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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.


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

  1. May 10, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Public interests are not limited to entertainment and language rights, they are related to our democratic person, property and voting rights. Our common air waves are our public interests for security and for an individual Charter right to access communications for what are our safety and rights to participate as equals in our country so we need to have access and information that meets our public interests. When Bell Canada Act left Bell with a duty under a previous monopoly ,the public rights did not become consumer rights or culture in the small c meaning which appears to be how this merger is interpreting what is a public communication air waves, protected for the public and not the private or the private cultural production of arts and entertainment in both languages. Culture is political and when the private assumes a narrow interpretation of what public interests means and what their duty is when they have this private right of way to make a profit on what was not a profit right public interests airwaves domestically, they should not assume that the public who is not served as the cost is too high of them passing on international and commercial interests to the greater public interests without the tangible and measurable proof that we are as a public being served and not just used. The public owns the rights to our air waves which we can grant either to a private or a public regulated Board who is accountable to us and if private should be funding the regulatory costs of the bureaucratic personal who must always assure that the private interests are not overtaking a duty to the public to not have their interests abused for those of their private costumers. We could just keep our public interests within a publicly accountable Board and not trust the private. So if the private do not want to pay the costs of us permitting them to use our air waves, then why would we grant them any public interests?. Almost all citizens had access to local telephone, radio, and television when land lines were the only method of acting upon a public interest and then public interests came first and a commercial interest were secondary. These interests are now reversed and the burden is now on the public to pay to subsidize what are not public interests at all. What was once universal and equalized because the business interests of Bell and their offshore and additional options, like HBO Canada were not being used to pass on as public what is international, not either local or national. Where is the essential low cost public interests being served and how is this measured to assure that we are not as a public being taken advantage of for the profit of what are entirely private interests and arts and entertainment by Canadian who are private citizens not the general public who does not gain anything when Canadians and Americans are paid by New york Unions.The public right to use our collectively owned air waves should not be a cost burden to us, we are not to be taxed to pay for what we already own and are permitting others to use for more than public interests. If a private corporation does not differentiate what is private and what is public except under a private definition which only makes the public ia party to what is a commercial partnership then no wonder we are being over taxed and over pay for what we should not be paying for at all. Just because it is Canadians made and owned arts and entertainment and political ideological biased local news that is evident in to any media analysis content analyses researcher as socially biased , does not meet a duty of public interests. Canadians are not being served by their public oath takers who were not to sell our public interests into a market where the meaning of public and consumer are not differentiated so that our person, property and voting rights are not abused for profit and power of media moguls. We have seen a decrease in the funding of professional journalist who know the difference between fact and opinion, gossip and newsworthiness, and local coverage of government action which undermine our democratic rights. We should be concerned about any concentration by any private corporation that is governed by public interests right of ways but views culture as such a limited subject ignoring the academics of differentiation of manufactured culture and the real culture of day to day lives. What is the difference of the meaning of public and private in law and the field of corporate constitutional divisions of powers and matter of tax. If Bell is meeting what is the real meaning of public why can most of the public no longer have access to affordable phones and air waves transmissions without entering into a binding contract that forces them to be torte publishers of their own communication with the ownership of the data being with the private profit media who then sell what used t be private and protected to the advertisers? This does not meet public interests or our privacy rights to not be used under a public interests law. We as the public should be charging Bell more public interest revenue for the use of our public air waves and communication public right of way so that all the bureaucratic costs of regulating them are not being passed on to us as increased taxes for tair wave employees who work for the CRTC and CBC and Bell Canada ACT and the Broadcasting administration. The mobile users are not protected as public interests rights holders so if we now have no landlines that are affordable how is our government going to assure that they with their public interests duty to us can reach us for safety purposes and to assure that we can participate as citizens with the information and communications that we need to act upon our voting rights? A free mobile service for local public interests without any tie to any commercial advertising might to the only substitute and Bell is not offering that so they better start laying down landlines or they are not meeting the public interest that they are required to provide to all Canadians irregardless as to where we live. It is not up to us to bring any service into our national parks for their commercial interests. Where are those public interest lawyers that we employ? Do they too only claim to have to work for their own private interests and the private interests of their clients as though the public is not made up of more than government but an entire nation of individuals?. Are our democratic person, property and voting rights merely a commodity to be traded for profit and jobs in both languages in arts and entertainment? That appears to me to be CBC beef, which is why they appear to have sold our public education as though it was equivalent to private education without defending the public interests of Canadians to not be taxed to be used for private services and private interests by their own public oath takers and those public agents who lost sight of the meaning of public for their own private benefits and interests.

  2. randalmarlin
    June 20, 2013 at 12:46 am

    Great stuff, Wayne. So much so that I hate to make a picky spelling correction: “pored” for “poured.” I want to reference this blog and it will look better with the right spelling. Best, Randal

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