Saying it can’t wait until the coming review of television policy and group licence renewals completes its long process, Bell Media has filed applications with the CRTC to eliminate all regulatory requirements for local news at all of its CTV, CTV2 and Noovo stations across the country.
“Over the last decade, the operating environment for traditional, private Canadian broadcasters has changed dramatically,” Bell writes in its application. “Whereas in the past, Canadians looked to domestic services for information and entertainment, they can now access a virtually unlimited array of DMBUs such as Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, and Apple+, most of which are foreign owned and controlled.”
Specifically, Bell is asking to eliminate the following conditions of licence:
- A requirement for English-language stations in large markets to broadcast 14 hours of local programming per week
- A requirement for French-language stations to broadcast local programming each week (5 hours in Montreal and Quebec, 2.5 hours at other stations)
- Requirements for locally reflective news in English each week (6 hours in large markets, 3 hours in small markets, and special lower quotas for smaller or regional stations)
- A requirement for 5 hours of locally reflective news each week on Noovo’s Montreal station
- A requirement for Bell (as a group) to spend 11% of CTV/CTV2’s gross revenues on locally reflective news and 5% of Noovo’s gross revenues
If the CRTC grants all these requests, the only condition of licence related to local programming that would remain is a general requirement that stations outside metropolitan markets must broadcast seven hours of local programming per week (other smaller stations have exceptions for either less local programming or allowing them to group that requirement with nearby stations). This content would have to be local, but not necessarily news.
This isn’t to say that Bell would immediately cancel all local news if the application is approved. It says it won’t, anyway:
“Bell Media’s local television stations have always been committed to ensuring the coverage of (local) stories and if our Application is approved, we will continue to do so. Having the flexibility on how to achieve those goals rather than Commission mandated rules will allow us to provide a better news service to the local communities that we serve. As such, we believe the (conditions of licence) listed above are unnecessary in light the current economic environment in which we must operate and the flexibility accorded CBC/Radio-Canada.”
But Bell doesn’t explain how it would make use of this additional “flexibility” and why it needs it if it plans to continue providing local news. The fact that they’re using a lot of economic language to justify the application would seem to make it pretty clear they want to make cuts to save money.
It also uses some verbiage to suggest that these quotas actually somehow hurt local stations:
“In addition, such COLs have the unintended consequence of forcing our stations to make editorial choices that prevent them from providing our viewers with the most relevant news possible at all times. Events that occur outside a local market, whether nationally or internationally, may still be of importance to our viewers in those markets,” it writes. “For example, relevant news from a neighbouring community could be excluded from a newscast in order to ensure that we remain compliant with our obligation to provide a set number of hours of locally reflective news.”
No examples of this are given, and from experience I haven’t seen much of a problem including non-local stories in local newscasts.
Reducing CanCon quotas
Bell has filed a separate application with the CRTC to change its conditions of licence relating to spending on Canadian programming and so-called programs of national interest (scripted dramas, comedies, documentaries and award shows).
Specifically, Bell is seeking to reduce:
- Overall Canadian programming expenditures to 20 per cent of revenues from 30 per cent
- Programs of National Interest spending to 5% of revenues from 7.5%
- Expanding PNI categories to include music programs, music videos, variety and game shows and reality TV (Rogers is making a similar request for Citytv)
By my calculations, the change to the first requirement would mean Bell could save more than $60 million a year it spends on English-language Canadian content, and more than $15 million a year (as part of that Canadian spending) it devotes to scripted programming, documentaries and awards shows specifically.
Besides a long essay on the declining state of traditional television in Canada, Bell cites the latest renewal of CBC’s licences, which controversially eliminated local programming and news quotas. That renewal has been sent back to the CRTC for reconsideration, in part because of objections over those eliminations. And the CRTC explicitly stated in its decision that it didn’t worry about the CBC abandoning news because of its public service mandate.
Bell also cites an application from Quebecor’s TVA to eliminate weekend local news requirements at its Quebec City station. That application is currently before the CRTC, along with a complaint by the union that TVA went ahead with cutting the weekend newscasts without CRTC approval. (Quebecor has since backtracked and will continue weekend newscasts until a decision is reached.)
“The stark reality is that local television has been unprofitable since 2012 with PBIT (profit before interest and taxes) declining to -18.6% in 2020, -12.4% in 2021 and dropping even further to -17.7% in 2022,” Bell writes. “Seventy per cent of private local television stations and 40% of private radio stations entered 2020 with a negative PBIT. For Bell Media, 90% of our television stations had a negative PBIT in 2018 and while this ‘improved’ to only 84% having a negative PBIT in 2019, 94% of our stations had a negative PBIT in 2020. As of 2022, our local television stations have reported an aggregate loss of $583.7M since 2012.”
How Bell calculates profit and losses for local television stations specifically is a good question considering how much of the company is centralized now, but it goes on with more stark numbers:
“Bell Media has been losing tens of millions alone in the production and delivery of local news. In the four-year period between 2016 and 2019, the average annual news operating loss was $28.4M. In 2020 and 2021, due to advertising revenue declines attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, this jumped to an average operating loss of $51.2M. In 2022, despite advertising revenue recoveries, the operating loss was approximately $40M. Moreover, web giants have had a drastic impact on the advertising market in Canada, capturing a massive share of advertising revenue from Canadian businesses that rely on that revenue to make news. The Internet now has a 68% share of the advertising market in Canada. Without a doubt, delivering local news is a very costly undertaking, and as described above, this has negatively impacted the health of our local television stations.”
The group licences for Bell Media’s TV stations were last renewed in 2017 and supposed to expire (and therefore be reviewed and renewed by) last fall, but the CRTC has administratively extended them to August 2024. Bell says it expects further extensions since the CRTC is implementing Bill C-11 and will probably review TV licences after that process is complete.
Bell Media’s applications are posted on the CRTC website under Part 1 applications (the local news one is listed under CFTO Toronto, and the Canadian programming expenditures one under CJOH Ottawa), and are accepting public comment until 8pm ET July 24. You can file comments using these forms: local news application, Canadian programming application. Note that any information provided in those comments becomes public record, including contact information.
Unifor will fight request
Unifor, the union representing many CTV employees, issued a statement Friday evening saying it would “do everything in our power to ensure that Bell Media continues to live up to its legislated obligations to fund and create local news and programming.”
Pointing out that Bills C-11 and C-18 were just passed, it says “Bell Media’s application to the CRTC is premature, and a slight to the many organizations and individuals who have worked hard to build a viable path forward local news and programming in Canada.”
Bell parent company BCE Inc. responded to this news by way of a statement provided to CTV News, which CTV tacked on to the bottom of a Canadian Press story about the applications:
Bell Media is the leading provider of local news in Canada, but to sustain news operations into the future, public policy changes are desperately needed now. Even though we are Canada’s news leader, Bell Media’s news operations lost $40 million in revenue last year. Without changing how we operate to align with today’s shifting consumer demands, these operating losses will only grow. Now is the time for the CRTC to make reasonable regulatory improvements that will provide more flexibility in how Bell Media and other broadcasters deliver local news in major and smaller markets.