Tag Archives: Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bell reaches deal to buy V network

Megacorporation BCE has filled one of the holes in its vast media empire, announcing this morning it has reached an agreement to purchase Quebec’s French-language V network of television stations, along with its video platform noovo.ca.

The deal, whose financial terms were not disclosed (but will be when it gets to the CRTC), does not include V’s specialty channels, ELLE Fictions (formerly MusiquePlus) and MAX (formerly Musimax). That’s because those channels were originally sold to V by Bell as a condition of getting regulatory approval for Bell’s purchase of Astral Media in 2013.

Bell buying V has been one of those transactions that’s been rumoured for a long time. Bell doesn’t own a conventional television network in French, but it does own many French-language specialty channels. V, though it has undergone a renaissance since the Rémillard brothers bought it from Cogeco in 2008, is still a struggling network trying to find a way to make money going up against the Quebecor-powered TVA and taxpayer-funded Radio-Canada.

It’s far from certain Bell will convince the CRTC to approve the deal. Though the addition of the V network would not increase subscription revenues, which Quebecor has fiercely complained about, it would add significantly to Bell’s audience share, which is how the CRTC judges market dominance in television.

According to Numeris data, V has about a 7% share overall among Quebec francophones. TVA has a 24% share, and Bell’s CTV a 1% share. Quebecor’s specialty channels, which include TVA Sports, LCN, CASA and Yoopa, have a 13% share, and Bell’s specialty channels a 16% share.


  • Quebecor: 37%
  • Bell: 17%
  • V (not including specialty): 7%
  • Bell + V after transaction: 24%

The CRTC is normally inclined to approve transactions when the combined market share is less than 35%, but I suspect they’ll take a closer look at this anyway.

Expect some serious opposition from Quebecor to this deal, and from CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau in particular.

A net good, or a net bad?

For opponents of vertical integration, this deal seems bad, putting yet another independent broadcaster in the hands of one of the big players. After the disappearance of Astral and Serdy as independent players in the Quebec French-language marketplace, consumer choice is getting more and more restricted.

But Bell’s big pockets could also revitalize V and make it a more formidable competitor to Quebecor’s TVA. Under Bell, V would presumably no longer get special treatment from the CRTC, meaning it would probably see an increase in its requirements for local news and would no longer be eligible for its $3 million share of the $22-million Independent Local News Fund, which would be reallocated to other independent stations like CHCH, NTV, CHEK, and affiliates owned by Pattison, Thunder Bay, Télé Inter-Rives and RNC Media. (The fund will be up for re-evaluation in 2021.)

It’s not clear if V would have survived without this transaction (or will if it’s denied). In Bell’s press release, Maxime Rémillard talks about needing to “ensure the continuity of this success”:

“After 10 years of ensuring V’s success as an independent conventional channel, I am proud to have found in Bell Media a partner to ensure the continuity of this success,” said Maxime Rémillard, President and Founder, Groupe V Média. “The industry in which we are evolving is constantly, deeply and rapidly changing. This was true when we took over the reins of TQS and allowed the network to survive; it is all the more true today. As it is increasingly difficult to ensure the sustainability of a conventional channel within a non-integrated group, I have made the best decision for the future of V. Bell Media will certainly allow V to continue to evolve and reach out to the Québec public on a massive scale.”

There’s also the question of what happens to the two specialty channels if this deal goes through. On one hand, being specialty-only might be good for the bottom line, because specialty channels generally make more than conventional ones. On the other hand, V loses its biggest marketing vehicle, and its specialty channels are hovering around the break-even point, according to CRTC data.

V owns the following five stations:

  • CFJP-DT Montreal
  • CFAP-DT Quebec City
  • CFKM-DT Trois-Rivières
  • CFKS-DT Sherbrooke
  • CFRS-DT Saguenay

In addition, there are three affiliates of V owned by other companies that are not part of this transaction, but would benefit from changes in network programming and from re-allocation of the Independent Local News Fund:

RNC Media:

  • CFGS-DT Gatineau
  • CFVS-DT Val-d’Or

Télé Inter-Rives:

  • CFTF-DT Rivière-du-Loup

The transaction requires CRTC approval, and likely that of the Competition Bureau, before it can close. Once the CRTC application is published, it will be open to public comment.

UPDATE: Try to contain your shock at the news that Quebecor doesn’t like this deal.

See also: Some analysis from the Globe and Mail’s Konrad Yakabuski.

Bell files CRTC complaint over GamePlus feature on Rogers NHL GameCentre Live

One of Rogers’s attempts to use its $5.2-billion NHL rights purchase to drive subscriptions to its telecom services has prompted competitor Bell to file a complaint with the CRTC.

The complaint is about GamePlus, a feature of the new Rogers NHL GameCentre Live online streaming app. While GameCentre Live is available to anyone for purchase (though free for Rogers customers until the end of the year), GamePlus is exclusive to Rogers Internet, TV, home phone and wireless subscribers. It offers additional camera angles like the ref cam (a camera mounted on a referee’s helmet), sky cam (a wide-view camera that goes up and down the length of the ice at the Air Canada Centre) and star cam (a camera always focused on an individual player).

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RDS to keep 60 Habs games a season until 2026

They won’t say how much it cost, but RDS has bought the regional rights to all 60 Canadiens games not guaranteed to TVA Sports, and this until the 2025-26 season.

The deal, announced at 6pm on the Friday before Christmas, also includes an unspecified number of all preseason games each season. But Saturday night games, and all playoff games, remain with TVA.

The deal also applies only to “the team’s designated broadcast region”, the same region that the TSN Habs channel is limited to — Atlantic Canada, Quebec and eastern Ontario (going as far west as Belleville and Pembroke, so basically identical to the territory of Rogers Sportsnet East). So if RDS puts these matches on its main channel, that channel would have to be blacked out in the rest of the country. That’s almost certainly going to be the case, because the Canadiens is what RDS is all about. Bell Media spokesperson Renee Rouse confirmed that the network will be blacked out outside its regional market.

It’s unclear at this point how or if people in southern Ontario and west of there will get their Canadiens hockey in French. Rogers owns the rights to out-of-market games, but any French airing of those games on either Rogers or TVA channels would need to be blacked out in eastern Canada. Right now, out-of-market games are only available on the expensive NHL Centre Ice package, and it’s very possible that will continue.

Asked about out-of-market games, Rogers spokesperson Andrea Goldstein tells me that Rogers does indeed own the rights in both languages. But “it’s still early days and we’ll be announcing our programming plans in the coming months.” That sounds promising for the possibility of some non-Centre-Ice option for expat francophone Habs fans or those in places like northeastern Ontario.

When the Rogers deal was announced, we were promised no regionalization or blackouts, but since this is a regional deal, and there will indeed be blackouts, I’m not sure how that’s supposed to make sense, unless Rogers plans to offer out-of-market games on a different channel.

Either way, for the first time in a decade, all Canadiens games won’t be on the same channel in French, and RDS’s Canadiens games won’t be available nationally.

The RDS/Canadiens statement also makes no mention of mobile rights, online streaming, video-on-demand or any other type of rights to those games. Bell Media’s Rouse confirmed that they have not acquired any of these rights. So if you want to get that Tuesday night Canadiens game on your smartphone, you’ll still have to deal with Rogers and Quebecor.

Bell also announced that it has retained the naming rights to the Bell Centre until 2028. Bell owns 18% of the Canadiens, which may or may not have been a significant factor in all of this.

UPDATE (Dec. 27): Martin Leclerc of Radio-Canada says the broadcasting deal is worth $68 million a season, or about $1.1 million a game. He makes the case that neither TVA nor RDS should expect to make their money back.

Bell says emails about pro-Bell study are not an attempt to influence CTV News coverage of Bell

Was Bell Media President Kevin Crull misinterpreted by the managers under him? Bell won't say.

Was Bell Media President Kevin Crull misinterpreted by the managers under him? Bell won’t say.

Dwayne Winseck, an Ottawa-based media analyst, came out with a rather shocking allegation on his blog on Tuesday: Bell, which is in the middle of a very public battle with the Conservative government and others over rules for an upcoming auction of wireless spectrum, sent memos to news directors at CTV asking for them to cover a study that was favourable to Bell’s position.

Attached to that post is a Word document with partially redacted emails. One is from Kevin Crull, the president of Bell Media. Titled “Fw: Wall Report 2013”, it gives some highlights from a report that came out in July that seemed to show wireless prices in Canada were lower than the U.S. The recipients of this email included Wendy Freeman, president of CTV News.

The other two emails are forwards of the report, one by Chris Gordon, who runs Bell Media radio and local TV news, and the other by Kevin Bell, general manager of CTV Vancouver Island, apparently forwarded from Gordon.

“Kevin is asking if this report can get some coverage today on Talk Radio. National news is covering for TV,” Gordon wrote in his email. “Kevin Crull our President wants us to give this report some coverage. It’s a report on phone charges in Canada,” Bell wrote in his.

Damning charges, if they’re true. Michael Geist picked up the story on his blog. Since neither of them had comment from Bell, I went to get one myself.

Here’s their statement, issued through Scott Henderson, VP of communications for Bell Media:

The Wall Report was a key news story covered by most major news outlets. CTV News and Bell Media Radio provided fair and balanced coverage and stand by their journalistic integrity.

Our news divisions are independently managed and have the full power to make editorial decisions, as outlined in the CTV News Policy Handbook (excerpted below).

2.32 Stories Concerning CTV or Affiliated Companies

Stories concerning the CTV Television Network, affiliated companies or shareholders should be covered in accordance with the same standards of fairness, balance and accuracy applied to any other story. Stories should be neither underreported nor over-reported. Reports on our parent companies, Bell and BCE should include an acknowledgement that they are the owners of our networks. CTV News employees invited to participate in stories should be treated with the same standards as other contributors.

2.33 In-Kind interviews and Product Reviews

Our journalism must remain free from undue commercial influence. If we compromise our principles for financial gain, we damage our credibility and the audience will turn away. If you receive a request to cover an event, review a product or interview an individual who has a commercial relationship with the company, that coverage should be proportional to the event’s newsworthiness.

From time to time, as President of Bell Media, Kevin Crull communicates to his Senior Leadership Team items of interest to the business. Kevin Crull’s e-mail with the Wall Report attached did not request coverage by Bell Media news properties.

Regardless, there is never any expectation for our news divisions to cover issues affecting the company – those decisions rest with the news directors alone and are based on the newsworthiness of the issue. When these issues are covered by Bell Media news properties, we are transparent with our viewers and listeners by acknowledging that Bell is our parent company.

In short: Yes, Kevin Crull sends emails like this one with news about stuff affecting Bell. But no, these emails should not be interpreted as Crull directing CTV News to cover these issues.

I asked Henderson whether the statement in Chris Gordon’s and Kevin Bell’s emails suggest a communication failure here. His response: “We have no further comment.”

In case you’re curious, here’s how CTVNews.ca covered the report: a Canadian Press story (which tends to be a good option when news outlets have to post news stories about themselves) packaged with a video of a CTV News Channel interview with the person who did the report. The video ends with a disclaimer from the anchor that CTV News Channel is owned by Bell Media.

I’ve seen enough CTV News reports about its parent company to know that it doesn’t toy with its reports to make the big bosses happier. But Crull and his executives must be well aware of the pressures that journalists face when it comes to stories about their employers and parent companies, and how much easier it is to follow a suggestion from a boss than it is to argue against it. Not to mention that the amount of importance given to a story is just as important as the content of those stories.

And while it’s perfectly fine to say in an official policy that CTV News deals with its parent company fairly, emails like this from the boss give the opposite message. The head of Rogers or Public Mobile or Option consommateurs can’t send an email to every BCE employee by simply pressing a button. If anything, Bell and Bell Media should be extra careful about even the appearance of possible conflict or interference in news coverage, and this seems to be the exact opposite of that.

At best, these emails show an embarrassing communication failure within Bell Media that needs to be corrected quickly. At worst, they’re indicative of a serious issue of journalistic ethics within the organization, and of the need to separate the business operations of Bell and Bell Media from the editorial operations of CTV News, BNN and Bell Media Radio.

Either way, those who are already convinced that vertical integration is ruining the Canadian broadcasting system have another talking point to bring up about the Evil Bell Empire.

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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Rogers says it’s willing to buy TSN 690

See also my story on this in The Gazette.

Could this be the future of CKGM?

Could this be the future of CKGM?

Though it had seemed cool to the idea previously, Rogers says it is now willing to make a “reasonable offer” to Bell Media to purchase CKGM (TSN Radio 690) and keep it running in its English-language all-sports format.

The revelation came through Rogers’s final submission to the CRTC dated Wednesday. Most of it focused on Rogers’s position that Bell should not be allowed to acquire The Movie Network. But it also included a proposal to solve the problem of the Montreal English radio market and the fate of the money-losing all-sports station.

The full submission can be read here. The relevant paragraphs are these:

45. Finally, on the separate issue of the radio station CKGM-AM and Bell Media’s proposal to obtain an exception to the Commission’s common ownership policy, the Bell/Astral panel indicated during the hearing that it would consider shutting the station down if the Commission did not allow Bell Media to operate 4 radio stations in the Montreal market. We understand that Bell Media was concerned that if an exception to the common ownership policy was not granted, then radio listeners in Montreal would be denied access to sports radio in that city.

46. With that concern in mind, Rogers Media is informing the Commission that it would be prepared to make Bell a reasonable offer to acquire CKGM-AM and that we would be prepared to operate it as an English sports radio service. Given our sports properties (which include the Fan 590 in Toronto) and the fact that we now have a presence in the Montreal market with our recent acquisition of CJNT-DT, Rogers Media is confident that it has the infrastructure in place to operate the station profitably.

47. If there are concerns that there would be no buyers for CKGM-AM and that Montreal radio listeners would be deprived of a sports service, we believe that our commitment to make a reasonable offer for the station should allay them.

This would seem to solve both the problem of Bell owning too many stations in the market and of wanting to keep an all-sports station here. But there are some caveats. First of all, the station wouldn’t be called TSN 690 anymore. Bell has no intention of licensing the brand, and Rogers wouldn’t want it anyway. So it would probably be called Sportsnet 690 The Fan (which would be easily confused with Fan stations at 960 and 590).

More importantly, Bell has said that if it sold the station it would not sublicense radio broadcast rights to Canadiens games, instead moving them to CJAD. And CJAD is already the broadcaster for Alouettes and Impact games. So The Fan wouldn’t start off with much in the way of local broadcast rights.

Nevertheless, Rogers is obviously aware of this, and feels it can make the station profitable, thanks to its recent acquisition of CJNT, which gives Rogers its first broadcast property in the market. Sportsnet’s existing resources in Montreal, added to those that will work on a weekly sports show on CJNT, and the national resources of Sportsnet TV and radio, will also help.

It’s unclear if Rogers was one of the two players that Bell told the CRTC had made “informal” inquiries about CKGM. We do know that the other was Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy Media, which has licences for news-talk AM stations in English and French and is waiting for a decision from the CRTC on an application for a French-language AM sports station in the market. Tietolman has not hidden that he would be willing to acquire CJAD in particular, and possibly other stations put up for sale as well.

Rogers was asked about acquiring this station during last year’s Bell-Astral hearing. They weren’t terribly enthusiastic, but didn’t dismiss the idea either. Here’s what Susan Wheeler, Rogers’s VP of regulatory affairs, told the commission on Sept. 12:

Certainly, we would be interested in expanding our sports radio network across the country. So that’s certainly something of interest to us. Whether it’s a viable business model without the Canadiens rights I think is something that we would have to do the math on.

But I also, I guess, would question the limitations that Bell, you know, has said in previous testimony that they don’t have the rights to sub-license the Canadiens rights. So I’m wondering whether that’s something the Commission could look into further.

Bell has until May 21 to provide a final written reply to the commission on this and other issues brought up by interveners based on new information brought up at the hearing.

UPDATE (May 21): Bell says this is the first it hears of Rogers being interested in the station, and “we question the sincerity of this claim.” Bell also questions why Rogers is only bringing this up now, instead of in its original intervention or at the hearing.

The full paragraph about CKGM in Bell’s reply is here:

Rogers made a last minute claim that they would make a reasonable offer to purchase CKGM and operate it as a English-language sports service. We question the sincerity of this claim or its appropriateness at this stage in the process given the guidelines the Commission set for final Intervener comments. There is no actual evidence on the record that they would or could make such an offer or that they could viably operate CKGM as a sports service. The claim was raised for the first time in the final paragraphs of their final comments after not having even been hinted at one time in the whole course of the proceeding even though the exception to the Common Ownership Policy for CKGM has been a consistent part of our application since it was filed. Even since this surprise announcement, Rogers has not attempted to contact Bell Media about this possibility.

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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Bell hiring for Montreal community TV service

Bell is bringing a community television channel to Montreal.

Well, kinda.

Jobs were posted late last month for positions related to Bell Community TV in Montreal. They include a volunteer coordinator, a producer, a camera operator and an editor. Each is for a one-year contract, and no starting date is specified.

I asked Bell about the new channel. Unfortunately they can’t say much. Things like launch date, budget, programming, etc. are considered competitive information and are not public.

What we do know is that the programming will be in French to start with, and it will be part of the on-demand service provided by Bell Fibe TV. Bell received authorization from the CRTC in 2011 to operate an on-demand community television service on its terrestrial distribution service (i.e. Fibe).

Bell’s service is similar to Videotron’s Vox MaTV, or the Rogers TV and Cogeco TV services provided by their respective distributors. The difference is that Bell’s Montreal community channel will be an on-demand offering instead of a 24/7 linear channel like Vox.

Broadcast distributors are required to spend 5% of their gross revenues on Canadian programming, including up to 2% on community television. Most choose to setup their own community channels, at least in larger markets.

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.

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.