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The CRTC and the Bell Astral Deal: What Happened and Why

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On Thursday this week, the CRTC killed the Bell Astral deal (news release, full decision). The decision was entirely unexpected by anyone, including me, although all along I have argued that Bell's bid to acquire Astral Media, the eighth largest media company in Canada, gave the CRTC ample ground to do exactly what it did. I also argued that it was the right thing to do, and that the CRTC should stop Bell's take-over bid for Astral "dead in its tracks."

Several things stand out from the decision. First, it sets a precedent. To find the closest parallel to this case, we'd have to reach back more than a quarter-of-a-century to 1986 when the regulator quashed a bid by Power Corporation -- owner (then and now) of Quebec-based newspaper group, Gesca -- from acquiring Tele-Metropole, the cornerstone of what eventually became TVA: the "largest and most important private French-language television station in Quebec and one of the leading Canadian television stations in terms of local production," as the decision noted at the time.

Second, the decision makes crystal clear that the CRTC, under new chair, J.P. Blais, will take a large view of media consolidation rather than its typically flinty-eyed view of the world. The CRTC will also look carefully at questions of market share and media concentration, and do so not just using audience ratings as its preferred method but also revenues in ways that capture trends within specific media sectors (e.g TV) and across the media as a whole (see paras 29, 51-54).

Of course, numbers are never determinative, according to the CRTC (see para 52), and nor should they be, I would argue. There is no "magic number" upon which things turn, but measuring media concentration within and across the relevant telecom, media and Internet sectors, across time as well as in relation to relevant trends elsewhere in the world, is an essential prelude to the conversation that needs to be had. The Commission now seems more ready than it has been in a long, long time to have that conversation. This is a very good thing.

Third, the CRTC rejected Bell's claim about the threat of OTT services offered by Netflix, Apple, Amazon, etc., on the grounds that they were exaggerated. As the Commission (2011c) stated less than a year ago in its Results of the Fact-Finding Exercise on Over-­the-­Top Programming Services,

". . . the evidence does not demonstrate that the presence of OTT providers in Canada and greater consumption of OTT content is having a negative impact on the ability of the system to achieve the policy objectives of the Broadcasting Act or that there are structural impediments to a competitive response by licensed undertakings to the activities of OTT providers." (p. 8)

That evidence has not changed and the CRTC said so in this decision (para 62). In 2008, according to a Media Technology Monitor/CBC study about 3 per cent of TV viewing occurred on the Internet (MTM/CBC, 2009, p. 49). According to their most recent study, "only 4% of Anglophones report only using new platforms to watch TV" (MTM/CBC, 2012, p. 4).

Netflix's annual revenues, based on 1.2 million subscribers, can be an estimated $115 million in 2011, or about .7 per cent of the total television universe (including BDUs). To this we can estimate that Google's revenues in Canada last year would have been roughly $1.3 billion, or half of online advertising revenue (IAB, 2011). While that may have had an impact on the newspaper and magazine industries, there is no evidence it has done anything of the sort with respect to the broadcasting industry.

The CRTC also cast a jaundiced eye on Bell's proposal for BellFlix -- a new online, on-demand TV service for its subscribers -- that would, so Bell argued, allow a combined BellAstral to effectively compete with foreign OTT operators like Netflix. Bell sprung the proposal on the CRTC on the opening day, but the CRTC didn't buy it because, first, 11th hour proposals do not follow the rules. The deadline for complete applications was August 9, not day one of the hearings.

More importantly, an online "TV Anywhere" service is now a requirement of the Internet-centric media world, not a bolt on somehow dependent on Bell's take-over of Astral (para 61). In other words, Bell will have to launch such a service regardless, if it wants to meet current realities and consumer demand.

Fourth, the CRTC rejected Bell's argument that there was no need to worry about vertical integration because, "This issue was recently exhaustively canvassed by the Commission in its Vertical Integration proceeding" (Bell, Supp. Brief, para 59). In fact, the CRTC observed that consumer groups, non-integrated distributors (Telus, MTS Allstream, SaskTel, Cogeco, Eastlink, etc.) as well as independent broadcasters (VMedia, APTN, Zoomer, etc.) "filed evidence and argument" that cast significant doubt about the capacity of the new vertical integration rules to effectively constrain "BCE's alleged anti competitive behaviour with respect to program rights negotiations and product launches" (emphasis added, para 32; all submissions can be found here). Put simply, Bell has been acting as a brute ever since it re-acquired CTV just last year, and for this it has now paid the price.

More importantly for the long-run is what the CRTC had to say about consolidation and vertical integration en route to squashing the deal. First, and to avoid over-stating the significance of what is going on, the CRTC noted that it has long been a fan of consolidation and vertical integration, and still is. Second, and with a big however, it also picked up on a point that I have made many times: greater consolidation and vertical integration has not been an unalloyed blessing (far from it); in fact, the process has been thrown into reverse in many other countries around the world.

In the U.S., the results of de-convergence have been remarkable. Aside from the mega-merger of Comcast and NBC-Universal last year, media companies have been beating a hasty retreat from vertical integration and "convergence." The number of pay and speciality TV channels controlled by cable companies fell dramatically from the 50-55 per cent range in the early 1990s to 15 per cent by 2006 (Thierer & Eskelsen, 2008, pp. 55-56; Waterman & Choi, 2010).

As Viacom-CBS Chairman Sumner Redstone declared in 2005, "the age of the conglomerate is over" (Sutel, 2005). A year later, Time Warner President Jeffrey Bewkes called claims of convergence and synergy "bullsh*t"! Mainstream Media economist Alan Albarran (2010) summed up the lessons as follows: "Looking back, vertical integration was not a very successful strategy for media companies, and it was a very expensive strategy -- costing billions of dollars over time. In the 21st century, the early trends have been to shed non-core assets that distract from the base of the company..." (Albarran, p. 47). Further examples could be piled up like leaves in autumn.

With this decision, the CRTC put Bell and the rest of the telecom and media industries on notice that claims about vertical integration and consolidation will no longer be taken as an article of faith, although it will still look upon such claims fondly. This is critical and while it could put a halt to any more "blockbuster deals" for the time being, I am more inclined to think that it's too early to tell.

Fifth, the CRTC rejected Bell's bid for Astral on the grounds that it did not pay sufficient attention to radio (paras 57&60).

Lastly, Bell's benefits package was roundly criticized and rejected for being self-serving. Too many of the benefits would flow to activities that Bell was already doing (e.g. its otherwise laudable Mental Health promotion campaign) or to services that it had already been directed by the regulator to invest in, i.e. expanding broadband access in the North by its subsidiary Northwestel (para 59).

There is a bigger implication in this latter point too, however, a not-too-subtle slap not at Bell, but rather the independent television and production sector, J-Schools and others who line up at the trough for their share of the public benefits package, all the while soft-peddling their criticisms of ownership consolidation as a prerequisite to doing so, as the Canadian Media Producers Association and Canadian Writers Guild, for instance, did in this case and every other one like it in the past decade.

The CRTC's decision, thus, interrupts the well-known cycle whereby independent television and film production community pull their punches in ownership cases in the hope that they will be in the acquiring company's good books when it puts together its "public benefits package" as it seeks regulatory approval. This has created a seriously distorted and sordid cycle of dependency in which higher concentration and problems in the long run are sacrificed for short-term gains. It is essentially taking scraps off the table in a strategic way instead of a principled stance on the matter, or one informed by any evidence one way or another about the desirability of such transactions.

It also could take the process out of the gutter insofar that it lifts the chill over independent broadcasters and those in the creative community who will no longer have to cower out of fear that they will be frozen out of the big vertically integrated players' programming schedules, or denied access to essential distribution facilities, if they speak out against a deal like this one. Those who stood opposed to the Bell Astral deal jeopardized their own access to the schedule of what is already the second largest TV operator in Canada, and which would have been the largest if the deal had been consummated (see para 28).

This is what economists call the 'monopsony problem', where there are many sellers and very few buyers. This problem is acute enough already, with the 'big four' -- Shaw, Bell, Rogers and Quebecor, in that order -- already dominating 81 per cent of the total TV market. That number would have grown to just under 90 per cent, if Bell had its way.

The last point I want to address for now is the claim being bandied about that the CRTC's decision to kill the Bell Astral deal reflects a new activist regulator under the stewardship of its new chair, J. P. Blais. The claim seems to have first emerged in a Globe and Mail article by Steve Ladurantaye at the beginning of the hearings when Blais read aloud a series of public criticisms of the Bell Astral deal.

Since Thursday when the decision came down, the claim that the CRTC has become an activist commission with a consumer bent has gained a great deal of fuel. Michael Geist, writing in the Toronto Star, says that this ain't your mom and dad's old CRTC, but one that has put the consumer back in the drivers' seat. A piece in the Globe and Mail by Steven Chase makes the same case. Thursday night, and over at the National Post, Terrance Corcoran bemoaned the turn-of-events, seeing the CRTC as playing the populist card and pushing its activist agenda behind the "shadowy concept" of the public interest.

I have several reservations about this view. First, I am uncomfortable that most of the references are to consumers, with none to citizens and just a few to "the public," and then in disparaging terms (Corcoran). These decisions are not just about cable and satellite bills (Globe & Mail); they are about citizens' and the public's access to the maximum range of entertainment, news and information sources possible. They are also about "the Public's" ability to use these media, especially the internet, without having that use hedged about by restrictions and limits imposed by TMI giants bent on protecting their legacy television businesses and transforming the open internet into the pay-per model, where usage based billing and bandwidth caps run roughshod over citizens' communication rights. This is about communication rights, democracy and pleasure, not just cable and satellite bills.

Lastly on this point, in contrast to seeing the CRTC as suddenly having been remade in a consumer activist mould by J. P. Blais, I think we need to entertain a more critical view.

In this view, as social and political theorists have long shown and discussed (see, for example, C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite), the room for significant changes and unexpected outcomes increases immensely when there is a split amongst elites. And in this case, that split was on full display, with Bell standing on one side arrayed against not just citizens and consumers wary of yet even more telecom-media-internet concentration, but the biggest players in the biz, indeed, almost all of the rest of the industry except Shaw, who sat on the sidelines.

Bell may be a behemoth, but pitted against the rest of the industry and the public, the CRTC had a massive opening through which to think outside the box. And it did, and make no mistake about it, this is a big decision. However, the real test will be whether that continues to be a trend when the industry once again closes ranks, as it so often does, or most of the key players involved do like Shaw did this time around: sit on their hands. Will the CRTC be as emboldened then to pursue "the people's" interest? For that, we'll have to wait and see.