Journos as Megaphones: The Globe and Mail Covers Bell
Once again, yet another story in the Globe and Mail yesterday was out peddling a tale of doom and gloom about the state of conventional commercial television broadcasters in Canada. This time, the story came hot on the heels of a Supreme Court of Canada ruling Thursday that threw cold water on the idea that cable, satellite and IPTV services should pay broadcast tv companies — Bell (CTV), Shaw (Global), Rogers (CityTV), Quebecor (TVA), the CBC, and a smattering of smaller independents — to deliver their signals to the tv screens of Canadians across the country.
It was a small victory for the non-vertically integrated entities that have long been in the business of television distribution, such as Cogeco, Eastlink and other cable companies, as well as several telcos across the country that are trying to expand their IPTV services in order to break into this highly concentrated field: Telus, MTS Allstream, Sasktel. Even Rogers, given its relatively small place in the conventional tv universe, opposed the fee-for-carriage model being touted by Bell, Shaw and a few others.
However, rather than entertaining the idea that the Supreme Court’s decision might be a good thing because it means that there will be no new ‘fee-for-carriage’ charges on already expensive cable and satellite bills (i.e. a “TV Tax”), or that it could foster more competition in the anemic tv distribution biz, where the big four — Shaw, Bell, Rogers and Quebecor — control roughly 84 percent of industry revenues, the Globe and Mail article hands the narrative over to the loser in the case: Bell.
Instead of framing the victory as potentially a small victory for consumers, or examining the Supreme Court decision itself, the article rips and reads from Bell’s talking points. Of the 813 words in the article, 144 are direct quotes from Bell; the Supreme Court decision gets 37.
Indeed, Bell sets the narrative frame for the story from the get-go, not just in terms of the sheer volume of ink spilt transcribing and transmitting its view to readers, but by the fact that it is the first to be quoted, and extensively so, with paragraphs five and six completely handed over to the company’s talking points. Here’s Bell setting the stage in paragraph five, lamenting why the decision is bad, not for itself, but Canadians:
“TV viewers across the country would have benefited from long-term stability for their local television stations, which currently rely on an advertising market that has seen permanent structural change, and is no longer able to fund such a model on its own.”
A few paragraphs later, Bell locks down the frame that sticks for the rest of the story: “the ad market for local television is in permanent decline.”
But hold the phone! Are any of these claims true? Umm, there’s room for interpretation, although not in the Globe and Mail’s piece, but the answer is basically (i) mixed if we look just at broadcast television advertising revenue, (ii) no if we look at total revenues for broadcast tv and (iii) an even bigger NO if we look at advertising revenues for all tv services.
As the CRTC’s most recent Communication Monitoring Report shows, advertising revenues for conventional tv for the past four years have been basically flat, hovering between $2,320 – $2,350 million. Advertising revenues went to hell in a hand-basket in 2009, but have risen by nearly $220 million in the two years since (p. 73).
If we look at all revenues for conventional television, the picture is even clearer. While revenues plunged in 2009 at the height of the economic downturn, other than that they basically stayed flat between 2008 and 2010.
By 2011, revenues for conventional tv were up $86.3 million over the previous year and over $100 million more than they had been at the outset of the global economic downturn in 2008. They were roughly $315 million more than five years ago, i.e. $3,491 in 2011 versus $3,176.2 million in 2006 (all revenue figures can be seen here). Not bad, really, and hardly the picture of distress portrayed by Bell.
Every media economist knows that the fortunes of advertising supported media hinges on the state of the general economy. In light of that, the fact that conventional tv has weathered the economic downturn, and done so whilst so much else in its environment is in a heightened state of flux, is not a catastrophe, as Bell and the Globe and Mail would like us to believe, but quite remarkable.
Perhaps if we dig deeper to look at advertising revenues across all television services as a whole, we will see the deep structural shift that Bell claims is happening, and which the Globe and Mail simply transcribes and transmits, as dollars are forever siphoned away from television in favour of the internet? Um, no.
The big picture for advertising revenues across all television services (conventional and pay/specialty) is even more unequivocal: television advertising revenues have risen steadily and substantially over past twelve years, as the following figure shows:
Source: Interactive Advertising Bureau (2012). 2011 Actual + 2012 Estimated Canadian Online Advertising Revenue Survey; Interactive Advertising Bureau (2009), 2008 Actual + 2009 Estimated Canadian Online Advertising Revenue Survey.
While there is absolutely no doubt that all of the players are scrambling to come to terms with new realities and still moving grounds, it is precisely because conventional television is not in crisis that the CRTC decided earlier this year to phase out the much hated Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF) that it had put into place in 2008 when things really did look rocky.
Journalists do a disservice to their readers by packing stories and what purports to be analysis with talking points from Bell rather than doing the leg work needed to access readily available data that paints a fuller and, by and large, very different picture.
Of course, there is tons of room to argue over the evidence but the flat portrait of conventional tv in decline painted at the Globe and Mail obscures the terrain of debate. If this was just an isolated instance, then perhaps we could just move along, nothing to see here. My sense, however, is that it is not.
To be more specific, we saw exactly this kind of coverage by the Globe and Mail when the CRTC quashed Bell’s bid to acquire Astral Media (see here and here, for example). Bell was essentially given free reign to vent, to tell us why the CRTC decision was wrong, how the CRTC under new chair J.P. Blais had gone activist, how Astral’s market cap had taken an undeserved beating as a result, what George Cope and Kevin Krull planned to do about things, and finally, when Bell teed up a second bid for Astral its move was pitched as somehow being routine, just another kick-at-the-can, when it is anything but.
There’s two final points to be said on these matters, at least for now: first, the task of journalists is not to act as conveyer belts for corporate PR and a monochromatic view of the world. Readers deserve better.
Second, and in this particular context, the fact that the owners of the Globe and Mail, the Thomson family, have a significant equity stake in Bell, and Bell holds a 15% stake in the Globe and Mail, raises questions about the ability of journalists to cover this beat without serving on bended knees. There is no proof that Globe and Mail journalists are taking orders from headquarters on this stuff, and if they were, the chance that we could know about it are about zero since we have no access to the internal workings of the newsroom and the day-to-day routines of journalists.
The fact that researchers can seldom gain access to the internal working of media organizations is why I do not generally like to try to connect my analysis of the structure of the media industries with the quality of the content they provide, whether good, bad or otherwise. One thing that this means, however, is that we have to trust journalists and for that to happen they have to give us good reason to do so.
People who own stuff like to tell others what to do and certainly have the potential to do so within the media, so it seems to me that journalists must walk the extra mile to demonstrate their autonomy rather than serving up Bell’s view of the world in one case after another in which the company finds itself on the losing end of the stick. Two months ago, the context was Bell Astral, two days ago the Supreme Court. Tales of doom and gloom advance a policy agenda and in this case, that of Bell and a few others, and that is why it is so important not to parrot what they have to say.
With Bell Astral Round Two likely to be teed up in the New Year, we deserve better journalistic coverage of the media industries in this country and I sure hope we get it. The last thing we need is yet another rooftop from which the most powerful and well-endowed media voices in the land get to shout about their view of the world and how things oughta be.