Five years after the brink, CHEK-TV sees growth

It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was fraught with speed bumps, personnel changes, uncertainty and a rapidly changing media landscape. But five years after CHEK-TV was saved by its employees from going dark, the station says it is poised for growth.

“There’s a huge sense of accomplishment and there is always more stuff to do, but right now we are in a better position than we have ever been since we became an employee-owned model,” said Levi Sampson, chairman of CHEK’s board and one of the key players in saving the station in 2009. “We have ironed out some of the kinks. We have the best and most cohesive group we’ve had to date. It looks promising.”

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That’s a far cry from the dark days when former owner Canwest Global Communications planned to shut the station down.

Canwest put a number of its smaller stations such as CHEK, which is B.C.’s oldest private television station, up for sale early in 2009, citing years of losing money. The company planned to shut the station at the end of August 2009 if a buyer did not come forward.

The Sampson and Pollard families, other investors and CHEK staff rallied to raise enough money to buy the station and keep its lights on.

In 2008, Sampson’s family was also behind an employee-led movement to buy and save Harmac Pulp in Nanaimo.

“Levi Sampson and the Sampson family not only saved CHEK five years ago, they saved Harmac. Both are institutions on Vancouver Island,” said Rob Germain, CHEK’s news director. “[Sampson] has transformed both into employee-ownership models and both are doing very well. They wouldn’t have existed [otherwise].”

For his part, Sampson credits the team around him. “These models work because of the people, and if you don’t have the right mix and people who want to invest wholeheartedly into it, you might as well not attempt it,” he said.

That has required tinkering with the mix over the five years, but Sampson said they have the right group now to start to grow.

That may sound bold in a media landscape where information is available at the click of a mouse or tap of a smartphone screen. Sampson admits there have been some trying moments. But he is steadfast in believing bright skies are ahead.

“It has definitely had its challenges and it was definitely a very hard undertaking to get to this point. We had to watch our pennies, watch for angles, cut costs and find savings and find new revenue streams,” he said.

CHEK found that there was demand for what it offered, especially local news, said Sampson.

“Our first priority was to keep the news on the air,” said Germain. “That’s why people rallied behind us, because of the local programming.”

Germain said CHEK offers more local programming now than it ever has as a result. And that, according to Sampson, is a stable platform on which to build.

“As we went along, it wasn’t without its struggles, that’s for sure, but it got to a point people understand CHEK is here to stay,” Sampson said, noting the station is coming up on its 58th season.

“There was a period of time when people thought they might be on shaky ground and might not make it with this new employee-owned model, but a lot of that has gone away and now we’re just looking at the future.”

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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