Posted in Opinion, Radio, TV

“Say No To Bell”: The hypocritical campaign against Bell/Astral

After staying silent for months following the announcement in March, a small group of cable companies has started a very public campaign to get people to oppose the proposed purchase of Astral Media by BCE (Bell).

Full-page ads from Say No to Bell (Quebecor, Cogeco and Eastlink) appeared in major newspapers on Tuesday.

It’s called Say No To Bell (Dites non à Bell), and it launched Tuesday with a press conference in Ottawa with the CEOs of Quebecor (which owns Videotron), Eastlink and Cogeco. They gave the usual arguments against concentration of media ownership, saying Bell could abuse its dominant position to unfairly harm competitors, consumers and even advertisers. Specifically, it said:

  • “When too much power is concentrated in one company it often means higher prices and poorer choices for consumers”
  • “If Bell Canada controls all the most popular content, they could charge you whatever they want to watch it.”
  • “A Bell/Astral merger could lead to an organization so dominant that no other company could compete with it to buy sports broadcast rights”
  • “To get popular channels, you could face pressure to pay for other Bell Canada channels that you are not interested in watching.”
  • “This merger could mean escalating costs for commercial advertising on television and radio and forced buys on multiple Bell Canada advertising platforms for Canadian advertisers.”
  • “Bell Canada could use its power to pressure consumers to buy their services exclusively in order to get the content they love, and buy more services than they need.”
  • “If the deal goes through, it poses a serious threat to the future health of the broadcast industry in Canada. Jobs will be lost in the TV production and arts sectors. Young people hoping to build a career in these fields will see fewer opportunities as production is centralized.”
(They also point to a list of quotes from various media writing about the deal, including three from me.)

All that stuff sounds pretty scary. But it’s also a lot of “could” and very little “will”. And the statements seem to ignore that the CRTC has specific rules that are designed to prevent most of the things they worry about. Distributors are not allowed to show undue preference to affiliated channels, and they are required to carry channels owned by competitors (and include those channels in packages where their own channels are included). Specialty channels, meanwhile, are not allowed to charge excess fees, nor refuse to offer their channels individually.

That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate worries here. Media concentration wouldn’t be happening if it didn’t result in a significant advantage. Larger companies are more efficient (centralizing paperwork and technology, for example), and even though there can’t be any formal advantage given to affiliated services, it happens in practice. (Cogeco gave the example of Bell’s RDS2, which it said was withheld from it for months until an arbitrator imposed a deal.) There are also advantages to be had in areas the CRTC doesn’t regulate, like online video.

Chart of Canadian market share by the Say No To Bell campaign.

Hypocrites

But arguments against media concentration are a bit rich coming from Quebecor and Cogeco. (I’ll leave Eastlink out of this since I don’t know them very well and they’re not a vertically integrated company.)

Quebecor’s name is practically synonymous with convergence and media concentration. It owns the largest private television network in Quebec, the largest newspaper (in terms of circulation), the largest cable company and the largest magazine publisher. It has been scooping up independent weekly newspapers in Quebec as it fights a war with Transcontinental in that industry. And it has absolutely no qualms about using its convergence power across different media.

Though Quebecor seems concerned with how big a combined Bell/Astral would become, Quebecor’s French-language television market share would still be higher, at 29.6% to 26.8%. (Say No To Bell prefers to speak of revenues, which skews heavily in favour of Astral in both languages because Astral owns the expensive premium movie services The Movie Network and Super Écran.)

Cogeco, meanwhile, is ill-placed to talk about the negative effects of market share. It was just last year that it purchased Corus Quebec, combining two of the three major players in radio in this province. As if that wasn’t enough, it asked for – and received – an exemption from the CRTC to allow it to own three French-language FM radio stations in Montreal, in addition to an English FM station and a French AM station. Combined, Cogeco-owned stations have a 51.4% market share among francophone Montrealers according to ratings data from BBM Canada. Counting only commercial stations, that market share jumps to 65%. In Quebec City, Cogeco has a 40% commercial market share, nine points more than its strongest competitor.

And even then, it applied to the CRTC to launch two more AM radio stations in Montreal, both heavily subsidized by the Quebec government. (One application was withdrawn when it turned CKAC into an all-traffic station, the other was denied because of a lack of acceptable alternative frequencies.)

These are the people warning about concentration of media ownership.

Perhaps the biggest example of hypocrisy is when Quebecor and Cogeco were asked during the press conference whether they tried to buy Astral. Cogeco’s Audet refused to answer the question, saying it was irrelevant. I take that to mean they probably did try, but lost to the big pockets of Bell.

Bell/Astral rounding up support

It’s interesting that none of these three companies has yet submitted a formal intervention to the CRTC in this case (or if they have, those comments haven’t been published yet). But supporters of the deal have been flooding the commission with comments. Of the more than 450 comments about Bell’s purchase of Astral, most are from organizations that have dealings with one or both companies, and support the purchase either because of the tangible benefits package they would receive in it or just out of some apparent sense of corporate loyalty. (The number of them and their similarity suggests that Bell is pushing its business contacts to submit them, and it’s not clear what incentives they’re using.)

Among those to send their support are charities like the Saskatoon SPCA and Canadian Cancer Society, TV producers like Novem, Groupe Fair-Play and Zone 3, territorial legislators (because of the proposed upgrades to Northwestel) and major advertisers like Loblaws.

The CRTC accepted comments on this application until 8pm ET on Aug. 9, with hearings to take place in Montreal on Sept. 10. The Competition Bureau, which also has to approve the deal, issued a statement Tuesday saying it is “aware that a number of serious concerns have been expressed” and that “we are actively reviewing these concerns.”

Let’s hope both regulatory bodies can sort the truth from the BS being thrown at them from both sides.

Coverage

Other reactions

Bell responded to the campaign with a press release focusing on how the acquisition would increase, not decrease, competition in Quebec.

Even though the purchase was announced in March, and the CRTC application published a month ago, other groups are only now making their voices heard in the Bell/Astral acquisition debate. (Though this is also because many of them filed interventions at the last minute.) Among them:

Telus joins in

Even though it was days after the deadline for comments to the CRTC, Telus also issued a public statement encouraging a stop to the deal. Telus filed an intervention with the CRTC making a similar call.

Looks like it’s working

A poll by Forum Research shows 60% of Canadians oppose the Bell/Astral merger. Is that just a matter of their distaste for large corporate mergers, or evidence that the Say No To Bell campaign is working? Either way, I predict lots more full-page newspaper ads.

38 thoughts on ““Say No To Bell”: The hypocritical campaign against Bell/Astral

  1. Robert H Smith

    Bell is already to big and controls more of the media than is safe.democracy is at present under stress in Canada,if Bell was to gain more power Ma would tell us what to watch ,how much we will pay and who we should elect .Enough is enough I say no no no to Bell.

    Reply
    1. Timothy

      The problem is that as a Quebecer, I need this to go through. In Quebec we have 2 media companies, Quebecor, and everybody else. We need somebody to balance out the market so that Quebecor can stop deciding elections based on which politicians will break which laws in their favour. John James Charest gave the deal to build a new amphitheater, without the legally mandated public bidding, to Quebecor because its founder owns most of the major newspapers and almost all of the french televised news, and has infinite power to make it look like he does not have a two and a half decade history of political corruption. This is also the corporation that, had it the money, would have no qualms about concentrating one hundred percent of the media under its control. For the sake of democracy in my province, and for the sake of not making yourselves puppets, please do not let multi-million dollar corporations that stand to lose potential profit tell you that they are acting for YOUR best interest. These are souless entities who care not for human life, welfare, or safety, what makes you believe they care for democracy?

      Reply
      1. Fagstein Post author

        We need somebody to balance out the market so that Quebecor can stop deciding elections based on which politicians will break which laws in their favour.

        If Astral couldn’t do this, what makes you think Bell will?

        Reply
        1. Marc

          Neither Bell of Astral can do this. However, Power Corp. can. It’s headed up by Daniel Johnson and he has been the one controlling the government and the QLP. If there are some decent people who would make great ministers but instead sit on the back benches, it’s because Daniel Johnson doesn’t like them.

          Reply
        2. Timothy

          Because Bell-Astral will be bigger than just Astral, otherwise there would be no issue with Bell quiring it, would there?

          Reply
          1. Fagstein Post author

            Because Bell-Astral will be bigger than just Astral

            But not significantly, at least in Quebec. Bell has few French-language broadcasting assets, essentially limited to RDS and related channels. Bell would be larger because it’s a telecom company, but Quebecor would still be the dominant media player.

            Reply
  2. Joan A Smith

    Bell is not a good corporate citizen it ships hundreds and maybe thousands of jobs out of Canada .These jobs would get many Canadians back to work Bells reason Higher profit lines .I say no,no,no to Bell

    Reply
    1. Timothy

      By very definition, the second a company becomes a corporation, it loses all the human connection it had. There is no such thing as a good corporate citizen, barring obvious exceptions such as Google (who have also been known to slip). The bottom line for a corporation is everything. There is no consideration for anything resembling human condition, only for profit. As declared in the article, Cogeco owns an unfair portion of francophone radio in the province’s major cities, and Quebecor has shipped some of its french call centers to Egypt to save money. All of Bell’s french calls are handled in Quebec, and they are the only one of the three that is at least willing to tell the truth about the motivations behind their actions. MONEY!!! All three only care about money.

      Reply
      1. Carl

        While I do not disagree with the entirety of your point, I just wanted to let you know that it is false to say that all of Bell’s french calls are handled in Quebec. Some french calls are handled in Moncton, New-Brunswick and some are handled in Tunisia.

        Reply
  3. Sheldon

    I’m not sure what the solution is here. I’m not comfortable with any company having too much media control. But, in this case, it seems that Astral Media wants out of the game. They want to sell their properties and they have found a buyer. If the deal gets turned down by the CRTC & Competition Board, what does that mean for Astral?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      If the deal gets turned down by the CRTC & Competition Board, what does that mean for Astral?

      A $150-million payout from Bell.

      The options aren’t just accept or deny. The CRTC could set conditions on the sale, requiring Bell to sell more TV or radio assets to come into compliance. (Of course, Bell would choose which ones, and sell those that are less profitable or otherwise less desirable.)

      Reply
      1. Timothy

        The main issue here is who the buyer would be. You all seem to be worried about media concentration, but if Bell is forced after the fact to sell off certain stations, they will be selling them to the ones who can the most for them, the other two rediculous media giants.

        Reply
    1. Timothy

      Mono=one. For Bell to be a monopoly, it would mean that I should not be able to name Cogeco, Quebecor, Shaw, Teksavvy, Rogers, Distributel, ACN, Primus. Just a small sampling of the companies that exist for telecom in Canada. The telecom market is a quasi-oligopoly, and it should remain that way, unless you plan to dismantle all these corporations at once, that petition I would vote for.

      Reply
  4. Carol Nevill

    I do not believe it is good business to allow Bell to become a monopoly bu procuring such a large market share. The average consumer will be the ones who will pay dearly due to higher rates, less options, etc.

    Reply
  5. Robert Henry

    The door has been opened in the last transactions that have transpired. if this
    request they are asking for now, is agreed to they will run their business that is
    best suited for them and we will all pay for it and nothing will be able to stop them.
    Now is the time to say no to Ma bell.

    Reply
    1. Timothy

      You are correct, good sir. If this aquisition occurs, Bell WILL run its business for its interests, as they always have, and always will. So will every other business that has ever existed on this earth ever. Do you honestly believe that Cogeco and Quebecor are looking out for you? They are looking out for themselves and their bottom line. Picture yourself as the CEO of a multinational. Would you or would you not attempt to make multi-billion dollar purchases that will lead to a massive increase in personal revenue? Every business owner in the world is in it for themselves. Watch shows like Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den, look at the profit margins that they create. If a company charges any less than four times what it costs for total production and distribution for a consumer to buy their product, they are considered profit-hating idiots. Wake up! Sign a petition if you want, but not one with any sort of corporate backing, or there WILL be a second agenda.

      Reply
  6. Nancy Adam

    I just spent this am,1.5 hrs with Bell trying to straighten-out my bill.So far for the middle TV package & phone{1000 min long distance,I have paid Bell $683. for 3 mths service.No Internet or cell.
    The customer service person talked over me,would not listen.Check-out the packages they offer.You must pay $80./mth just to get A&E or Discovery.Then you get 100 of the same shows at different times!
    My only other option is to buy a tower for over $1000.
    Yes,My God Bell has a monopoly on services & YES,they can charge whatever they want!!!!!!!!
    I’m so against Bell buying Astral Media Inc or any other company!!!

    Reply
    1. Timothy

      You better not be from Quebec or Ontario, because if so what you said is just false. Yes Bell is trying to create a monopoly, so is everybody else, Bell’s just better at it. The telecom market is a quasi-oligopoly running based on monopolistic competition. If everybody goes with other companies it’s their choice, but whichever company they choose they are simply pushing closer to the monopoly they want to create.

      Reply
  7. Robert G

    I don’t think there’s any secret Cogeco tried to bid for Astral. Actually, they tried to in combination with Corus. La Presse reported it (http://affaires.lapresse.ca/economie/medias-et-telecoms/201203/17/01-4506558-bell-astral-les-dessous-du-projet-annabella.php) and the bid circular acknowledged that Bell had to up their initial offer to compete with a rival bid but I’ll spare the duck statement since Jean Charest has been using that line ad nauseum lately. Of course, did Astral not appeal to the CRTC at the time Corus sold out of the Quebec market to Cogeco? In other words, the Audet participation smells of sour grapes (unless Rogers, which has an ownership stake of note in Cogeco, is using Cogeco as a front because they don’t want to do to openly battle Bell with whom they have some chummy relations i.e. MLSE, Olympics consortium, CTV/CHUM network divvy up, etc.)

    Quebecor? Well, gives Peladeau something new to whine about outside of the CBC. The web site’s a real treat though. Loved the whole part about the threat to the “sports fan”. Astral is far from known as a powerhouse sports property/rights owner. Bell can extort high carriage rates for TSN and RDS as much today as they could in a few months.

    Nice article, Steve. Mind you, is this your attempt to have your quotes removed from their materials? :)

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      is this your attempt to have your quotes removed from their materials?

      I have to admit to being a bit uneasy about my words being used in such a partisan corporate campaign. But I’d hardly be the first journalist whose words were used in such a way. (At least I’m not a movie reviewer!)

      Reply
  8. mario

    How much influence (if any) do Bell lobbyists have with the CRTC? I mean what ever decision CRTC rules, Bell won’t be particularly surprised, will they?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      How much influence (if any) do Bell lobbyists have with the CRTC? I mean what ever decision CRTC rules, Bell won’t be particularly surprised, will they?

      I’m not an expert on lobbying, but looking at previous decisions by the CRTC, you see the big media and telecom companies don’t always get their way. When CTV bought CHUM, for example, it wanted to keep the Citytv network and sell the A Channel network. The CRTC said no, and forced it to sell Citytv. Citytv was sold to Rogers, and A Channel became CTV Two.

      Reply
  9. Ward

    I to say no to Bell. Over the years they have tele marketed me even though I am on the do not call list. They have misrepresented service charges, they have shipped jobs overseas. Add to that the partial slant of their news broadcasts.

    Reply
    1. Timothy

      Every news broadcast is slanted. I challenge you to find me ONE news broadcast that is neither slanted nor government subsidized. Besides, how does this in any way apply to the situation at hand?

      Reply
  10. Murray

    It would appear that Ma Bell is really miffed at not being the monopoly it once was and lost the power through that monopoly when other communication companies were allowed to open…
    Bell is not proactive in any of its business ventures only reactive.
    I was at one time a subscriber to a Bell telephone but then Cogeco came up with a cheaper offer and I took it.
    Now Bell is now allowing some overpaid vice-president to send me ‘sob’ cards, lamenting the fact that I left mother Bell and went with Cogeco (cheaper?)…
    No sense telling this dim-wit v.p. to cease and desist because a) he has to do something to earn his high salary and b) he probably wouldn’t know what ‘cease and desist’ mean…
    Bell, since they were downsized to mean simply any other company, have become totally ignorant in anything they try to do. They simply could not care about the consumer.

    Reply
    1. Timothy

      I assume since you are calling a high ranking VP with degrees in his domain and the pedigree to spit on most business experts an idiot that you have better education in the business field and/or better/more experience. I am tired of people getting miffed about something and suddenly becoming experts in all things business. If you were an expert, you would know that thinking that a corporation, an amalgamation of properties governed by a commitee VOTED IN BY ITS OWNERS WHOSE SOLE JOB IS TO RAISE PROFITS, is moronic and just needs to stop. Not all opinions are valid, and when you are going to call a proven expert an idiot, you better have the education to back it up, or your opinion is invalid.

      Reply
    1. Timothy

      It is, but since when is the government office whose job it is to regulate this industry not enough? Since when do we need other companies trying to create a monopoly, who are never going to sell the properties necessary for this monopoly to exist, to help regulate the market? They want it deregulated.

      Reply
    1. Timothy

      If one of the other companies were trying to make the same purchase, would you have the same issue with it? Or is this just based on a previous bad experience with Bell?

      Reply
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  12. Quagmire

    I support the Bell/Astral Merger, because once the Canadian market becomes concentrated, and we have 2 major players in Canada, the Canadian Government will allow foreign companies to start offering services in Canada. Bell & Rogers will be the Verizon & AT&T of Canada that way the Eastlink, Allstream, Videotron, Cogeco, will be purchased by network operators like Level 3 Communication, Windstream, AT&T, Verizon, Direct TV, Dish Network, Warner Cable, Comcast and provides us Canadians with more choices of service providers and this will ultimately drive prices down.

    Reply

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