Television viewers in Quebec had not been expecting to see Premier François Legault when they tuned into the much-anticipated debut of Julie Snyder’s new talk show on Monday night. But Ms. Snyder’s return to TV after a prolonged absence was just that kind of event.
In a video address, Mr. Legault delivered an “official proclamation” marking the debut episode of the show that the private V network is banking on to thrust it back into the big leagues as it awaits regulatory approval of its sale to telecommunications colossus BCE Inc.
A month before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is to hold hearings into BCE unit Bell Media’s proposed $20-mllion acquisition of the money-losing network from controlling shareholder Maxime Rémillard, Bell showed it is solidly behind Ms. Snyder’s new show by signing up as its main sponsor, along with grocery chain Metro Inc.
Bell Media’s move into conventional television in Quebec, where it already owns a large stable of specialty channels after buying Astral Inc. for $3.4-billion in 2013, constitutes a direct threat to Quebecor Inc.’s TVA Group, which operates the province’s dominant TVA private TV network. And it promises to intensify an already bitter BCE-Quebecor rivalry in Quebec, where the two titans compete head-to-head in the wireless, cable and media businesses.
In November, Quebecor chief executive officer Pierre Karl Péladeau called on the CRTC to reject Bell Media’s bid for V and its stable of five conventional television stations in Montreal, Quebec City, Trois-Rivières, Sherbrooke and Saguenay, warning: “Clearly, Bell wants to rebuild its monopoly and achieve dominance in the television industry, and, more broadly, the media sector in Canada.”
Mr. Péladeau knows just how big a threat TVA could be up against.
Until their widely publicized split in 2016, Mr. Péladeau and Ms. Snyder formed Quebec’s most powerful media couple. Ms. Snyder had produced and hosted a slew of top-rated shows for TVA for more than two decades. Since their separation, Ms. Snyder has become a hit-maker for V. Her production company is behind the top-rated reality show on V, Occupation Double. The debut of her own nightly talk show on V ups the ante considerably by directly taking on TVA and Radio-Canada in the hotly contested 9 p.m. time slot.
According to documents tabled by Bell Media before the CRTC, the network’s parent company, Groupe V Média, lost a combined total of about $7-million in the previous two years and “further losses are projected for the current broadcasting year.”
A 2014 recapitalization of Groupe V Média, which saw a trio of Quebec institutions including the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec inject $22.5-million into the company in exchange for a 45-per-cent stake, helped Mr. Rémillard purchase two specialty channels that he intends to keep if the sale of V to Bell Media is approved. Bell Media argues that only a buyer with its deep pockets can make the investments needed to sustain V’s operations.
By adding V to its stable, Bell Media will be able to offer advertisers access to a complete family of conventional and specialty channels in both official languages. It also aims to amortize programming costs across English- and French-Canada. A dubbed version of CTV’s new drama Transplant, for instance, is set to run simultaneously on Bell Media’s VRAK specialty channel in Quebec. V might have been a more natural home for Transplant had Bell Media’s purchase of the network, announced in July, been approved in time for its launch.
Another attraction of V for Bell Media was its popular Noovo streaming service, which makes V’s content available to a younger audience that does not watch much conventional television. Indeed, Ms. Snyder’s show (with its live and prerecorded segments) has been developed with a multiplatform audience in mind.
For his part, newly installed BCE CEO Mirko Bibic appears to be fully behind the company’s renewed thrust in Quebec TV. Mr. Bibic began his new job on Monday by promoting the president of Bell Media’s Quebec division, Karine Moses (who engineered the V deal), to vice-chair of BCE for Quebec, making her the telecom giant’s top executive over all in the province.
To improve its odds of winning CRTC approval, Bell Media has also promised to create an internal news operation at V, which has outsourced a generic (and cheaply produced) news bulletin. Bell Media vows to broadcast 90 minutes of local news programming at V’s Montreal and Quebec City affiliates during the week and 30 minutes on the weekend.
“Producing convincing news – be it at the local, regional or national levels – demands a lot of investment, experience and confidence,” Bell Media says. “Bell Media has long been recognized as a leader in news programming in English Canada and we intend to employ this expertise in an independent manner in the French-language market.”
That sounds like good news for Quebec TV viewers. It also means the opening up of a new front in Bell Media’s war with TVA. Don’t expect Mr. Péladeau to take it lying down.