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Methodenstreit: A Reply to a Question from Greg O’Brien @ Cartt.ca about Media Concentration Research Methods

I have changed this post since putting it up last Wednesday (May 23, 2013). I have not done so substantively. Indeed, I have left all the data and main claims as they were.

What I have done, however, is remove some of the snark at the top and the bottom that I directed at Greg O’Brien at the outset. It’s unnecessary, and as a few colleagues, friends and others with my interests close to heart have kindly suggested, we need more civility in the internets, not less (see Blayne Haggard’s thoughts here).

Btw, the picture in Blayne’s post of a guy pounding away at a keyboard struck a chord; Kristina, my wife, will nod disapprovingly for sure; and its effect would be even greater still if you put five more words at the end of the word bubble: “about telecom, media, internet concentration”. I’ll think about that.

The revised version follows. A link to the original is here.

Last Friday afternoon, just as I was settling in for the first long holiday weekend, Greg O’Brien, sent me an email asking about media concentration research methods. Greg is the founding publisher and lead writer over at Cartt.ca — an industry trade paper that serves the telecom, media and internet industries here in Canada. The question is an important one and so I began to sketch out a reply.

I was advised, however, that it would be best to wait. The final replies to the Bell Astral hearings had yet to be submitted and, thus, addressing questions of methodology directly bearing on the hearings in public was out of bounds until the proceedings closed. No need to tip your hat to others about what you’re thinking. It was another in a long string of moments when my ‘academic’ persona tugged hard to break free of the short leash imposed on experts appearing before the CRTC.

The advice I got was superb. My advisors were dead right and I was wrong. While my inclination is always to just reply immediately and as fulsomely as I can, that is not always the smartest thing to do. Ask any journalists who knows me, or anybody for that matter, and they will tell you that I always freely share my ideas and don’t play coy.[1]

The advice I received was right. Bell was poking around in the same spot that O’Brien was and raised the same question that O’Brien does about the HHI thresholds used by “consumer groups” (they don’t refer to me or the consumer groups by name, nor do they speak of public interest groups) (See Bell Final Reply, page 2).

The core of his original email is below. My reply follows.

Date:       Fri, 17 May 2013 12:11:23 -0400

From:    “Greg O’Brien” <greg.obrien@cartt.ca>   Block Address

To:          “Dwayne Winseck'” <dwayne_winseck@carleton.ca>

Subject:   Research question

Hi Dwayne,

I just wanted to point out an issue I came across about the research on media concentration that is part of PIAC’s presentation to the Commission on Bell/Astral and a big part of the CMCRP, too. I did a little digging into Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI), to figure out what it was and came across some info below that it looks like, from the links, the HHI index itself was changed or updated back in 2010 by the Federal Trade Commission and US Department of Justice.

Your research paper says the HHI and the thresholds of media concentration fall into three levels:

HHI < 1000 = Un-concentrated

HHI > 1000 but < 1,800 = Moderately Concentrated

HHI > 1,800 = Highly Concentrated

However, these links here, here and here seem to show that back in 2010, those HHI thresholds were altered so that:

HHI < 1500 = Unconcentrated

HHI > 1500 but < 2,500 = Moderately Concentrated

HHI > 2,500 = Highly Concentrated

That puts the HHI scores for many of the media mentioned in your report in the moderate or low range, I think.

To be honest with you, this is a bit too deep in the regulatory research weeds for a story in Cartt.ca. But I was wondering if you could explain the difference to me? Am I missing something? If not, does the research need to be altered/updated? Please let me know if I am wrong, or if we use different numbers for Canada.

Thanks,

Greg

My Response

Hi Greg,

Thanks for your inquiry.

Before I begin, please let me ask you to address specific questions about methodology or data to me since it was me that was hired to prepare evidence and write a brief in support of the public interest and consumer advocacy groups’ intervention opposing Bell’s revised bid to take-over Astral. My response is done solely in my capacity as a scholar and director of the Canadian Media Concentration Research (CMCR) project.

I wanted to send you my response earlier but was advised that it best to wait until the Bell Astral proceedings closed. Turns out, Bell was poking around in the same spot you were (see Bell Final Reply, page 2).

Let me also say, though, too, I was a bit hesitant about replying to you on account of the fact that the only other time you’ve spoken about my data, method or research at all was when you tweeted one of Bell’s allegations about my CBC revenue data at the very end of the reply phase for Bell Astral 1.0. That you tweeted about it then without asking me first about my views, and that your question now falls again at the very end of the reply phase, feels funny to me and I don’t quite like it. 

However, let me put that aside and try to answer your question because it is a good question.

I am aware of the new U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines. David Ellis, who you also know, sent them to me earlier in the year. Please ask him about that.

Guidelines do change from time to time. While the U.S. replaced the revised 1997 version guidelines in 2010, there are a couple of reasons why they have not seeped into the scholarly literature and my research methodology specifically.

For one, when guidelines change academics will always take time to decide if the changes adopted are suitable to the field we’ve been working in. There has been a long-standing argument amongst scholars that the DOJ’s existing guidelines were already inappropriate for communication and that a ‘weightier’ test was required because of the freight communications media carry with respect to free speech, the free press, privacy, democracy, their role as public spaces vital to citizenship, many non-market attributes and other such concerns. I share such concerns (also see Eli Noam and C. Edwin Baker on this point; or Compaine and Goldstein for opposing points of view).

Second, the International Media Concentration Research (IMCR), of which I am a part, and which is, as you know, led by one of the world’s foremost experts in this area, Professor of Finance and Economics, Eli Noam at Columbia University (New York), set sail in 2008. Changing course midstream and with the larger debates just referred to still hanging in the air would have been unwise. The fact that the project has forty or so scholars studying long-term media concentration trends in as many countries around the world also suggests that you don’t change things just because things in the U.S. change. 

Of course, we must take heed of what the U.S. does, but it does not determine things everywhere else. Historical and international comparative references, amongst other things, are crucial too. You might also ask Professor Noam as well why the project stuck with the existing standards rather than change to the new ones midstream?

In short, one doesn’t jump from a set of standards over which there is already a lot of debate to looser ones without a great deal of thought. That said, one should not cling to outmoded ways of thinking either, and so I have been looking carefully at the new guidelines with an open mind.

Indeed, I brought the new DOJ/FTC guidelines with me to Montreal two weeks ago and was reading them in the run-up to and during Bell Astral 2.0.  As you will see on page 19, the guidelines not only set the thresholds at the higher levels you recite, but tell us what constitutes significant consolidation by pointing to the degree of change, i.e. transactions that move the dial 100 or more points in markets that are already modestly to highly concentrated.

Here’s what the new guidelines say with respect to transactions in:

Moderately Concentrated Markets: Mergers resulting in moderately concentrated markets that involve an increase in the HHI of more than 100 points potentially raise significant competitive concerns and often warrant scrutiny.

Highly Concentrated Markets: Mergers resulting in highly concentrated markets that involve an increase in the HHI of between 100 points and 200 points potentially raise significant competitive concerns and often warrant scrutiny. Mergers resulting in highly concentrated markets that involve an increase in the HHI of more than 200 points will be presumed to be likely to enhance market power (emphasis added, p. 19).

The chart below created on the basis of 2012 revenue data shows that, contrary to what you say in your email, none of the sectors implicated by the Bell Astral deal are at the low end of the new guidelines, except radio – as I never fail to mention.

More importantly, the Bell Astral transaction will move several sectors from moderately to highly concentrated status even by the looser standards of the new guidelines, i.e. an HHI score above 2,500, as the chart below illustrates. These sectors are:

  • English-language Specialty and Pay TV (2525.2);
  • French-language Specialty and Pay TV (4085.1);
  • total Specialty and Pay TV (2512);
  • the total French TV sector is already above 2,500 but would be pushed further to 2801.7.

It is also important to point out that the Competition Bureau in Canada does not use the HHI to set fixed benchmarks but rather to help it “to observe the relative change in concentration before and after a merger” (emphasis added, p. 19, fn 31). The Bureau does, however, state that when the four-firm concentration ratio (CR4) passes 65% it may step in to examine whether a merger “would likely . . . enhance market power, and thereby . . . lessen competition substantially” (p. 19, fn 31). You can look at the data in the chart below and reach your own conclusions on this point.

In addition, in terms of relative change, as the DOJ guidelines quoted above state, a transaction that moves the dial in moderately or highly concentrated markets by more than 100 – 200 points will “potentially raise significant competitive concerns and . . . be presumed to be likely to enhance market power” (emphasis added, p. 19). Based on the 2012 data shown in the chart that follows immediately below, here is a list of sectors implicated by Bell’s proposed take-over of Astral that would move the dial between 200 and 1200 points (change in HHI noted in parentheses):

  • English-language Specialty and Pay TV (+416 points);
  • French-language Specialty and Pay TV (+1215.1 points);
  • total Specialty and Pay TV (+608.5 points);
  • English-language Total TV (+236 points);
  • French-language TV (+207.5 points);
  • Total TV (+298 points);
  • French language vertical integration between BDUs and broadcasters (+361 points).

Changes in Concentration Levels: Before and After Bell Astral, 2012 Revenues 

2012 Revenues

Bell Mrkt Share Before

After

CR4 Before

CR4 After

HHI Before

HHI After

CR4 2008

HHI 2008

Conv TV        
ENG

30.7

30.9

90.7

90.9

2337.2

2347.2

96.1

2724.9

FR

0

0

95.1

95.1

4403.4

4403.4

94.5

4005.7

ENG + FR

22.6

22.8

82.9

83

2287.9

2293.5

86

2367.4

Spec & Pay TV

 

 

 

ENG

28

33.8

83.1

84.5

2109.2

2525.2

73.2

1543

FR

27.1

59.2

97.9

97.7

2870

4085.1

87

2755.1

ENG + FR

27.9

38

81.5

83.8

1925.7

2534.2

71.9

1451.7

Total TV

 

 

 

 

ENG

29.2

32.5

81.9

86.2

1891.2

2127.2

77

1762.2

FR

11.1

24.4

91.7

92.9

2594.2

2801.7

85.2

2389

ENG + FR

25.4

30.8

76.8

83.3

1691.5

1989.5

70.9

1486.7

Radio

 

 

 

 

ENG

9.8

21.9

51.6

59.6

822.6

1014.4

56.5

970.8

FR

0

27

84.1

84.1

2406.6

2406.6

90.1

2704.9

ENG + FR

7.9

23.2

53.4

62

825.3

1127.3

60

1047.2

VI & Network Media (2011)

 

 

 

 

ENG

31.3

31.8

83.2

84.2

1984.4

2014.9

N/A

N/A

FR

35.2

40.1

71.8

76.7

1872.1

2233.1

N/A

N/A

Also take note of the big changes not just by the standards of regulatory authorities but those of the recent historical past as well, i.e. since 2008, and notably for pay and specialty tv, total tv and radio.

As you can see, Greg, if this was purely an issue of methods and numbers, the CRTC should be very busy. And it is. This is why the Bell Astral 2.0 deal has received the critical attention it deserves, by the Commission and by people such as myself.

Finally, as I am sure you will have noted, I have updated and made the CMCR’s analysis of the 2012 data available on our website. I have the French- and English-language market 2012 data that corresponds to each of the sectors that we released the other day (radio, broadcast TV, specialty and pay TV, total TV), and for vertical integration between BDUs and broadcasting in both English- and French-language markets as well as for Canada

I really would be delighted to share all of our data sets with you under appropriate circumstances once the CRTC completes its deliberations on the current transaction. Doing this kind of research is not easy. There is much judgment involved and reams of data to be managed. I would like to trust that your question comes from a good place but I’m also acutely sensitive to the fact that there are many who toss barbs at researchers and, especially, critical ones, all the time. It really needs to stop, and if a full prof with tenure and a good salary can’t stand up to such attacks, who will? 

Ultimately, I always aim to improve my work and what I put out under the auspices of the CMCR. If you ever see anything in need of improvement, correction, qualification, etc., please let me know and I will, as is our standard practice, fix things while publicly acknowledging any errors we have made and your role in setting things aright.

Best wishes,

Dwayne

[1] To put a more scholarly spin on it, questions about research methods are difficult and often boring, but they can be really helpful when they clarify how we know what we know. They tend to be open ended (and wordy, too) which leads in many unforseen directions. German philosophers originally called such activities “methodenstreit”, or “methods dispute”, hence the title to this post. The notion of methods disputes is now common across philosophy and the social sciences and yes, that includes economics (see here and here).

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Press Pause: Why the CRTC Should Delay the Bell-Astral Round 2 Hearings

My column for the Globe and Mail today argues that the CRTC should take it’s time before putting the 2nd set of hearings into Bell’s proposed acquisition of Astral Media in motion.

The column was prompted by comments made a few weeks back, when BCE indicated that it had hope the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission might give special fast-track treatment to its bid for Astral Media now that we’re going over things for the second time, “abbreviated hearings” it called them.

The CRTC should do nothing of the sort and, in fact, hold off for a while before doing anything at all, because the tools the regulator will rely on to assess the transaction are not up to the task.

This second-kick-at-the-can strategy that BCE wheeled out after the CRTC first rejected the deal last October (see here , here and here), is highly unusual. To the best of my knowledge, nothing like this has ever been done before. There is nothing routine about this transaction and, thus, it is hardly worthy of being fast-tracked.

Not least because the thresholds set in the CRTC’s 2008 Diversity of Voices decision (see para 87) are fundamentally flawed, and should be scrapped and new ones put into place before any review of media ownership transactions on the scale of the Bell-Astral deal gets out of the gates.

The oft-repeated idea that any merger or acquisition should automatically be approved if it results in the combined entity having under 35 per cent of the total TV market creates more problems than it solves (see here, here and here).

The 35 per cent guideline was imported from the standards set by the Competition Bureau in 2003 for reviewing mergers and acquisitions in banking, and form a weak standard when it comes to media diversity. Rules for banks balance competition with the stability of the national economy. Media concentration rules are about fostering the maximum amount of diversity feasible and a free press fit for democracy.

Even worse, adopting the ill-fitting 35 per cent guide, the CRTC cherry-picked the weakest half of the Competition Bureau’s two-part rule for assessing bank mergers.

The second part of the Competition Bureau’s guidelines suggests that there is a problem of market power when any merger or acquisition results in the top four firms controlling more than 65 per cent of the market. The share of the big four – Bell, Shaw, CBC, Rogers – today is already roughly 81 per cent for the total TV programming market – well-over the Competition Bureau’s standards. If Bell does get the green light to acquire Astral Media, it would rise to just under 90 per cent. This reason alone is enough to pause and reflect.

As the Competition Bureau clearly stated:

“If the sum of the merging firms’ pre-merger market shares is below 35 per cent, there are likely to be sufficient products and suppliers to which consumers can turn in response to any attempt by the merged entity to exercise market power. If the four-firm concentration level is below 65 per cent, then co-ordination among firms in the market is likely to be too difficult to raise competition concerns (para 47).”

Conversely, when a single firm’s combined market share tops 35 per cent its ability to exercise dominant market power is just too great, while when the top four control more than 65 per cent of the market, the potential for them too collude rather than compete vigorously in the marketplace becomes unacceptably high as well.

Also, the guidelines set out in the Diversity of Voices ruling did not anticipate the extent to which vertical integration would come to reign supreme across the entire sweep of the telecoms, media and internet in just a few years. When the new rules were created in 2008, Bell had sold down its controlling stake in CTV and was pretty much out of the TV programming business. The three vertically integrated conglomerates – Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor – at the time accounted for just 43 per cent of the total TV business (delivery and programming combined).

By 2011, Bell had returned to the fold by re-buying CTV; Shaw had bulked up by taking over Global from the bankrupt Canwest. Four vertically integrated telecom, media and internet giants now accounted for more than three quarters of the TV market: Shaw, Bell, Rogers and QMI, in that order. Toss Astral Media into the mix – the ninth largest media firm in the country – and the number rises closer to 80 per cent.

I am quite sure that former CRTC head Konrad von Finckenstein, never anticipated these conditions. A five-year-old 35 per cent threshold is no longer some kind of magic number upon which the Bell-Astral deal should turn come decision time.

We should also remember that not just the CRTC, but Canadians in general did not like the original Bell-Astral deal. In fact, 60 per cent opposed the deal.

Some may brush that aside as anti-capitalist populism, but the fact is, such a stance is the norm and when you probe the data further in such surveys, we find that the more educated the respondent is, the more likely they are to spurn any deal that appreciably changes the scales in favour of fewer choices and more concentration.

This is the impulse of a democratic culture. It should not be treated lightly, or dismissed with scorn.

It seems to me to be only prudent that the CRTC takes whatever time it needs to ensure that the tools it will use in Bell-Astral Round Two are up to the task. Until they are, Bell and Astral should step back and get in line rather than raising the possibility of fast-tracking this thing.

This isn’t just about Bell Astral; it’s about the rules of the road and ensuring that the media ecology in this country comes as close to embodying democratic ideals as is humanly and politically possible.

Media and Internet Concentration in Canada, 1984 – 2011

As my last post explained, the media economy in Canada has grown immensely and become far more complex in the past twenty-five years with the rise of the Internet and digital media. In this post, I ask whether the media have become more or less concentrated amidst all these changes?

While opinions are rife on the issue, as McMaster University professor Philip Savage (2008) observes, the debate over media concentration in Canada “largely occurs in a vacuum, lacking evidence to ground arguments or potential policy creation either way” (p. 295).

The need for good evidence on the question has been obvious over the past year in the context of Bell Canada’s bid to buy Astral Media, the ninth largest media company in Canada. Indeed, the CRTC’s decision to kill the deal in late October turned in a big way, although not entirely by any stretch of the imagination, on the evidence about media concentration.

The same question will be front-and-centre in Bell Astral Round Two. While nobody knows what version 2.0 of the deal looks like outside of the two companies’ inner sanctum, and the CRTC staff currently vetting it before it is opened for public interventions (probably in the new year), the issue of concentration will undoubtedly loom large in whatever discussions, and regulatory actions, do occur.

That said, however, we must make no mistake about it, studying media and internet concentration is not about Bell or Astral, or any specific transaction. In fact, the issue in the Bell Astral case is not if Bell is too big but whether telecom, media and internet markets in Canada are already too concentrated as a whole? How do we know one way or another? This post helps to address these questions.

Competing Views on Media Ownership and Concentration

Grappling with these issues is not just about remedying the ‘missing evidence’ problem, but thinking clearly about how the issues are framed.

Many critics point to media concentration as steadily going from bad to worse, but with little to no evidence to back up such claims. Perhaps the best known example of this is Ben Bagdikian, who claims that the number of media firms in the U.S. that account for the majority of revenues plunged from 50 in 1984 to just five by the mid-2000s. Similar views also exist in Canada, where critics decry what they see as the inexorable trend towards greater media concentration and its debilitating effects on “democracy’s oxygen”, for instance, or vilify the media moguls behind such trends who have, in these critic’s words, created “Canada’s most dangerous media company”.

A second group of scholars set out to debunk the critics by quantitatively analyzing reams of media content only to find the evidence about how changes in media ownership and market structure effect content to be mostly “mixed and inconclusive” (Soderlund, et. al al. 2005). The problem with this conclusion, however, is that it proceeds as if media concentration’s ‘impact on content’ is the only concern, or as if preserving the existing status quo might not be a significant problem in its own right (Gitlin, 1978). Undeterred, this line of scholarship trundles on so that, half a decade later, similar studies by many of the same authors, Cross-Media Ownership and Democratic Practice in Canada: Content-Sharing and the Impact of New Media, reach pretty much the same conclusions (Soderlund, Brin, Miljan & Hildebrandt, 2011).

A third school of thought mocks concern with media concentration altogether. According to this school, how could anyone believe that the media are still concentrated when there are thousands of news sources, social networking sites galore, pro-am journalists, user-created content and a cacophony of blogs at our finger tips, 700 television channels licensed by the CRTC, ninety-four newspapers publishing daily and smartphones in every pocket? Ben Compaine (2005), a media economist at MIT, has a one-word retort for those who think that concentration still matters amidst this sea of plenty: internet!

Those in this camp also argue that focusing on concentration when traditional media face the perilous onslaught of global digital media giants such as Google, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, and so on is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – foolhardy and doomed to fail (Thierer & Eskelen, 2008; Dornan, 2012). Journalistic accounts often share this view, routinely invoking, in mantra-like fashion, the idea that media are more competitive than ever. Like their acdemic counterparts, such accounts offer little to no evidence to support such claims, other than pointing to the same roster of foreign digital media goliaths as if examples equals evidence. It does not.

While some might find it hard to fathom, there’s a fourth school of thought, and one that I largely subscribe to, that accepts that fundamental changes have occurred, but rejects claims that this renders concern with media consolidation obsolete. For all those who guffaw at charges of media concentration, it is easy to point, for example, to the fact that only about a third of the 94 daily newspapers said to exist are actually still publishing original content on a daily basis. Of the 700 television channels listed on the CRTC’s books, just over 200 actually filed a financial return last year. And half of those tv channels belong to just four companies — Bell (33), Shaw (46), Rogers (11) and QMI (12). Their share of the market, as we will see, is much higher yet. Keeping our eye on these facts also highlights, for example, how dominant incumbent players use price (usage-based billing) and bandwidth caps, for example and among other tactics, to protect their legacy television businesses (i.e. CTV, Global, CityTV, TVA), while hobbling rivals (Netflix) and limiting people’s choice as a result.

This school also suggests that core elements of the networked digital media – search engines (Google), Internet access (ISPs), music and book retailing (Apple and Amazon), social media (Facebook) and access devices (Apple, Google, Nokia, Samsung, RIM) – may actually be more prone to concentration because digitization magnifies economies of scale and network effects in some areas, while reducing barriers in others. If this is correct, then we may be witnessing the rise of a two-tiered digital media system, with many small niche players revolving around a few enormous “integrator firms” at the centre (Noam, 2009; Benkler, 2006; Wu, 2010).

The more that central elements of the networked digital media are concentrated, the easier it is to turn these nodal points — Facebook, Google, ISPs, Twitter, and so forth — into proxies that serve other interests in, for example, the preservation of dominant market power in ‘legacy’ media sectors (e.g. television and film), the copyright wars, efforts to block pornography, and in law enforcement and national security matters. In other words, the more concentrated such nodal points are, the more potential digital media giants have to:

  • set the terms for the distribution of income to musicians, newspapers and books (Google, Apple, Amazon);
  • turn market power into moral authority by regulating what content can be distributed via their ‘walled gardens’ (Apple),
  • set the terms of ownership and use of user created content and how it is sold in syndicated markets as well as to advertisers (Google and Facebook) (van Couvering, 2011; Fuchs, 2011);
  • and set defacto corporate policy norms governing the collection, retention and disclosure of personal information to commercial and government third parties.

Whilst we must adjust our analysis to new realities, it is also true that long-standing concerns have not disappeared either. To take just one case in point, consider the fact that during the 2011 election campaign, every single newspaper in Canada, except the Toronto Star, that editorially endorsed a candidatefor Prime Minister touted Harper – roughly three times his standing in opinion polls at the time and the results of the prior election. When 95 percent of editorial endorsements for PM across the nation stump for one man – Harper — something is amiss.

Ultimately, talk about media concentration is really a proxy for bigger conversations about consumer choice, freedom of expression as well as democracy. While such discussions must adapt to new realities, the advent of digital media does not mean that such conversations should fall silent. Politics, values and heated debates are endemic to the topic, and this is how things should be (Baker, 2007Noam, 2009; Peters, 1999).

Methodology

Discussions of media concentration will never turn on the numbers alone, and nor should they, but it is essential to be as clear as possible about the methods used to assess the issue. To begin, there is no naïve vantage point from which data about these issues can be innocently gathered and presented as if evidence is just out there laying in a state of nature, somewhere, waiting to be plucked like apples from a tree.

Data, in other words, does not serve as a one-to-one map of the reality it claims to describe. Nonetheless, there are good ways to make a good body of evidence and bad. An essential factor all down the line is the need for researchers to be open and reflexive about their methods and theoretical starting points.

A fuller discussion of the methodology that I use can be found here, here and here, but for now we can lay out the bare bones of the approach before turning to the analysis itself. I begin by selecting a dozen or so media sectors at the heart of the analysis: wired & wireless telecoms; cable, satellite & IPTV distributors; Internet access; broadcast tv; pay & subscription tv; radio; newspapers; magazines; search engines; social media sites; and online news services.

Data were collected for each of these sectors over a twenty-seven year period, 1984 – 2011, first at four-year intervals up until 2008 and annually since. For the DIYers among you, here’s a handy dandy list of sources.

Data for the revenues and market share for each ownership group in each of these sectors was then assembled. I then group each of the above sectors into three categories, assess the concentration level in each category, and then scaffold upward from there to examine the network media industries as a whole: (1) network infrastructure; (2) content: (3) online media.

I typically drop wired and wireless telecoms from the whole of what I call the network media industries because the size of these sectors means that they tend to overshadow everything else.

Lastly, I use two common tools — Concentration Ratios (CR) as well as the Herfindhahl – Hirschman Index (HHI) – to depict levels of competition and concentration over time. The CR method adds the shares of each firm in a market and makes judgments based on widely accepted standards, with four firms (CR4) having more than 50 percent market share and 8 firms (CR8) more than 75 percent considered to be indicators of highly levels of concentration.

The HHI method squares and sums the market share of each firm with more than a one percent share in each market to arrive at a total. If there are 100 firms, each with a 1% market share, then markets are highly competitive, while a monopoly prevails when one firm has 100% market share. The following thresholds are commonly used as guides:

HHI < 1000                                     Un-concentrated

HHI > 1000 but < 1,800             Moderately Concentrated

HHI > 1,800                                    Highly Concentrated

The Historical Record and Renewed Interest in Media Concentration in the 21st Century

There has always been, even if episodically, keen interest in media ownership and concentration in Canada and the world since the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

In 1910, for example, the Board of Railway Commissioners (BRC) broke up the three-way alliance between the two biggest telegraph companies — Canadian Pacific Telegraph Co. and the Great Northwestern Telegraph Co. (the latter an arm of the New York-based goliath, Western Union) – and the American-based Associated Press news wire service. Why?

In the face of much corporate bluster, the BRC did this because the two dominant telegraph companies were giving away the AP news service to the top newspaper in cities across Canada for free in order to bolster their stranglehold on the lucrative telegraph business. Allowing this to continue, stated the BRC matter-of-factly, would “put out of business every news-gathering agency that dared to enter the field of competition with them” (1910, p. 275).

Thus, in a conscious bid to use telecoms regulation to foster competition amongst newspapers, and to free up the flow of news on the wires, the BRC effectively dismantled the alliance. For upstarts such as Winnipeg-based Western Associated Press – which had initiated the case – it was a significant victory (Babe, 1990).

Media concentration issues arose episodically thereafter and came to a head again in the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, when three inquiries were held: (1) the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media, The Uncertain Mirror (2 vols.)(Canada, 1970); (2) the Royal Commission on Corporate Concentration (1978); and (3) the Royal Commission on Newspapers (Canada, 1981).

Things lay dormant for more than two decades thereafter, but sprang to life again in the late-1990s and turn-of-the-21st century after a huge wave of consolidation thrust concerns about media concentration back into the spotlight. Three inquiries were held between 2003 and 2007 as a result: (1) the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, Our Cultural Sovereignty (2003); (2) the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications, Final Report on the Canadian News Media(2006);[i] as well as (3) the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission’s Diversity of Voices inquiry in 2008.

Structural Transformation: Two (three?) Waves of Consolidation and the Rise of TMI Conglomerates

As I noted in my last post, for all sectors of the media economy in Canada, revenues grew immensely from $37.5 billion in 1984 to just under $70 billion last year (or from $12.1 billion to just under $34 billion when we exclude wiredline and wireless telecoms) (in inflation-adjusted “real dollars”). Between 1984 and 1996, new players meant more diversity in all sectors, except for newspapers as well as cable and satellite video distribution, where concentration climbed significantly.

Conventional as well as pay and subscription television channels were already expanding during this time. In terms of ownership, incumbents and a few newcomers – e.g. Allarcom and Netstar – cultivated the field, with their share of the market growing steadily in tandem with the number of services available (underlying data for these claims can be found here).

Concentration levels remained very high in wired line telecoms in the 1980s and early 1990s, while wireless was developed by two companies, Bell and Rogers. As had been the case in many countries, telecoms competition moved slowly from the ends of the network into services and then network infrastructure, with real competition emerging in the late-1990s before the trend was reversed and concentration levels again began to climb.

In the 1980s and early-1990s, consolidation took place mostly among players in single sectors. Conrad Black’s take-over of the Southam newspaper chain in 1996 symbolized the times. In broadcast television, amalgamation amongst local ownership groups created the large national companies that came to single-handedly own the leading commercial television networks – CTV, Global, TVA, CHUM, TQS – by the end of the 1990s.

While weighty in their own right, these amalgamations did not have a big impact across the media as a whole. There was still significant diversity within sectors and across the TMI sectors. The CBC remained prominent, but public television was being eclipsed by commercial television as the CBC’s share of all resources in the television ‘system’ slid from 46 percent in 1984 to half that amount by 2000 to just over twenty percent today (see the motion chart on CMCR website illustrating this point).

While gradual change defined the 1980s and early-1990s, things shifted dramatically by the mid-1990s and into the 21st century as two (and maybe three) waves of consolidation swept across the TMI industries. A few highlights help to illustrate the trend:

Wave 1 – 1994 to 2000: Rogers acquisition of Maclean-Hunter (1994). Peaks from 1998 to 2001: (1) BCE acquires CTV and the Globe & Mail ($2.3b); (2) Quebecor takes over Videotron, TVA and the Sun newspaper chain ($ 7.4b) (1997-2000); (3) Canwest buys Global TV ($800m) and Hollinger newspapers papers, including National Post ($3.2b).

Wave 2 – 2006-2007.  Bell Globe Media re-branded CTVglobemedia, as BCE exits media business. CTVglobemedia acquires CHUM assets (Much Music, City TV channels and A-Channel).  CRTC requires CTVglobemedia to sell City TV stations – acquired by Rogers (2007). Astral Media buys Standard Broadcasting. Quebecor acquires Osprey Media (mid-size newspaper chain)(2006). Canwest, with Goldman Sachs, buys Alliance Atlantis (2007) (Showcase, National Geographic, HGTV, BBC Canada, etc) – and biggest film distributor in Canada.

Wave 3 – 2010 – ? Canwest bankrupt. Newspapers acquired by Post Media Group, TV assets by Shaw.  BCE makes a comeback, re-buys CTV (2011) and bids for Astral Media in 2012, but fails to gain CRTC approval.

That the massive influx of capital investment drove consolidation across the telecom, media and Internet industries during these periods is illustrated in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Mergers and Acquisitions in Media and Telecoms, 1984 – 2011 (Mill$)

Sources: Thomson Financial, 2009; FPInformart, 2010; Bloomberg Professional; CRTC, Communication Monitoring Report.

Consolidation has yielded a fundamentally new type of media company at the centre of the network media ecology: i.e. the integrated media conglomerate. Extremely popular in the late-1990s in many countries around the world, many media conglomerates have since collapsed or been broken up (AOL Time Warner, AT&T, Vivendi, CBS-Viacom, and parts of NewsCorp, etc)(see, for example, Jin, 2011; Thierer & Eskelen, 2008; Waterman & Choi, 2010). The trend elsewhere has not, however, taken hold in Canada.

Indeed, in Canada, sprawling media conglomerates are still all the rage. Four such giants and a half-dozen other large but more specialized companies part their size make-up the core ‘big 10’ companies in the network media economy: Bell (CTV), Shaw (Global), Rogers (CityTV), QMI (TVA), CBC, Post Media, Cogeco, Telus, Astral, and Eastlink. A detailed chart of each by ownership, revenues, and sectors operated in is available here and will be addressed further in the next post.

Looking at media concentration from the vantage point of the ‘big ten’, the media have become more concentrated than ever. Their share of all revenues (excluding telecoms services) rose sharply in the 1990s and between 2000 and 2008 hovered steadily in the mid- to low-60 percent range. The big four’s share of the network media economy subsequently rose significantly to just under 68 percent in 2010 (after Shaw’s acquisition of Global) and rose again to just under 70 percent in 2011 (when Bell re-acquired CTV) — an all-time high and a substantial rise from 52% in 1992. The levels of media concentration in Canada are more than twice as high as those in the U.S., based on Noam’s analysis in Media Ownership and Concentration in America (2009).

Breaking the picture down into the following three categories and applying the CR and HHI tools provides an even better view of long-term trends:

  • ‘network infrastructure’ (wired and wireless telecom services, ISPs, cable, satellite and other OVDs);
  • ‘content’ (newspapers, tv, magazines, radio);
  • ‘online media’ (search, social, operating systems).

At the end of the post, I combine these again to complete the analysis of the network media industries as whole in a slightly different form.

The Network Infrastructure Industries

All sectors of the network infrastructure industries are highly concentrated and pretty much always have been, although Internet Access is a partial exception.

Table: CR and HHI Scores for the Network Infrastructure Industries, 1984 – 2011

CR & HHI Network Industries, 2011

Much the same can be said with respect to wireless services: they have consistently been highly concentrated, and still are until this day, despite the advent of four newcomers in just the past two years: Mobilicity, Wind Mobile, Public and Quebecor.CR4 and HHI measures for wired telecoms scores fell during the late-1990s as greater competition in wired line telecom services took hold. They reached their lowest level ever between 2000 and 2004 before after shocks from the collapse of the speculative dot.com bubble took out many of the new rivals (CRTC, 2002, p. 21). Competition grew more and more feeble for most of the rest of the decade before drifting modestly upwards since 2008. Concentration levels, however, still remain high by late-1990s, turn-of-the-century standards, as well as those of the CR and HHI measures.

Two competitors – Clearnet and Microcell – emerged in the late-1990s and managed to garner 12 percent of the market between them, but were then taken over by Telus and Rogers in 2000 and 2004, respectively. Whether the recent round of newcomers will fare any better it is still too early to tell, but with only 2.2 percent of the market as of 2011 they are a long way from the high tide of competition set a decade ago.

As the telecoms and Internet boom gathered steam in the latter half of the 1990s new players emerged to become significant competitors in Internet access, with four companies taking more than a third of the ISP market by 1996: AOL (12.1%), Istar, (7.2%), Hook-Up (7.2%) and Internet Direct (6.2 percent).

The early ‘competitive ISP era’, however, has yielded to more concentration since. Although the leading four ISPs accounted for a third of all revenues in 1996, by 2000 the big four’s (Bell, Shaw, Rogers & Quebecor) share had grown to 54 percent. Things stayed relatively steady at the level for most of the decade before inching upwards in the past few years to reach 57.1 percent in 2011.

HHI scores for internet access also moved upward between 1996 and 2000, but are still low relative to most other sectors. However, this is probably more an indicator of the limits of the HHI method in this particular case, since 93% of high-speed Internet subscribers rely on one or another of the incumbent cable or telecom companies’ ISPs to access the Internet, according to figures in the CRTC’s Communication Monitoring Report (p. 148).

ISP provision in Canada is effectively a duopoly, with the left over 6-7% of the market not dominated by the incumbents scattered among the 400 or so independent ISPs that still exist. This is a slight increase from last year, but it does not mark the return to competitive internet access.  Canada has relied on a framework of limited competition between incumbent telecom and cable companies for wiredline, wireless, internet access and video distribution markets and in all of these markets they dominate, with some other smaller rivals in each.

Cable, satellite and IPTV distribution is one of the only segments assessed where concentration has risen steadily from low levels in the 1980s (850) to the top of the scales in 1996 (2300), before drifting downwards by the turn-of-the-century to the low 2000s where it has remained ever since. It has dipped below that, to the 1900-range, for the last five years, but this is still at the very high end of the scale.

As I noted in the last post, the IPTV services of the incumbent telcos – Bell, MTS, Telus and SaskTel – are becoming a more significant factor in the distribution of television, after a slow and staggered start. By 2011, IPTV services accounted for 7.6 percent of the TV distribution market, based on my numbers, or 3.8 percent using CRTC data (see page 96).

While I have yet to get to the bottom of why this discrepancy exists, what can be said is that, on the basis of my figures, the growth of IPTV services has made small incursions into the incumbent cable and satellite service providers’ turf (i.e. Shaw, Rogers, Quebecor, Cogeco and Eastlink). However, this has done little more than nudge the CR and HHI scores, as the table above shows.

Over the last twenty-seven years, cable tv has become ubiquitous and new tv distribution infrastructures have been added to the fold – DTH in the 1990s, and now, slowly, IPTV. New players have emerged, but never have so few owned so much. New technologies have generally added to this and have not fundamentally disrupted the broad trajectory of development when it comes to tv distribution channels: more channels, and even some new players, but with more of the whole in the hands of the old. The wired society in Canada is probably the poorer for this.

The Content Industries

Until the mid-1990s, all aspects of the tv industry (i.e. conventional broadcast tv as well as pay and specialty channels) were moderately concentrated by HHI standards and significantly so by CR measures. Competition and diversity made some modest inroads from 1998 to 2004, but the trend abruptly reversed course and levels have climbed steadily and substantially since, and sharply in the last two years. Figure 2, below, shows the trend in terms of CR scores; Figure 3, in terms of the HHI.

Figure 2 CR Scores for the Content Industries, 1984 – 2011

 Figure 3 HHI Scores for the Content Industries, 1984 – 2011

The largest four commercial television providers control about 81% of all television revenues in 2011, up from 75% a year earlier. Levels of tv concentration were pushed to new extremes by

Shaw’s take-over of Canwest’s television assets in 2010 and Bell’s buy-back of CTV last year. The big four’s share of all tv revenue before these transactions in 2008 was 70%. A ten percent leap in concentration in two years is a lot.

If the CRTC had approved Bell’s acquisition of Astral Media – the fifth largest television company in Canada, ahead of Quebecor – the all-time high levels of concentration set in 2011 would have been surpassed by an even higher 89.5%. In contrast, the big four accounted for 61% of the tv biz in 2004, a time before major players such as Alliance Atlantis and CHUM were bought out by the now defunct Canwest and Bell/CTV 1 (circa 2000-2006), respectively.

The CR and HHI measures for tv were at all time lows in the 1990s. This was a time when newcomers emerged (Netstar, Allarcom), yet before the time when the multiple ownership groups that had stood behind CTV and Global for decades combined into single groups. The period was also significantly more diverse because the CBC no longer stood as a central pillar in tv and radio, while pay and specialty television channels were finally making their mark. Today, the latter are the crown-jewel in the tv crown.

Today the largest four tv providers after Bell and Shaw are: the CBC, Rogers, Astral, and QMI, respectively, and in that order. By 2011, these six entities accounted for ninety-five percent of the entire television industry. Similar patterns are replicated in each of the sub-components of the ‘total television’ measure (conventional television, pay and specialty channels), as the chart above illustrates.

In contrast, in 2004, the six largest players accounted for a little over three-quarters of all revenues. The run of HHI scores reinforces the view that the television industry is highly concentrated and has become markedly more so in just the past two years.

Like the cable industries, there has never been a moment when diversity and competition has flourished in the newspaper sector. Consolidation rose steadily from 1984, when the top four groups accounted for two-thirds of all revenues, to 1996, when they accounted for nearly three-quarters – a level that has stayed fairly steady since, despite periodic shuffling amongst the main players at the top. Levels declined slightly in 2011 from 2010, from 77% to 75%, likely on account of Postmedia’s decision to sell some of its newspapers (Victoria Times Colonist) and to cut publishing schedules at others.

Of all media sectors, magazines are least concentrated, with concentration levels falling by one-half on the basis of CR scores and two-thirds for the HHI over time. I have not been able to update the data for this sector for 2011, but there is little to suggest a need to change this view.

Radio is also amongst the most diverse media sectors according to HHI scores, but slightly concentrated by the C4 measure. In fact, in 2011, it became moreso, likely because of a shuffling of several radio stations between Shaw/Corus and Cogeco. Bell’s take-over bid for Astral – the largest radio broadcaster in Canada with 17.5% market share – would also have further pushed radio in the direction of concentration had it been approved last month by the CRTC. Had that scenario come to pass, levels of concentration would have still remained well-beneath the CRTC’s self-defined thresholds, but high by the CR measure and just moderately high by the HHI.

Online Media

So far, there’s little reason to believe that trends are any different in the online realm, as measures of the ISP segment showed. But what about other core elements of the increasingly Internet-centric media universe, such as search engines, social media, online news sources, browsers, and smartphone operating systems?

The trends are clear. Concentration in the search engine market continued to grow between 2010 and 2011, with the CR4 score rising from 94% to 97.6%. Google’s share of the market, however, seems to have plateaued, at just over 81 percent of this domain. Microsoft (8.6%), Yahoo! (4.2%), and Ask.com (3.7%) trail far behind, yielding a CR4 of 97.6% and an off-the-charts HHI of 6,683.

Figure 3: C4 Scores for the Search Engines, 2004 – 2011

Source: Experien Hitwise Canada. “Main Data Centre: Top 20 Sites & Engines.” last Accessed October 11, 2012.  http://www.hitwise.com/ca/datacenter/main/dashboard-10557.htm

Social media sites display a similar but not quite as pronounced trend, with Facebook accounting for 63.2% of time spent on such sites in 2010, trailed by Google’s YouTube (20.4%), Microsoft (1.2%), Twitter (0.7%), and News Corp.’s MySpace (.6%) (Experien Hitwise Canada, 2010). Again, the CR4 score of 86% and HHI score of 4426 reveal that social networking sites are highly concentrated.

Similar patterns also hold for other layers of the media ecology. The top four web browsers in Canada – Microsoft’s Explorer (52.8%), Google’s Chrome (17.7%), Firefox (17.1%) and Apple’s Safari (3%) – have a market share of over 90 percent (Comscore, 2011).  There is no data available for Canada with respect to smartphone operating systems, but US data shows that the top four players in 2010 accounted for 93 percent of all revenues: Google’s Android OS (29%), Apple’s iOS (27%), RIM (27%) and Microsoft’s Windows 7 (10%) (Nielsen, 2011).

However, not all areas of the internet and digital media environment, of course, display such patterns. The picture with respect to online news services, for instance, is significantly different. Between 2003 and 2008, the amount of time spent on online news sites nearly doubled from 20 to 38 percent, with most of the leading 15 online news sites simply being the extensions of well-established media companies: cbc.ca, Quebecor, CTV, Globe & Mail, Radio Canada, Toronto Star, Post Media, Power Corp. The other major sources included CNN, BBC, Reuters, MSN, Google and Yahoo! (Comscore, 2009; Zamaria & Fletcher, 2008, p. 176).

While that trend meant that attention was consolidating around a few online news sites, and those of traditional journalistic outlets in particular, it nonetheless seems clear that Canadians have diversified their news sources relative to the traditional news environment (newspapers, tv, radio, magazines).  On either the CR or HHI measure, online news fall under the concentration thresholds and are diverse relative to any of the other sectors, except magazines.

However, the fact that concentration levels edged upwards between 2004 and 2007, after the rapid “pooling of attention” that took place between 2003 and 2007 (see immediately above), suggests that a certain plateau might have been reached in terms of the range of sources people are using. Nonetheless, online news sources are not concentrated on the basis of the measures used here. The following table shows the results.

Table: Online News Sources, 2004 – 2011

News website 2004 (N=1482) 2007 (N =1306 ) 2011 (N=1651 )
CBC 10.6 18.3 13.8
Google 5.3 9.2 10.4
MSN / Sympatico 18.2 11 14.7
Yahoo 9.3 7.4 6.5
CNN 9.3 9.4 6.1
CTV 6.2 2.9
Canoe 2.4 7.6 2.9
Cyberpresse 3.5 3.3 3.9
Globe and Mail 4.1 5.9 3.6
BBC 4.9 2.8
Toronto Star 2.6 2.4 1.5
Global 2
Other 32.6 14.4 31.1
CR4 43.4 45.9 45.4
HHI
97.9 100 100.2

Source: Table calculated by Fred Fletcher, York University, from the Canadian Internet Project Data sets (Charles Zamaria, Director).  Reports on the 2004 and 2007 surveys are available at http://www.ciponline.ca.

The Network Media Industries as a Whole (excluding wired and wireless telecoms)

Combining all the elements together yields a birds-eye view of long-term trends for the network media as a whole. As Figure 4 below shows, the HHI score across all of the network media industries is not high by the criteria set out earlier, but the long-term upward trend is clear and significant.

Figure 4: HHI Scores for the Network Media Industries, 1984 – 2010

 

While the HHI for the network media fell in the 1980s and early-1990s, by 1996 trends had reversed and levels were higher than they were a dozen years earlier. Thereafter, the number rose steadily to close to 600 in 2000, where it hovered for several years before falling again in 2008. Since then, however, the HHI score has shot upwards, rising from 510 in 2008 to 623 after Shaw acquired Global and then to 739 once Bell re-acquired CTV after having sold down its majority stake a few years earlier.

The effect of the Bell Astral deal would have been significant in terms of the network media as a whole, raising the HHI score to over 800 – an all time high. This is still low by HHI standards, but we must bear in mind that we are talking about concentration across the entire sweep of the network media industries, not just a random assortment of a few sectors.

The CR4 standard, as shown in Figure 5 below, reveals the trend even more starkly, with the big four media conglomerates – Bell, Shaw, Rogers & QMI – accounting for more than half of all revenues in 2011, a significant rise in a vastly larger media universe from just under forty percent held by the big four twenty-seven years earlier in what was a Lilliputian pond by comparison. While still only moderately concentrated by the CR4 standard, this is for all media combined.

In each and every single sector of the media that the big four operate, they dominate, as the earlier review of CR and HHI scores illustrated. Moreover, the trend in both scores is up, significantly so in the past three years from a CR4 of around 40% to its current level of just over 50%. If this really was a golden digital media age, as some like to contend, that number should be going firmly in the opposite direction.

Figure 5: CR 4 Score for the Network Media Industries, 1984 – 2010

Concluding Thoughts 

Several things stand out from this exercise. First, we are far from a time when studies of media and internet concentration are no longer needed. Indeed, theoretically-informed and empirically-driven research is badly needed because there is a dearth of quality data available and because, one after another, the press of events and specific transactions – Bell Astral in 2012, but Bell’s re-acquisition of CTV the year before and Shaw’s acquisition of Global in 2010 – demands that we have a good body of long-term, comprehensive and systematic evidence ready-to-hand.

This kind of data is still very hard to come by and data collection for 2011 reconfirmed that at every step of the way. The CRTC still needs a dramatic overhaul of how it releases information and of its website, as David Ellis has recently argued so eloquently. The underlying data sets it includes in seminal publications like the Communications Monitoring Report, Aggregate Annual Returns, and Financial Summaries needs to be made available in a downloadable, open format that allows people and researchers to use it as they see best. The regulated companies themselves must also be made to be more forthcoming with data relevant to the issues, and not less, as they so strongly desire.

The trajectory of events in Canada is somewhat similar to patterns in the United States. Concentration levels declined in the 1980s, rose sharply in the late-1990s until peaking around 2000. However, it would appear that whereas in the U.S. a process of deconsolidation set in thereafter, with the obvious exception of Comcast’s blockbuster acquisition of NBC-Universal last year, concentration levels in Canada have climbed, and steeply so, in the past three or so years.

Current media concentration levels in Canada are roughly two-and-a-half times those in the U.S. and high by global standards (Noam, 2009). Moreover, large media conglomerates straddle the terrain in Canada in a manner that is far greater than in any of the other thirty countries studied by the IMCR project, including the U.S., Germany, Japan, Australia, the UK, and so on, where media conglomerates are no longer all the rage as they once were a decade ago.

The assets from the bankrupt Canwest have been shuffled in recent years, and some significant new entities have emerged (e.g. Channel Zero, Post Media, Remstar, Teksavvy, Netflix, The Mark, Tyee, Rabble.ca, Huffington Post). The overall consequnence is that we have a set of bigger and structurally more complicated and diverse media industries, but these industries have generally become far more concentrated, not less.

There is a great deal more that can and will be said about what all this means, but in my eyes it means that concentration in no less relevant in the “digital media age” of the 21st century than it was during the industrial media era of centuries’ past.

CRTC Kills Bell Astral Deal: What Happened and Why?

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 9th 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 percent 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% 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, eleventh hour proposals do not follow the rules. The deadline for complete applications was August 9th, not Day 1 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 specialty tv channels controlled by cable companies fell dramatically from the 50-55% range in the early 1990s to 15% 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 percent of the ‘total tv market’. That number would have grown to just under 90 percent, 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 today 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.

Bell’s Bid to Take-Over Astral Encounters Mounting Opposition: Interview on the Lang and O’Leary Exchange

After a week since the CRTC’s stopped accepting interventions and a little under a month before hearings begin in Montreal, opposition to Bell Canada’s bid to take over Astral Media — the eighth largest media company in Canada, largest radio broadcaster and fourth biggest pay tv provider — is mounting. Some of this made a big splash in the past week as the Say No to Bell campaign backed by Quebecor, Cogeco and Eastlink was kicked into high gear.

However, while we may wonder about the motives behind the cable companies’ campaign to derail Bell’s take-over of Astral, they are not alone. Far from it, actually. Telus, too, has lined up solidly against the deal. The Independent Broadcasters Group — those without the shelter of the big four vertically integrated companies (Bell, Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor) that dominate Canada’s telecom, media and internet landscape — have also lined up serious concerns with the transaction.

The Canadian Media Producers Association filed a similar position paper but appears to think that its concerns can be taken care of with a little more money flowing from Bell to its members by upping the scale of the ‘tangible benefits’ that Bell has proposed (Interventions can be found on the CRTC’s website here). The research consultancy, Analysis, also put out a study showing that Canada has amongst the highest levels of pay television concentration and vertical integration amongst the G8 countries.

Whereas Bell has argued that its acquisition of Astral does not trigger any need for review, based on its market share and the CRTC’s guidelines, many of the submissions beg to differ. Apparently, one of the things missing from Bell’s low-ball calculation of its own market share is that it didn’t count the audiences of pay tv services that Astral jointly owns with others, such as Viewer’s Choice Canada Inc. Historia & Séries+, Teletoon. That’s one way to do the numbers and if lazy journos keep repeating them, well maybe they’ll be harder to dislodge as “the truth”.

Bell also argues that the CRTC’s vertical integration rules put into affect last fall eliminates any concerns that it will not offer access to its distribution facilities and programming on non-discriminatory terms. Well, no. The companies behind the Say Not to Bell campaign, Telus, as well as the Independent Broadcasters Group all argue that the new rules are, at best, a “work in progress”, and that experience to date falls far short of assuming the Pollyannaish portrait of the world painted by Bell. Access to content is a thicket of discontent. So too should be the fact that while Bell lifts its bandwidth caps for its own online video services, it applies them to rival services such as Netflix. This is the pay-per internet for everybody else’s services except those within the Bell corporate-fold. That fold will become much bigger if Bell does acquire Astral.

As readers of this blog might recall from a post last week, I prepared a study for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Consumers’ Association of Canada, Canada Without Poverty, and Council of Senior Citizens’ Organizations of British Columbia’s submission to the CRTC opposing the Bell/Astral deal. My basic argument is that the CRTC has ample grounds to seriously review this transaction and perhaps to put the kibash on some of its central aspects altogether.

Most importantly, with respect to specialty and pay tv services that are the crown jewel in the Astral Media crown, the transaction would give Bell a market share of over 42% and thus at the high end of even the CRTC’s own relatively weak standards. The deal is a boundary pusher and the CRTC ought to draw a line in the sand. The fact that the deal would further stitch up the control of large vertically integrated companies across the telecom-media-internet landscape, and at rates that are extremely high by both historical standards in Canada and relative to global norms, also provides a strong basis from which to dash this transaction.

It is good to see not just the opposition to this transaction gaining momentum but also that PIAC’s intervention and the study I wrote for them have gained a fare amount of attention. Yesterday, the CBC’s website gave some great coverage to the study. Later in the day, the Lang and O’Leary did as well and invited me in to chat about it with them. The 7 minute video clip from the Lang and O’Leary Exchange is below:

The Significant Impact of the Bell Astral Deal on Media & Internet Concentration in Canada

Today was a good day. An unbelievably frantic one, but a good day nonetheless. I’ve been pouring blood, sweat and tears into a submission to the CRTC’s hearings on Bell’s bid to buy Astral Media to be held in Montreal next month. Today was the deadline for submissions to the CRTC.

My submission is part of an intervention by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Consumers’ Association of Canada, Canada Without Poverty, and Council of Senior Citizens’ Organizations of British Columbia opposing the Bell/Astral deal. The documents were filed with the CRTC today.  All submissions to the CRTC can be found on its website here.  

Bell claims in its application to the CRTC that a combined Bell/Astral “will not exercise market dominance in any sector of the broadcasting industry” (emphasis added, Bell, Reply, A14c). My submission on behalf of PIAC et. al. argues otherwise and that the transaction deserves very close scrutiny, and that key elements of it should be stopped dead in their tracks.

The key findings in the submission can be summarized as follows:

  1. a successful bid by Bell to acquire Astral would catapult it to the top of the ranks in radio, with revenues of $500 million, 106 radio stations, just under 29 percent of the market – twice the size of its nearest competitors: Rogers, CBC and Shaw (Corus). Notwithstanding such an outcome, this would not trigger regulatory intervention under the CRTC’s new ownership rules or its Common Ownership Policy. Consolidation in radio increased in the early 2000s before drifting downwards in recent years. Radio is unconcentrated by conventional measures. The Bell/Astral deal, however, would reverse the tide and result in the highest levels of concentration in the past twenty-five years
  2. there would be no direct impact on traditional television broadcasting.
  3. in the specialty and pay television market, Bell’s market share would rise sharply from 28% in 2011 to over 42%. This gives the CRTC ample grounds to intervene.
  4. across the total television universe, Bell’s position would be reinforced, rising sharply from 27% in 2011 to 35%. This, too, provides grounds for intervention.
  5. television markets worldwide tend to be more concentrated than often assumed. Canada is, at best, a middle-of-the-road performer on this measure, and often at the high-end of the scale. While concentration is slowly declining elsewhere, in Canada it is rising sharply; the Bell – Astral deal will compound the trend.
  6. Canada currently has the second highest level of cross media ownership and vertical integration among thirty-two countries studied by researchers in the International Media Concentration Research Project (Columbia University). It will be the highest amongst these countries if the CRTC does not pull the plug on the Bell — Astral deal.

The following figure shows the story.

Crossmedia Ownership/Vertical Integration Ratios — Canada # 1 amongst 32 Countries Surveyed Worldwide

Source: International Media Concentration Research Project with updates for 2011-2012 for Canada by author

Conclusions Drawn

Ultimately, the submission concludes:

  1. The CRTC probably has no choice but to give a pass to Bell with respect to its take-over of Astral’s radio assets. Bell meets the Commission’s requirements under the Common Ownership Policy, or at least will once it divests itself of ten stations in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa-Gatineau. This is unfortunate because, until now, radio has been one of the least concentrated and most diverse media in the country. The Bell-Astral deal will increase concentration significantly, whereas in most countries covered by the IMCR study, it is declining.
  2. Television is a different matter. There will be no direct effects on broadcast television. There will, however, be large and significant effects on the specialty and pay television and “total television” markets. Concentration levels in all of these areas are already very high by the CRTC’s own standards, historical norms, global standards and by CR and HHI standards used to measure media concentration in this submission.
  3. The impact will be most extreme in the specialty and pay tv market, where Bell will increase its share of the market from 26.6% to 42.2% — well in excess of every other major player in the market: Shaw (32.3%), Rogers (10.7%), CBC (4.1%) and QMI (3.2%). Together, these five companies will control 92.5% of this market. Out of the eighteen countries for which adequate data is available, Canada currently is the 11th most concentrated market. If the Bell – Astral deal is approved, we’ll fall down another notch to 12th place.
  4. The trend is similar with respect to the “total television” market, but not quite as pronounced. On the basis of the CR, it is already more concentrated than it has ever been in the last twenty-five years. In terms of the HHI, things could soon be right back where they were in 1984, when the HHI score was 2307.5 and the VCR all the rage. By my calculation, the HHI score is presently 1918, up significantly from three years earlier when it was 1,481. Should the Bell deal go through, it will have 35% of the market and the HHI score will be higher still at 2308.8 – one point more than twenty five years ago. The CRTC’s own concentration rules permit it to intervene actively in the face of such levels, and it should.
  5. Lastly, Canada already has the second highest levels of cross-media ownership consolidation and vertical integration in the 32 countries examined by the IMCR project. We don’t need to be first. The CRTC ought to oppose this venture on this ground alone, although it is unclear whether it even as the power, let alone the will, to do so. Concentration within and across the network media industries –  demonstrably and empirically – has been extremely high, and is set to get higher yet.

It is time to reverse the tide.

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