OMNI seeks to restore ethnic newscasts with national multicultural channel

TORONTO – OMNI Television says it’s seeking regulatory approval to create a new national channel that would restore ethnic newscasts axed just one year ago.

The Toronto-based subsidiary of Rogers Communications (TSX:RCI.B) says it also wants the multilingual and multicultural channel to be included in basic TV packages.

Unlike OMNI’s current over-the-air channels, the proposed OMNI Regional would be carried by distribution services to subscribers across the country.

Revenue from those subscriptions would fund new daily newscasts in Italian, Mandarin, Cantonese and Punjabi, as well as cover increased distribution costs, said Colette Watson, vice-president of television and operations at Rogers.

“We’re trying to position OMNI for long-term sustainability,” Watson said Tuesday from Banff, Alta., where she was attending the Banff World Media Festival.

“It was a very difficult decision and process to go through last year. It was the right thing to do from a business perspective with respect to keeping OMNI solvent.”

OMNI’s application with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission proposes a channel with four feeds: Pacific, Prairies, East, and ICI Quebec, a partnership with Montreal ethnic television station International Channel/Canal International (ICI).

OMNI’s current local stations in Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver would continue to operate as free over-the-air channels, as would ICI’s local station in Montreal.

But inclusion in basic TV packages could give the broadcaster millions of dollars in added yearly revenue, which currently comes solely from advertising.

Money was the main reason OMNI cancelled money-losing newscasts and slashed 110 jobs at its multicultural channels last year, Watson said, adding the newscasts cost about $9 million but only brought in $3.9 million of advertising revenue.

The new funding plan seeks 12 cents a month per subscriber. Rogers cited CRTC figures that pegged TV subscribers at 11.6 million in 2014.

“The 12 cents is a complete break-even,” she said, noting the revived newscasts would still cost about $9 million.

As for how many positions the restored newscasts would create, Watson said: “it’s too early to say how many jobs (would be created) and what those jobs would be.”

If approved, Watson said OMNI can likely get the newscasts up and running in three to four months. The current affairs series introduced last year as a less costly alternative would remain as “a key component” of the new programming.

The proposal also promises to devote 80 per cent of the schedule to ethnic programming — 20 per cent more than currently — while continuing to devote 50 per cent of the schedule to third-language programming.

It would also devote at least 40 per cent of annual revenues to the production of Canadian programming, re-establish in-house production in all of the markets served by OMNI’s over-the-air stations, and create a national cultural affairs series produced in Alberta.