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KeyWords: Bell and Astral Discover the Public Interest

In March, media, telecom and internet policy wonks across Canada busily poured over Bell and Astral’s revised application asking the CRTC to approve Bell’s renewed bid to acquire Astral Media.

Along with a few graduate students at the School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University, I pored through the voluminous application by Bell and Astral — about 75 documents in all that you can find here. And in painstaking detail, we assembled evidence on the state of competition and concentration in broadcast tv, pay and specialty tv, radio and across the network media in English- and French-speaking areas of the country as a whole. Working right to the wire, our evidence was filed with the CRTC moments before the deadline on April 5 (see here).

I won’t repeat our findings and evidence here, but instead will point to something else that I found very interesting as we read through the cornerstone of Bell and Astral’s application: a 74 page Supplementary Brief that crystallizes their main arguments for why their proposed combination ought to be approved by the CRTC.

As those among you who have been paying attention, the proposed transaction is different than the one put forward last year. Gone, for instance, is some of the high-flying rhetoric.

Now in the foreground is Bell and Astral’s claim that the sale of several of Astral’s marquee Pay and Specialty TV channels to Shaw (Corus) (e.g. the bilingual Teletoon/Télétoon, Teletoon Retro and Cartoon Network (Canada), Télétoon Rétro, Historia and Séries+), and the divestiture of several others (e.g. Family Channel, Disney XD, Disney Jr. (English)) as well as ten radio stations in a handful of cities across Canada (Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa), ought to alleviate any worries that the CRTC might have about this deal. Indeed, the dispersal of these assets, they argue, should mitigate worries about excess media concentration or the possibility that acquiring Astral will confer undue advantages to Bell for its own integrated sweep of services that stretch from broadcasting to telecoms and the internet.

The public record is chok-a-blok full of what parties across the country thought about that issue, and Bell’s claims, but for here I want to highlight something else that struck me as particularly interesting about the revived bid: the extent to which it is peppered with references to the keywords of the public interest, citizens, consumers, culture and even democracy.

Strategically, this makes sense because last October when the CRTC denied Bell Astral 1.0 (news releasefull decision), it did so not just on the grounds of excess media concentration and concerns about vertical integration that had not been satisfactorily addressed, but because it failed to meet the Commission’s standards of the public interest. Moreover, the CRTC’s announcement of its hearings into the revived proposal in May made it clear that similar concerns would once again be front and centre in the Commission’s deliberations.

Obviously, if the public interest was a big concern then, it would have to be given emphasis in the Bell Astral 2.0 application, and it is.

To look into this question further, using key word/phrase searches, I looked for evidence of how these ideas fare in Bell and Astral’s new application compared with last year’s application as well as their most recent annual reports (see here and here).

Table 1, below, shows what I found.

Key Word Search
Word/Phrase Bell Astral 2.0 Supp. Brief Bell 1.0 Supp. Brief BCE AnnRpt 2012 Astral Ann Rpt 2012
Public Interest 21 (on 15pp) 1 3 (2pp) 0
Consumers 80  (35 pp) 4 30 (2OPP) 2 (2pp)
Citizen 19 (17 pp.) 0 0 0
Cultur* 17 (12 pp) 0 0 1
Democra* 3 (3pp) 0 0 0

Sources: See below.

As the table shows, Bell’s first application referred to the public interest just once and to consumers four times and to citizens, culture and democracy not at all.  In the new and improved version of Bell Astral 2.0, we find references to:

  • the public interest 21 times on 15 pages,
  • to consumers 80 times on 35 pages,
  • citizens 19 times on 17 pages,
  • culture 17 times on 12 pages,
  • and to democracy 3 times on 3 pages.

Bell and Astral’s embrace of the public interest and similar terms in their new application is clear, but whether or not this embodies a genuine corporate cultural conversion or just an opportunistic gambit designed to win CRTC approval and the more general battle for hearts and minds surrounding Bell Astral 2.0 remains to be seen. We can be sure of one thing, however, and that is that the CRTC’s forthcoming decision will turn a great deal on this difficult concept. Whether or not the Commission will have found BCE and Astral’s invocations of the public interest convincing or not, we’ll have to wait and see.

Sources:

BCE & Astral (2013). Supplementary Brief. Filed for Notice of hearing, Broadcasting Notice of Consultation CRTC 2013-106 <https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B3WCF51KmyImME5hVEpfak9EekU/edit&gt;; BCE Inc. (1 May 2012). Bell Application 2012-0516-2, Appendix 1, Supplemental brief. Filed for Notice of hearing, Broadcasting Notice of Consultation CRTC 2012-370.  <https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TVgld3nyT4IWoI5LElzE_yP1ILzokJMQKXgLFXo8eu0/edit?usp=sharing&gt;; BCE (2013), Annual Report 2012. <http://www.bce.ca/assets/investors/AR-2012/BCE_2012_AnnualReport_accessible.pdf&gt;; Astral (2012). Annual Information Form. http://www.astral.com/assets/094b7718a2994611a5667677b91f3321_AIF-YE-2012—2012-11-29—FINAL.pdf

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