Bell makes Crave bilingual, opening another front in its war with Quebecor

I regret to inform you that Bell and Quebecor are at it again.

The latest skirmish? Bell’s announcement that it is launching a French version of its Crave streaming service, or more accurately making its existing Crave service bilingual. This adds a third player to the (paid) Canadian French-language TV streaming market, joining Radio-Canada’s Tou.tv Extra and Quebecor’s Club Illico.

That sounds pretty simple, and generally good news for the market. Annoying for Quebecor, obviously, to have a new competitor, but hardly something they can complain about.

Except at the same time, Bell is doing with its Super Écran pay TV channel what it did with The Movie Network in 2018: Integrating it into Crave and forcing TV providers into a new deal to get access to Super Écran’s on-demand content for their subscribers. (Super Écran will, thankfully, keep its branding though, and be referred to as a Super Écran add-on to Crave.)

Bell has reached such deals with some providers, but not Videotron, which is calling foul because Bell has shut down Super Écran Go, through which Videotron customers subscribed to Super Écran could access its content online.

The 2018 Crave-Videotron war didn’t last too long, but it needed a $100-million lawsuit to settle. And Bell and Quebecor aren’t exactly great at negotiating these days.

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Quebecor’s shifting arguments against Tou.tv

It will come as no surprise to you that Quebecor and Canada’s public broadcaster are not the best of friends. Quebecor’s controlling shareholder and CEO, Pierre Karl Péladeau, has complained about it many times in the past. (He also complains about La Presse, Bell, the Quebec Liberal Party, the Quebec government and others.)

This week, Quebec’s largest telecom and media company filed a complaint with the CRTC demanding that it order CBC/Radio-Canada to shut down its Tou.tv Extra streaming service. Not all of Tou.tv, just the $7/month premium version that charges for premium content.

I examine the application in this article for Cartt.ca subscribers. In short, Quebecor is arguing that:

  • As a public broadcaster, it’s improper for CBC/Radio-Canada to charge for access to content paid for by taxpayers, and goes against its mandate.
  • Since it licenses some content from other broadcasters (Télé-Québec, V, Canal Vie, TV5 and others), it is a de facto TV provider and should be licensed as such, including obligations to spend 5% of its revenue on Canadian programming funds.
  • Its deal with Telus giving Telus’s customers free access to Tou.tv Extra is an illegal undue preference and against the rules for digital media broadcasters.
  • CBC’s last licence renewal in 2013 included a note from the CRTC that said it does not charge for access to its streaming service (Tou.tv Extra launched in 2014), which Quebecor argues is a de facto condition of acceptance.

Quebecor lays it on pretty thick in the application, saying CBC/Radio-Canada is “short-circuiting the Canadian broadcasting system with taxpayer money” and “creating two-tier public television: enriched content, exclusives and offers first to the better off, and regular content and reruns to the masses.”

In a procedural letter, the CRTC says that issues related to CBC’s mandate should be dealt with in the CBC licence renewal proceeding, which is currently under way. Other issues of fairness can be dealt with in the context of an “undue preference” proceeding, which it will examine.

I could point out some of the obvious counter-arguments to Quebecor’s argument (Tou.tv Extra does not offer live streaming of cable channels, only some of their content on demand; there is no condition of licence requiring it to be free; it’s basically the same model as Quebecor’s own Club Illico; the deal offered to Telus was offered to others as well including Videotron, who choose not to take it; even if there is undue preference, it does not mean Tou.tv Extra needs to cease its operations), but what struck me today as I was doing some Google searching is a post I wrote 10 years ago just after Tou.tv first launched, when Péladeau complained about it then. Here’s a paragraph I excerpted from an open letter he wrote:

Furthermore, the CBC has launched the Tou.tv website without consulting the industry, a move that jeopardizes Canada’s broadcasting system by providing free, heavily subsidized television content on the Internet without concern for the revenue losses that may result, not only for the CBC but also for other stakeholders, including writers and directors.

So, in 2010 Péladeau argued that Tou.tv threatened the broadcasting system by not charging a fee.

And in 2020 Péladeau argues that Tou.tv Extra threatens the broadcasting system by charging a fee.

You have to give this to Péladeau: He’s got quite the ability to argue. It must be fun working in his regulatory affairs department.

Media News Digest: GCM coop goes ahead, CBC licence renewal, a bunch of people retire

It’s been a month and a half since the last one of these, and frankly it’s quite the load on my time. I’m going to have to explore ways of lowering the workload if I’m going to keep doing this. In the meantime, I’ve dropped the jobs section and may drop others that are less popular and/or have better sources elsewhere.

News about news

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CRTC rules Bell TV unfairly packaged TVA Sports

So Quebecor was right all along.

Kinda.

In a decision published on Thursday, the CRTC ruled that Bell TV unduly showed preference to its related channel RDS to the detriment of competitor TVA Sports by choosing to put the former in its most popular package in Quebec, but not the latter.

It gives Bell until Feb. 5 to tell the commission how it will rectify the situation. The two obvious options are to either add TVA Sports to the package, or take RDS out of it.

Like most TV providers, Bell offers discretionary channels on an à la carte basis, but most people have them as part of larger packages. With Bell, these larger packages are organized in tiers: Good, Better and Best in English, and Bon, Meilleur and Mieux in French. The data show that the lowest-end package of that group is by far the more popular. In Quebec, about 90% of subscribers with one of these packages has the “Bon” package, which has RDS but not TVA Sports.

Bell had argued that its contract with Quebecor only required TVA Sports to have similar packaging to RDS2, and that even that clause doesn’t apply anymore. Quebecor, meanwhile, argued that TVA Sports has greatly transformed since it launched in 2011, and is now on par with RDS, particularly since it picked up the national rights to NHL games.

The CRTC sided with Quebecor, and said “Bell deprived TVA Sports of a significant number of subscribers and several millions of dollars per year of subscription and advertising revenues, resulting in a significant loss of income.”

Quebecor’s back-of-the-envelope calculations suggested that if Bell TV treated TVA Sports the same as RDS (including paying the same per-subscriber rate), TVA Sports would not be in deficit. The rate isn’t part of this decision, but rather was decided as part of final offer arbitration in a separate case (Quebecor is mad about that one too, since the CRTC sided with Bell).

This apparent unfairness was the major reason Quebecor decided in April to cut the TVA Sports feed from Bell, until ordered by the court to re-establish it.

We’ll see what Bell does to rectify the situation. Quebecor would obviously prefer more subscribers to TVA Sports, but Bell could choose to take RDS out of the “Bon” package instead, especially if it can get away with grandfathering those who already have it.

Bell complaint dismissed

In a separate decision also released Thursday, the CRTC also sided with Quebecor in a case over packaging of Super Écran on Videotron. The decision, in response to a Bell complaint, found that Videotron did treat Super Écran differently from Quebecor’s own Club Illico when it removed Super Écran from the “Premium” group of channels, but that there was insufficient evidence that Super Écran suffered financially because of it.

Videotron’s pick-your-own-package model, which is the main way they’re selling TV services these days, invites customers to choose a certain number of channels. Separate from that are “Premium” services that cost more. Most Videotron packages allow one or two “Premium” selections from a list of services, that used to include Super Écran and The Movie Network (now Crave), plus Super Channel, the over-the-top service Club Illico, and a package that includes FX, AMC and U.S. super stations.

Videotron removed Super Écran and Crave from the “Premium” offer after Bell increased its per-subscriber fee. It argued it was just too expensive to continue to be a throw-in like that. Instead, you have to search under “other specialties” to find them among the ethnic channels and pay an extra $17 (Super Écran) or $20 (Crave/HBO) a month.

The decision seems to suggest the issue could be revisited if Bell can prove there was significant financial impact on Super Écran as a result of this change.

Supreme Court overturns CRTC order banning ad substitution during Super Bowl

After three years of Canadian cable TV subscribers having access to American ads during the Super Bowl, we’ll be going back to the previous system after all.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the CRTC exceeded its authority when it issued an order that required cable and satellite TV companies to not substitute U.S. feeds with Canadian ones during the Super Bowl, in response to demands from Canadians to be able to watch the U.S. Super Bowl ads.

The 7-2 decision explicitly leaves open the possibility that the CRTC could use its authority under other sections of the Broadcasting Act to possibly reach the same result. The most obvious way would be under article 4(3) of the Simultaneous Substitution Regulations, which state that the CRTC can declare a condition whereby simultaneous substitution would not be in the public interest, and prohibit it accordingly.

But that won’t happen before the next Super Bowl less than two months away.

Specifically, the court found that article 9(1)h of the Broadcasting Act, the same article that allows the CRTC to require TV distributors to include certain channels in their basic packages and collect fees from every subscriber for them, “does not empower the CRTC to impose terms and conditions on the distribution of programming services generally,” and since the order the CRTC issued in 2016 does not require these companies to distribute the Super Bowl, its wording is invalid.

The article states that the CRTC may “require any licensee who is authorized to carry on a distribution undertaking to carry, on such terms and conditions as the Commission deems appropriate, programming services specified by the Commission.”

The majority found that this wording can’t be stretched to give the CRTC a bunch of powers it doesn’t say it has. The CRTC can order providers to carry certain channels, but that’s not what the Super Bowl order does.

This is notably the third time that an order issued under article 9(1)h has been rejected for this reason. Previous orders invalidated the CRTC’s “value for signal” regime that would have required providers pay for local TV stations, and a requirement for TV providers to abide by the Wholesale Code.

The court did not make decisions on other arguments, such as whether the CRTC has the power to regulate individual programs, or whether the CRTC’s order conflicts with the Copyright Act.

The two dissenting judges found that Bell and the NFL had not met their burden to prove that the CRTC decision was unreasonable, and generally deferred to the CRTC and its expertise in interpreting the section of the Broadcasting Act it was citing. It also found the CRTC’s decision was not invalidated by the Copyright Act.

The decision probably only accelerates a process that was coming anyway, as the Canadian government had already agreed as part of negotiations on a new trade agreement with the U.S. and Mexico to overturn the CRTC’s order.

And, of course, there are still other ways to watch the U.S. Super Bowl ads.

Radio Centre-Ville lawsuit ends with dissidents dropping case at trial

The legal battle between Radio Centre-Ville (CINQ-FM 102.3) and a group of dissidents over control of the community station is over. But the emotional repercussions of the bitter three-year dispute will likely continue for some time to come.

The case was finally heard on Monday before judge Marc St-Pierre at Quebec Superior Court. But after hearing from only two witnesses, the plaintiff, representing the dissidents, proposed abandoning the lawsuit, which was quickly accepted. (Both sides pay their own legal costs.)

The dispute started in the fall of 2016, with a proposal by station management that, to control a financial crisis that risked pushing the station into bankruptcy and losing its building on St-Laurent Blvd., it begin selling airtime to independent producers. That proposal may or may not have been rejected at a general assembly of members in September 2016, depending which side you talk to.

Two other general assemblies followed, one in December 2016 and one in January 2017, to elect members to the station’s board of directors, and each side says the other one was illegal. Since then, the two have continued to battle for control, each with its own board — General Manager Wanex Lalanne and his allies remained in control of the station itself, while the dissident group was the one listed on Quebec’s business registry, and had control of the station’s Facebook page. The dissident group also often got its messages broadcast on the station, as well as through other media like CKUT.

Radio Centre-Ville General Manager Wanex Lalanne addresses listeners during an on-air press conference on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019.

To say the battle has been acrimonious would be an understatement. During a press conference broadcast live on-air on Tuesday, Lalanne and his supporters talked about defamatory statements made against him, and Lalanne did not discount the possibility of a civil lawsuit for defamation. (The threat of such a countersuit may have been a factor in the dissidents deciding to drop their case.) Lalanne said he would take some time to recover from this ordeal before taking such decisions, and it’s up to the station’s board of directors as far as the next steps on behalf of the organization.

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TTP Media’s 600 and 940 stations go off the air

Damage to the transmitter caused by a wind storm caused TTP Media’s two Montreal radio stations to go off the air, and the need to order parts means it will be early in the new year before they’re transmitting again, co-owner Nicolas Tétrault tells me.

CFNV 940 AM and CFQR 600 AM have been on the air since 2016 and 2017, respectively, each taking five years to get on the air after getting their licences from the CRTC.

For nearly a decade, Montrealers unsatisfied with commercial talk radio stations have been eagerly anticipating what was promised. But that eagerness has faded as year after year brings no news about programming (except for a deal CFNV reached with the similarly-named CNV to provide mainly music programming).

Tétrault says talk programming is coming soon, and they are very proactive on setting it up. Talk programs on CFQR, the English station, could start as early as February, he told me.

Considering past promises of launching soon, it’s best not to hold your breath waiting for it.

UPDATE (Feb. 19): CFQR 600 AM is back on the air.

Fall radio ratings: Could The Beat surpass CJAD?

Numeris released its quarterly ratings report for metered markets on Wednesday, and for Montreal the only surprising thing is how much The Beat continues to dominate over Virgin Radio. With a 21.5% share, it has more than twice the average listeners than Virgin Radio at 9.4%. And not only it it the fourth straight quarter that The Beat has been more than twice Virgin’s share, it’s the third straight where Virgin has fallen behind CHOM for third place among English music stations.

The 21.5% share is The Beat’s highest since it launched in 2011, and less than four points below perennial leader CJAD 800. Could we see a future where The Beat isn’t just the most popular music station and the most popular among that advertiser-friendly 25-54 audience, but among all ages and formats as well?

The book is more bad news for Virgin Radio, which tried to turn things around by letting go of program director Mark Bergman (he’s now at The Beat) and morning hosts Freeway Frank and Natasha Gargiulo and stealing Vinny Barrucco back from The Beat to lead its new morning show. The Beat’s morning show, headed by Vinny’s former co-host Nikki Balch, is still ahead. It’s still early — this is the first full book with Barrucco hosting the morning show with Shannon King — but they have a lot of ground to cover, and Virgin has lost a lot of ground that it has to make up.

TSN 690 is at the bottom of the anglo commercial radio pack, but it had its best share since 2017. CBC Radio One, meanwhile, which had good numbers from 2017 until this spring, has fallen back below 7% in market share.

On the francophone side, the top line hasn’t changed much, except for a rebound for CHMP-FM 98.5 (which always tends to dip in the summer with replacement hosts and less news), and a drop for CKOI 96.9.

Bragging rights

Media News Digest: GCM heads toward coop, WCAX catches fire, CBC North backtracks on merging newscasts

News about news

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The end of the free daily newspaper in (English) Canada

About 20 years after it first became a thing, the free daily commuter newspaper will cease to exist in English Canada.

Torstar announced on Tuesday that it will cease production of its StarMetro dailies (formerly Metro) in the five cities it currently operates — Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Halifax. The result will be more than 120 layoffs, according to Unifor, which is using the news to demand additional government help for print media.

The closure means Canada is left with only two free daily print newspapers, both of which are in Montreal: Métro and 24 Heures. Both were once part of nationwide chains but got split up from them.

Metro operated newspapers in:

  • London
  • Regina
  • Saskatoon
  • Ottawa
  • Winnipeg
  • Vancouver
  • Edmonton
  • Calgary
  • Toronto
  • Halifax

24 Hours operated in:

  • Gatineau
  • Calgary
  • Edmonton
  • Ottawa
  • Vancouver
  • Toronto

There were also independent efforts, particularly in Toronto:

  • FYI Toronto and GTA Today, free papers launched by the Toronto Sun and Toronto Star, respectively, when the craze began in 2000.
  • Dose, the Canwest free daily that lasted just over a year in five cities
  • t.o.night, which tried to make an afternoon free daily a thing

Now they’re all dead.

So what about Montreal?

Montreal’s remaining free dailies have unique circumstances, but they aren’t immune from the same economic forces — a reduction in advertising revenue, an increase in expenses, as well as less attention from readers who can now spend their morning commutes checking Facebook on their phones.

Métro, formerly a Transcontinental paper, was sold along with Montreal and Quebec City community papers to Métro Média, a company owned by Michael Raffoul, an entrepreneur who owns a print media distribution company.

24 Heures, owned by Quebecor, is a de facto sister publication to the Journal de Montréal. It no longer has its own website, and its stories live on the Journal de Montréal’s site. It saves money by using stories from the Journal and TVA.

Neither newspaper has any guarantee of surviving in the long term. Quebecor could shut down 24H at any time, and few people would notice (it disappeared for a week this summer and nobody raised an eyebrow). Metro, meanwhile, is part of a larger group of newspapers that is increasingly codependent, and a shutdown there might be devastating for what’s left of the on-island community newspapers (though many of them are little more than advertising vehicles these days).

I wouldn’t be surprised if someone tries something new in Toronto. It’s a city of millions and just seems a bit odd that it wouldn’t have at least one free news daily. But maybe it’s time to acknowledge that this method of getting news hasn’t kept up with technological progress.

Which isn’t all bad. It’ll mean fewer discarded newspapers clogging up subway systems.

Rick Moffat, Eramelinda Boquer among latest Bell Media cuts

Wednesday was another bad day at Bell Media, as the company made another round of cuts across the country for vague reasons that probably amount to wanting to cut expenses to increase profits.

The company refused to provide “specific numbers” or names but confirmed there were “departures” at “some Bell Media stations.”

“Our industry is changing fast, with growing international competition and new viewing and listening options impacting audiences and advertising across the Canadian media sector. We’re feeling the effects of rapid industry change in many parts of our business, including local radio. To ensure we remain competitive, we’re managing the impact on our bottom line while also investing in content and platforms,” the statement reads.

In Montreal, CJAD’s Eramelinda Boquer and TSN 690’s Rick Moffat were among the cuts, sources at Bell Media told me. There was also a job lost in the CTV Montreal mailroom.

Elsewhere, the biggest loss is CTV Winnipeg news anchor Gord Leclerc. Traces of him were quickly removed from CTV Winnipeg’s website and he wrote a message of thanks to his viewers.

Also gone are:

In possibly unrelated news, Énergie 98.9 in Quebec City, a Bell Media station, fired morning host Stéphan Dupont, and co-hosts Raynald Cloutier and Pierre Blais, on Friday. The firing comes after a controversial interview with RDS analyst Marc Denis, but people at the station say the two events are unrelated. Dupont’s contract was set to end Jan. 1.

Thanks to those who provided tips on the losses. I’ll update this post as I hear about more.

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Gregory Charles sells Radio Classique to Leclerc to be turned into pop music station

This post has been corrected.

Last year, when Quebec City’s Leclerc Communication agreed to buy two radio stations from RNC Media, fans of Montreal’s 91.9 Sports (CKLX-FM) were upset that the new owner planned to turn their sports-talk station into a popular music station with the same format as Quebec City’s WKND (coincidentally also at 91.9).

The transaction failed because the CRTC wouldn’t agree to Leclerc buying CHOI-FM in the provincial capital while holding on to WKND and Blvd 102.1.

Now, Leclerc is trying again, and this one will probably prompt even more upset listeners. It has agreed to purchase Radio Classique 99.5 from Gregory Charles, and will turn it into a WKND station instead.

The transaction does not include CJSQ-FM 92.7, Radio Classique’s sister station in Quebec City, which will remain in Charles’s hands, as will the radioclassique.ca website. Charles says in an interview with La Presse that he hopes to find a different buyer for that station to turn it into something else as well.

Shortly after the announcement, the CRTC published the associated application, which sets the purchase price at $3.88 million. That’s only 57% of the $6.78 million it was priced at when Charles bought it in 2015.

While there’s no Quebec City element that would cause competition concerns, CJPX is required by condition of licence to operate in a specialty format, and Leclerc is applying for a change in its licence to remove that requirement. The commission may or may not be crazy about replacing a specialty music station with a loyal audience with yet another pop station, as much as Leclerc promises its format is different.

In the meantime, it’s status quo at Radio Classique in Montreal, just as it was with 91.9 Sports.

Gregory Charles bought CJPX and CJSQ from founder Jean-Pierre Coallier in 2015. Charles admitted in the La Presse interview that he paid too much for the station at the time. But he also said he wasn’t looking to sell until Leclerc came to him with an offer.

Charles also seems to suggest that he thinks CJSQ can still be a success without its bigger brother, which would be quite a challenge, especially considering how much content is shared between the two stations. He says the Quebec City market is more stable, while most of the Montreal audience listens online.

For tangible benefits, Leclerc is proposing the usual 6% minimum, broken down in the standard way between music development funds, the Community Radio Fund of Canada and discretionary initiatives that haven’t been determined yet. The total comes out to $293,350 over seven years, but Leclerc is also proposing to take over $219,514 of the $340,121 remaining in tangible benefits from that 2015 transaction (the rest will stay with Charles and CJSQ).

The deal also includes $100,000 worth of advertising for Charles on CJPX in the two years after it closes.

Will the CRTC accept the transaction? It’s hard to tell, and will depend on the resistance it meets. Previous attempts to transform 91.9 Sports and TSN 690 failed not because of angry submissions by loyal fans, but because they were part of larger transactions that failed to go through.

The commission is also usually reluctant to replace a specialty station with a pop music station unless it can be demonstrated that the only alternative is the station shutting down.

With CJPX, that argument could be made. The application says the station has not made money since it was purchased (exact numbers are confidential) and “has no hope of recovery without a repositioning of the station.” Its already modest advertising revenues were $2 million in 2012-13 and $1.3 million in 2017-18.

Radio Classique CJPX-FM average minute audience 2015-17 (Source: Numeris)

And despite efforts by Charles, including bringing in celebrity hosts like Bernard Derome and Marc Hervieux, the station’s audience share has tumbled 20-30% in five years, depending how you count it. In 2017 it stopped subscribing to Numeris ratings.

If the commission can be convinced that there aren’t other options for the continued survival of a classical radio station in Montreal, or that a third player in the mainstream commercial music space is more important, then it would likely approve the transaction and licence change.

The application has been posted and the CRTC is accepting interventions until Dec. 19 (note that all information submitted, including contact information, becomes part of the public record). The application is being officially heard (though so far without the presence of the parties) at the same Feb. 12 hearing in Montreal when it is considering the proposed purchase of V by Bell Media.

See also: I summarize the application and provide more context in this story for Cartt.ca, available to its subscribers.

Correction: An earlier version of this post quoted La Presse as saying Gregory Charles wants to keep his Quebec City station. In fact, the story says he wants to sell that station as well.

Bell lays out its plans for $20-million purchase of V network

Bell Media is proposing to bring V’s local news broadcasts in-house, but otherwise isn’t putting much substantive on the table to convince the CRTC it should be allowed to acquire the V network of television stations in Quebec for $20 million.

The CRTC published the application on Tuesday, setting a hearing date of Feb. 12 in Montreal to hear the application. Bell is proposing to buy the five V stations (CFAP-DT Quebec City, CFJP-DT Montreal, CFRS-DT Saguenay, CFKS-DT Sherbrooke and CFKM-DT Trois-Rivières), plus digital assets like Noovo.ca, but leave the specialty channels Elle Fictions (formerly MusiquePlus) and MAX (formerly Musimax) to a yet-to-be-named company owned by the current owners of V.

V’s affiliate stations in Gatineau, Abitibi, Rimouski and Rivière-du-Loup, owned by RNC Media and Télé Inter-Rives, are unaffected by the transaction, and Bell says it intends to renew its affiliation agreements with them when they expire in 2020.

In the brief included in the application, Bell and V say the conventional TV network is continuing to lose money, despite the ratings gains it has generated and the synergies from owning two specialty channels (which Bell had to sell off to get its acquisition of Astral Media approved in 2013). Groupe V Média says it has lost almost $7 million in the past two years.

“For a small independent broadcaster in the Quebec market, these losses cannot be supported and have begun to have an impact on its other services,” the application says.

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Media News Digest: Election stuff, CHCH’s new late-night vanity show, Mike Boone retires from Habs blogging

News about news

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