Should the Bell/Astral deal be struck down?
Sofia Hashi | Fulcrum Staff
Illustration by Mathias MacPhee
Summer usually doesn’t trigger heated debates on mundane topics such as broadcast policies, with most people choosing to enjoy their last bit of sunshine basking on a beach, but the proposed $3 billion Bell Media and Astral merger has sparked the nation’s interest. The amalgamation of the media giants would see BCE Inc. become a broadcast behemoth, owning over 38 per cent of the English-language TV market and 29 per cent of the radio market, which is nearly twice as much as its nearest competitors.
While the numbers are staggering, there still exists a healthy amount of deliberation surrounding the proposed deal, with opposing sides competing for the sympathy of the average Canadian channel surfer. But numbers, facts, and figures aside, there is reason for this deal to raise eyebrows, because if the merger were to be approved by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the Canadian broadcasting landscape would forever be changed.
The fate of this broadcast merger rests on the CRTC’s shoulders in a hearing set to take place in Montreal on Sept. 10. One topic that will be focused on by both parties is competition. Opponents of the union, including cable companies like Cogeco, Eastlink, and Quebecor, believe the deal will effectively kill competition in TV land. With Bell holding the monopoly over TV channels, competing cable companies feel the merger will entice viewers to join Bell or force the companies to pay higher rates for the channels. Either way, this adds up to bigger bucks for Bell and fewer bucks in our pockets.
If the merger goes through, Bell Media will be perfectly poised to heavily impact specialty and premium TV, as they will acquire over 42 per cent of the market. And with 106 radio channels about to become a part of the Bell family, it’s no wonder competition is a major concern, so much so that protests like “Say No to Bell” have sprung up.
This merger isn’t only about ownership, but also distribution. Bell is what you would call a “vertically integrated” company, meaning that it not only owns the channels, but supplies them as well. It’s crazy to think that in Canada we would have one corporation controlling and supplying every channel on TV.
Bell justifies the deal by asserting that bigger media companies will ensure Canada’s survival in the face of global broadcast threats.
“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 [that] scale,” said Kevin Crull, president of Bell Media, in an interview with the Globe and Mail.
But he’s wrong. With the possibility of only one voice owning the channels and one voice distributing the channels, the future of Canadian broadcasting looks precarious. Most countries around the world have laws and regulations in effect to prevent one company from dominating TV viewing. In fact, it’s generally agreed upon that to instil a healthy democracy, many voices must be heard; it’s why governments prohibit one company from owning such a large share of the TV, news, print, and radio market. So why is Canada letting Bell get away with this merger?
To the average student, this might seem unimportant and uninteresting. But it should concern us all. Television helps unite our country and culturally impacts our society. Diverse TV programs and voices help define our generation and the ones to come. So why bestow that power on one company?
And what does this mean for the future of original Canadian content? There’s the possibility that a lot of new Canadian TV and radio shows will be scrapped. More U.S. programming might be scheduled during primetime if Bell so chooses. Who knows what could happen?
A famous Canadian scholar, Marshall McLuhan, who practically achieved rock-star status in the field of communication, once said, “the medium is the message.” Now imagine if one company owned the medium, the message, the content, and its delivery. Scary, isn’t it?