Posted in Montreal, Opinion, Radio

TSN 690′s CRTC exemption: The pros, the cons and the misconceptions

With apologies to National Lampoon

With apologies to National Lampoon

If there’s anything that everyone can agree on, it’s that this is a passionate issue. Even Bell Media says it was taken aback last year by the outpouring of outrage over its plan to convert CKGM from TSN 690 to RDS 690 as part of its acquisition of Astral Media. Even though it was a minor related application of a $3.38-billion purchase, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission spent a great deal of time discussing the proposed change to this one radio station because of all the reaction. It was during questioning about CKGM that CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais held up a thick binder and said he didn’t have a summer vacation last year because he was busy reading all the public comments.

More than 700 people filed individual comments with the CRTC, the vast majority opposed to Bell’s proposal, and most not really caring about the larger acquisition. Three people without any financial interest actually showed up at the hearing to plead for the station, which is very rare and was greatly appreciated by commissioners.

This time around, things are different. Bell is taking the side of the fans, asking for an exemption to the CRTC’s common ownership policy to allow it to keep TSN 690 while also acquiring three of its four competitors in English-language commercial radio (including its main competitor CJAD). It started a petition and its radio personalities asked fans to fill it out (listen to Mitch Melnick explaining the situation the day the application was published), telling the CRTC why it should keep the station alive.

According to the CRTC’s website, there are now about 980 comments on this petition. You can read them in a series of PDF files posted here.

I went through a few hundred of them, and most of them are the same: heartfelt, angry, worried. These are the station’s loyal listeners, who say they will swear off radio altogether if their beloved station is pulled off the air. Many are from people in other cities who say they listen to the station online. Most argue that CKGM in its current form provides something unique to Montreal’s English-speaking community, and that alone is a reason to grant the exemption.

I’ve read at most a handful that say anything about the larger acquisition of Astral by Bell. Most couldn’t care less who owns the station or the others, as long as TSN retains its format, its personalities and its Canadiens games. Some even rant against large corporate media, which is odd when you’re indirectly supporting a mega merger of media companies. Some are even against the larger merger of Bell and Astral. One demands that Bell be forced to sell CHOM, CJAD or CJFM (Virgin Radio) instead.

But they’re all unanimous in that they want TSN 690 to be kept as is.

In reading these letters, it became clear to me that many of the writers have misconceptions about the application, about the CRTC’s intentions and about what could happen to CKGM. I hope to clear some of those up here. But first, I’ll present, as dispassionately as I can, the big reasons the CRTC should approve the exemption requested, and the big reasons it should not.

Why the CRTC should give an exemption to allow Bell to keep TSN 690

1. The format will go on: Bell has promised that, if it gets its way, it will commit to keeping CKGM as an English-language all-sports radio station for seven years, and will continue to air Canadiens games on it (as long as it continues to have the rights). This is, at least on the surface, the best possible outcome for the station’s listeners. Gone, for at least until 2020, would be the threat that the station might shut down because it’s unprofitable. And implicit in this promise is that the station’s staff would continue to have jobs (at least subject to the usual turnover that happens in radio). Plus, it would finally end all this uncertainty over the station’s future.

2. Consolidating sports on TSN: Bell hasn’t said that this would happen, but it stands to reason if it owns both CJAD and CKGM that Bell would move sports broadcasts to the latter. CJAD currently carries Alouettes games and select Impact games. CKGM could carry live broadcasts of all three Montreal teams (except where they directly conflict, which would logically see spillover go back to CJAD). Fans wouldn’t have to keep track of which station owned the rights to which franchise, and CJAD listeners who aren’t interested in sports wouldn’t have their regular programming interrupted by sports.

3. Retaining synergies with TSN: Though theoretically the station could continue if it was sold to, say, Rogers, any sale would strip the station of its branding as well as the advantages that come with being a member of the TSN family. With Bell’s claws firmly entrenched in the Canadiens, even if its ownership stake is minor, this becomes very important for an all-sports station.

4. Money for journalism and amateur sports: You could practically qualify it as a bribe, but in reality cash promises are encouraged by the CRTC and often help get things passed. Bell has promised to give $105,000 over seven years ($15,000 a year) to Concordia University for sports journalism scholarships (just what we need, more journalism students), and $140,000 over seven years ($20,000 a year) to support amateur sports in Montreal. These are not inconsiderable sums for a station that has been losing money since it launched in 2001. Though it may be pocket change for a $30-billion company, the fact that Bell is willing to spend it to keep a money-losing station on the air says something.

5. The cat’s already out of the bag: The truth is this same type of exemption has already been allowed. In 2010, the CRTC allowed a similar exemption in Montreal’s French-language market when Cogeco bought Corus’s Quebec stations. The acquisition resulted in Cogeco owning three French-language FM stations in Montreal (it already owned CFGL Rythme FM, and acquired CHMP 98.5 and CKOI). The commission said it could keep all three, despite the normal limitation, in exchange for setting up the Cogeco Nouvelles agency which would have CHMP as its flagship station. The request was billed as a way to save CHMP. Now it’s the most popular radio station in Quebec. By comparison, the CKGM request is for a station on the AM band and is for the station that’s last in the ratings.

Why the CRTC should not give an exemption to allow Bell to keep TSN 690

1. It would make Bell a dominant force in Montreal English radio: Allowing Bell to own both CKGM and the Astral stations would mean it would own four of the five established commercial English-language radio stations in Montreal, with only The Beat competing with it. The combined commercial market share would be over 70% for one company. This will be mitigated somewhat when the TTP Media group launches an English talk station at 600 AM, and when Dufferin Communications launches a low-power music station in Hudson/St. Lazare, but those will take a while to get established.

2. It would reinforce a bad precedent: Bell doesn’t have to put CKGM on the block. It could sell one of the other stations instead. But it’s forcing the CRTC’s hand by saying the sports station would be the one to go. Allowing an exemption here would be caving to Canada’s largest broadcaster by allowing it to get bigger, but also send a message to everyone that as long as you can spin a station as a charity case (even if it’s not actually losing money), you can get the CRTC to rubber-stamp an exception to its own rules.

3. There isn’t enough space for new competitors: Because Montreal is a bilingual market, and languages are counted separately in the CRTC’s policy, the airwaves are twice as saturated here as in other markets like Toronto or Calgary. Bell/Astral would actually own six stations in Montreal, with Cogeco owning five. There aren’t any more full-power FM frequencies available, and with new entrants like TTP Media and Dufferin Communications snapping up vacant AM frequencies, those are disappearing too. The more severe scarcity of channels here makes limitations on common ownership even more important.

Top misconceptions about Bell, the CRTC and TSN 690′s future

1. The CRTC wants to shut down TSN 690 / The CRTC has made a decision it is being asked to reconsider: The CRTC has not made any decision about the station, other than its decision last year to deny its request to switch to French (and that was only because the larger acquisition was denied). The request for an exemption is not being made in reaction to something the CRTC has done, but is a request from Bell to get an exception to a rule it anticipates the CRTC will apply. The fact that Bell bills this as “Save TSN Radio” may be leading to this misconception.

2. The CRTC wants to turn TSN 690 into a French-language radio station: This mistake is likely due to confusion between the two applications. It was Bell, not the CRTC, that requested that CKGM be converted from English to French in its first attempt to get approval for the Astral acquisition. It was done for the same reason, to get around the commission’s common ownership policy. In the new application, that’s gone, and there’s no threat of it coming back. Even if Bell is forced to sell the station, it would remain an English-language station unless the new owner requested a change, and that would be subject to a brand new hearing.

3. If Bell does not get an exemption, TSN 690 will be shut down: The reality of the situation may be that TSN 690 as we know it would be radically altered if Bell is forced to divest it. But it’s unlikely the station would be shut down. The 690 AM frequency is the best AM frequency available in Montreal, and another company would probably scoop it up if only for that. A company like Rogers or TTP Media might even keep the all-sports format, though there are no guarantees.

4. Granting an exemption is the only way Bell can continue to own TSN 690: The exemption is what Bell wants because it would be the best outcome for it financially. But there are two other ways it could keep the station: It could sell one of the Astral stations (or the CRTC could force it to sell one of the Astral stations), or the CRTC could deny the Bell/Astral acquisition again.

5. This is a language issue – TSN 690 can’t keep running because it’s an English station: Somewhat related to No. 2, this sentiment popped up in a lot of public comments. While it’s true that language is relevant to this discussion (because English and French stations are treated as if they’re in different markets), the rules don’t treat English and French differently. There is no Office de la langue française or official languages rule that is forcing the CRTC to limit the number of English-language radio stations in Montreal. There’s merely a rule that limits how many stations in one language in one market a company can own.

An event on Tuesday to show support for TSN 690

An event on Tuesday to show support for TSN 690

A show of support

Some of the station’s bigger fans are pushing harder to rally support to save it. In addition to the Facebook groups and blog posts, there’s a show being scheduled for Tuesday, April 2 at 6pm with some local bands. It doesn’t look like it’s official in any way, but it’s an idea of how important this station is to its small but loyal audience.

Deadline for comments is Friday

People wanting to comment on the Bell purchase of Astral, or the request for an exemption to the rules to allow Bell to own four English radio stations in Montreal, have until 8pm on Friday, April 5, to file an intervention. To do so directly to the CRTC, click here, select Option 1 and select the first application (2013-0244-7). Keep in mind that all information submitted to the CRTC this way, including contact information, is on the public record.

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19 thoughts on “TSN 690′s CRTC exemption: The pros, the cons and the misconceptions

  1. Alex H

    You missed at least one thing here. While the competition bureau has already spoke on certain issues, it’s clear that the CRTC has not had their last say. Considering the negative decision on Bell’s previous attempt with Astral, as well as the dressing down of OWN, and some other refusals and strict application renewals, it seems that the CRTC is no longer in the mood to get bullied around by the majors.

    The result? Bell is likely to hear no again, this time perhaps a “no, but” with a list longer than the competition bureau for them to chew on. If anything, I could easily see Bell being asked to divest itself of ALL radio in the Montreal market, as they hold too much sway as the major sports franchise owner, which is a product that makes or breaks at least 2 competitive radio stations in Montreal (or maybe three with TTP around). It’s unlikely that the CRTC would want Bell to have that much influence or sway on the market.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      You missed at least one thing here. While the competition bureau has already spoke on certain issues, it’s clear that the CRTC has not had their last say.

      I’m well aware of this.

      The result? Bell is likely to hear no again, this time perhaps a “no, but” with a list longer than the competition bureau for them to chew on.

      The CRTC doesn’t really work that way. If they say no, then it’s just no, and Bell will have to reapply again.

      I could easily see Bell being asked to divest itself of ALL radio in the Montreal market, as they hold too much sway as the major sports franchise owner

      The CRTC doesn’t regulate sports franchise ownership. And forcing Bell to divest all its radio stations in Montreal can’t really be justified by any CRTC policy. Besides, it would just make whoever buys those stations the next dominant player in Montreal’s English radio scene.

      Reply
      1. Alex H

        “The CRTC doesn’t regulate sports franchise ownership”

        I hate to say it, but no sh-t Steve. However, as the broadcast rights to the Canadiens games are the single biggest radio deal out there, it’s one of those mitigating factors. Already it’s bad enough that Bell owns the team and the radio station broadcasting it, why just keep piling on.

        “The CRTC doesn’t really work that way”

        The CRTC gives reasons for their refusals each time, and they can be used as guidelines for a third application. It becomes a case of “no, but”, and the decision may list key areas that Bell needs to address before making another application.

        “whoever buys those stations the next dominant player in Montreal’s English radio scene.”

        Your assumption here is that they would be sold en bloc, which is not very likely. First off, the sale price would be beyond all but the biggest companies, and each one of the major players already has some sort of iron in the fire in Montreal and would fine themselves hitting the same wall. Any other player trying to buy Astral “as is” would find themselves in ownership level conflicts in many places, which would put them where Bell is today.

        Realistically, Astral is “too big to merge” with almost anyone, even after the current round of mandated sales by the competition bureau.

        I have to ask Steve, why do you always feel you are right?

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          as the broadcast rights to the Canadiens games are the single biggest radio deal out there, it’s one of those mitigating factors

          Is that true? Where does that information come from?

          Already it’s bad enough that Bell owns the team and the radio station broadcasting it, why just keep piling on.

          The Molson family owns the Canadiens, not Bell. Bell has a minority stake in the team (I don’t know how much), but saying Bell owns the team is like saying the FTQ owns the team. Besides, there are plenty of other situations where broadcasters are owned by sports teams or vice-versa (see: CHRC, Rogers). There’s no law or CRTC regulation against it.

          Your assumption here is that they would be sold en bloc, which is not very likely.

          Considering recent sales of broadcasting assets (Corus/Cogeco, Vista/Halliburton, Bell/CHUM), it’s more likely than being split up.

          each one of the major players already has some sort of iron in the fire in Montreal

          Only two large companies other than Bell/Astral have commercial non-ethnic radio stations in Montreal: Cogeco and RNC Media. Two more will be added to that with Dufferin Communications and TTP Media. That leaves Rogers, Corus, Golden West, Vista Radio, Pattison, Newcap, plus about a dozen regional broadcasters, and that’s assuming a company like Shaw or Quebecor doesn’t decide to get into radio. The fact that there were multiple bids for all the radio stations Bell/Astral would put up for sale in markets like Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver suggests there are still groups out there looking to expand apart from the big ones that already own multiple stations in those markets.

          I have to ask Steve, why do you always feel you are right?

          Why would I post things here I thought were wrong?

          Reply
          1. Alex H

            “Where does that information come from?”

            Are you suggesting the Impact or Alouettes seasons are worth more? Perhaps the out of town basketball games? You don’t have to be a genius to know which sports franchise broadcast rights are the most valuable in the city. The Team990 guys at had been very clear that the Canadiens games were what they needed to even have a hope of breaking even, and we know what the hockey strike did to to the ratings this past fall… You have discussed it yourself here. Why would you suddenly change your opinion?

            “Already it’s bad enough that Bell owns the team and the radio station broadcasting it, why just keep piling on.”

            Let me rephrase: Bell has enough of an interest to exert control, which may be enough in the future to keep the games out of the hands of any other players.

            “Only two large companies other than Bell/Astral have commercial non-ethnic radio stations in Montreal”

            Again, you read to literally: irons in the fire in Montreal could include broadcast and specialty cable stations for the Quebec market. Corus is a great example, they tucked tail and ran away from the Quebec market. How many companies do you think are lining up to work in Quebec, where they would have to operate in a different language anyway?

            “Why would I post things here I thought were wrong?

            You miss the point. What I am saying is that almost without exception, any time someone posts a comment, you come back with opinion as fact, or a nit pick (see “where does that information come from”). Can you not accept certain things other people think as perhaps being relevant and perhaps even correct from time to time?

            Reply
            1. Fagstein Post author

              Are you suggesting the Impact or Alouettes seasons are worth more?

              No. Your comment said “radio deal”. If you’re specifying now that you’re referring to sports broadcasting rights, then I’d agree (though maybe rights to things like NFL games might be worth more on a per-game basis).

              The Team990 guys at had been very clear that the Canadiens games were what they needed to even have a hope of breaking even

              They said the same thing about switching to 690. Unfortunately we don’t know what effect either of those have had on its bottom line.

              Bell has enough of an interest to exert control, which may be enough in the future to keep the games out of the hands of any other players.

              Legally I don’t think Bell can exert control over the Canadiens. But I don’t doubt that it has enough power through various means to influence decision-making when it comes to media deals. We know that the deal to bring Canadiens games to CKGM from CJAD had little to do with cash and a lot to do with Bell. But the point remains: The CRTC doesn’t control this stuff.

              How many companies do you think are lining up to work in Quebec, where they would have to operate in a different language anyway?

              Well, two companies are each starting multiple radio stations in the region this year. I don’t think language is a significant barrier to companies like Rogers or Corus, which have French-language assets anyway.

              without exception, any time someone posts a comment, you come back with opinion as fact, or a nit pick (see “where does that information come from”)

              I don’t think asking someone to cite the source of their information is nitpicking. And yes, I’ll challenge the views of commenters on this blog, particularly when I don’t think they’ve made a compelling case for their views. If you don’t like it, feel free to not comment.

              Reply
  2. Tim Total

    The Team 990 has already become less important in the last year as it has become more and more controlled from Toronto. The TSN branding in Quebec means nothing. The station will always be a financial loser for Bell. Getting an exemption now is just Bell’s way of keeping a property going long enough to change it later. The complete hypocrisy of the situation is grotesque. If Montreal really wants a English language sports station, it isn’t going to happen long term with Bell.

    Reply
    1. Michael D

      This is what I’ve been kind of saying for a while. All it really is interested is keeping that nice clear channel frequency, which was their intention by switching to French. Wouldn’t TTP, which is going for all-sports in French at 850 like to get 690. News and sports make for great synergies.

      I know for a fact that Paul Teitolman was seen talking with George Cope at the hearings last fall. Did you hear about that one Steve and know anything about it?

      Reply
      1. Fagstein Post author

        I know for a fact that Paul Teitolman was seen talking with George Cope at the hearings last fall. Did you hear about that one Steve and know anything about it?

        Tietolman was talking with many people at those hearings. It doesn’t mean anything.

        Reply
  3. ATSC

    No matter how you look at it, this is a issue of too many stations in the hands of one owner.

    Broadcast English Radio : CKGM-AM 690, CJAD-AM 800, CJFM-FM 95.9, CHOM-FM 97.7
    Broadcast English TV : CFCF-DT 12

    Some stuff has to be sold off to other players.

    Reply
    1. Michael D

      No argument here. Should be someone that won’t get controlled from TSN Toronto..TSN which means Toronto Sports Network, or does it mean The Sports Network. I’m not clear on what TSN means…:)

      Same goes for the TV sinde of things as well.

      Reply
  4. Michael D

    Well, here we go again, really the Canadian public is really fed up of being bullied by a handful oil companies and only 5 or 6 big national banks, do we really need this.. Montreal will soon be served by a fourth TV network. but at this time three and possibly two if the CRTC grants the Astral deal..

    Luckily, we have TTP coming in soon. Steve, any news on TTP at all, studio location, personnels, launch date, which i sit so quiet, are they having financing issues, any news on your end?

    So maybe if TTP would like to TSN Radio and change it back to THE TEAM 690 and get out of the controlling hands of Toronto, and open up slots for a local sports show, weekly at least. (high school, collegiate )

    Rogers, it seems, are going after Bell ,in terms of being a national player. City Televison Network, have their own cable sports channel, Sportsnet, to compete with TSN, but I don’t think Bell would sell to Rogers, but why not, again, TTP..

    But I say NO to Bell on both situations!

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Steve, any news on TTP at all, studio location, personnels, launch date, which i sit so quiet, are they having financing issues, any news on your end?

      No. I’ll try to get some in the coming days.

      So maybe if TTP would like to TSN Radio and change it back to THE TEAM 690 and get out of the controlling hands of Toronto, and open up slots for a local sports show, weekly at least. (high school, collegiate )

      Bell still owns stations branded “The Team” so a new owner might choose a different name. As for local shows, most of TSN 690′s schedule is local.

      Reply
      1. Syd

        How so? 10 hours is ESPN feed for starters. How Canadian is that? Let alone local. The station has evolved to a gabfest amongst Bell owned personalities discussing how non Bell owned entities suck. Its just funny listening to them discuss Quebecors plans for an NHL team in QC . Of course they think it a loser. Bell isn’t involved.

        Make no mistake. Bell wants everything. All the money. All the power. It’s their birthright.

        Listening to Melnick, Bird and the others shill for Bell takes away every shred of credibility they ever had. If they actually ever had any.

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          How so? 10 hours is ESPN feed for starters. How Canadian is that? Let alone local.

          I’m not sure what 10 hours you’re referring to. The station’s overnights are syndicated, and much of its live broadcasts involving non-Montreal sports teams obviously don’t come from the station. But most of the day is still local.

          Listening to Melnick, Bird and the others shill for Bell takes away every shred of credibility they ever had. If they actually ever had any.

          Are they shilling for Bell, or just asking that their station be kept on the air? There are limits to what you can say about your employer (there are things I can’t say about The Gazette here), but I don’t know if that strips someone of all their credibility.

          Reply
  5. Jay

    I just listened to Mitch Melnick through the link and don’t get if he doesn’t understand the situation or just was told again that he can’t talk about the Bell takeover of Astral.

    Last fall, the point of the TSN 690 switch to French had no resolution and probably the CRTC never got around to having to consider it because they turned down the entire buy. Not because people were angry about losing TSN 690 but because the whole deal stank for Canadians coast to coast. It was not the CRTC protecting English sports radio in Montreal but saying no to a move that would have and still would add billions to Bell’s fortune in the long run and irreversibly change the media playing field in this country for the worse.

    Bell pulling the petition out to try and rally support is no more than a manipulative ploy to make sure they don’t have to answer to an angry mob when they next swagger in to Montreal to shit all over any hope consumers have of actually benefiting from a competitive marketplace. Seriously, they’re trying to play us for idiots and Mitch should be ashamed for taking part unless he honestly doesn’t get what they’re doing.

    Sorry for my strong opinions but it really makes me mad. I hope Bell gets shut down again by the CRTC. They don’t deserve Astral or our support.

    Reply
  6. Lorne

    If the station is allowed to be kept by Bell, will all the Montreal teams have their games on this radio station?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      If the station is allowed to be kept by Bell, will all the Montreal teams have their games on this radio station?

      See No. 2 under pros.

      Reply

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