There are few situations in the business world as acrimonious as a good old-fashioned corporate rivalry. And when the rivals in question are in the television industry, the sparks between them can generate far more riveting drama than the scripted stuff they show on TV.
That is usually the case between BCE Inc. and Quebecor Inc. Each sees its rival as benefiting from special treatment by regulators and/or politicians, and generally as a menace to capitalism.
So, it was no surprise to see Quebecor chief executive officer Pierre Karl Péladeau come out swinging last week as BCE’s Bell Media unit announced the purchase of the French-language conventional television network V and its sister streaming service, Noovo.ca.
“Bell was originally a monopoly and its actions of recent years appear to be aimed at becoming a monopoly again and adopting a business model based on the elimination of all competition,” Mr. Péladeau said in a statement after the announcement.
To be sure, the deal raises the stakes for Quebecor’s TVA network and its parent, TVA Group, which has been piling up red ink along with most of the rest of the conventional television industry. But V, formerly known as Télévision Quatre-Saisons (TQS), has spent most of its three decades seemingly at death’s door. It has shuffled back and forth between owners, including Bell and Quebecor. Neither seemed to have been able to make a go of it in the past.
So, what’s changed now?
Founded in 1986 by Quebec’s Pouliot family, TQS got off to an auspicious start as an innovative and urban alternative to folksy TVA and serious Radio-Canada. But the buzz didn’t last long as TQS’s losses piled up and its content declined. It soon became best known for the erotic films it ran on Saturday nights.
Quebecor acquired TQS in 1997 under Mr. Péladeau’s father, Pierre Péladeau. But the son was forced to sell the network after Quebecor bought cable giant Videotron in 2001. That deal included TVA, which was a far bigger prize in the Quebec TV industry than TQS anyway.
Cogeco and Bell Media’s predecessor company, Bell Globemedia, then teamed up to buy TQS. Six years later, the network sought court protection from its creditors. That’s when the Rémillard family, which had made its fortune in waste management, stepped in to scoop up the remains of TQS. It renamed the network V and obtained approval from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to loosen the requirements of its broadcasting licence, allowing for the elimination of an in-house news operation.
V’s parent company, Groupe V Média, received a $30-million injection in 2014 from a trio made up of Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the Quebec Labour Federation’s Solidarity Fund and Investissement Québec, an economic development arm of the provincial government. That helped it buy two specialty channels that were not included in last week’s deal with Bell Media.
Under the Rémillards, V got some its groove back by attracting a young demographic with hip reality-TV shows. One of them is Occupation Double, a French-language cross between Big Brother and The Bachelor, that in an earlier incarnation ran on TVA. It is produced by Mr. Péladeau’s former partner Julie Snyder and hosted by Jay Du Temple, a millennial heartthrob with a man bun. Ms. Snyder has also signed on to host her own nightly prime-time show on V starting in January, a development that has been the talk of the Quebec TV industry.
That may explain in part why Mr. Péladeau seems so piqued. With Ms. Snyder on board, and with Bell Media’s deep pockets, V has a stronger chance of winning a bigger share of the ratings pie at a time when TVA can hardly afford to surrender even a tiny slice of it. TVA Group last month announced it was cutting 68 jobs, stating that it was under “heavy pressure” from competition by foreign streaming services and publicly funded Radio-Canada. TVA Group CEO France Lauzière called on the federal government to tax foreign internet giants and make Radio-Canada stop competing with private networks.
Only a month earlier, however, TVA and its sister specialty channels were touting a 38.8-per-cent ratings share in Quebec in the first four months of 2019. TVA alone had a nearly 25-per-cent market share, compared with about 15 per cent for Radio-Canada and 5.1 per cent for V.
By adding V to its stable of French-language specialty channels, most of which were acquired in its 2014 purchase of Astral Media, Bell Media would hold about 22 per cent of the Quebec market. Bell Media could also promote V’s content on its specialty channels and 25 Quebec radio stations. And it could sweeten its prospects for CRTC approval of the purchase by promising to resuscitate V’s in-house news operations, though Bell Media spokesman insisted on Tuesday that “it is too early to talk about specific investments” at V.
Still, few people other than Mr. Péladeau appear to be complaining about Bell Media’s proposed purchase of V. French-language content producers see the deal as a good-news story, and a new lease on life for V, even if it does promise to intensify a corporate rivalry that sometimes makes the cat fights on Occupation Double seem tame in comparison.