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BCE president George Cope, left, and Astral Media CEO Ian Greenberg announced the takeover of Astral by Bell in March. (PAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
BCE president George Cope, left, and Astral Media CEO Ian Greenberg announced the takeover of Astral by Bell in March. (PAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Media

Is Bell too big? Add to ...

If the acquisition goes through, Bell Media will own or have a share of 86 television channels: 30 conventional TV stations, and a mix of 56 specialty and pay services. (BCE owns a 15 per cent stake in The Globe and Mail and Mr. Crull is on The Globe’s board.)

In 2009-10, those channels attracted 37.6 per cent of all Canadian viewing – and 41.4 per cent of English-language viewing (or 44.9 per cent when joint ventures are included), according to CRTC data. Bell disputes even those numbers, saying that if viewership of U.S. services such as CNN are taken into account, their share of viewing would be only 33.5 per cent.

The exact numbers are important because television programs are not just a commodity worth millions of dollars in subscriptions and ads – they are culture that can affect the way people think and dream and vote. Most governments believe a diversity of viewpoints is important to foster a vibrant democracy. That’s why regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and its counterparts across the European Union place caps on ownership that usually restrict companies from controlling more than 20 to 25 per cent of the market.

“While the rest of the world is using broadcasting law and competition law to reduce concentration in content provision, Canada has really permitted far greater concentration than any other country,” Prof. Picard says.

Canadian broadcast executives argue that there’s a good reason for that – the country’s broadcast system is inundated with signals from the United States, and they insist they must bulk up to compete with the flood of unregulated content coming through so-called over-the-top services such as Netflix.

Bigger companies can buy and control more content, they argue, and when they have more content, they can attract more consumers. And the more money they make through their subscribers, the more money they are obligated to invest back into Canadian programming and network infrastructure.

Bigger companies, in other words, are better able to ensure the survival of the Canadian broadcasting system.

“In Canada, scale is really important because we’re competing against global players,” Mr. Crull says. “If we want Canadian broadcasters to survive against that kind of scale, where really there’s not, obviously, borders protecting our Canadian producers and Canadian broadcasters against them, then the Canadian guys have to have scale.” Canada has approximately 13 million houses, making it, he says, “preposterous to conclude that four major broadcasters is too consolidated.”

“Can I say something, culturally, that really bothers me?” Mr. Crull asks. “This idea that big is bad, and big is evil. I think we would concede that Bell is big. We actually think big companies are good for Canada, and very much in the public interest.”

“There’s economic reports that make it clear that, overwhelmingly, the most significant contributor to an economy’s performance in GDP and growth is big companies’ capital investments. And Bell is a leader in Canada that way. So we seem to demonize big, and I don’t quite understand it.”

 

Vertically challenged

Bell is a vertically integrated company, which means it is both an owner and distributor of content. So while it’s trying to build its base of television subscribers by winning over new customers from its rivals, it’s also selling those same rivals popular services such as TSN.

The company has more than two million subscribers to its TV distribution services, putting it in the middle of the pack behind Shaw and Rogers, and ahead of Quebecor, Cogeco, and Telus.

As Bell gets bigger, its rivals worry the company will demand especially high fees for popular channels such as TSN, or use them as leverage to extract better terms for its unloved services. If they tell Bell they won’t pay, Bell could withhold the channels and leave them with critical gaps in their programming.

Cogeco found itself in this situation over the past year, as it tried to gain access to Bell’s RDS-2 French sports channel. It felt it was being bullied into accepting channels the cable company didn’t want to push on its subscribers.

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