The Smug Dick letters

Two gentlemen debate the future of Canadian TV

From: Jim Sprague 

To: Jesse Brown <>

Normally I like your show, I’ve been listening from the start. I don’t expect to get very far with you but I had to respond to this week’s shit podcast.

I’ve worked in terrestrial, small market television for 35 years, doing local news, retail commercials, raising a family, paying taxes, supporting my community. We’re a small station that was dumped by Global after years of losing money. The employees got together and with help from the CRTC, who forced Global to meet with us, bought the station. On September 1, 2009 we owned the station, but not the building, we had no programming, no equipment and a competitor with more money than God.  No one thought we would last a year but we’ve lasted 5 years and we’re about to become profitable for the first time since the 70’s. We now own our building and we actually rent one floor to the local CBC station. We’ve grown from less than 30 employees to about 65. That’s 65 families that have had a pay cheque for 5 years.  In your podcast you and your guest repeatedly brush off the idea that people want to protect the old model to protect their jobs, like they’re irrelevant. Well they’re not irrelevant to those 65 families or the thousands of other families across Canada that are supported by local television.

You come off as very smug and self-satisfied, but I’m not sure what you think you have to be smug about because you really don’t know that much.  You’re the guy at the party that always feels compelled to tell everyone that you don’t own a television.  You were talking about how we wouldn’t become slaves to Netflix (which you already seem be) because “silicon valley”  will compete in the future with “new ways of doing video” and “peer to peer”.  Wow, that’s very insightful.  Oh, and you said “I don’t know” a lot.  That’s probably the most accurate thing you said.

I’d love to hear your vision of the future.  Obviously it involves new ways of doing video and peer to peer, but who’s going to report on my local council meeting?  The new bridge they’re building is going way over budget, I’d like to hear about that.  Will I get that peer to peer?  On Netflix?  On YouTube?  When your Netflix fuelled Utopia comes to pass, who is going to generate the content?  Be specific. I enjoy watching YouTube, but if you take away the stuff that somebody was paid to create, mostly for terrestrial television, all you’re left with is guys hitting each other in the nuts and russian dash cams.  Is that your idea of nirvana?

The CRTC is talking about a Netflix tax?  Who cares?  It’ll never happen, it’s not technically possible, it’s just a red herring yet you wasted half your show talking about it.  They’re also talking about doing away with simultaneous substitution. Why? Who cares where the commercials come from? The US networks? They don’t give a shit.  A huge proportion of our station’s revenues comes from simulcast programming.  Across Canada it’s probably hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity. And who does it hurt? Apart from the pinheads that say they have the right to see the Bud spots on the Super Bowl, who does simulcast hurt? How can you justify taking away all that revenue?

I understand that old television is dying.  I doubt I’ll retire from it.  But could you be a little less gleeful about it’s demise?  Just because you couldn’t make it at the CBC doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have value. How does having a viable local television industry infringe on your right to not have a TV and call yourself a digital pioneer?

I’ll probably keep listening, but you’re still a pompous dick.


From: Jesse Brown <>  

To: Jim Sprague

Thanks Jim.

I’m glad you wrote me to tell me I’m a pompous dick instead of just not listening anymore.

A few things that I should have made sure were said in the podcast:

I have no idea what the future holds. But we agree that old TV is dying, so we need to plan based on that. As a guy who’s had a career for 35 years in traditional TV, your interests would probably be best served by maintaining and protecting that old system for as long as possible, which I’d say is 10 years at the very most. I think that’s perfectly legitimate and you have every right to advocate for this position.

But what about your colleagues who are earlier in their careers or the thousands of young media/journalism grads trying to break in? How does it serve them to prop up a dying TV system for as long as possible? That just prolongs the inevitable, and getting laid off at 37 is lots worse than losing your job at 27. I’ve lost my job at a variety of ages, so I speak from experience.

I’m watching as my peers scatter: they’re losing their jobs (while their older colleagues are not) and they are leaving journalism for PR, advertising, law, and politics. But some are instead leaving Canada in order to work in their chosen fields. In the U.S., a nascent industry is actively building the next generation of video services and news sites. My fear is that our regulated system, designed to ensure that Canadians have a voice in the media and are not overwhelmed by American content, will actually ensure that this is exactly what happens. If we stopped propping up the old system we would still have young people eager to start websites or make videos, and there would be advertisers in search of ways to access local markets. They might find each other, and we wouldn’t be sitting on our hands while slick U.S. sites forge ahead.

Your question about local news coverage is a good one. The vertically integrated broadcasters are abandoning local news and betraying, in my view, their obligation to the public. As long as they want to profit through the regulated system’s protections, they need to honour their licensing conditions, even if it means taking a loss on one aspect of their incredibly profitable businesses. If they don’t like it, they are free to stop broadcasting on public airwaves and put whatever they want online, just like anybody else.

I think your dismissal of online video content is hasty and inaccurate. Who, specifically, will cover local news? Maybe people like Joey Coleman, who is doing great work as a one-man news organization in Hamilton. His audience directly funds him, and he posts his stuff on Youtube. I’m doing media criticism with a similar model in mind. Will it work? Will it scale? I don’t know. Advertising is tough to find, as those dollars are all locked up in the old system. But we need to try, and keep trying.

I did sound like a pompous, smug dick. It’s an adolescent mask for frustration and fear. 15 years into my career, with a mortgage and two kids, I’ve stopped looking for work in the old system. I’ve rolled the dice on a new way of doing journalism, and I have no idea if it will work out. I resent that my government (via the CRTC) is stacking the deck against me. But I don’t have their responsibilities. Thousands of Canadians earn a living in the regulated system, and a sudden end to those jobs would be violent and harmful. I tend to agree with Steve Faguy: the CRTC has to now plan for its own demise. It has to find the gentlest way to kill regulated TV in Canada.


NOTE: this correspondence is posted here with Jim Sprague’s permission. Also, I have a TV. 

Latest Stories
Announcing Our 2024 Podcast Slate
Introducing CanadaLabs
What Twitter Was