By Greg O’Brien
WHILE LISTENING, PERPLEXED, to Tuesday’s “Say No To Bell” press conference led by Quebecor Inc. Cogeco Inc. and Bragg Communications, I tweeted “Horse is out of the barn, is lost in the woods and the barn is on fire.”
Many of us are fond of using the “horse is out of the barn” cliché when it comes to big media mergers, noting it’s far too late now to close the door on any of it. That is undeniable, and the proposed Bell Media purchase of Astral Media is just about the last of them. The Canadian barn that once held the many stalls containing independent media companies (CHUM, Netstar, Telemedia, Baton, Moffat, Maclean-Hunter, Canwest Global, WIC, etc.) is just about ashes. The gleaming downtown skyscrapers of Bell, Rogers, Shaw and Quebecor own just about all the big, strong horses. (The fact that Quebecor, one of the most successful vertical integrators with such a pervasive presence in Quebec now wants to re-cork the bottle at this stage of the game seems a little hypocritical, too.)
We’re at the end of it now, though. There’s simply no company of any size left to buy and the big four now would breach CRTC regs and Competition Bureau standards if they tried to merge. Of course, Corus Entertainment is technically an independent, publicly-traded company – but it’s controlled by the same family running Shaw Communications. Both Blue Ant Media, Vista Radio and some others are up-and-comers, but the remaining independent media horses in Canada are ponies by comparison to the big four.
So, for Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau, Cogeco CEO Louis Audet and Bragg Communications president Lee Bragg to pick this merger as the line to draw in the sand might seem a little perplexing for the average Canadian consumer already accustomed so few companies owning many, many things. The executive trio must doubt this deal will actually be stopped and seem to be reacting to a new threat the way all competitive corporations react: by using every bullet in the magazine – including regulatory – to make it as hard as possible on your competition to get things done. We see it time and time again.
Every legal and regulatory lever was pulled by the incumbent wireless companies to make it as tough as possible on the new wireless entrants (who have also pushed back), is just one example. So now that Bell is poised to become a much more threatening media player in Quebec, potentially damaging the TV dominance of TVA and the radio ratings leadership of Cogeco’s Quebec stations (not to mention bringing a whole lot more competitive pressure on ad rates in those markets), the two companies want to make sure Bell sweats through the whole process and jumps through as many hoops as they can toss out.
Plus, Bell’s Fibe TV is currently pecking high-end customers away from Cogeco Cable and Quebecor’s cable unit Videotron – so no matter how hard both Péladeau and Audet tried Tuesday to steer skeptical reporters questions towards making this something all Canadians should care about nationally, it still seems an awful lot like a mainly Quebec-based fight with its roots in corporate competition.
Now, Bragg’s cable operation EastLink has no media assets but it, too, faces a growing, significant foe in Bell Canada’s Bell Aliant division out east. The telco is making serious inroads in EastLink’s Eastern Canadian power base with its FibreOP digital IPTV service. So while these three companies are losing customers to Bell on one end, they also have to pay Bell Media for content on the other side, and they’re none too pleased about seeing even more cash going to their primary competitor.
With all that surrounding information staring at us while we observed the press conference, it is very difficult to see this 'Say No To Bell' gambit as anything near altruistic, as the three executives attempted to make it seem Tuesday.
They did their best, saying Canadians consumers should be voicing their opinions because having Bell own even more media assets will limit choice and cause prices to rise. While it is a good idea for Canadians to pay attention to these sorts of things, as any subscription TV customer can deduce, rates will go up no matter who owns The Movie Network or Super Écran. They go up regularly. That won’t stop.
The coalition also said consumers might face pressure to pay for Bell services and channels they may not want in order to get the services they do want. This is a trio whose companies upsell customers into new bundles of products and services every day.
Sure, the trio does have a point on some issues. Bell’s movie buying power, for example, will be pretty huge in Eastern Canada, so perhaps some words in the eventual CRTC decision might address that. And, Bell’s power to influence the advertising market will also grow significantly. But there, too, ad rates never go down, only up. That will remain so as well.
The group also sparks fear that fewer Canadian programs may be made as the result of this merger. If so, why aren’t the producers, directors, writers and actors on board with them in this coalition? What about the other independent broadcasters and carriers? What about consumer groups like OpenMedia or the Public Interest Advocacy Centre? Without any other aggrieved parties on board, to the skeptic, this seems like quite a skinny coalition acting in their own self-interests attempting to get Canadians to help protect them.
(Official interventions to the CRTC are due the end of the day on Thursday and a source inside the CRTC told Cartt.ca that the Commission has received about 6,000 e-mail form letters via saynotobell.ca in the first 24 hours the web site was live.)
The most bewildering bit of this push is the timing. Why so late? The sale was announced in March. How much attention will Canadians will pay to this issue smack in the middle of summer – while the Bell-branded Summer Olympics dominates our media every minute of the day?
This one's a bit of a puzzler.