Four years after the CRTC found Videotron failed to comply with its obligations related to community television programming, the commission is taking a very critical look at Bell Canada’s community TV services, with questions suggesting it is concerned Bell is inappropriately redirecting funding that was supposed to go to community TV in small Atlantic Canadian communities toward large productions out of Toronto and Montreal that are essentially spinoff shows of commercial productions that air on Bell Media TV channels.
In a notice of consultation posted last month, the commission published applications for licence renewal for Bell Fibe and Bell Aliant TV services in Atlantic Canada, Ontario and Quebec. The applications, which include 42 documents, shows repeated rounds of questions over two years about Bell’s community TV operations, which operate under the Bell TV1 brand (formerly Bell Local).
Under CRTC regulations, licensed TV distributors must devote a certain percentage of their gross revenues (usually around 5%) to Canadian programming, usually through contributions to the Canada Media Fund, but are allowed to deduct some of that money (usually 1.5%) to fund a community television service. Most large distributors, including Bell, choose to do so. (Satellite TV operators don’t have community channels, so have different rules.)
Community television services have specific rules attached to them, governing what programming they can air and how much money they can spend on certain expenses. One key rule is that 50% of programming funding and 50% of the programming schedule (if applicable) be spent on community access programming, that is programming that was specifically requested by a member of the community that is not an employee of the TV provider.
According to the data submitted by Bell, its community TV services comply with the funding requirement. But the CRTC is more concerned about that other half of the divide: non-access community programming. It has rules, too, including that it’s supposed to be non-commercial, and it’s supposed to be locally relevant.
But a look at Bell TV1’s programming library (it’s provided as a video-on-demand service, rather than a linear 24/7 TV channel) shows a lot of programs that, at first glance, look like they’re offshoots or promotional vehicles for other programs that air on Bell Media’s commercial channels:
- eTalk @ TIFF and eTalk MMVAs Behind the Scenes (eTalk is a CTV program)
- Investigating Cardinal (Cardinal is a CTV program)
- Letterkenny – Let’s get At’er (Letterkenny is a Crave program)
- Amazing Race Canada Auditions (Amazing Race Canada is a CTV program)
- 24CH Le Valet and 24CH Le Quiz (24CH is an RDS program)
- Mary’s Big Kitchen (Mary’s Kitchen Crush is a CTV program)
- 24 Hours of Food with Michael Bonacini (Bonacini is a judge on MasterChef Canada, a CTV program)
- The Social Lunch Dates (The Social is a CTV program)
- Secrets de Chalet (Le Chalet is a Vrak program)
There are also programs starring Bell Media employees:
- Up Close with Ben Mulroney (Mulroney is a host on CTV’s Your Morning and eTalk)
- Geek Me! (Jason Rockman is a host on CHOM-FM Montreal)
- Mo… Food! (Mose Persico is an employee of CTV Montreal)
- Chez Dupont (Stéphan Dupont is a host on Énergie 98,9 in Quebec City)
(There may be others — Bell has deemed the names of access requesters for its community TV programs as confidential information and so they are redacted from its filings.)
And there are programs that are connected with groups and events in which Bell is either a major sponsor or part owner:
- Several programs related to the Festival d’Été de Québec (Bell is the main sponsor)
- Several programs related to the Cirque du Soleil (Bell partners with the Cirque on content development)
- We are TFC (Bell is part owner of Toronto FC’s parent company)
- 24CH Le Valet and 24CH Le Quiz (Bell is part owner of the Montreal Canadiens)
Though most of these programs are not classified as “community access”, they are all classified as “community” programming.
Asked how shows with such obvious links to commercial entities can be considered community programming, Bell responded thusly:
The non-access programs identified by the Commission in this question are community programming because they meet the existing definition of community programming. Each was produced by an independent producer who was a “member of the community served in the licensed area”. While these programs incorporate popular brands, the productions themselves are community-focused. We also note that many BDUs work with independent producers to create non-access programming.
Bell TV1 creates some non-access programming associated with popular brands as part of its overall community TV programming strategy. An important component of TV1’s programming strategy is to create popular non-access programming as a means of introducing and attracting an audience to TV1 in general and to our access programming in particular.
Bell TV1 has not and does not produce programs for commercial purposes.
Whether these qualify as non-commercial is a matter of interpretation. The Montreal Canadiens hockey club isn’t exactly non-commercial, and some community TV funding was used by 24CH to purchase footage of Canadiens players in action and get access to them.
More fundamentally, if CTV contracts with independent producers result in the expected bonus of a community TV program that ads tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra revenue, does that become a de facto way of helping CTV with community TV cash, even if there is no formal quid pro quo?
And how are most of these shows in the interest of public service?
Bell tells the commission that these shows “related to a Bell Media brand” represent only 5% of programs on TV1 (it’s unclear if this is based on number of programs, total length or funding, and it’s not clear which programs it includes in this calculation).
And it says that not everything on community TV has to be in the public service:
… the role of community television is described as “primarily” of a public service nature; it is not required to be “exclusively” of a public service nature.
TV1 programs are non-commercial programs that focus on local interactions and local venues. While the programs leverage a popular brand, they are distinct programs intimately tied to our various licence areas.
It’s clear from Bell’s reasoning that it uses these popular shows to attract people to community TV and expose them to access programs. Though Bell also argues that these shows have very little audience compared to their commercial shows on CTV and elsewhere.
The CRTC doesn’t point to a specific condition of licence or regulation being violated, but makes it clear it believes Bell is ignoring the spirit of the community TV policy, exploiting a loophole to help its commercial partners.
Bell says if the CRTC wants to issue guidance and change the rules, it shouldn’t do so retroactively, and should do it as part of a policy hearing, not as part of a licence renewal process.
There’s a separate issue related to how Bell redistributes funding for community television: Bell is taking money from its systems serving small towns in Atlantic Canada and redirecting that money to Toronto and Montreal, despite the fact that it no longer operates community television services in Toronto and Montreal because it has redirected 100% of those cities’ community TV funding to their local CTV stations.
In its questions to Bell, the CRTC suggests this goes against the intent of its regulations, which were meant to allow licensed services in large areas to redirect some funding to smaller ones, not the other way around.
Bell’s argument in favour of this practice is, to oversimplify it: Well, it’s legal.
Bell’s operations in what is called the “Atlantic Zone” (Bathurst and Edmunston, N.B.; Corner Brook, Bay Roberts and Carbonear, N.L.; Bridgewater, Glace Bay, Kentville, New Glasgow, Truro and Sydney, N.S.; and Charlottetown and Summerside, P.E.I.) are small enough that they do not need to be licensed. They therefore operate as “exempt” services, which have fewer regulatory requirements. One of the flexibilities they have is to redirect their community TV funding to other areas.
As Bell points out, nothing in the regulations, or the order that allows exempt services to operate, says exempt systems cannot redirect their funding to large cities, so long as they meet their other requirements.
In the present case, the above-described practice by Bell amounts to redirecting money from smaller exempt markets towards the production of community programming reflective of metropolitan markets where Bell operates licensed BDUs, but no longer offers a community programming service.
We submit that our community television program distribution practices are appropriate because they conform to the requirements of the Broadcasting Distribution Regulations (the Regulations) as well as BRP 2017-278.
But how is 24CH Le Quiz relevant to an Atlantic Canadian audience? Bell says it’s relevant because it’s popular:
It is clear that the non-local, non-access programs that we distribute in our Atlantic Zone are meaningful and suitable because these programs attract a significant community television audience. Our subscribers would not watch a program if it was irrelevant to them.
It’s legal, but we’ll stop it
Despite repeatedly arguing that everything it’s doing is above board, Bell said in June it would discontinue the practice of redirecting small-town Atlantic money to Montreal and Toronto:
We firmly believe that our community TV funding practices are compliant with both the Broadcasting Distribution Regulations (Regulations) and various Commission policies. However, given the numerous rounds of questions from the Commission, it has become clear to us that the Commission’s intentions have not always been properly reflected in its stated policies. In this regard, we will fully comply with any new policy directions on a go forward basis but in no circumstances should policy clarifications be applied retroactively. In any event, new policy directions should be achieved through a public consultation process and not a licence renewal application. Regardless of this, where there is ambiguity in the Commission’s funding policies, we have indicated below that we will no longer engage in the funding practice that has been questioned by the Commission.
Therefore, we confirm that on a go forward basis we will not commission or create any new non-local programs with funding from our exempt systems. We also confirm that we will not commission or create any new programs in our Toronto or Montreal licence areas, including the Bell Media related programs currently produced in those markets.
Bell is also requesting renewal of a special status for its systems in Ottawa and Quebec City, which allows them to double their deduction for community programming to fund community services in both official languages. Rogers has similar exceptions for its systems in Ottawa and Moncton.
The CRTC questioned whether Bell should continue to have this exception, in light of its determination that it would no longer grant such requests and would re-evaluate existing operations on a case-by-case basis. It particularly questioned whether Quebec City, which has a very small anglophone population, should get full funding for English community TV.
Rogers had its double funding exception renewed, but Bell’s could be in jeopardy if the CRTC is not satisfied with the nature of its community programming.
Bell is also requesting that some of its service areas be able to merge its community TV services into a zone-based system, which is used by several TV providers operating in smaller markets. Bell is proposing to merge its community channels in Trois-Rivières, Drummondville and Joliette; Chicoutimi and Jonquière; Monton, Saint John and Fredericton; Oshawa and Peterborough; Kitchener, London and Stratford; and Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie.
Some of those mergers, like Chicoutimi and Jonquière (both part of Saguenay) make sense. Others, like Drummondville and Trois-Rivières, or Fredericton and Moncton, might be pushing the limits of what a common community looks like.
Bell TV’s application for licence renewal is accepting public comments until 8pm ET on Oct. 15.
UPDATE (Nov. 5): Quebecor unsurprisingly responded to the application. Its intervention calls on the CRTC to stop allowing Bell to devote twice the money to community programming in Ottawa and Quebec City for bilingual channels, refuse the request to merge Saint-Jérôme into the Montreal licence, and deal with Quebecor’s undue preference complaints before renewing its licence.
Bell dismissed most of Quebecor’s arguments in its reply, saying its arguments were weak in arguing against its perfectly legal funding allocations, that Saint-Jérôme is in the Montreal metro census area, and that the undue preference complaints are irrelevant to this application.
No interventions were filed by community television groups or organizations, besides those filed as part of supporting interventions by Bell Canada.