I’d thought about it. Some people had asked me about it. Others suggested it to the CRTC in their written submissions. And the CRTC asked Bell about it in a letter after it filed its application. But until Monday afternoon I didn’t think it was seriously an option that the commission might consider imposing.
Could the CRTC force Bell to keep CKGM (TSN Radio 690) and sell one of the other English-language Astral radio stations in Montreal, as a condition of approving the larger Bell-Astral deal?
Learning from the very negative public reaction from its initial proposal last year to turn CKGM into a French-language radio station, this time Bell is asking for an exception to the CRTC’s radio common ownership policy so it can keep it in English while still owning three other stations in the (currently) five-station market. This puts the commission in an awkward position if it accepts the purchase deal. Does it give the exception, giving one company control of four of five commercial stations and 75% of the commercial audience share? Or does it deny the exception, forcing Bell to sell the money-losing station to someone else who would most likely change its format? Bell convinced thousands of listeners that the former is better, putting together a Save TSN 690 petition and getting the same fans who were cursing its name months earlier to be suddenly singing its praises.
A background in common ownership
The CRTC’s common ownership policy, often incorrectly or incompletely explained, has two rules for radio:
- One company can’t own more than two AM stations and two FM stations in a single market
- One company can’t own more than three stations total in a market with fewer than eight commercial stations
French and English stations are considered in separate markets even if they share the same geographical area. Montreal’s English market, with only five commercial stations (though soon to be six) meets that second criteria, while the French market, with 11 commercial stations (soon to be 13 or even 14), doesn’t.
The policy is just that, a policy, and exceptions have been granted before. The most on-point one is one that was granted to Cogeco in 2010 that allowed it to keep three French FM stations in Montreal after it acquired most of the Corus Quebec network. This was allowed in exchange for Cogeco setting up the Cogeco Nouvelles radio news service, with CHMP 98.5 FM in Montreal as its flagship station. That station is now the highest-rated in Quebec. The second-highest-rated, CFGL (Rythme FM) 105.7, is also owned by Cogeco.
The irony here is that this request was strongly opposed by Astral Media (it even threatened legal action to stop it), it was supported by third parties because it would put Cogeco in a position to better compete with Astral, and Cogeco is a fierce opponent of the Bell/Astral deal because of increased concentration of ownership. (Cogeco hasn’t said much about the request for an exception, perhaps seeing how hypocritical it would look.)
Now Bell/Astral is using the Cogeco decision as a precedent to get the same treatment in English. Astral argues this should be an easier decision because unlike CHMP, CKGM is a money-losing station, its audience is tiny, and it’s on AM.
And Cogeco, the one company that you’d think would be most against allowing Bell to own four of the five stations in this market, is silent on the matter. Cogeco CEO Louis Audet told me on Wednesday after the company’s appearance before the CRTC that “we’ve kept away from that” and “it’s up to the commission to decide.”
This week, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission conducts five days of hearings into BCE Inc.’s purchase of Astral Media Inc.
You can follow the hearings in one of the following ways:
- In person: The hearings take place at Hôtel Gouverneur Place Dupuis, 1415 St. Hubert St., corner Ste. Catherine St. They are open to the public, though the CRTC is asking journalists who would like to film the proceedings to talk to them first. Headsets for simultaneous translation can be borrowed on site.
- Online video streaming: CPAC is filming the proceedings. The activities of the House of Commons and its committees take priority over CRTC hearings, so these won’t be broadcast on CPAC’s cable channel. But they will be live online. You can watch here: English, French, no translation
- Online audio streaming: The CRTC does its own streaming of its hearings, though these are audio-only. Listen here: English, French, no translation
- Twitter: The CRTC posts documents of presentations on its Twitter account, @CRTCHearings. You can also follow live reports from the hearings from me, the Globe and Mail’s Steve Ladurantaye, Cartt.ca’s Greg O’Brien and others using the hashtags #CRTC and #BellAstral
- Transcripts: They’re posted here the day after each hearing. Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4
Here are some links that will help you understand what’s going on:
- The agenda: Day 1 (Monday) is reserved for Bell to make its case and commissioners to ask questions. Days 2, 3 and 4 (Tuesday to Thursday) will be presentations by third parties, some in favour, some against, and others just making comments. Day 5 (Friday) will be Bell’s reply to those comments from the previous three days.
- The notice of hearing: This breaks down, in legal terms, what this application is. It also includes a link to the application itself (.zip)
- The interventions: Every comment from a third party filed with the CRTC is listed here. Some of these will also make oral presentations, but most won’t. The site also has Bell’s reply to those interventions.
- The press release from the Competition Bureau approving of Bell’s Astral takeover with modifications
- My explanation of those modifications
- Pro Bell: Bell’s press release outlining the promises it has made in relation to this application, and its Canadians Deserve More website with its ask-what-you-want Questions page.
- Anti Bell: Statements from OpenMedia.ca and Cogeco, and an opinion piece in La Presse
- The CRTC’s decision denying the first application last year
- My analysis of the major points of the proposal, the breakdown of the tangible benefits plan, the pros and cons of an exemption for CKGM (TSN 690), and Bell’s radio divestment plan
- Day 1: A thorough rundown from Cartt.ca; Canadian Press; Financial Post; Globe and Mail
- Day 2: The Globe on presentations from PIAC and Rogers, and later on Rogers’s plan for a Netflix competitor; Canadian Press on Rogers’s interest in The Movie Network; Financial Post; Canada.com on the presentation of music artist Suzie McNeil
- Day 3: The Canadian Press on Cogeco, the Financial Post on Eastlink’s dire future if the deal is approved
Starting Monday, Bell Media appears before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in a second attempt to convince it to approve its acquisition of Astral Media Inc.
The burden is on the applicant to convince the commission that this change of ownership is good for the broadcasting system. And since the CRTC has already rejected this acquisition once, it’s even more pressing for Bell to present a solid case this time.
So with that in mind, here are (in my opinion) the greatest challenges Bell will have to face to get this new deal through:
1. Stay humble: Nothing says “this company is too big” more than a supreme sense of arrogance. Many times during the first hearing last fall, Bell gave the impression not only that it knew better than its competitors, but even that it knew better than the commission. Whether real or not, that impression doesn’t sit well and perpetuates the idea that Bell getting any bigger is a very bad idea. Bell needs to come to the table believing that its proposal does more to benefit everyone than it does to benefit Bell, and not hesitate to answer the commission’s questions fully and honestly.
2. Explain its dealings with competing cable companies: Bell’s acquisition has come under a lot of opposition from just about everyone who provides cable TV service in Canada, with the exception of Shaw. Videotron, Rogers, Cogeco, Eastlink, Telus, the Canadian Cable Systems Alliance and small independent cable companies have remarkably similar stories about how Bell is already using its power over programming rights to strong-arm them into abusive contracts over carriage and deny them mobile and other non-linear rights. Bell’s answer to this last time was that (a) its competitors are trying to re-argue a case that was arbitrated by the CRTC and has since been dealt with, that (b) the CRTC’s vertical integration rules and arbitration process already protect against abuses in these kinds of deals, and if Bell was truly being abusive the CRTC would step in under those rules, and that (c) it’s in Bell’s interests to distribute its content as widely as possible and get deals done with competitors.
The first two points are valid, and it’s true that this issue isn’t directly relevant here. The third point is contradicted by the simple fact that Bell doesn’t have content deals for mobile and other platforms with its major competitors. Bell’s explanation for this, that its competitors have decided to conspire against it in order to make Bell look bad in front of the CRTC so they can gain a competitive advantage, sounds too far-fetched to make sense.
Even though they might not be directly relevant to this case, Bell’s troubled dealings with major competitors contributes to the impression that they’re already too big. Bell needs to reassure the CRTC that its relationships with its competitors are not one-sided, even if it means re-arguing these disputes.
3. Articulate a solid plan for programming: Bell was criticized the first time around for not having much solid to offer Canadians on the air, besides its tangible benefits package. This time around, there are some improvements, but Bell needs to sell them more. There’s the new Investigation channel it’s proposed, but cable channels are money-makers. There’s its plan to reserve space on pop stations for emerging artists, but rather than reserving 25% of its total airtime, it’s reserving 25% of its CanCon songs (or 25% of French-language songs on French stations). On TV, it’s promised to keep money-losing CTV Two stations running until 2016. That’s not an insignificant pledge, but 2016 is only three years away. Bell needs to present a long-term plan that not only makes obvious improvements to the broadcasting system, but does so in a way that requires Astral as well.
4. Focus on the intangibles: Last year, after facing strong opposition from competitors and the public, Bell came to the CRTC with an updated proposal that significantly increased its tangible benefits package. Setting aside that the benefits package was still very self-serving, the throw-money-at-the-problem approach didn’t impress the commission, and might have done more harm than good, reinforcing the impression that Bell thinks it can buy approval. Bell needs to show what it’s done to improve the existing CTV assets, and explain how it can apply that to Astral’s to make them better too (and better, of course, does not just mean more profitable).
5. Explain its radio divestment plan: The CRTC found that Bell’s original plan for radio assets, to sell 10 radio stations that put Bell over the maximum limit in large markets, and to have those stations be a mix of those currently owned by Astral and those owned by Bell, looked like Bell was trying to trade up. When I looked at the stations, I came to a similar conclusion, with some exceptions. But Bell isn’t changing its plan, and selling the same 10 radio stations. Bell has reassured me that its divestment plan is more complex than selling the lower-rated stations, but it will need to do a better job of selling this to the commission as the best plan for all stations involved, and for the competitiveness of their markets, if it expects approval. (It may have already done this — part of their plan was submitted confidentially to the CRTC — but it needs to sell this to the public too somehow.)
“I don’t feel a burning desire to write.”
That’s the last thing I scratched into my notebook when I sat down with Mike Boone at his home last fall. It’s funny because it’s coming from a newspaper columnist. I just did a search, and from 1985 (when the Gazette’s electronic database starts) to his goodbye column on Sept. 1, 2012, it counts 5,182 articles with “MIKE BOONE” in the byline. That works out to 192 a year, or 3.7 a week, on average, over that 27-year span, most of which he spent as the paper’s TV and radio columnist or city columnist.
In case you haven’t heard by now, Boone was one of many Gazette employees who took a buyout last fall. Sports writer Randy Phillips was another. Hockey columnist Red Fisher had taken his a bit earlier. Most of the rest of those who left were editors, photo technicians and other behind-the-scenes staff. People unrecognized by readers, but whose work all contributed to make The Gazette a quality newspaper, and whose departure caused it to suffer, despite valiant attempts by those left to compensate.
Unlike Fisher, whose retirement prompted news stories in The Gazette and in other media, Boone’s retirement (at a much busier time of the year for news) didn’t get much notice. He wrote a goodbye column, and quietly departed, striding off into the sunset toward that cul-de-sac in Pointe Claire.
Except he wasn’t entirely gone. He continues to blog Canadiens games for Hockey Inside/Out, and like he did when he was an employee, he’ll be at the Bell Centre for home games and in his basement for away games, providing live commentary with his classic funny flair.
As the Canadiens begin their playoff run today, attention toward the team, and traffic on the website, should go up.
Updated below with CRTC decision.
These days, what little public attention is devoted to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is split between two major hearings taking place back to back: The mandatory carriage hearings, in which more than a dozen groups are trying to force themselves onto basic cable to get maximum audience or free money, or both; and the Bell takeover of Astral Media, which is heavily opposed by most of Bell’s competitors.
There’s another file open for public comment that’s much more minor, but much more representative of what’s happening to Canada’s television industry right now. Book Television, a specialty channel owned by Bell Media, has applied to the commission to modify its licence to allow for more fictional entertainment programs, like scripted dramas, sitcoms, feature films, sketch or standup comedy shows, and animated shows.
Its current licence limits these kinds of programs to 35% of their schedule over the week, and no more than 30% between 6pm and midnight. It wants to bring that up to 50%, and eliminate the separate limit on programming during prime time.
The reason is simple: Book Television wants to run more popular programs, and fewer programs that have to do with books.
Like all specialty television services, Book Television is tied to what’s called the “nature of service” clause in its licence. This is the clause that requires a specialty television channel to specialize in something. It sets its language and its topic. And all programming should fit its theme.
For Book Television, the licence says this: “The licensee shall provide a national English-language specialty Category A service that will feature magazines and talk shows, dramas and documentaries that are exclusively based upon printed and published works and offered with additional programming that provides an educational context and promotes reading.”
In other words, a channel about books, and about things based on books.
In the 2000 hearing where Book Television was first proposed to the CRTC (it was only one of several proposed book-themed channels, with Alliance Atlantis, Corus, Boxer Four Entertainment and Key Media also proposing channels based on books and literature), then-owner CHUM said “Book Television — The Channel will develop, over several years, shows on critics and criticism, kidlit, reading festivals and erotica, support for new writers with the WordFACT Foundation and more.”
CHUM wanted to expand on the offering of another channel it owned, Canadian Learning Television. That channel, since rebranded twice, got into its own trouble at the CRTC recently for straying from its purpose.
The idea was that drama programming would be presented in such a way as to educate viewers about books and encourage them to read.
The CRTC agreed, and awarded a licence for Book Television.