Tag Archives: Astral-Media

CRTC approves V’s purchase of MusiquePlus/MusiMax

The last piece of the Bell-Astral divestments was approved today by the CRTC: the sale of MusiMax and MusiquePlus to V Media, the owner of the network formerly known as TQS.

Even though the sale has only been approved now and hasn’t yet closed, the companies are already acting as if it’s a done deal. V and MusiquePlus/MusiMax are promoting each other, to the point where a new MusiquePlus show is a behind-the-scenes look at a show on V.

The purchase price is $15.52 million. In 2007, Astral bought a 50% of these two channels from CHUM Ltd. for $68 million, giving them a value of $136 million.

In order to raise money to pay for the channels, V itself will take on new investors: The Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec and the Fonds de solidarité FTQ will each take a 15% stake in V Media (which also includes the conventional TV network). A third “institutional investor” will take another 15% stake, and the Rémillard family will retain the other 55%, with the possibility of raising that stake up to 59% of the company performs well.

The board of directors of V would be composed of four representatives of Remstar and one representative each of the three 15% investors.

Licence changes — more flexibility, but not too much more

As part of the transaction, V had asked for some amendments to the licences for the channels. Some of them relate to the fact that they’re no longer owned by large media companies (particularly a requirement to spend a percentage of that group’s revenue on so-called “programs of national interest”). Others are meant to give them more flexibility in programming.

V had proposed that MusiquePlus and MusiMax have a minimum requirement of 75% of their programming be devoted to music-related programming. Currently MusiquePlus has a 90% requirement and MusiMax has no minimum. The CRTC didn’t like that number and imposed an 80% requirement for both services.

V wants to use comedy, a genre that isn’t being exploited much in French-language television (there’s no French equivalent to the Comedy Network), to draw audiences to MusiquePlus, particularly in its target demographic of people age 18-34. For MusiMax, it’s lifestyle and reality shows to draw women 35-54. But it also says it wants to have more live musical performances in studio, and more concert programs.

There were also proposals related to program categories. Both services can now include “music video programs” in the 30% of their programming month they have to devote to pure music video programs. This would allow them, I believe, to add a count a program like Cliptoman (MusiquePlus’s version of Much’s Video On Trial, where comedians make fun of music videos) toward that quota.

V also proposed to reduce the Canadian content exhibition requirement from 55% of the broadcast day and 55% of the evening (6pm to midnight) period to 45% for those two periods. The CRTC also felt this was too much, and decided on 50% for both periods for both services. This is still higher than services like Canal D and Historia, which have profit margins around 50%.

In terms of Canadian content spending, the CRTC agreed with a 31% level for the services combined, so that it must spend 31% of its revenue on Canadian programming, just slightly above what it was before.

Finally, MusiquePlus and MusiMax also have a special condition that requires them to pay 3.4% and 5% of their revenues respectively to MaxFACT, a fund that helps create and produce Canadian music videos. V proposed to create its own fund, the Rémillard Fund, that would take this money instead. The CRTC approved of this, provided it is satisfied with the new fund’s operations and independence.

Sale valued at $22.9 million, includes ad revenue guarantee

The sale price is $15.5 million, but comes with a guaranteed ad buy of up to $1.5 million (excluding commissions), which brings the net price down to $14 million. There’s also a guaranteed ad revenue floor for two years.

These guarantees make determining the actual value of the transaction difficult, because how much it will actually be depends on certain factors.

According to documents submitted in the application, the guarantee of at least 80% of 2013 revenues, or about $6.6 million a year, would last until August 2016. But this would be adjusted if viewership drops by more than 5%.

The contract also allows V to cancel the ad buy and get half of that, or $750,000.

On top of this, Bell Media would also sell third-party ads for these two services and V, for which it would earn a commission. That commission has minimums and maximums that put it in the high six-figures annually.

In fact, Bell Media would become the exclusive ad agency of MusiquePlus and MusiMax until August 31, 2016. V would be able to enter barter agreements and other exchanges, but actual ad sales would have to go through Bell.

As if that didn’t sweeten the deal enough for V to take over the money-losing services, Bell also agreed to pay off an outstanding debt imposed on Astral in 2007 when it bought the 50% of the company that owns the networks from CHUM Ltd. (which at the time also owned MuchMusic). This is $40,476 a month to be paid to the Harold Greenberg Fund. But since those payments ended Aug. 31, it’s a moot issue.

The CRTC didn’t agree that the guaranteed ads should be deducted from the purchase price, calling it “the normal course of business”. Adding in things like assumed leases, the CRTC evaluated the total value of the transaction at $22,872,086.

Hope for a turnaround

Because of the tangible benefits policy that requires that 10% of the value of the transaction goes to funds and projects that benefit the broadcasting system, V now has to propose a new tangible benefits plan. The CRTC has given them 30 days to do so. (It notes that it recently changed some policies relating to tangible benefits, and this proposal should follow those new guidelines.)

The acquisition makes sense both for V and for the two struggling music channels. The Rémillard family bought TQS out of bankruptcy in 2008, and while the decision to effectively abandon all news programming was very controversial at the time, it also helped them bring the network into the black after decades of bleeding money.

Now, people are hoping that they can do a similar turnaround with MusiquePlus and MusiMax. MusiquePlus made $867,851 in pre-tax profit in 2012-13, but lost almost $6.5 million in the four previous years. MusiMax is in the black, but has had a pre-tax profit margin of under 1% over the past three years.

The drop in revenue has come with a drop in ratings. MusiquePlus went from a 1.1% rating overall in 2006 to a 0.7% share in 2012. Both services have seen drops in subscriptions as well, of 10% for MusiquePlus and 13% for MusiMax in only three years.

V to buy MusiquePlus and MusiMax, the last of the Bell-Astral castoffs

The announcement Tuesday from both Bell Media and V that the latter has won the bidding to purchase music specialty channels MusiquePlus and MusiMax means that all of the assets that the CRTC forced Bell to get rid of as a condition of the Astral acquisition now have prospective new owners.

Neither company revealed the amount of the sale, but we’ll know it when the matter comes before the CRTC. La Presse reports it’s $15 million total, which is low for a well-known specialty channel (much less two), and well below the price it was evaluated at when Astral acquired CHUM’s 50% share of the channel for $34 million in 2007.

To recap, here’s what is being sold, and the status of those sales:

To Corus Entertainment:

  • 50% interest in Teletoon (includes four Teletoon channels and Cartoon Network Canada), for $249 million total (Corus already owns the other half)
  • 50% interest in Historia and Séries+, for $138.6 million total (Corus is also acquiring Shaw’s 50% interest for the same amount)
  • CKQB-FM Ottawa (106.9 The Bear) for $10 million
  • CJOT-FM Ottawa (Boom 99.7) for $3 million

All of the acquisitions listed above (with a total purchase price of $400.6 million) were dealt with at a CRTC hearing that began Nov. 5. We are now awaiting a decision. The acquisitions were approved in December and January.

To Jim Pattison Broadcast Group:

These acquisitions were announced on May 16. The purchase price is unknown. The CRTC has not yet set a hearing date for this acquisition. UPDATE (Jan. 15): The total purchase price is $25.5 million (but valued by the CRTC at $29.8 million). The transaction was approved without a public process.

To Newcap Radio:

These acquisitions, total price of $112 million, were announced on Aug. 26. The CRTC has not yet set a hearing date for this acquisition.

To DHX Media:

These acquisitions were announced on Nov. 28. The CRTC has not yet set a hearing date for this acquisition.

To V Media:

  • MusiquePlus Inc. (MusiquePlus and MusiMax). Price unknown (La Presse reports $15 million).

The CRTC has not yet set a hearing date for this acquisition.

V, turnaround artist

It’s been a bit over five years since a company effectively owned 50% each by Maxime and Julien Rémillard got CRTC approval to take over the bankrupt TQS network. Thanks in part to a successful reboot that banked on a counter-programming strategy, and in part to getting the CRTC to agree to virtual elimination of its news department, the Rémillards got the network that has never made money to finally make some money.

The road hasn’t been easy, though. As competitors like Bell Media, Quebecor Media, Radio-Canada and others can make liberal use of other sources of funding, V had only advertising revenue to go on. It had no money-making specialty channels or lucrative cable distribution networks.

Remstar does have licences for three unlaunched specialty channels:

Each of these has four years (so until 2015) to launch before their licences are taken away.

It also had a licence for a user-generated-content channel, which has since expired because it never launched.

Launching new specialty channels is difficult for various reasons, but a big one is that you need to get carriage. And unless you own a cable provider, that can be an uphill battle.

Getting control of MusiquePlus and MusiMax means V doesn’t have to go through that process. MusiquePlus already has 2.4 million subscribers. MusiMax has 1.9 million. They’ll already have the audience. It’ll just be a question of turning that into profits.

Unlike most popular specialty channels, MusiquePlus and MusiMax are not highly profitable. MusiMax has been hovering around the break-even mark, and MusiquePlus has lost more than $5 million since 2009. (This is probably why Bell decided to let them go.)

Media critics blame this unprofitability on the channels having lost their way. There’s no music on MusiquePlus, they complain, but rather a series of reality shows about pregnant teenagers, models, carswashed-up celebrities, people who are famous for being famous and whatever Criss Angel is.

Sure, there’s Rajotte, but MusiquePlus has a long way to go to make itself a music channel again. On the bright side, V has already shown that it can revitalize a television channel and keep it young at heart. If it can do the same with these channels, while also keeping them tied to their raison d’être — music — then they should be able to win a lot of fans, and hopefully make a good amount of money too.

CRTC allows Bell to buy Astral, keep TSN 690

Astral CEO Ian Greenberg, left, with BCE CEO George Cope at May's CRTC hearing

Astral CEO Ian Greenberg, left, with BCE CEO George Cope at May’s CRTC hearing

Fans of TSN 690 are cheering now that the CRTC has approved Bell’s acquisition of Astral Media, and allowed the combined company to keep four of the five English-language commercial radio stations in this market, despite the fact that this goes beyond limits set in the commission’s common ownership policy.

You can read my story explaining the station’s future in The Gazette, read Bell’s press release announcing its acceptance of the decision, or get nerd-level detail below.

The decision makes Bell a dominant player in the television and radio markets in Montreal, owning the top-rated TV station with by far the top-rated local TV newscast, as well as the largest English-language radio newsroom and both English-language commercial talk stations.

In radio, Bell’s commercial market share reaches 76%, with the remaining quarter held by CKBE (92.5 The Beat). That might change once a new talk-radio station owned by TTP Media goes on the air, but we don’t have a date for that yet, and it could be as late as November 2014.

Perhaps even more troubling than the market share of Bell and Astral combined is what happens when you consider Bell and now-rival Cogeco. The two players will have a 96% commercial market share in Montreal’s French-language market (Radio Classique and Radio X are the only others big enough to subscribe to ratings agency BBM) and a 100% commercial market share in English Montreal.

The CRTC cited a few factors that swayed its decision to grant the exception: TSN 690’s niche format, the thousands of submissions it received asking for it to remain on the air, and the fact that the combined company would own only two French-language radio stations in Montreal.

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The third option for TSN Radio 690

If you don’t want to read this really long post, you can get the short version in this story and this followup in The Gazette, and this story at Cartt.ca.

CRTC Quebec regional commissioner Suzanne Lamarre grills Bell on its plans for Montreal radio on Monday.

CRTC Quebec regional commissioner Suzanne Lamarre grills Bell on its plans for Montreal radio on Monday.

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:

  1. One company can’t own more than two AM stations and two FM stations in a single market
  2. 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.”

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Follow the Bell/Astral CRTC hearings (again)

CPAC will be livestreaming this week's CRTC hearing in Montreal

CPAC will be livestreaming this week’s CRTC hearing in Montreal

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:

Here are some links that will help you understand what’s going on:


Five challenges for Bell in front of the CRTC

BCE CEO George Cope (centre) and other executives from Bell and Astral will be in front of the CRTC again on Monday.

BCE CEO George Cope (centre) and other executives from Bell and Astral will be in front of the CRTC again on Monday.

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.)

Bell/Astral’s radio divestment plan still looks self-serving

Bell’s list of radio stations for sale. The “Market Rank” column has limited use, because it doesn’t list how the stations to be divested compare to the ones being kept.

In its revised application to the CRTC to request regulatory approval for the purchase of Astral Media, Bell parent BCE promised that its revised plan would handle the commission’s concerns about concentration of ownership. Bell would sell off some popular Astral specialty channels including Family, MusiquePlus, and Musimax, and offload its half of Teletoon, Historia and Séries+ to Corus. The result would put Bell at just above the 35 per cent mark where the CRTC, according to its own policy, would normally approve such an acquisition (though the commission said in rejecting the first deal that this was more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule).

But what about radio? On that front, Bell’s plans are identical, with the exception of its revised proposal for CKGM in Montreal (asking for an exemption to keep it instead of requesting it be converted from English to French). For the rest of the country, Bell would keep all the Astral radio stations, except in markets where they would put the combined company above the CRTC’s common ownership limits (two AM stations and two FM stations in any market with eight or more commercial stations).

That comes out to 10 stations, in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa (Bell has already agreed to sell the two Ottawa stations to Corus). Bell submitted a list of the 10 stations it planned to sell during the CRTC hearing on the first application last September. It included seven stations currently owned by Astral and three by Bell.

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TSN 690’s CRTC exemption: The pros, the cons and the misconceptions

With apologies to National Lampoon

With apologies to National Lampoon

If there’s anything that everyone can agree on, it’s that this is a passionate issue. Even Bell Media says it was taken aback last year by the outpouring of outrage over its plan to convert CKGM from TSN 690 to RDS 690 as part of its acquisition of Astral Media. Even though it was a minor related application of a $3.38-billion purchase, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission spent a great deal of time discussing the proposed change to this one radio station because of all the reaction. It was during questioning about CKGM that CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais held up a thick binder and said he didn’t have a summer vacation last year because he was busy reading all the public comments.

More than 700 people filed individual comments with the CRTC, the vast majority opposed to Bell’s proposal, and most not really caring about the larger acquisition. Three people without any financial interest actually showed up at the hearing to plead for the station, which is very rare and was greatly appreciated by commissioners.

This time around, things are different. Bell is taking the side of the fans, asking for an exemption to the CRTC’s common ownership policy to allow it to keep TSN 690 while also acquiring three of its four competitors in English-language commercial radio (including its main competitor CJAD). It started a petition and its radio personalities asked fans to fill it out (listen to Mitch Melnick explaining the situation the day the application was published), telling the CRTC why it should keep the station alive.

According to the CRTC’s website, there are now about 980 comments on this petition. You can read them in a series of PDF files posted here.

I went through a few hundred of them, and most of them are the same: heartfelt, angry, worried. These are the station’s loyal listeners, who say they will swear off radio altogether if their beloved station is pulled off the air. Many are from people in other cities who say they listen to the station online. Most argue that CKGM in its current form provides something unique to Montreal’s English-speaking community, and that alone is a reason to grant the exemption.

I’ve read at most a handful that say anything about the larger acquisition of Astral by Bell. Most couldn’t care less who owns the station or the others, as long as TSN retains its format, its personalities and its Canadiens games. Some even rant against large corporate media, which is odd when you’re indirectly supporting a mega merger of media companies. Some are even against the larger merger of Bell and Astral. One demands that Bell be forced to sell CHOM, CJAD or CJFM (Virgin Radio) instead.

But they’re all unanimous in that they want TSN 690 to be kept as is.

In reading these letters, it became clear to me that many of the writers have misconceptions about the application, about the CRTC’s intentions and about what could happen to CKGM. I hope to clear some of those up here. But first, I’ll present, as dispassionately as I can, the big reasons the CRTC should approve the exemption requested, and the big reasons it should not.

Why the CRTC should give an exemption to allow Bell to keep TSN 690

1. The format will go on: Bell has promised that, if it gets its way, it will commit to keeping CKGM as an English-language all-sports radio station for seven years, and will continue to air Canadiens games on it (as long as it continues to have the rights). This is, at least on the surface, the best possible outcome for the station’s listeners. Gone, for at least until 2020, would be the threat that the station might shut down because it’s unprofitable. And implicit in this promise is that the station’s staff would continue to have jobs (at least subject to the usual turnover that happens in radio). Plus, it would finally end all this uncertainty over the station’s future.

2. Consolidating sports on TSN: Bell hasn’t said that this would happen, but it stands to reason if it owns both CJAD and CKGM that Bell would move sports broadcasts to the latter. CJAD currently carries Alouettes games and select Impact games. CKGM could carry live broadcasts of all three Montreal teams (except where they directly conflict, which would logically see spillover go back to CJAD). Fans wouldn’t have to keep track of which station owned the rights to which franchise, and CJAD listeners who aren’t interested in sports wouldn’t have their regular programming interrupted by sports.

3. Retaining synergies with TSN: Though theoretically the station could continue if it was sold to, say, Rogers, any sale would strip the station of its branding as well as the advantages that come with being a member of the TSN family. With Bell’s claws firmly entrenched in the Canadiens, even if its ownership stake is minor, this becomes very important for an all-sports station.

4. Money for journalism and amateur sports: You could practically qualify it as a bribe, but in reality cash promises are encouraged by the CRTC and often help get things passed. Bell has promised to give $105,000 over seven years ($15,000 a year) to Concordia University for sports journalism scholarships (just what we need, more journalism students), and $140,000 over seven years ($20,000 a year) to support amateur sports in Montreal. These are not inconsiderable sums for a station that has been losing money since it launched in 2001. Though it may be pocket change for a $30-billion company, the fact that Bell is willing to spend it to keep a money-losing station on the air says something.

5. The cat’s already out of the bag: The truth is this same type of exemption has already been allowed. In 2010, the CRTC allowed a similar exemption in Montreal’s French-language market when Cogeco bought Corus’s Quebec stations. The acquisition resulted in Cogeco owning three French-language FM stations in Montreal (it already owned CFGL Rythme FM, and acquired CHMP 98.5 and CKOI). The commission said it could keep all three, despite the normal limitation, in exchange for setting up the Cogeco Nouvelles agency which would have CHMP as its flagship station. The request was billed as a way to save CHMP. Now it’s the most popular radio station in Quebec. By comparison, the CKGM request is for a station on the AM band and is for the station that’s last in the ratings.

Why the CRTC should not give an exemption to allow Bell to keep TSN 690

1. It would make Bell a dominant force in Montreal English radio: Allowing Bell to own both CKGM and the Astral stations would mean it would own four of the five established commercial English-language radio stations in Montreal, with only The Beat competing with it. The combined commercial market share would be over 70% for one company. This will be mitigated somewhat when the TTP Media group launches an English talk station at 600 AM, and when Dufferin Communications launches a low-power music station in Hudson/St. Lazare, but those will take a while to get established.

2. It would reinforce a bad precedent: Bell doesn’t have to put CKGM on the block. It could sell one of the other stations instead. But it’s forcing the CRTC’s hand by saying the sports station would be the one to go. Allowing an exemption here would be caving to Canada’s largest broadcaster by allowing it to get bigger, but also send a message to everyone that as long as you can spin a station as a charity case (even if it’s not actually losing money), you can get the CRTC to rubber-stamp an exception to its own rules.

3. There isn’t enough space for new competitors: Because Montreal is a bilingual market, and languages are counted separately in the CRTC’s policy, the airwaves are twice as saturated here as in other markets like Toronto or Calgary. Bell/Astral would actually own six stations in Montreal, with Cogeco owning five. There aren’t any more full-power FM frequencies available, and with new entrants like TTP Media and Dufferin Communications snapping up vacant AM frequencies, those are disappearing too. The more severe scarcity of channels here makes limitations on common ownership even more important.

Top misconceptions about Bell, the CRTC and TSN 690’s future

1. The CRTC wants to shut down TSN 690 / The CRTC has made a decision it is being asked to reconsider: The CRTC has not made any decision about the station, other than its decision last year to deny its request to switch to French (and that was only because the larger acquisition was denied). The request for an exemption is not being made in reaction to something the CRTC has done, but is a request from Bell to get an exception to a rule it anticipates the CRTC will apply. The fact that Bell bills this as “Save TSN Radio” may be leading to this misconception.

2. The CRTC wants to turn TSN 690 into a French-language radio station: This mistake is likely due to confusion between the two applications. It was Bell, not the CRTC, that requested that CKGM be converted from English to French in its first attempt to get approval for the Astral acquisition. It was done for the same reason, to get around the commission’s common ownership policy. In the new application, that’s gone, and there’s no threat of it coming back. Even if Bell is forced to sell the station, it would remain an English-language station unless the new owner requested a change, and that would be subject to a brand new hearing.

3. If Bell does not get an exemption, TSN 690 will be shut down: The reality of the situation may be that TSN 690 as we know it would be radically altered if Bell is forced to divest it. But it’s unlikely the station would be shut down. The 690 AM frequency is the best AM frequency available in Montreal, and another company would probably scoop it up if only for that. A company like Rogers or TTP Media might even keep the all-sports format, though there are no guarantees.

4. Granting an exemption is the only way Bell can continue to own TSN 690: The exemption is what Bell wants because it would be the best outcome for it financially. But there are two other ways it could keep the station: It could sell one of the Astral stations (or the CRTC could force it to sell one of the Astral stations), or the CRTC could deny the Bell/Astral acquisition again.

5. This is a language issue – TSN 690 can’t keep running because it’s an English station: Somewhat related to No. 2, this sentiment popped up in a lot of public comments. While it’s true that language is relevant to this discussion (because English and French stations are treated as if they’re in different markets), the rules don’t treat English and French differently. There is no Office de la langue française or official languages rule that is forcing the CRTC to limit the number of English-language radio stations in Montreal. There’s merely a rule that limits how many stations in one language in one market a company can own.

An event on Tuesday to show support for TSN 690

An event on Tuesday to show support for TSN 690

A show of support

Some of the station’s bigger fans are pushing harder to rally support to save it. In addition to the Facebook groups and blog posts, there’s a show being scheduled for Tuesday, April 2 at 6pm with some local bands. It doesn’t look like it’s official in any way, but it’s an idea of how important this station is to its small but loyal audience.

Deadline for comments is Friday

People wanting to comment on the Bell purchase of Astral, or the request for an exemption to the rules to allow Bell to own four English radio stations in Montreal, have until 8pm on Friday, April 5, to file an intervention. To do so directly to the CRTC, click here, select Option 1 and select the first application (2013-0244-7). Keep in mind that all information submitted to the CRTC this way, including contact information, is on the public record.

More links

Bell/Astral Take 2: The Proposal

Bell CEO Georce Cope (right) and regulatory head Mirko Bibic will appear in front of the CRTC again to make another proposal to buy Astral Media

Bell CEO Georce Cope (right) and regulatory head Mirko Bibic will appear in front of the CRTC again to make another proposal to buy Astral Media

In case you have been living under a rock for the past week, the CRTC finally released Bell’s revised application to buy Astral Media. If you want to read it all, you can download it in a .zip file here. But beware, it’s 73 documents, and many of them are long (the Supplementary Brief, in which Bell makes its case, is 63 pages, plus an eight-page summary plus a two-page table of contents).

So what’s different this time around? Well, a lot. As we already knew from the Competition Bureau, Bell will sell some of Astral’s TV channels in order to get it down to about 35% of English Canadian TV viewing and about the same amount of revenue from French-language TV as Quebecor.

And as we knew from the point when they announced the revised deal in November, Bell will ask the CRTC for a special exception from its competition rules in order to allow it to continue to own TSN Radio 690 while buying the three English-language Astral stations.

I’ve compiled, in point form, Bell’s revised proposal for this story, which appears in Wednesday’s Gazette.

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Competition Bureau deal with Bell/Astral: No change to plans for TSN 690

The Competition Bureau issued a statement on Monday saying it has come to a deal with Bell over its acquisition of Astral Media. Combined with a statement from Bell, we’re learning some details about this deal and how Bell will avoid owning so much stuff it threatens competition in Canadian radio and television.

We’ll learn more when the CRTC publishes the application this week.

What we know so far:

Bell has come to an agreement with Corus that will see the latter buy the following assets for $400.6 million:

  • CKQB-FM The Bear 106.9 Ottawa (Astral)
  • CJOT-FM EZ Rock 99.7 Ottawa (Astral)
  • 50% of Teletoon/Teletoon Retro in both French and English (Corus already owns the other half)
  • 50% of Cartoon Network (Canada) (Corus already owns the other half)
  • 50% of Historia
  • 50% of Séries+

A separate deal between Shaw and Corus, which are both owned by the Shaw family, will see Corus own the other half of Historia and Séries+, plus ABC Spark. Shaw will take Corus’s 20% stake in Food Network and $95 million in cash. Corus has a press release on the two deals here.

Bell will also sell the following assets at auction:

  • Family (which includes Disney Junior)
  • Disney XD
  • Disney Jr. (French)
  • Musimax
  • MusiquePlus
  • CKCE-FM Kool 101.5 Calgary (Bell)
  • CHBM-FM Boom 97.3 Toronto (Astral)
  • CFXJ-FM Flow 93.5 Toronto (Bell)
  • CKZZ-FM Virgin 95.3 Vancouver (Astral)
  • CHHR-FM Shore 104.3 Vancouver (Astral)
  • CISL AM 650 Vancouver (Astral)
  • CHIQ-FM Fab 94.3 Winnipeg (Bell)
  • CFQX-FM FX 104.1 Winnipeg (Astral)

Corus can’t buy any of the eight radio stations listed here because of CRTC ownership limits in those markets (two AM and two FM in each market). Corus doesn’t own any stations in the Ottawa market.

The list of radio stations for sale (including the two to Corus) is unchanged from the one Bell presented the CRTC last year. That’s interesting because the CRTC didn’t particularly appreciate Bell’s plan to sell off some Bell stations and some Astral stations in order to keep the best ones (with two exceptions, the ones for sale are the lowest-rated ones in those markets of the combined Bell/Astral holdings).

In its decision in October, the CRTC said:

the decision to include certain Bell Media radio stations in the divestiture plan can be viewed as an attempt by BCE to trade underperforming stations for successful ones, which would not provide a benefit to the Canadian broadcasting system or create the conditions for healthy competition. Selling less profitable stations could reinforce BCE’s position in these markets, make the entrance of new competitors more difficult and reduce the total tangible benefits paid on Astral’s radio stations.

What does this mean for TSN 690?

No Montreal radio stations are listed, even though the purchase of three English commercial stations would put Bell over the limit in this city. When the new deal was announced, Bell said it would ask for an exemption allowing it to keep CKGM as an English station. That remains unchanged:

Astral and Bell heard the loud and clear desire of Montréal sports fans to retain TSN Radio 690 as an English-language sports station (Bell had earlier proposed to convert the station to a French-language RDS sports station to meet CRTC rules). Bell has filed a separate application with the CRTC requesting an exception from application of the common ownership policy to allow the continued operation of TSN Radio 690 by Bell Media as an English-language sports station.

This proposal, though it might be favourable to fans of the station, is far from a done deal. Buying CHOM, CJFM (Virgin) and CJAD would mean Bell would own four of the five commercial English-language radio stations in Montreal, or four of six when the Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy station at 600 AM launches. Would owning such a large portion of the market be too much for the commission to consider?

Expect opposition from Cogeco, which owns The Beat, the only station that wouldn’t be owned by Bell. Their opposition will be somewhat hypocritical, mind you, because Cogeco got its own exemption from the CRTC in 2010 allowing it to keep three French FM stations in Montreal (Rythme FM, CKOI and 98.5).

The fate of TSN 690 will be up to the CRTC. It could accept the exemption or force Bell to sell or shut down one of the four stations to remain under the limit (Bell indicated previously that if it had to sell a station, TSN would be the one to go). Selling the station might be difficult, because Bell would retain rights to Canadiens games, and TSN has previously said the station has never made money doing all-sports.

Astral issues layoffs at Boom FM stations

Boom FM's laid-off staff, according to the Courrier St-Hyacinthe (from left): John Perron, Daniel Charlebois, Patrice Lemieux, Marc Perrault

Boom FM’s laid-off staff, according to the Courrier St-Hyacinthe (from left): John Perron, Daniel Charlebois, Patrice Lemieux, Marc Perrault

The same week that Astral posted its best quarterly profit ever, the company has let go talent at its Boom FM stations in St. Hyacinthe (CFEI-FM 106.5) and St. Jean sur Richelieu (CFZZ-FM 104.1), causing worries that the stations would no longer be independent.

The Courier de Saint-Hyacinthe broke the news in Thursday’s edition (the story isn’t online yet), saying that announcers, ad salespeople and technical staff had been laid off at a meeting on Tuesday. It named John Perron (mornings) and Daniel Charlebois (afternoons) of CFEI, Patrick Lemieux (afternoons) of CFZZ and Marc Perreault, who appears on both stations, as victims of the cuts.

These details are confirmed by looking through the stations’ websites (though their show pages have been disabled from the site’s navigation menu as they still list the old hosts).

According to the updated schedules (so far just for weekdays), CFZZ’s François Bessette continues to do mornings now at both stations, each with a different cohost (Marie-Pier Boucher at CFEI and Véronique Dupont at CFZZ). Nathalie Lussier continues to do the daytime shows at both stations, and Annie Tardif is doing the afternoon show at both stations.

When asked about the layoffs, Astral spokesperson Olivier Racette offered the following, which I’ll let you parse for yourself:

Radio being a fast-evolving and extremely competitive industry, we have to constantly adapt to our listeners’ and clients’ tastes and needs. Given that context, broadcasters need to regularly make changes to their programming, which can sometimes lead to structural reorganizations. Today’s restructuration was implemented as part of our commitment to become always more competitive. It involved position reassignments and, unfortunately, a few job losses.

These changes will help us become even more a central part of the Montérégie community. As boom celebrates its 10th anniversary, we are proud to position ourselves as information leaders in the region with a team of 4 reporters keeping their community informed. Also, boom in Montérégie innovates as it will shortly inaugurate two radio and web-TV recording studios in its St-Hyacinthe and St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, giving the artistic, business and political community a new platform to reach the Montérégie population.

We are also happy to bring to our communities a new morning show with both co-hosts each broadcasting live from St-Hyacinthe and St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, giving the two cities a local programming under the same dynamic brand.

So at least the stations will still have some independent programming, and will still have journalists. But they’ll have to get by on a smaller staff.

According to the latest licence renewal for both stations, issued in 2007, they don’t have a minimum requirement for local programming per se, but both have a “commitment” to broadcast a minimum amount of local news and information.

For CFEI-FM in St. Hyacinthe:

The Commission notes the licensee’s commitment to devote 3 hours and 19 minutes, including 34 minutes on weekends, to local news. The licensee shall also devote 2 hours and 15 minutes to local weather, sports, culture and entertainment.

For CFZZ-FM in St. Jean:

The Commission notes the licensee’s commitment to devote 3 hours and 19 minutes, including 34 minutes on weekends, to local news. The licensee shall also devote 2 hours and 49 minutes to local weather, sports, culture and entertainment.

The licences of both stations come up for renewal in 2014.

Inside Astral radio’s new Montreal studios

This fall, Astral Media’s three English stations in Montreal — CHOM, CJAD and CJFM (Virgin Radio) — moved from Fort St. to Papineau Ave. The goal was to consolidate Astral’s five radio stations, allowing them to share resources, including a newsroom.

I got a couple of chances to visit the new offices, once for interviews with a couple of personalities and again when they held an event for clients. Here are some photos to give you a sense of what it’s like inside.

Astral’s building at Papineau Ave. and René-Lévesque Blvd.

I just realized when producing this post that I don’t have a recent picture of the exterior of the Astral Media building at Papineau and René-Lévesque. The one above was taken in August 2009. On the front are logos of the two French stations, both of which have rebranded. Rock Détente (CITE-FM) is now Rouge FM, and Énergie (CKMF-FM) is now NRJ (with the same pronunciation).

Anyway, the outside hasn’t changed much, except for the logos. It’s inside where everything’s different. The offices have been renovated. There’s glass everywhere. Even the office of Astral vice-president Martin Spalding is surrounded by glass, so anyone in the nearby CHOM studio can see what’s going on in there.

The studios of all five stations are on the second floor. Using the Montreal bastardization of cardinal directions, the southwestern corner is CHOM, the southeastern corner (at Papineau and René-Lévesque) is Virgin (facing René-Lévesque) and NRJ (facing Papineau). Rouge FM is on the eastern side, and CJAD’s studios are on the northeastern corner. CJAD’s newsroom covers the north side.

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Bell/Astral Take 2 would give it near-monopoly on Montreal English radio

It’s official: Bell is trying again. The company announced Monday morning that it has reached a new agreement to acquire Astral Media, and will submit a revised proposal to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, one that will address the commission’s concerns about Bell becoming too big.

Details of the bid won’t be known until the CRTC publishes the application, which could take months, but it’s expected Bell will sell off some English-language television assets to stay under the CRTC’s ownership cap, and Bell says it will improve its tangible benefits package (with at least 85% of it going to on-screen initiatives).

CKGM will stay English

One detail we do know concerns CKGM. Bell says it will ask the CRTC for an exemption to the common ownership rules to allow it to keep TSN Radio 690 as an English station. From their FAQ:

We heard sports fans in Montréal loud and clear. Their passion for sports talk radio is unparalleled. Loyal and devoted, they responded in droves in an effort to preserve CKGM (TSN Radio 690) as an English-language sports radio station. As a result, as part of our new application, we are filing a request for an exception to the CRTC’s Radio Common Ownership Policy to keep TSN Radio 690 as an English-language sports radio station. As a result of tremendous listener response, we think it’s a discussion worth having. We believe an exception to the Policy is reasonable, consistent with previous regulatory practice, and the only way to preserve CKGM as an English sports talk station. Montréal sports radio fans deserve it.

An exemption from the policy is certainly what many listeners were calling for after Bell decided to blame the CRTC for its decision to request TSN be turned into RDS Radio. But it would also mean four of the five English-language commercial radio stations in Montreal (or four of the six if you include the soon-to-be-launched TTP Media station at 600AM) would be owned by the same company.

Normally, CRTC rules state that one company can own no more than two AM and two FM stations in a single market (English and French Montreal are considered separate markets), and that in markets with fewer than eight commercial radio stations, one company can own no more than three.

The combined Bell-Astral would have a 61% total market share and a 79% commercial market share in English Montreal.

It’s odd to hear Bell say on one hand that it understands the CRTC’s concerns about concentration of ownership on a national scale and then argue it needs to own more radio stations in Montreal than the policy would normally allow. (Of course, it’s just as odd for Cogeco to cry about Astral’s market power in radio when it got a similar exemption allowing it to own three French-language commercial FM radio stations in Montreal. In that case, it was so it could hold on to CHMP 98.5FM as the flagship station of a Quebec-wide radio news network.)

Since there’s no application to change CKGM’s licence, they can’t turn around and make it French if the CRTC decides not to allow Bell to own four stations. Instead, it or one of the other former Astral stations would likely be sold to bring Bell under the ownership cap. And since CKGM has the poorest ratings, it would likely be the one to go.

So while RDS Radio isn’t an imminent threat, CKGM and its staff aren’t out of the woods yet.

Say No To Bell vs. Canadians Deserve More

If there’s one thing Bell has learned most from its previous attempt, it’s that it needs a better PR campaign to convince Canadians to be on its side. So it launched CanadiansDeserveMore.ca along with a corresponding Twitter account. Expect to be bombarded by ads from Bell touting the awesomeness of this deal, particularly on television and radio stations owned by Bell Media and Astral. And, if Quebecor and others aren’t convinced this new deal addresses all of their concerns (I’m guessing it won’t), expect a similar ad campaign from Say No To Bell on channels owned by Quebecor and Cogeco, and possibly Rogers and others as well.


The public will have a chance to comment on the application when it’s published by the commission.

CRTC kills Bell-Astral deal, saving TSN 690

The larger story is that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has rejected an application from BCE Inc. to acquire Astral Media Inc. This means that the companies will remain independent, and among other things CJAD and CTV won’t be owned by the same company.

The smaller story is the denial of a related application from Bell to convert TSN Radio 690 (CKGM) from English to French, to meet the commission’s common ownership policy. With the larger deal denied, the smaller one becomes moot. Bell said at the hearing that the latter was contingent on the former, and without approval of the larger purchase it would continue to operate TSN Radio as is.

This is the best possible outcome for TSN Radio and its fans. Any decision allowing Bell to acquire CJAD would have meant moving Canadiens games there, and TSN would have either been converted to French, sold or shut down.

The question is what will Bell do now. Does it still plan to launch RDS Radio in Quebec? If so, on what frequency and where? (The number of vacant AM frequencies in Monteral is going down fast.) Many people were looking forward to a French sports station that could take over where CKAC left off. Even many TSN Radio fans angry with the application said they would love to see a French-language all-sports station alongside the English one.

Requests for comment from people at the station were passed up the chain until I got an official “no comment” from Greg McIsaac at TSN. But privately, station staff are thrilled. As are fans, who expressed delight on Twitter. The language change would almost certainly have meant job losses at CKGM and possibly CJAD as well as the latter incorporated programming from the former.

UPDATE: Bell says it’s asking the federal cabinet to step in to reverse the decision. (Astral has nothing interesting to say yet.) The federal government says it will not overrule the regulator (whose chair it has just appointed), but Bell says it will formally ask for intervention anyway. Bell could also try to have the decision overturned in court, though it’s unclear under what grounds they would ask for a legal appeal.

In its angrily-worded statement, Bell also accused the CRTC chair of impropriety, saying he had met with Bell’s competitors but not with Bell. As the CRTC tells it, this is correct, but only because Bell had an application in front of the commission and it would have been improper to meet with Bell. The commission also says that at no time did the other companies discuss the Bell application with the CRTC ex parte.

Three pleas to save TSN Radio 690

According to the CRTC’s website, 774 interventions (comments in favour, opposed or neutral) were filed related to a proposed licence change replacing CKGM (TSN Radio 690) with a French station. Of those, only six were scheduled to appear at a CRTC hearing at the Palais des congrès this week to present their case in person.

Of those six, only three showed up.

And yet, that’s three more than appeared as individuals to comment on the $3.38-billion purchase of Astral Media by BCE.

Rahul Majumdar: Willing to go further

Rahul Majumdar was the first. He’s a big sports fan and a fan of the station, but he has no other stake in this game.

“I’m not a professional intervenor nor do I play one on TV,” was his opening line, eliciting chuckles from the commissioners and the small audience. He may be inexperienced, but his presentation was professional, earning him specific praise from the commission.

“Eliminating TSN 690 may help Bell-Astral satisfy CRTC ownership rules, but the price will be a further erosion of Montreal’s sports broadcasting scene,” Majumdar said in his opening statement. “If the CRTC accepts Bell’s proposal, you will deprive Montreal of an important local sports media presence, and deny its rightful place within a national radio network.”

“Montreal is a bilingual, multicultural city and I believe that its sports fans must be served in both of Canada’s official languages.”

Bell’s proposed compromise of moving sports programs and Canadiens games to CJAD didn’t sit well with him. He said doing so would take away from CJAD’s core purpose, which is news and information.

Majumdar has harsh words for Bell: “I am dismayed at the manner in which Bell neglects, downplays and outright dismisses its English clientele and English Montreal sports radio.”

When I spoke to him after his presentation, Majumdar said he had been listening to CKGM for years, but when it first became a sports radio station “I wasn’t completely into it.” He cited nationally syndicated programming as part of the problem. But when it grew to be more local and gained its own personality, he became hooked.

At first he hadn’t planned to go beyond sending a written statement. But “you got to ask yourself: ‘Am I willing to go further?'”

So he did.

His proposal is that the CRTC reject the language switch, if only because Bell obtained the 690 frequency by saying it needed better coverage to reach the West Island anglophone community.

“At the very least, Bell should be ordered to surrender the frequency in order to allow another party to bring sports radio to Montrealers,” Majumdar’s statement reads. “Even so, it will take months or years for a competitor like Rogers, Cogeco or another Montreal media entrepreneur to essentially reinvent the wheel.”

“Mr. Chairman, in all honesty, does this specific application really make sense?”

It always looks funny when people appear in front of the CRTC without lawyers or executives by their side, sitting alone at a table meant for six (with another table behind), and introducing themselves as individuals without titles. But Majumdar’s presentation impressed other national journalists and interested third parties who came here to talk about Bell and Astral.

As for Majumdar himself: “I thought I did a decent job.”

Sheldon Harvey: No coincidence

Sheldon Harvey was the second presenter. He’s a radio enthusiast, moderator of the Radio in Montreal forum and co-host of the International Radio Report on CKUT. He’s about as tapped in to the radio scene as you can get.

Harvey also presented at last year’s hearing, in which Bell asked for CKGM to move from 990 to 690 to improve its signal. Harvey didn’t support or oppose that application directly, though he said he was skeptical of CKGM’s reported signal problems and even accused the station of not respecting its obligations to adjust its signal at night to protect distant stations.

Here, Harvey was extremely critical of Bell.

“I think it is more than coincidence that Bell began broadcasting on the 690 kHz frequency just 10 days prior to these hearings commencing,” his opening statement reads.

“The word on the street, in the radio business circles in Montreal, was that it was always the intention of Bell Media to get into the French sports radio business, piggy-backing off their successful RDS television service, particularly when Cogeco closed their CKAC 730 sports station in favour of government financed Radio Circulation. 690 would be the best frequency for them to accomplish this.”

Harvey’s right that Bell has wanted to launch RDS Radio for a while. It even hinted at that publicly at the hearing last year. But there’s no evidence (beyond the circumstances) that Bell was acting in bad faith or had ulterior motives when it applied to move CKGM to 690.

Harvey continues: “It appears that both Bell and Astral really don’t seem to care about their listeners. CJAD has an incredibly loyal listenership and is currently Montreal’s only commercial news/talk English option. How will their listeners feel about having approximately half of CJAD’s broadcast day dedicated to sports? Nobody is bothering to ask.”

“There is a level of arrogance and cockiness that has so many members of the public concerned about the power and strength of Bell and their attitude that ‘we are Bell and we will do and get what we want.'”

Finally, Harvey points to “corporate-level instructions” that Bell gave to TSN Radio staff not to discuss the station’s future on the air. This order, which Bell and TSN Radio have never denied, seems to contradict what Bell told the commission earlier in the week, that the company has never issued orders to its staff (meaning, for the most part, journalists) on how to discuss this hearing.

Harvey wants the CRTC to have to reapply to use 690 through an open application process, because a French station would be “a completely separate entity” from the English one. Commissioner Suzanne Lamarre called Harvey on this suggestion, asking what would happen. CKGM can’t stay on 990, because that frequency is already licenced to another broadcaster. Opening 690 up would mean turning in CKGM’s licence, and putting TSN Radio off the air.

“I threw everything at them that I could,” Harvey told me after the hearing. He’s particularly critical of the fact that Bell did not bother asking for an exemption allowing it to keep the station in English. “I think that would have been something to try at least,” he said. “It might not work, but at least try. Show you believe in your property.”

Harvey doesn’t know what the ideal solution is for CKGM, particularly if the Astral takeover is approved. A forced sale would mean the station losing not only its TSN branding and Canadiens rights, but other resources associated with TSN. It would be starting from “square one,” Harvey said, even if someone like Rogers or Cogeco came into the picture.

“They’ve painted the whole organization into a corner.”

David Birnbaum: Just wants the station saved

The last presenter to show up was David Birnbaum. He’s the executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association, but made it clear he’s here as an individual.

“I love the station,” Birnbaum said. “It’s really intelligent radio.”

Birnbaum spoke as if a man here representing the anglophone community, even though that wasn’t his role here. But he invoked this idea that the community would be harmed if this station were allowed to change language, and that the CRTC has an obligation to protect minority-language services like this one.

His solution seems to be to allow Bell an exemption from common ownership rules. “My preferred position remains getting an additional frequency for a French-language sports station,” he said. “I would hope the CRTC would have said ‘yes we are the watchdog about media concentration, but we’re also a watchdog for the needs of Canadian consumers, particularly those in minority language situations.”

He understands the need for ownership concentration rules, but feels the need to keep English radio should be more important. “I would expect one rule to be trumped by another.”

How it’s solved isn’t his major concern. “Bottom line is to keep TSN 690 on the air,” he said.

Asked about a possible sale to Rogers or others, Birnbaum was, like Harvey, skeptical of how much that would set the station back. “You’re starting over,” he said.

All three presenters made it very clear they have no objection to a French-language sports station with the RDS brand. And, in fact, all of them welcome the eventual return of sports-talk radio to Montreal’s French community. They just don’t want it at the expense of TSN Radio.

“Francophones should have a sports station,” Majumdar said, “but it should not happen through the back door of a zero-sum game.”


Three interventions might not seem like much, but they’re quite rare for the CRTC. Commissioners have repeatedly expressed disappointment that more individuals are not interested in the commission’s processes. (We can have a whole other discussion about why the excessive bureaucracy of the commission is preventing more participation.) So commissioners, and particularly chair Jean-Pierre Blais, repeatedly expressed to the individual presenters a great deal of gratitude for taking the time to make their views heard.

Whether those three make the difference for the commission is unknown. They might be given more importance than statements by interest groups, or they might not. But the commission certainly won’t ignore them. Neither will they ignore the hundreds of written statements sent in by people who wouldn’t or couldn’t appear in person, though Blais said those who do appear in person have a stronger impact.


While the first and second days of the hearings received a great deal of coverage, there wasn’t much local interest in these three interventions today. In fact, Global Montreal was the only media to cover these appearances specifically.

The hearings continue on Friday, with the last of the intervenors in the Astral purchase. Then Bell will get a chance to respond to them, as well as to the comments about the CKGM application.


People have asked me how I think this will end. I can’t predict that. The CRTC has a new chair, these applications have little precedent, and the commissions decisions aren’t always that predictable. The commission was definitely very skeptical about both applications Bell presented, but also grilled some competitors about their stances as well. Bell has a hard road to climb here, but not an impossible one. If I had to guess, I would say a compromise situation is most likely. But what that entails is hard to guess.

A decision will come in a few months. How many is unknown. The timing is up to the CRTC. It could be done by October, or it might not be done until January. It’s entirely up to them.