’s few concentrated media giants like Bell Media and Shaw Media.

“Local television means you can see what’s happening in your neighbourhood and in the rest of the world, but we feed it to you and you only have to go to one place,” says Millar. “Our vision for our superstations is a really relevant network during the day with wide, mainstream programming at night.”

The 250-staff company bought into the terrestrial market just as the giants were shedding local stations amid talk that everything on the lower end of the dial was headed for dinosaur-style extinction. Two years later, CHCH is in the pink and leading the way for CJNT, which was recently rebranded as Metro 14.

Hamilton’s signal goes across all five time zones in Canada, though its advertising and viewer base remain closer to home, while Montreal’s reach will likely stay more modest, the duo says. On its purchase, the station moved from a selection of “semi-unwatchable” multicultural shows to music videos. It’s in the process of building its news department, on which it hopes to form a loyal local audience and build towards more series acquisitions – sharing some programmes, if not a visible brand, with Hamilton.

Because Channel Zero can’t compete dollar-for-dollar with the likes of Bell and Shaw at the LA Screenings, it tends to pick up returning, still-viable shows when they fall off competitors’ grids.

Romen Podzyhun

“We’re not bidding for those shows that will win the top 20 slots. We don’t have the network to amortise the costs,” says Millar, adding that viewers of conventional channels are largely indifferent to which network has a particular programme. Notable shows on the CHCH grid instead include Chuck, Everybody Hates Chris and 60 Minutes.

“Our version of success is a show that makes money,” Millar adds. “If it garners a one rating and we can sell that at a profit, that’s success.” Chuck, seen previously on the Rogers-owned CityTV stations, “has never had a breakout year yet for us but it’s been a very valuable property.”

Channel Zero looks to be putting much of its muscle into its superstations, though Millar and Podzyhun are coy about their expansion plans, conceding only that they would be keen to apply their (borrowed) model to other, underserved markets in Canada or the US. “We’re not empire-building but if it makes sense to do it, we’ll do it,” says Podzyhun.

The company has already moved south with the launch of Fight Now, a specialty net about boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) that debuted in the US earlier this year, reaching about three million homes.

Millar and Podzyhun see potential in pugilism and are after shows – including documentaries, info and lifestyle on top of live and library bouts – about the sport. Latin American communities in the US, Podzyhun notes, are especially fond of traditional boxing, a sport that has been underserved thanks to the rise of MMA.

Channel Zero’s remaining specialties are the short-focused Movieola and Silver Screen, a TCM-like showcase of movies from the 1930s to the 1960s. Their experience running Silver Screen helped Millar and Podzyhun keep CHCH supplied with movies in its early days, though Movieola has, after 10 years, out-grown its plans to run nothing but shorts. Millar says the channel is about to be made-over – a process that could include asking regulators to tweak its licence.

“Short film hasn’t translated as well as we’d have liked it to on TV,” Millar concedes, noting that Glassbox-owned Bite TV made a similar move when it dropped extreme sports shorts in favour of comedy. “We’re never going to compete with amateur home video on YouTube.”

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