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Only three days after BCE Inc. BCE-T announced its deepest job cuts in 30 years, including the elimination of hundreds of posts at Bell Media, Sunday’s Super Bowl provided the company with a good news story to tell – for a change.

The National Football League championship game, which went into overtime and attracted hordes of Swifties eager to catch a glimpse of their pop-music idol and her Kansas City Chiefs (maybe) boyfriend, produced bonanza ratings for Bell Media, which holds the Canadian rights to the Super Bowl under a multiyear contract with the NFL.

The match between the Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers drew an average of 10 million viewers on Bell Media-owned CTV, TSN and RDS, up 16 per cent from 2023, and became one of the five most-watched broadcasts ever in Canada. And thanks to regulations that blocked Canadians from seeing U.S. commercials during the game, Bell Media boasted record advertising sales for Super Bowl LVIII.

Unfortunately for BCE, the Super Bowl is a rare bright spot, as the financial viability of its broadcasting business is undermined by the rise of foreign streaming services and the near-total abandonment of conventional television by younger Canadians.

For decades, English-Canadian private broadcasters made money by buying up the domestic rights to popular U.S. sitcoms and dramas. The advertising revenue generated by such U.S.-made hit shows provided cushy profits for private Canadian TV networks, a portion of which they invested in the domestic news and dramatic programming required under Canadian-content regulations. The model worked – until Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ came along.

In the decade to 2022, private Canadian conventional television broadcasters cumulatively racked up pretax losses totalling $1.68-billion. They lost more than $250-million in the year to Aug. 31, 2022, alone, the most recent period for which industry-wide data, provided by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, is available.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government sought to throw private broadcasters a lifeline with legislation to reduce CRTC licence fees, force foreign streaming services to fund domestic programming and compel Google and Meta to compensate Canadian news outlets for linking to their content. But if last week’s cuts at BCE prove anything, it is that neither the Online Streaming Act nor the Online News Act can save Canadian broadcasting’s irreparably broken business model.

Bell Media last year asked the Federal Court of Appeal to force the CRTC to eliminate local news programming requirements for its TV stations altogether. The court rejected its request in November. Last week, BCE said it plans to cut 4,800 jobs across the company, including more than 400 at Bell Media. CTV will cancel weekday noon and weekend local news broadcasts, except in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, and sell 45 regional radio stations across the country.

Mr. Trudeau attacked the move as a “garbage decision,” while Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge suggested that BCE was breaking a promise to maintain local news programs after Ottawa last year abolished licence fees that had cost Bell Media $40-million annually.

“They’re still a very profitable company and they still have the capacity and the means to hold up their end of the bargain, which is to deliver news reports,” she said.

Ms. St-Onge might have had a stronger argument to make had Ottawa’s attempted shakedown of Meta and Google yielded better results for BCE. As it stands, Bell Media is now expected to pocket only a fraction of the $80-million or so that it stood to gain each year in compensation for its news content under the Online News Act.

Rather than comply with the law, Meta decided to pull Canadian news from Facebook and Instagram altogether. Google has agreed to pay news outlets $100-million a year. But only $30-million of that sum is to be set aside for private broadcasters; Bell Media is unlikely to see more than $10-million of that.

Still, Ms. St-Onge’s comments nevertheless suggested Ottawa expects BCE – which earned an overall profit of $2.3-billion in 2023 on revenue of $24.7-billion – to cross-subsidize Bell Media’s money-losing news operations. The company clearly has a different notion of its obligations, especially as its core telecommunications business comes under pressure as a result of a separate CRTC ruling.

BCE chief executive officer Mirko Bibic blamed the job cuts on “unsupportive government and regulatory decisions,” including a recent CRTC ruling that ordered BCE to provide access to its fibre-to-the-home networks to third-party internet providers in Ontario and Quebec. That ruling threatens to eat into BCE’s profits, which fell more than 20 per cent last year, and potentially allow competitors Rogers and Telus to piggyback on BCE’s infrastructure instead of building out their own broadband networks in Canada’s two most populous provinces.

Representatives for BCE are set to appear before the CRTC on Wednesday as part of hearings into the new rules. BCE is also appealing the CRTC decision in Federal Court. While the new third-party access rules would inject a dose of much-needed competition into Canada’s oligopolistic telecom sector, they would squeeze BCE’s core telecom business at a time when its broadcasting operations are treading water.

BCE’s willingness to prop up Bell Media’s broadcasting operations is likely to waver further without more financial and regulatory relief from Ottawa. After all, the Super Bowl only comes along once a year.

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