Tag Archives: Astral-Media

Bell/Astral CRTC hearings: Day 1

This is it, folks. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission begins hearings at 9am into Bell’s proposed $3.38-billion purchase of Astral Media, and a related application to convert CKGM (TSN Radio 690) from English to French.

The hearings will be broadcast live at CPAC.ca and even covered live on the television channel as well. The CRTC also has its own audio feed of the hearings. Each is offered in both languages.

And, of course, I’ll be covering them as well. Stay tuned here for updates as they happen. Follow me on Twitter. That’s easier.

In the meantime, you can read my piece in Saturday’s Gazette about the war over specialty channel carriage contracts, and my other piece setting up the hearings.

The end of Fort and Ste. Catherine

Virgin studios at Fort and Ste. Catherine Streets.

This weekend, Astral Media’s English radio stations stopped using studios at Fort and Ste. Catherine Streets and began using new studios in the Astral building at Papineau Ave. and René-Lévesque Blvd.

The new studios are in the same building as Astral’s French stations NRJ and Rouge FM, as well as other corporate offices. The consolidation has been planned for a long time, since well before Bell announced it was going to purchase Astral.

The new location across town is in an unofficial media district. The Maison Radio-Canada is on the other side of René-Lévesque. The Bell Media building (which houses the studios of CFCF and RDS) is on the other side of Papineau. The TVA building is just a few blocks away.

CTV was one of the media outlets to chronicle the transition. You can see the report from Derek Conlon (who worked at CJAD) here.

UPDATE (Sept. 3): Rob Kemp did a little video marking his final shift at CHOM’s Fort Street studio.

My first quote in an ad

Journal de Montréal, Aug. 25, 2012, page 30

I was in the papers over the weekend. Well, some of them anyway.

As opposition grows over the planned Bell purchase of Astral Media (a new campaign was just launched today), Bell and its opponents are multiplying their use of full-page newspaper advertisements to fight the public relations war.

Continue reading

“Say No To Bell”: The hypocritical campaign against Bell/Astral

After staying silent for months following the announcement in March, a small group of cable companies has started a very public campaign to get people to oppose the proposed purchase of Astral Media by BCE (Bell).

Full-page ads from Say No to Bell (Quebecor, Cogeco and Eastlink) appeared in major newspapers on Tuesday.

It’s called Say No To Bell (Dites non à Bell), and it launched Tuesday with a press conference in Ottawa with the CEOs of Quebecor (which owns Videotron), Eastlink and Cogeco. They gave the usual arguments against concentration of media ownership, saying Bell could abuse its dominant position to unfairly harm competitors, consumers and even advertisers. Specifically, it said:

  • “When too much power is concentrated in one company it often means higher prices and poorer choices for consumers”
  • “If Bell Canada controls all the most popular content, they could charge you whatever they want to watch it.”
  • “A Bell/Astral merger could lead to an organization so dominant that no other company could compete with it to buy sports broadcast rights”
  • “To get popular channels, you could face pressure to pay for other Bell Canada channels that you are not interested in watching.”
  • “This merger could mean escalating costs for commercial advertising on television and radio and forced buys on multiple Bell Canada advertising platforms for Canadian advertisers.”
  • “Bell Canada could use its power to pressure consumers to buy their services exclusively in order to get the content they love, and buy more services than they need.”
  • “If the deal goes through, it poses a serious threat to the future health of the broadcast industry in Canada. Jobs will be lost in the TV production and arts sectors. Young people hoping to build a career in these fields will see fewer opportunities as production is centralized.”
(They also point to a list of quotes from various media writing about the deal, including three from me.)

All that stuff sounds pretty scary. But it’s also a lot of “could” and very little “will”. And the statements seem to ignore that the CRTC has specific rules that are designed to prevent most of the things they worry about. Distributors are not allowed to show undue preference to affiliated channels, and they are required to carry channels owned by competitors (and include those channels in packages where their own channels are included). Specialty channels, meanwhile, are not allowed to charge excess fees, nor refuse to offer their channels individually.

That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate worries here. Media concentration wouldn’t be happening if it didn’t result in a significant advantage. Larger companies are more efficient (centralizing paperwork and technology, for example), and even though there can’t be any formal advantage given to affiliated services, it happens in practice. (Cogeco gave the example of Bell’s RDS2, which it said was withheld from it for months until an arbitrator imposed a deal.) There are also advantages to be had in areas the CRTC doesn’t regulate, like online video.

Chart of Canadian market share by the Say No To Bell campaign.


But arguments against media concentration are a bit rich coming from Quebecor and Cogeco. (I’ll leave Eastlink out of this since I don’t know them very well and they’re not a vertically integrated company.)

Quebecor’s name is practically synonymous with convergence and media concentration. It owns the largest private television network in Quebec, the largest newspaper (in terms of circulation), the largest cable company and the largest magazine publisher. It has been scooping up independent weekly newspapers in Quebec as it fights a war with Transcontinental in that industry. And it has absolutely no qualms about using its convergence power across different media.

Though Quebecor seems concerned with how big a combined Bell/Astral would become, Quebecor’s French-language television market share would still be higher, at 29.6% to 26.8%. (Say No To Bell prefers to speak of revenues, which skews heavily in favour of Astral in both languages because Astral owns the expensive premium movie services The Movie Network and Super Écran.)

Cogeco, meanwhile, is ill-placed to talk about the negative effects of market share. It was just last year that it purchased Corus Quebec, combining two of the three major players in radio in this province. As if that wasn’t enough, it asked for – and received – an exemption from the CRTC to allow it to own three French-language FM radio stations in Montreal, in addition to an English FM station and a French AM station. Combined, Cogeco-owned stations have a 51.4% market share among francophone Montrealers according to ratings data from BBM Canada. Counting only commercial stations, that market share jumps to 65%. In Quebec City, Cogeco has a 40% commercial market share, nine points more than its strongest competitor.

And even then, it applied to the CRTC to launch two more AM radio stations in Montreal, both heavily subsidized by the Quebec government. (One application was withdrawn when it turned CKAC into an all-traffic station, the other was denied because of a lack of acceptable alternative frequencies.)

These are the people warning about concentration of media ownership.

Perhaps the biggest example of hypocrisy is when Quebecor and Cogeco were asked during the press conference whether they tried to buy Astral. Cogeco’s Audet refused to answer the question, saying it was irrelevant. I take that to mean they probably did try, but lost to the big pockets of Bell.

Bell/Astral rounding up support

It’s interesting that none of these three companies has yet submitted a formal intervention to the CRTC in this case (or if they have, those comments haven’t been published yet). But supporters of the deal have been flooding the commission with comments. Of the more than 450 comments about Bell’s purchase of Astral, most are from organizations that have dealings with one or both companies, and support the purchase either because of the tangible benefits package they would receive in it or just out of some apparent sense of corporate loyalty. (The number of them and their similarity suggests that Bell is pushing its business contacts to submit them, and it’s not clear what incentives they’re using.)

Among those to send their support are charities like the Saskatoon SPCA and Canadian Cancer Society, TV producers like Novem, Groupe Fair-Play and Zone 3, territorial legislators (because of the proposed upgrades to Northwestel) and major advertisers like Loblaws.

The CRTC accepted comments on this application until 8pm ET on Aug. 9, with hearings to take place in Montreal on Sept. 10. The Competition Bureau, which also has to approve the deal, issued a statement Tuesday saying it is “aware that a number of serious concerns have been expressed” and that “we are actively reviewing these concerns.”

Let’s hope both regulatory bodies can sort the truth from the BS being thrown at them from both sides.


Other reactions

Bell responded to the campaign with a press release focusing on how the acquisition would increase, not decrease, competition in Quebec.

Even though the purchase was announced in March, and the CRTC application published a month ago, other groups are only now making their voices heard in the Bell/Astral acquisition debate. (Though this is also because many of them filed interventions at the last minute.) Among them:

Telus joins in

Even though it was days after the deadline for comments to the CRTC, Telus also issued a public statement encouraging a stop to the deal. Telus filed an intervention with the CRTC making a similar call.

Looks like it’s working

A poll by Forum Research shows 60% of Canadians oppose the Bell/Astral merger. Is that just a matter of their distaste for large corporate mergers, or evidence that the Say No To Bell campaign is working? Either way, I predict lots more full-page newspaper ads.

Campaign to save TSN 990 should focus on the CRTC

In the week since Bell’s application to switch CKGM from TSN Radio to RDS Radio became public, the station’s small group of loyal fans has mobilized. A Twitter account, a public protest set for Aug. 4, and lots of comments online. Many of those comments seem to be based on misconceptions about what’s going on. In particular, many blame the CRTC even though the commission has yet to make a single decision about Bell’s application (besides deciding to consider it).

As of Monday night, 456 interventions had been filed with the CRTC about this application alone. I haven’t been able to read all of them yet, but a handful selected at random are all from individual people, all opposed to the application.

People have been asking me if this number of interventions is high. It is. Very high. I don’t know what the record is, and it’s hard to compare this to other “average” applications in front of the CRTC, because not all applications are the same, and most are non-controversial. But even controversial ones don’t usually generate quite this much attention. As an example, RNC Media’s application to turn CKLX-FM (Planète Jazz) into a talk station modelled on Radio X – which is to be heard at the same hearing on Sept. 10 – has received only 76 interventions. (I compiled some highlights of those here.) The $3.38-billion acquisition of Astral Media by Bell has only generated 18 so far, and many of those are as much about TSN 990 as they are about Astral and Bell.

The biggest reason for this is probably social media. The link to file interventions has been passed around, published on this blog and others, retweeted and posted on Facebook with instructions telling people how to file. The CRTC, probably annoyed that so many people were using the complaint form instead of the intervention one, has taken the unusual step of posting a special link on its homepage telling people where to file interventions related to TSN 990. (The link, it should be noted, refers to the brand “TSN 990”, rather than the company name “Bell Media Canada Radio Partnership” or the station’s callsign CKGM, which are the more formal ways the commission usually refers to radio stations in public notices.)

The result of making this more accessible is yet more interventions. It’s something commissioners and commission staff love to see more of – individual people getting more involved in the process and making their opinions heard. But if those interventions just call on the CRTC to be dismantled or demand something not in the commission’s power, they won’t be very useful.

In an effort to give people a better idea of the regulatory hurdles in front of Bell Media’s application to change CKGM from English to French (and perhaps prompt some more insightful interventions with the CRTC, whether they’re for or against the application), I wrote a piece that appears in Tuesday’s Gazette: The five ways to save TSN 990.

Specifically, they are:

  • The Competition Bureau could reject the Astral purchase. Unlikely considering it hasn’t stood in the way of these kinds of acquisitions in the past. But still possible.
  • The CRTC could reject the Astral purchase. Also unlikely. Even if the commission finds serious issues of media ownership concentration, it would more likely order Bell Media to sell off assets that put it over a specific threshold.
  • The CRTC could issue an open call for applications. This is much more likely. CKGM was given the frequency of 690 kHz last fall (it’s moving there this fall, with 990 kHz going to Dufferin Communications for Radio Fierté) based on an application that argued, among other things, that the English sports-talk station needed a clear channel to better reach the anglophone community. If this station becomes French-language, that argument goes out the window. Additionally, the CRTC could concern itself with the fact that this switch would make all three clear-channel frequencies in Montreal (690, 730 and 940) French-language stations, disrupting a historic language balance. There’s precedent for issuing an open call: CKGM got 690 in the first place after people objected to an application by Cogeco to reactivate it and 940 kHz for (heavily subsidized) all-traffic stations. The CRTC responded by issuing an open call for applications for 690 and 940, and Cogeco was left empty-handed. (It cannibalized CKAC 730 for its French all-traffic station, and the status of the English all-traffic station is unclear.) Of course, if the CRTC does issue an open call, Bell could apply for this frequency for RDS Radio, and it would stand a good chance of succeeding. But the prospect of losing the frequency might scare Bell off. It said in its application that if the CRTC issued such an open call, it might reconsider.
  • The CRTC could deny the language switch. It’s the simplest thing. Bell has applied for a language switch, because it needs an amendment to its license (or a new license) to do so. The CRTC could simply deny this request, and say if Bell wants RDS Radio it needs a new application for a new radio station.
  • The CRTC could issue an exemption. This is the one everyone’s calling for, and it’s possible, though rumour has it Bell unofficially asked the commission if an exemption could be granted and were told it was highly unlikely. Bell would have to make a serious case that one of the four stations is so vital to the broadcasting system that an exemption is warranted, and make the case that the station simply couldn’t survive if it was sold to someone else. I don’t think most of the station’s listeners really care who owns the station, only that it stays on the air.

You can read more about these five options and the regulatory process in the Gazette story.

Interventions are still being accepted at the CRTC until 8 p.m. Eastern time on Aug. 9. The hearing is Sept. 10 at the Palais des congrès, and those who indicate a wish to appear in their interventions will be allowed to present their arguments in front of the commission in person.

UPDATE (July 17): Pat Hickey argues that the CRTC has a responsibility to keep CKGM running as an English station. Mike Boone adds that TSN 990 is such a small piece of the Bell empire that they couldn’t care less what happens to it and its employees. For more commentary about the application and the station, see the bottom of my previous post.

Bell’s purchase of Astral: The issues in front of the CRTC

While everyone’s attention here was naturally focused on what Bell’s plans are for CKGM, the bigger issue up in front of the CRTC on Sept. 10 is the overall $3.38-billion purchase of Astral Media by Bell Media.

The deal would be a straight purchase, gobbling up everything owned by Astral including non-broadcast assets like its outdoor billboard advertising business. Bell would sell off only those things it is required to.

It’s a deal that has prompted a lot of worries about media concentration (though you could say it’s far too late to worry about that). Quebec’s Option consommateurs has already come out against it, generating some media buzz, but otherwise there hasn’t been much organized opposition.

10 radio stations to be sold

As I noted in the post when the deal was announced, a look at the combined assets of both companies shows they would be over the limits (two AM, two FM, and no more than three total in markets with fewer than eight commercial stations) in six markets, and would need to divest itself of 11 stations to meet the limit. In its application, Bell says it plans to sell 10 stations, and convert CKGM to French.

Bell’s application indicates it has provided the CRTC with a list of the 10 stations it plans to sell, but it wants that kept confidential so that those stations don’t become lame ducks, losing staff and morale. Knowing what markets it needs to sell stations in (two FM in Ottawa, one FM in Calgary, two FM in Toronto, two FM in Winnipeg, and two FM and one AM in Vancouver) and what the ratings are for those markets, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to find the likely castaways.

Because most of those markets have many English FM stations and multiple independent players, the concern about market concentration isn’t as high there as it is for Montreal’s English market.

Two calculations for TV viewing share

On the TV side, the CRTC’s concern isn’t so much the number of TV services (cable channels are a dime a dozen these days), but viewing share. Specifically, it says it will not allow any one player to control more than 45% of the overall viewing share in either language, and will closely scrutinize any purchase that gives a player between 35% and 45% of the viewing share.

Where Bell fits in depends on how you calculate that share. If you include Canadian viewing of American and overseas TV channels (like PBS, CNN and Spike TV), it falls just under that 35% threshold (33.5%). If you include only Canadian services, it’s just above (38.7%). Naturally, Bell believes U.S. services should be included in the calculation (they represent about 10% of Canadian viewing hours), which makes sense, but also means that one player could own 100% of Canadian television channels so long as 65% of Canadian television viewing is of foreign services. In addition, Bell argues that part of that share is its CTV Two network, which it has agreed to keep operating even though it loses money as part of a commitment made in the purchase of CTV by Bell.

There are also qualitative arguments that Bell uses. For one, Astral has no news or public affairs departments at its TV properties, so there would not be a reduction in diversity of voices here. (Bell conveniently ignores the fact that Astral has many radio newsrooms, and in a market like Montreal it means controlling the biggest TV newsroom and the biggest radio newsroom.) And Astral’s English-language television is limited mainly to its pay TV services like The Movie Network and Family Channel. It doesn’t own many specialty channels in English.

On the French side, because of the dominance of Quebecor and Bell’s virtually nonexistent presence (aside from RDS), combined they would represent only 24.4% of the overall TV viewing share.

Two B.C. stations

It’s a footnote in any discussion of Astral, but it does own two conventional television stations in tiny markets in northern B.C. – CJDC in Dawson Creek and CFTK in Terrace. Both are CBC affiliates with local newscasts. Bell’s application says they would remain that way “for the immediate term” but that this could change. “Following closing, we will determine if, when and how these stations will be integrated into the broader Bell Media conventional television group.”

Disaffiliating from CBC requires a separate CRTC application. But it’s hard not to see them eventually being converted into CTV network stations. Neither is anywhere close to an existing CTV station.

Tangible benefits

Aside from CKGM and other concerns about concentration of ownership, the biggest debate over this acquisition is probably going to be over what’s called the “tangible benefits” package. When ownership of a television service or radio station changes hands through a purchase, the CRTC requires that what can best be described as a sales tax be spent to improve the broadcasting and cultural system in some way. Usually (and particularly for radio stations), this means giving money to an organization that develops Canadian music talent. Or it could be some increase to Canadian programming beyond the minimum requirements of broadcasting licenses.

Tangible benefits packages are usually calculated as 6% of the purchase price for radio and 10% for television. In cases where the purchase price is effectively negative (such as when Channel Zero bought CJNT and CHCH for $12), tangible benefits packages don’t apply.

Bell’s proposal is for $200 million in tangible benefits, breaking down as $140 million for television (based on a $1.4-billion value), and $61 million for radio (based on a $1-billion value). The latter is to be adjusted based on the value of radio assets it will be forced to divest in the deal. Both, bell proposes, would be paid over 10 years instead of the usual seven, mainly because Bell is still paying off the tangible benefits packages from CTV’s acquisition of CHUM and Bell’s acquisition of CTV.

In case you’re doing the math in your head, the two purchase prices add up to about $2 billion. The rest of the acquisition price includes non-broadcast assets like outdoor advertising, as well as 50% stakes in Teletoon, Teletoon Retro, Historia and Séries+, which Bell feels should be exempt from this calculation because it would not mean an effective change in control of those channels. (Judging by correspondence on this matter, the CRTC might not accept this argument at face value.)

The biggest chunk of Bell’s proposed benefits package is $96 million that will go to “programming of national interest” (comedy, drama, documentary and certain awards shows), the majority of which will be spent on French-language programs because of Astral’s French-language skew. Then there’s the $61 million in radio benefits that will go to developing Canadian music talent and community radio funds.

It’s the other two chunks that are causing some consternation, though. About $40 million is being pledged to “support Canadian programming by making it more widely available in Canada’s North through the extension of next-generation broadband wireline and wireless service.”

That sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? The problem, aside from how odd it is that Bell associates upgrades to 4G wireless service as somehow helping the television broadcasting system, is that this is essentially a network upgrade for Northwestel, the main telco in the territories. And as if we need to point this out, Northwestel is a subsidiary of Bell.

This has not gone unnoticed for Northwestel’s competitors, who call the blatantly self-serving investment “shameful,” particularly since Northwestel has been heavily criticized for failing to modernize its system. The fact that the CRTC has just opened up local phone service to competition only makes such an investment in one company seem even more anti-competitive.

Another chunk of the package getting noticed is $3.5 million over seven years that would go to Bell Let’s Talk Day, which is an annual campaign to raise money and awareness for treating mental illness. I’ve written before about how Bell seems fine with ordering its assets (and even local news departments) to participate in and cover this campaign.

It’s hard to come out against such a charity campaign, but what does this have to do with broadcasting? The CRTC’s goal with tangible benefits is pretty clear, and though such causes are laudable, there’s no provision for essentially donating part of this package to a favourite charity.

The CRTC asked Bell to justify this expense, and here’s their response:

The proposed benefits initiative will be used to help raise money and awareness to help battle mental health issues through the development of PSAs and educational materials, among other things, and will yield measurable improvements to the communities served by BCE and by Astral by contributing to the earlier identification and better management of mental illness in those communities. That is why so many municipalities and provincial governments devote significant funding to pursuing exactly those goals. This multi-platform media initiative will leverage the merging parties’ unique expertise in broadcasting, a different sphere of endeavour than that in which municipalities and provincial governments work.

These improvements are also significant and unequivocal benefits to the Canadian broadcasting system itself. Parliament left no doubt as to the importance of this policy goal, which it required the Commission to pursue, when it declared that the Canadian broadcasting system should strengthen the social fabric of Canada; serve the needs and interests, and reflect the circumstances and aspirations, of all Canadians; provide information and enlightenment; and expose the public to differing views on matters of public concern. As a result, we respectfully submit that making space in the Canadian broadcasting system to address key social issues, which include mental health, and that raise both money and awareness in support of those issues, is the very epitome of the significant and unequivocal benefits to which the tangible benefits policy was directed.

I don’t know about that.

As the Globe and Mail’s Simon Houpt explains, all this stuff might be boring financial policy stuff, but it’s important. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars being injected into Canadian broadcasting. It’s the CRTC’s job to ensure Bell is spending it properly to benefit the system more than itself.

Correspondence between the CRTC and Bell that forms part of the public record on the application makes it clear that the commission is challenging Bell on all of these matters. Expect them to get discussed in depth at the September hearing.

The CRTC hearing into Bell’s proposed purchase of Astral Media is scheduled to begin Sept. 10 at the Palais des congrèsPeople wanting to file comments with the CRTC or appear at the hearing can file an intervention here (the application number is 2012-0516-2: Astral Media inc.). The deadline is Aug. 9. Note that comments – including names and contact information – are on the public record.

UPDATE: In a somewhat unrelated press release about winning an old lawsuit against Bell related to its ExpressVu satellite service (now Bell TV satellite), Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau made it very clear he and his company are against the Bell-Astral merger, using language you don’t usually see from bosses of big companies:

Bell puts forth considerable efforts to obtain a virtual monopoly of French specialized channels through the acquisition of Astral Média, that would give it 8 of the 10 most popular French specialized and pay TV channels, as well as 67% of the audience and 80% of ad revenues in this market. In the Canadian market, in both languages, over 41% of monthly subscription fees paid by specialized channel viewers would go to Bell, as would 45% of these channels’ advertising revenues. Of the 51 specialized and pay channels that would be controlled by Bell as a result of this transaction, 28 are genre-protected and 30 are must-carry channels in their respective markets. The situation is equally problematic in radio, where Bell would own 117 radio stations across the country, while also exerting total control over all specialized music television channels.

“We call on the CRTC to refuse to approve this transaction on the basis that Bell’s business practices do not meet the ethical standards expected from a company that has the privilege to exploit broadcasting services through licences granted by the CRTC for the benefit of all Canadians. If such practices were to go unsanctioned, Canadians’ slowly eroding confidence in its regulatory authorities would only be further undermined. It is essential for anyone concerned with a healthy and competitive TV industry to take a look at these judgments and oppose Bell’s takeover of Astral. Only by staying vigilant and by denouncing Bell’s unacceptable practices by all possible means will we be able to prevent it from recreating the monopolistic model it relied on for so long,” concluded Mr. Péladeau.

Despite this rather inflammatory statement, Quebecor has not, as of July 25, filed a formal intervention with the CRTC about this case.

Tietolman interested in buying CJAD

Paul Tietolman

Paul Tietolman, the son of former Montreal radio magnate Jack Tietolman and one of three partners in a new French-language talk radio station that received CRTC approval last fall, says that he would be interested in buying CJAD or any other station Bell Media is forced to put up for sale in Montreal to get approval for its takeover of Astral Media.

The $3.38-billion purchase announced last Friday would give Bell control of four out of the five English-language commercial radio stations in Montreal, which would go against a CRTC policy that no more than three commercial radio stations in a market with fewer than eight total can have a common owner. Unless the CRTC grants an exception, that would mean one of CJAD 800, CKGM 990, CHOM 97.7 or CJFM 95.9 would be on the block.

Tietolman and partners Nicolas Tétrault and Rajiv Pancholy received CRTC approval last fall for a French-language news-talk station on one of two clear channels available in Montreal – 940 kHz. But a similar application for an English-language news-talk station was rejected because the group would not accept the more restricted channel of 990 AM. The other clear channel, 690 kHz, went to CKGM, which plans to change frequency within the next few months (probably after the Canadiens’ season is over), with 990 going to Dufferin Communications for a French-language music/talk station targeted at the LGBT community.

Though the group said at the time that no other frequency would be acceptable and they would not proceed with one station unless it got approval for both, they’ve essentially folded on both those points. Plans are under way to launch the French news-talk station this fall, and the group is preparing a submission to the CRTC for an application for an English version that would use a frequency of 600 kHz. The only thing left is to find a transmitter site.

Tietolman said his group is in negotiation with Cogeco for use of their former CINF/CINW site in Kahnawake. The towers there have stood unused since Info 690 and 940 Hits went off the air in January 2010. A final transmitter site for their French-language station also hasn’t been chosen yet – they may want the two to use the same towers to save money.

Of course, Cogeco is also looking to submit an application for a new AM radio station in the Montreal area, to revive their plan for an English all-traffic station. At last report, Cogeco was still in discussions with the Quebec transport ministry to determine an agreeable frequency and coverage pattern to submit to the CRTC. I haven’t been told what frequencies they’re considering (a multiple-transmitter system may be among them), but 600 would be a strong contender. It’s the former frequency of CFCF AM and CIQC, and has adequate coverage in anglo areas, probably better than any other available AM frequency.

Tietolman said he’d be interested in any stations Bell would have to divest itself of, but seems to have a particular eye on CJAD, whose news-talk formula could easily be converted into the radio station they have in mind (and, of course, would provide instant listener loyalty as well as eliminating their proposed station’s main competition).

With the Bell-Astral deal having just been announced and no CRTC hearing even set yet, much less a decision on what if any stations they would have to sell, nothing formal is on the table yet.

But if CJAD is the station that goes on the table (and some insiders believe that will be the one they decide to get rid of), there’s at least one party interested in taking it over.

Bell to buy Astral: But what about media concentration?

CORRECTION (July 14): Fixed list of stations to include an Astral one in Winnipeg that I had missed.

The HuffPost Québec and La Presse scoops ended up lasting only a few hours (most of which people spent asleep), but they were right: Bell has announced it will buy Montreal-based Astral Media in a deal worth $2.8 billion (or $3.38 billion, depending on how you count it).

The deal has serious implications in terms of diversity of voices in media, and has a pretty big regulatory hurdle before it can be approved. Astral owns 22 television services and 84 radio stations, many of which compete with Bell’s 30 specialty channels and 35 radio stations. In Montreal, notably, the deal would create a monopoly for English-language talk radio in Montreal, with CKGM (TSN 990) and CJAD both owned by the same company, and a near-monopoly for English-language commercial radio overall, with four of five stations owned by the same company.

Probably the most telling statement of the press release is this: “Astral products currently represent Bell’s largest single content cost.”

(Imagine that: Just going out and buying your biggest expense. If only I had a few billion dollars lying around, I could go out and buy Videotron and maybe Hydro-Quebec too.)

The competition bureau is obviously going to look into this. The CRTC must also approve the transaction, and could reject the deal or force Bell to sell off some assets if it believes they would harm competition. (The deal includes a $150-million payout from Bell to Astral if the CRTC rejects the purchase.)

Here’s a bit of a breakdown of how this might play out:


Conventional (over-the-air) television: Astral has stayed out of the conventional television game so far, and owns only two stations in small markets in British Columbia, and both are CBC affiliates.

French-language specialty and pay television: Bell is selling this deal as a big push into the French-language Quebec market, and specialty channels will form a large part of that. Right now, Bell owns only a controlling stake in RDS and its related channels. Astral owns channels including Canal D, Canal Vie, MusiMax, MusiquePlus, VRAK.tv and Ztelé, but no sports-related channels. The CRTC shouldn’t have a problem here. Same for pay television, where Astral is the biggest (really, only) player with Super Écran. The deal would give the company a 26.8% viewing share among French-language specialty channels, but that would still be below Quebecor at 29.6%.

English-language specialty and pay television: Astral also has an interest in English-language specialty, with services including the Family channel and a 50% ownership of Teletoon (with Corus). But the big money is in pay television. Astral owns the Movie Network, Super Écran and related channels, and has a controlling stake in Viewers Choice Pay-Per-View. There isn’t much direct competition with Bell, though it does own channels like MuchMusic and MTV Canada (and related channels for both) which also target a younger audience. But the deal would give bell 41.4% viewing share among specialty channels in English Canada, twice its next-largest competitor (Shaw), which might concern the commission.


Bell is already the biggest player in commercial radio, with 31% of total listening hours among the big commercial radio players, according to the latest CRTC monitoring report. With Astral, that would go up to almost 45%, in both English and French-language radio. Revenue-wise, 31% of radio advertising revenue across the country would be going to Bell/Astral, which would be twice the next-largest player (Corus).

French radio: Astral has substantial radio holdings in Quebec, with the NRJ, Rouge FM and Boom FM radio networks that in many markets hit the limit of common ownership. But Bell has no French-language radio assets, which means there aren’t any big regulatory concerns here.

English radio: Here’s where the deal is going to run into some serious problems. Both Bell and Astral are major radio players, and the deal would put the combined company in violation of the CRTC’s ownership rules set in 1998 that state only two stations in one band/language/market can be owned by the same company in a market with eight or more stations, and a maximum of three total (and no more than two in one band) in markets with less than eight stations.

If we assume that the company would keep the highest-rated stations in each market/language/band and sell off the rest, that would put quite a few stations on the chopping block. Affected markets would include the following, with stations ranked according to BBM market share and stations in bold the ones the selling block (again, based on ratings alone – there could be any number of reasons for keeping a lower-rated station):

  • Montreal: Two FM and two AM (with only five commercial stations total, one would need to be sold)
    • #1 CJAD 800 AM (Astral)
    • #2 CJFM-FM Virgin Radio 95.9 (Astral)
    • #4 CHOM-FM 97.7 (Astral)
    • #6 CKGM TSN Radio 990 AM (Bell)
  • Calgary: Three FM and one AM.
    • #4: CIBK-FM Virgin Radio 98.5 (Astral)
    • #6: CJAY-FM 92.1 (Astral)
    • #14: CKCE-FM Kool 101.5 (Bell)
    • #16: CKMX Classic Country 1060 AM (Astral)
  • Ottawa: Four FM and two AM.
    • #2 CFRA 580 AM(Bell)
    • #4: CJMJ-FM Majic 100.3 (Bell)
    • #10: CKKL-FM BOB 93.9 (Bell)
    • #11: CKQB-FM The Bear 106.9 (Astral)
    • #13: CFGO Team 1200 (Bell)
    • #14: CJOT-FM EZ Rock 99.7 (Astral)
  • Toronto: Four FM and two AM. The AM situation, with a news-talk owned by Astral and a sports station owned by Bell, is similar to the situation in Montreal.
    • #3: CHUM-FM 104.5 (Bell)
    • #6: CKFM-FM Virgin 99.9 (Astral)
    • #7: CHBM-FM Boom 97.3 (Astral)
    • #8: CFRB NewsTalk 1010 AM (Astral)
    • #19: CFXJ-FM Flow 93.5 (Bell)
    • #21: CHUM TSN 1050 AM (Bell)
  • Vancouver: Four FM and three AM. Vancouver is the only market where the combined company might own more than two AM radio stations. Bell’s stations are in the unusual situation of being co-branded, with one as a secondary station to the other. It’s not clear whether that would be enough to bypass the CRTC’s ownership rules.
    • #1: CHQM-FM QM 103.5 (Bell)
    • #4: CFBT-FM The Beat 94.5 (Bell)
    • #5: CKZZ-FM Virgin 95.3 (Astral)
    • #10: CKST Team 1040 (Bell)
    • #14: CISL 650 (Astral)
    • #16: CHHR-FM Shore 104.3 (Astral)
    • #19: CFTE Team 1410 (Bell)
  • Winnipeg: Four FM and one AM

In Montreal, the CRTC would take note of the fact that the combined company would own both English AM talk radio stations here. Overall, Bellstral would own four of the five English-language commercial radio stations in Montreal, with only Cogeco’s CKBE-FM The Beat 92.5 as competition of any sort.

As you can see from the list, there aren’t many big national brands at play here. The company would probably keep its Virgin-branded stations from Astral, and its Team/TSN sports radio stations from Bell, and sell off stations that are weaker performers in their markets.


Astral doesn’t own any cable or satellite companies, so there aren’t any issues directly here. But the fact that Bell sees this purchase as a benefit to its satellite and Fibe TV service by owning one of its biggest expenses will be looked at.

Other assets

Bell doesn’t have any newspaper holdings (aside from its interest in the Globe and Mail), which might also cause issues with regulators (the CRTC won’t allow a company to own a newspaper, TV and radio station in the same market). Astral doesn’t own any significant online assets that aren’t tied to other assets.

There’s also Astral’s huge outdoor advertising business, but I do my best to ignore that.

My take

I’m a bit surprised that Bell thinks it can get away with this. People are already worried about concentration of media ownership in Canada, and now one of our few big players is buying another. It’s not as significant as if, say, Bell decided to buy Shaw or Rogers, but it’s still very worrisome, especially in English radio and English specialty television. Even if the CRTC forces some assets to be sold off, they’d probably be sold to other major players.

In short, it’s a horrible day for diversity in voices in media.

I have a brief story in Saturday’s Gazette about what the deal means for Quebec, to go with the national story giving the overall picture.

Other coverage

Ex Astral, scientia

Astral Media, the company that has interests in cable channels, advertising, radio and a bunch of other stuff, has changed its logo.

Before: Astral Media

After: Astral

Logo changes are a fact of life, as companies realize that they’ve gotten old and boring and need some hip new way to stay in touch with people, like adding colours and going all-lowercase. They find a designer who whips out the Pantone booklet and gets to work on something abstract that will eventually get shot down by a committee until, 12 months later, a mediocre logo that doesn’t mean anything and therefore doesn’t offend anyone gets tacit support from the corporation and is released to the public.

Astral’s new logo replaces a stylized “A” with … another stylized “A” (but lowercase). According to the press release, the new logo “represents the company’s diverse assets, decentralized yet disciplined business model and the knowledge, passion and imagination its employees bring to the marketplace.”

I think it represents the fact that the only thing a logo maker can think of when it comes to Astral is that it starts with the letter “A”. But then, most corporate logos are just stylized letters anyway, although most aren’t quite so phallic.

My favourite part of the release comes right after that quote:

The vibrant colour palette and creative shape of the new logo are designed to convey human warmth and emotion, within a defined and responsive structure that is grounded and resilient.

Astral is prepared to show human emotion, but only within a defined structure. If it wasn’t obvious how big and corporate Astral Media has gotten, this should make it clear that it has nothing to do with the logo.

This video of an old white guy emotionlessly reading a statement filled with marketingese should accentuate that point.

Remember, these are the guys who own CHOM and Virgin Radio in Montreal.

Alain Bergeron: Out the door already

The redesign was apparently the work of this guy, VP and Chief Marketing Officer Alain Bergeron. Astral announced shortly after the new logo that Bergeron was leaving the company (supposedly he stuck around just long enough to launch the new brand identity).

The change has gotten some ink … err, pixels, in the mediawatchosphere, like this piece form Trente. But there has also been some criticism, one calling it “a weird mess”people on Twitter expressing even worse criticisms, and one even putting money behind a contest to design a new logo. It’s gotten so bad we’re starting to see a backlash backlash, serious analysis of the larger issue and parody on the radio.

Astral Media (now just “Astral”) is a private company and it can burn whatever cash it wants, even while it fires a bunch of front-line people and cuts hours of local programming at its radio stations to replace it with cheap syndicated crap.

But Astral has little brand recognition among the public. And there’s nothing wrong with that. People don’t go to the grocery store and buy Astral cereal. They don’t subscribe to Astral cable. They don’t turn on the TV or radio and switch it to the Astral channel. They go to Canal Vie, and VRAK.TV, and CHOM and Rock Détente. Astral’s properties have their own branding, why should the parent company care what anyone thinks of its logo?

Maybe I’m missing something, but my gut tells me if Astral thinks this change will do anything more than force them to throw away a bunch of old business cards and letterhead (and signs), they’re dreaming in Technicolor.

You’re listening to an Astral Media radio station

November 2007 newspaper ad

This is part of an ad that appeared in The Gazette in November 2007, reassuring listeners after Standard Radio was purchased by Astral Media that their radio stations wouldn’t suddenly change.

Since then:

“Please be assured of our commitment to continue providing the same great listening pleasure you have come to enjoy,” the ad said. “Respect for our broadcast audience and the public in general is a core value of Astral Media.”

I’ll leave it to you to judge, based on their subsequent actions, whether Astral Media stuck to their word.

Behind-the-scenes changes at Astral Media radio

From the Airchecker blog, a memo about changes at Astral Media radio stations in Montreal (which include CJAD 800, CHOM 97.7 and CJFM 95.9).

The skinny:

  • Mike Bendixen, former CJAD programming director who took a temporary job doing the same at CFRB 1010 in Toronto, will remain there permanently.
  • Steve Kowch, the man Bendixen replaced at CFRB (and who took Bendixen’s job at CJAD in a rather ironic move), is out. His last day is Dec. 18. He had expected to be at CJAD until March. Now he can concentrate on writing a book, at least.
  • Chris Bury takes over as PD/Interim News Director at CJAD on Jan. 4. Bury started at CJAD in 1998, but for most of this decade worked at 940 News. He became CINW’s program director when it became 940 Hits.
  • Mark Bergman becomes Interim Program Director of CJFM (Virgin Radio 96), replacing Bob Harris, who is leaving for Hamilton. Bergman is currently the assistant PD. Bergman will remain on his afternoon show with Chantal Desjardins.
  • Mathew Wood, who managed promotions for all three stations, now focuses exclusively on CHOM.
  • Melissa Mancuso, a promotions assistant, replaces Wood as Promotions Director at CJFM.
  • Bianca Bayer becomes Promotions Coordinator for CJFM. (What’s the difference between a Promotions Director and Promotions Coordinator? Beats me.)
  • Lisa Fuoco becomes Promotions Director at CJAD, stripping “assistant” from her title.
  • Peter McEntyre will assist Fuoco part-time. (McEntyre is also one of the hosts of CJAD’s Irish Show)

VP/GM Martin Spalding explains the strategy, in case it’s not obvious:

The strategy is to have a dedicated Program and Promotions Director for each station. This will enable CJAD, Virgin 96 and CHOM to compete independently, prosper and build strong brand identities within an aggressive and ever-evolving radio market.

Could it be that Astral Media is finally realizing that radio stations work better if they have their own brands and target audiences, and that the tag “an Astral Media radio station” doesn’t impress anyone?

UPDATE (Dec. 10): The Suburban’s Mike Cohen talks briefly with some of the figures in these changes.

The stupid mathematics of ringtones

Astral Media has come up with a new way to print money by preying on clueless teenagers satisfy the growing needs of the population when it comes to pimping their cellphones, and has opened a “mobile boutique” called 61215.ca, a number guaranteed to be incorrectly remembered within seconds of seeing it. For “only” $6 a month, you can make three “downloads” of either ringtones (those 30-second song snippets people replace the sound of a ringing phone with to sound cool) or wallpapers (images of scantily-clad women that you’ll rarely see because you never stare at your cellphone except to do something that will cover them up).

For you non-math wizards out there, three downloads at $6 a month works out to $2 per download. That’s $2 per 30-second song excerpt or tiny stock photo. If you want to buy them individually, it’s $3.50 per ringtone and $2 per image.

Websites that do nothing but rewrite or republish news releases did not even think to question whether charging $3.50 for a song excerpt was a bit expensive.

So allow me.

If I go to the Dell Music Store, I can buy 10 songs for $7.99, or $0.80 per song. The iTunes Music Store sells most its songs for $0.99, and the most popular ones for $1.29. This is for a song I can download, play on my computer, download to my portable media player and otherwise do what I want with (for my own personal use), including transfer to my cellphone and use it as a ringtone. Astral, on the other hand, wants to charge 270% of this amount for an excerpt of a song that I’ll only be able to use on one device.

Does that not sound stupid to anyone else?

And then there’s the wallpapers. Images are much easier to produce than music, and they’re much easier to get hold of. Why should I have to pay $2 for a picture of Garfield when I can get Garfield wallpaper for free from the cartoon’s website?

It’s astonishing how the mobile industry has been able to get people to pay sky-high prices for things they can get for cheap or even free. I’m not quite sure why this is, but I suspect the fact that the cost is simply added to the monthly cellphone bill (a bill paid by parents in many cases) has something to do with it. Newspapers should take note of this ingenious way to con people out of money.

I only have one ringtone on my cellphone (I have frequent callers tied to letters played through Morse Code so I know who they are). I downloaded the song to my cellphone from my computer (after editing it) and it cost me exactly $0.

Perhaps I’m missing something. But the only thing more ridiculous than the money Astral expects us to shell out for this stuff is the fact that many people will do exactly that.

Astral strikes again

The same month that it made major cuts at CJAD, Astral Media has done the same at its sister station CFRB in Toronto, including a husband-and-wife hosting team (sound familiar?)

Those who threatened to switch to a Corus station after the CJAD cuts, and then threatened to switch to an Astral station after the CFQR cuts, can now threaten to switch back to a Corus station, I guess.

Or you could switch to the CBC. Until they make cuts again.

UPDATE (Aug. 29): CFRB Program Director Steve Kowch has also been relieved of his duties. He will be replaced by Mike Bendixen, who leaves the program director job at CJAD.

Angie Coss is also leaving CJAD, it was announced. It’s unclear why.

Astral ditches Energie for NRJ


Astral Media, the folks who decided to bring Virgin Radio branding (and programming) to stations including Montreal’s CJFM 95.9, has decided to do something similar with their French-language Énergie network, dumping that brand in favour of France-based NRJ Radio.

The press release (also on their website) reassures listeners about keeping local hosts and promoting local talent, but also talks about new programming that would come from this international network that operates in more than a dozen countries around the world.

There are just so many hours in the broadcast day, so expect some of the non-vedettes at Énergie (CKMF and what’s left of regional stations) to lose their jobs as Astral finds more efficiencies bringing in cheap, syndicated foreign content instead of paying locals to act as DJs.

The changeover is scheduled for August 24.

UPDATE: More from Les Affaires.

The future of street advertising

Tourist guide pillar at Ste. Catherine and Peel

Tourist guide pillar at Ste. Catherine and Peel

Earlier this month, the city installed a new one of those tourist guide pillars on Ste. Catherine St. just east of Peel. Since that’s just outside the Gazette office, my colleagues quickly took notice. A bit bigger than the three-sided pillar it replaced (but not as big as those giant cylindrical ones), it is noteworthy because the map side is actually an interactive touch screen.

An information screen above a larger touch screen with tourist information

An information screen above a larger touch screen with tourist information

In fact, it’s two screens working in concert, though the top one is easily ignored because its black background blends in so well.

It’s a prototype developed by Astral Media, which owns the other pillars. Right now the touch screen consists solely of a downtown map and some buttons that allows you to locate various types of locations on it (metro stations, hotels, etc.). There’s also a video camera to deter vandalism or attempted theft.

Ads are slightly less static too

Ads are slightly less static too

The other two sides have static display ads. Though there’s some “innovation” there too. The ads are actually scrolled (I mean that literally) back and forth to either allow some timesharing or just impress some marketing executives.

Tourist information runs on Windows

Tourist information runs on Windows

Oh, and in case you didn’t notice, the touch screen runs on Windows. Here it’s asking me to help install new hardware (perhaps the touch screen itself, since touching didn’t work).