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Bell buys Astral: Another brick in the wall of bland

Friday morning, the bits of news accumulated. The path to the Real Madrid versus Barcelona Champions League Final was cleared. George Clooney was arrested at a protest in Washington. CBS renewed 2 Broke Girls for a second season. Kate Middleton's favourite designer is an Irish person named Orla Kiely, who seems to create clothes for pixie-sized people.

Then, the big news. BCE to acquire Astral Media for $3-billion! Holey moley, that's a lotta moolah. It only seems like last month that BCE created Bell Media when it bought the CTV network and its specialty channels for $1.3-billion. And it only seems like last week that BCE joined with Rogers Communications Inc. to buy Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, in another multi-billion-dollar deal. Man, these people own a lot of stuff. Soon, if the price is right, BCE will simply buy the country and we'll all be citizens of a place called "Bell Canada."

Over in the important part of this newspaper and others, the deal was analyzed and its possible meaning thrashed out. Meanings? Astral owns HBO Canada and thereby has access to much premium TV content. Boardwalk Empire. The Sopranos. Sex and the City. Entourage. Perhaps the deal is about acquiring premium TV content. Perhaps it's about "fending off" Netflix. Perhaps it's just about a bigger footprint in the Quebec market. (Mind you, the latter position always underestimates the complexity of Quebec culture.) Perhaps it's about content for smartphones.

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It's all heady and wildly speculative. In truth, I put it to you that nobody knows a darn thing about where the consumption of TV content is going.

Reports suggest that the watching of stuff on cellphones has increased. Indeed. But it's possible that those doing the watching are teenage schoolboys watching porn on the bus going to school. The recent documentary Sext up Kids suggested that this is happening, big-time. It's also possible that Netflix is the Blockbuster Video of our time. A fad, and overrated for service, reliability and price. Last summer, when Netflix in the U.S. increased its prices, it instantly lost a million customers. Apparently access to a vast cache of old episodes of Two and a Half Men does not inspire some people to pay the extra few dollars.

All of the consolidation happening in Canada is, of course, unfolding at the same time that a small army of pundits predicts the death of television. Often the pundit's evidence is that a teenager in the house never turns on the TV but watches TV shows on a laptop. Such anecdotal hokum is countered by the reality that a lot of HDTVs are being sold, especially as prices decline. And by the trend toward the acquisition of a real TV set as a mark of adulthood, part of the package when a first job and first home is achieved. People are not buying those TVs to go on Twitter.

Nobody knows where the future of TV consumption is going. But we should all know at this point that consolidation of media ownership leads to the bland, not bigger and better choices. BCE's acquisition of CTV and its specialty channels lead quickly to the morphing of Bravo!, an arts channel, into a second-window channel for a good deal of second-rate TV. Tonight's prime-time line-up on Bravo! consists entirely of repeats of the U.S. dramas The Mentalist, Criminal Minds and White Collar. Bravo! is now wall-to wall bland TV and the pattern is that when giant companies – cable, satellite and phone companies – acquire TV channels, the specialness of specialty channels tends to evaporate. Bland is a better business model than broadcasting original content when non-broadcasters take over TV channels.

Once the heady speculation about the money and the meaning of the BCE/Astral deal (which has yet to be approved by the CRTC and the Competition Bureau) fades, it would be worth remembering some key certainties about TV viewing. First, the value of being able to choose among watching on a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop or a flat-screen TV is diminished by the sameness and blandness of the material available.

On the Prohibition-era Boardwalk Empire, a valuable asset in this deal, one assumes, the drama is about a bunch of gangs battling to control the sale of something people want, but can't easily get – alcohol. The Canadian TV situation now resembles gang war over control of access to what everybody wants, television content, but can already get in all sorts of ways. Meanwhile, what people really want is television that's special, not bland. When there's consolidation, special is almost prohibited. People pay more for what seems prohibited. Remember that, broadcasters of the bland.

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