Concentration Of Media Ownership In Canada: Bell Astral Deal Raises Concerns Among Consumer Advocates

The Huffington Post Canada  |  By Posted: 03/16/2012 12:43 pm Updated: 03/16/2012 4:46 pm

The news Friday that Bell Canada will purchase Astral Media for $3.38 billion, creating a new media giant, is raising concerns among some critics about what they see as growing concentration of media ownership in Canada, amid predictions that Canada’s telecom regulator will likely object to some elements of the deal.

If it retains all of Astral's assets, parent company BCE will own 118 radio stations and 54 cable channels, along with satellite and digital TV infrastructure, a mobile phone network, and an outdoor advertising business.

Among the most obvious likely sticking points would be radio stations. The new, expanded Bell Media would control no fewer than seven radio stations in the Vancouver market, six in both Toronto and Montreal, and multiple stations in numerous other markets.

The CRTC generally doesn’t allow a single company to own more than three stations in any market, though it has made exceptions to allow four. In the past, the regulator has asked merging companies to sell some assets in order to comply with ownership limits.

I'm a bit surprised that Bell thinks it can get away with this,” Montreal media blogger Steve Faguy wrote. “People are already worried about concentration of media ownership in Canada, and now one of our few big players is buying another. It's not as significant as if, say, Bell decided to buy Shaw or Rogers, but it's still very worrisome, especially in English radio and English specialty television.”

Faguy estimates that, with the Astral Media purchase in place, Bell Media would control 45 per cent of total commercial radio listening time; the company had previously controlled some 31 per cent.

For his part, George Cope, CEO of Bell Media parent company BCE, reportedly said Friday morning he sees “no issues” with regulators blocking the deal.

Cope stressed that the deal is meant to make Bell more competitive in Quebec, where Quebecor dominates.

This acquisition puts Bell on par with its largest media and (broadcast distribution) competitor in Quebec,” he said, as quoted at the Globe and Mail. He added that “for the first time, wireless TV and media will now represent the majority of Bell Canada’s revenue."

But consumer advocacy groups are already expressing concerns. In a statement Friday morning, OpenMedia argued the deal could lead to less consumer choices and higher prices for telecom services, given the vertically integrated nature of Bell and competitors like Rogers and Shaw.

“As they grow, companies like Bell and Rogers gain even more ability, not to mention incentive, to engage in anticompetitive behaviour. And with unchecked dominance over Canadians' communications comes higher prices, tighter contracts, more disrespectful customer service, and greater potential for surveillance,” the advocacy group said.

Many observers have argued that concentration of media ownership in Canada is among the most intense in the developed world, though there are few hard numbers to back this up. The dominant issue for consumer advocates is vertical integration -- the practice of companies owning both content creators and the infrastructure that delivers content: Think Bell owning CTV and the satellite service that delivers CTV to households, or Rogers owning TVTropolis and the cable lines that carry it.

Consumer groups say this kind of integration can stifle competition in the marketplace and in worst-case scenarios even lead to censorship. One can imagine a scenario in which a vertically integrated media giant slows down the download speeds of websites owned by competing companies.

The U.S., by comparison, has far less of this sort of vertical integration, although it is very much headed in the same direction. When cable giant Comcast merged with NBC Universal, it raised a firestorm of controversy among consumer groups; few noted that in Canada, such arrangements are now commonplace.

The issue not new in Canada. The federal government set up a special commission in 1969 to study media ownership concentration. At the time, politicians were concerned about three companies -- Thomson, Southam and Financial Post Publications -- controlling 50 per cent of the country’s newspaper market.

In 1980, another commission set up to look at the same problem recommended the break-up of regional newspaper monopolies, and a halt to the expansion of the Southam newspaper chain. The government of the day did not implement the recommendations.

In 2006, the Senate’s standing committee on transportation and communications put out a report, three years in the making, recommending that the government reject any merger that would give a company more than 35 per cent of market share. The reoprt singled out the Irving family’s dominance in New Brunswick media, as well as Quebecor’s 50-per-cent market share in Quebec.

The CRTC reflected some of the Senate’s recommendations when it changed ownership rules in 2008. The regulator imposed a ban on companies owning more than two types of media in any local market; a 45-per-cent limit on the share of TV audience any company can own; and a ban on any merger that would give a company monopoly control over delivery of media in a given market.

According to Faguy, Bell Media would have a 41.4 per cent share of the specialty TV channel market in Canada after the merger, which may allow the company to skirt any requirements that it sell cable channels.

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  • Canada's 7 Media Giants

  • Postmedia - $1.1 Billion

    Postmedia was born in 2010, when the bankrupt Canwest media chain was broken up. A consortium led by then-National Post CEO Paul Godfrey bought Canwest's newspaper assets, including the National Post, Ottawa Citizen and Calgary Herald, as well as both English-language dailies in Vancouver.<br> <br> Pictured: Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em>

  • Torstar - $1.48 Billion

    Torstar's flagship property is the Toronto Star, Canada's largest newspaper. It also owns the Metroland chain of weeklies and the internationally popular Harlequin, publisher of pulp romances.<br> <br> Pictured: The Toronto Star building in downtown Toronto.<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em>

  • Shaw - $4.74 Billion

    Western Canadian cable TV giant Shaw entered the media big leagues with the 2010 purchase of Canwest's broadcasting assets, including the Global TV network. The company was founded by Jim Shaw and is still controlled by his family.<br> <br> Pictured: CEO Brad Shaw<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em><br> <br> <em>CORRECTION: An earlier version of this slide stated that Shaw had purchased Canwest's newspaper assets. It only purchased the broadcasting assets. The company had backed out of an earlier attempt to buy three CTV stations.</em>

  • Quebecor - $9.8 Billion

    Founded by Pierre Peladeau and run by his son, Pierre-Karl Peladeau, Quebecor owns the Sun Media and Osprey newspaper chains, as well as cable provider Videotron, Quebec TV network TVA, and a number of publishing houses.<br> <br> Pictured: Pierre-Karl Peladeau<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em>

  • Rogers - $12.1 Billion

    Founded by Ted Rogers, Rogers Communications is a major player in cable TV and wireless services. The company controls Rogers Media, which operates 70 publications, 54 radio stations and a number of TV properties including CityTV and the Shopping Channel.<br> <br> Pictured: CEO Nadir Mohamed<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em>

  • Woodbridge (Thomson Reuters) - $13.8B

    Woodbridge is the holding company owned by the billionaire Thomson family. It controls 55 per cent of Thomson Reuters, one of the world's largest news services organizations. Woodbridge's revenue is not reported, but Thomson Reuters reported revenue of $13.8 billion in 2011.<br> <br> Pictured: The late Kenneth Thomson, company chairman, in Toronto in 2003.<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em>

  • Bell Canada (BCE) - $18.1 Billion

    BCE is one of Canada's largest corporations, and owns telephone, Internet and TV infrastructure. Its subsidary Bell Media purchased the CHUM group of radio stations in 2006, and Astral Media in 2012. The company also controls CTV, making it a dominant media player in Canada.<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em>