The Little Station that Could: the CHEK-TV Story


How these employees saved CHEK News after buying it for $2

by , |           June 5, 2015 5:05 PM ET


CHEK News chairman, Levi Sampson, in the master control room. Sampson played a major role in convincing Canwest and its bondholders to hand over the Victoria, B.C. station for a toonie, plus $2.5 million to cover operating losses while CHEK rebuilt its programming schedule from scratch.

Chad Hipolito For National Post
CHEK News chairman, Levi Sampson, in the master control room. Sampson played a major role in convincing Canwest and its bondholders to hand over the Victoria, B.C. station for a toonie, plus $2.5 million to cover operating losses while CHEK rebuilt its programming schedule from scratch.


For Tess van Straaten, life was looking good in the spring of 2009.

After 14 years building her career away from her hometown of Victoria, B.C., she was finally back. She had landed her dream job anchoring the weekend newscast for CHEK, the local station she had grown up watching.

A couple of weeks after starting the job, a reporter from the local newspaper got in touch for an interview.

“The reporter asked, ‘Aren’t you worried about the station closing down?’” van Straaten said. “I had no idea what she was talking about. What do you mean they’re going to close the station down? They can’t close the station down.”

It’s the will of the employees

Van Straaten was right – in the end, the station’s embattled former owner Canwest Global Communications Corp didn’t close the station down. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. Soon after that interview, Canwest issued layoff notices to CHEK employees and gave notice of plans to shut the lights off on Aug. 31, in order to satisfy bondholders as the now-defunct Canadian media giant fought to avoid financial collapse.

But five-and-a-half years later, CHEK is still chugging along, with more local programming, less funding and no major media conglomerate with other sources of revenue to fall back on. The station may not be printing money – all news director Rob Germain would say about the state of CHEK’s finances is that there’s “no imminent threat of shutting down” – but the fact it’s around at all is an achievement, given the uncertain future for local television across the country.

CHEK’s employees saved the station by buying it. With the help of then-28-year-old entrepreneur Levi Sampson, who had played a major role engineering a similar employee buyout of a mill in Nanaimo, they pooled their money, found other investors and convinced Canwest and its bondholders to hand over the station for a toonie, plus $2.5 million to cover operating losses while CHEK rebuilt its programming schedule from scratch.

“It’s the will of the employees,” Sampson said. “How badly they wanted to save that station, how they truly believed they could make a go of it as an independent station in this country.”

When it became apparent no buyers were coming forward and Canwest wasn’t looking very hard to find one, Germain asked Sampson for some advice. CHEK had covered the employee-led purchase of Nanaimo’s Harmac pulp mill the year before and was wondering if Sampson could help the station do something similar.

Sampson met with CHEK’s employees, who were immediately enthusiastic about the idea. With about two dozen employees at the time, all but seven committed to a buy-in price of $15,000 for each full-time worker, adding up to a 25 per cent stake for employees.

Chad Hipolito For National Post

Chad Hipolito For National Post     Island owned and operated CHEK News reporter, Tess van Straaten.

Fans of the station flooded Canwest’s offices with phone calls and letters of support for the sale. Canwest was dealing with its own crisis, however, and not everyone had patience for the campaign. The company rejected the group’s first offer.

The employee-led team got some behind-the-scenes help making its next move from an unlikely source: Canwest’s then-chief executive Leonard Asper. While members of the community were blasting the media giant for being heartless, Asper was quietly helping CHEK employees hire a lawyer and prepare an offer that would be more acceptable to bondholders.

“You have a tornado going on in the company, a bunch of creditors trying to enforce their ability to take away the company… you have a corporate office that’s very distracted trying to manage all these different interests,” Asper said in an interview Friday. ” It’s just a very clinical, non-personal view. It’s capitalism in its rawest form at work. There’s no human element to it.”

Eventually, the bondholders came around and accepted the bid, saving the station at the very last minute. Asper remembers it as a bright spot during a dark time.

Chad Hipolito For National Post

Chad Hipolito For National Post      CHEK News Director and Digital Manager Rob Germain.

“I feel great about it. It was great to see the right thing happen to people,” he said. “We were able to stem the tide and stop this machine from just destroying everything in its wake. It was one of the proudest moments a lot of us had.”

Today, CHEK faces the same challenges as the rest of the industry. According to data released by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Canadians of all ages watched less traditional television in 2013 than they did the previous year, with Internet television viewing increasing 46% over the same period.

Fewer viewers means fewer advertising dollars. Private stations suffered a 7.2 per cent revenue drop in 2014 to $1.8 billion from $1.94 billion the previous year, largely because advertisers spent $117.1 million less on local television, according to the CRTC.

If the company does well, we do well

Vertically integrated telecommunications companies like BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc. don’t lose out entirely when viewers switch from cable to the Internet because they sell those viewers broadband as well. That’s not the case for a station like CHEK, which relies on advertising for revenue.

Justin Nielson, a senior research analyst at SNL Kagan who covers the television industry, said being small and local can work in an independent station’s favour. Viewers in small markets have fewer options for getting local news, which means a regional station can command a larger share of available advertising dollars.



  1. What a misleading story. Mr. Sampson wasn’t even involved until the local management and employees had negotiated the deal with Canwest. Young Mr. Asper’s role is however described accurately.

  2. I wish Tess would drop her “sing-song” delivery of the news. She sounds like she is reading a story to a 3 or 4 year old child.

  3. They’d be dead in the water without a massive subsidy from an industry fund. As for content and delivery, they’re about as bad as they’ve ever been.

  4. CHEK gets such an advantage with its access to CBC reports from across the country, it’s a shame they can’t/won’t show them in HD. The competition on Broad Street has been all HD for months now. I can’t help but wonder if CHEK has a transition plan in place to get there eventually.

    When you get used to HD, CHEK’s lack of same puts them behind the 8-ball.

  5. Congratulations to the people who had the courage to save their workplace by investing their own cash, talent and determination. To those who are so critical of CHEK content and execution, buy and run your own TV station and show them how it’s done. Actions speak louder than words and most of the words I see posted are the same feeble bleatings of the naysayers and doomsdayers who show up anytime someone has the guts to just do it.

  6. Hey George and Randall I bet you didn’t know this. I feel sorry for all the ex CHEK employees who have moved on to new places. They were forced to invest several months wages to keep their jobs at CHEK. Now their money is stuck in CHEK shares with no way to redeem the shares until they turn 65. $15,000 is a lot of money for a young person to lose. Their union just looked the other way, very sad.

  7. RE: Diablo – In actual fact, if you look at your tv closely, CTV’s news is still in SD. They only started broadcasting the news in widescreen a month or so ago, but it’s not HD. Their in the field cameras and I think their editing system is HD, but the rest of their studio equipment is still the old stuff from when they first opened. Guess it shows how people’s eyes can be fooled.

    I wonder what it must be like recruiting new employees at CHEK knowing that at some point they have to pay $15,000 to work there?

  8. George, all it takes to have a vibrant, effective and professional news department is hiring people who can read and write English, unlike CFAX and guts at the management level. I can today name a number of political scandals not one news source in this city has the balls to expose.

  9. Hey Walter, I bet you didn’t know this, the CHEK buy in is not even close to $15,000. The union did not look the other way, they stepped up and bought into the company to help protect their members’ jobs. Those employees would have been out of work in 2009, instead they’ve had steady, well paid employment for 6 years thanks to buying the company. Before you feel sorry for them, you might want to check your facts.

  10. You are correct Dave. About half the staff put in 15 thousand or more. The original 29. The latest ones only had to put up $4500. About a month or two of take home pay. Again no hope of redemption unless the company sells or they hit 65. Tough for a 25 year old to wait 40 years. Those are the facts.

  11. I stand corrected on CTV VI’s in-studio HD. But the bulk of their newscast is transmitted in HD, right?

    If CHEK is paying for CBC footage, why can’t they transmit it in the same HD they air Judge Judy in? It looks like 1990’s muddy-focus stuff, not even good SD.

    The difference in look between the two news shows is dramatic, and not in CHEK’s favor.
    And CTV has dramatically more local journalists working on their stories as well. Apart from their few anchors-in-waiting and assignment editor Mary Griffin, CHEK have no local reporters left.

    I’m rooting for CHEK to survive and dominate, but they don’t have the tools.

  12. Hey Dave

    To answer your question…

    Two years ago CHEK and Newfoundland’s NTV were scrambling to replace the huge subsidies they were given annually from the Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF). CHEK alone was getting $2-million annually.

    So CHEK went begging to the CRTC to be granted money from a different pool of cash, the so-called Small Market Local Production Fund, a decade-old reserve to help small stations battle direct-to-home satellite distributors.

    300,000 or fewer people defines small market. Greater Victoria had about 340,000 people at the time. Still, the panhandling succeeded and in December 2013 the CRTC made CHEK eligible for LPIF cash.

    It’s all here in these two links.

    Thanks for asking.

  13. Diablo, there is a lot of very expensive equipment that sits in between that CBC news story and your set. You can’t tell the difference between HD and SD anyway so there’s no need to try and explain it but suffice it to say that the conversion is very expensive.
    CHEK is a local business, it does not have a huge multinational corporation paying their bills for them so it takes longer to make upgrades. According to Broose, CHEK gets a “massive subsidy” from “an industry fund” but he’s dead wrong about that.
    How can you say CHEK has no reporters apart from anchors-in-waiting (whatever that means)? I can think of at least twelve people that do stories every day in addition to the shooters and editors that put together visuals-only content. I don’t know how many CTV has, but to say CHEK only has one is just wrong.
    If spreading uniformed misinformation is your way of rooting for CHEK then maybe you should stop trying to help. If you would rather depend on a multinational corporation to supply you with all your local news, then keep up the negative comments.

  14. Broose, where is the massive amount that CHEK receives? As you so eloquently state “Still, the panhandling succeeded and in December 2013 the CRTC made CHEK eligible for LPIF cash.” Then you post a link showing the LPIF was ended in 2014. So which is it? How much does CHEK receive?
    Before you start talking about how CHEK is benefitting from the largesse of the CRTC, you might want to look at all the facts. For example, keep in mind that CHEK must compete against a station that doesn’t need to make money, that can’t be closed, by CRTC mandate. So to say that the CRTC is this massive beneficent money pot that’s pumping tax money solely into CHEK, while not giving a penny to Bell Globemedia and Shaw Communications and Rogers is as farcical as it sounds.

  15. Broose, I have to ask why you have such a hate on for CHEK. Why would you single them out for “begging” and “panhandling” in front of the CRTC and not mention Jim Pattison, Jim Shaw, Ted Rogers and Ivan Fecan? If CHEK is a beggar and a panhandler what would you call these guys when they show up with their armies of lawyers? Do you think Shaw and Rogers and Pattison and Bell don’t get funding from the CRTC as well? Do you know who the biggest recipient of the LPIF was? The CBC!
    Why do people on this site take such delight in trashing everything that CHEK does? I don’t get it. Everything that the big multinationals do is just hunky dory but a little local company that’s just trying to survive and provide a local service is the Spawn of Satan. If CHEK offends you so, don’t watch it. I just don’t get it.

  16. CTV can be closed. It’s called not renewing the licence in 2017 if the suits in Toronto decide it’s not worth continuing with CTV2s


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