The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission today begins a five-day hearing into the proposed purchase of Shaw Communications by Rogers. You can follow a live stream online and see the agenda here.
While there are a lot of competition-related concerns about this purchase, and particularly how it will remove a fourth wireless provider in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, the CRTC’s concern in all this is somewhat narrow. Its permission isn’t needed for a wireless, internet or telephone provider to buy another. (The Competition Bureau and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada will undertake their own proceedings to evaluate those concerns, and their approval is also needed before the transaction can proceed.)
Instead, the CRTC’s permission is only required for the transfer of broadcasting assets. Shaw sold its television and radio assets to Corus in 2016, leaving the following:
- Its licences for television distribution, including Shaw Cable the Shaw Direct satellite TV service
- Its licences for community television channels tied to those cable distributors
- Its licences for video on demand and pay-per-view services tied to those cable distributors (Rogers is not acquiring these as it has its own licences)
- Its licence for a satellite broadcasting distribution relay service, which provides TV signals to other providers
- Its stake in CPAC
Competition issues will be brought up in discussion of those points. For example, under this deal Rogers would get two thirds ownership of CPAC, giving it effective control (Videotron, Cogeco and Eastlink are also minority owners).
But an issue that hasn’t gotten much attention (besides from the Globe and Mail and a few others) is what this means for Global News.
You see, back in 2017 when the CRTC decided to screw over community television, it put in place a new subsidy system whereby large TV providers can redirect some of the money they would have spent on community television and instead send it to affiliated local TV stations to use for local news. Rogers could give some money to Citytv, Bell could give some money to CTV, Videotron could give some money to TVA, and Shaw could give some money to Corus. Though Shaw and Corus are separate companies, they are both ultimately controlled by the Shaw family, so for the CRTC’s purposes they’re related.
Once Rogers acquires Shaw, it will take the money that went to Corus for Global News and instead redirect it to Citytv stations.
According to CRTC filings, $8.8 million from Shaw Cable and $4.2 million from Shaw Direct were sent to Global for “locally reflective news programming” in 2019-20, for a total of about $12.9 million. That represents about 12 per cent of the $106 million Corus spent on local news in 2019-20.
That would mean significant cuts to Global News, unless Corus just decides to swallow the loss. Since Global as a whole is unprofitable, that seems unlikely.
It’s worth noting that while Corus has pointed this out in a submission, Corus is not on the agenda to appear at the CRTC hearing. Its owner is more interested in the profits from the sale than Corus’s concerns about local news.
The other fund
Now, because there are some private commercial television stations out there that aren’t owned by large cable companies, the CRTC set up a special fund to help them. The Independent Local News Fund is financed by a 0.3% tax on all licensed TV distributors, and is divided among independent TV stations based on the amount of local news they produce.
Because the Rogers-Shaw deal would orphan Global, it could then apply to the ILNF for funding for local news.
But the ILNF’s total budget is $21 million a year ($3 million of which comes from Shaw), so unless it would be willing to part with half its funding, either Global or the other independent stations (or most likely both) would have to lose a lot of money.
When the CRTC approved the purchase of V by Bell Media, V became ineligible for funding from the ILNF, and so its funding was redistributed among the remaining stations. But V only got about $3.2 million from the fund, so there’s a $10 million gap.
The CRTC set the 0.3% tax based on how television stations were owned at the time. A logical solution would be to increase that tax, but that would require a separate hearing, and either a cut to some other contribution line or an increase in costs to television providers that would then be passed on to customers.
Or Canadians could just accept that independent television gets stuck with a big budget cut because Canada’s second-largest communications company wanted to get bigger.
The CRTC should disallow this merger, control of television is getting concentrated in too few hands.
The concentration of ownership in wireless and internet service is a very big deal, potentially the biggest issue facing the CRTC going forward. The technology to stream an endless array of channels is out there, limited in Canada mostly by internet companies putting bandwidth caps on users to make them unappealing. So the ownership of that connection to the World Wide Waste is pretty important.
What we are seeing here is basically the move from the oligopoly we have seen develop in tv and radio over the last 40 years, and now it’s moving on to the internet.
The reality is Canada desperately needs the CRTC to stand up and say that they will not permit any more concentration of ownership, and the Federal Government needs to step up and pass laws aimed at reducing that concentration, potentially forcing the break up of some of the truly large players who have been lording over the media landscape like the decrepit, money hungry dinosaurs that they are.
Bell as an example should be broken into four different companies: a land phone and internet company, a broadcasting company, a wireless phone and internet company, and a “cable” distribution company. Each one of those companies would work to be profitable for it’s own shareholders and not just for the mothership.
It just requires the feds to grow some gutturals and move to take on what may be the biggest problem for the next 20 years in Canadian media and communications.