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Media and Internet Concentration in Canada, 1984-2012

Reposted from the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project website (for a downloadable pdf version of this report please click here).

This is the second post in a series. Building on last week’s post that analyzed the growth of the media economy between 1984 and 2012, this post addresses a deceptively simple yet profound question: have telecom, media and internet (TMI) markets become more or less concentrated over the same period of time?

In Media Ownership and Concentration in America, Eli Noam (2009; also see 2013) notes that creating a coherent portrait of media concentration is difficult. Strong views are plentiful, but good evidence is not.  Canadian scholar Philip Savage makes much the same observation, noting that debates over media concentration in Canada “largely occur in a vacuum, lacking evidence to ground arguments or potential policy creation either way”.

This post addresses that gap by providing a long-term, systematic, data-driven analysis of concentration trends across a dozen or sectors in Canada for the years between 1984 and 2012: wireline and wireless telecoms, internet access, BDUs (cable, satellite & IPTV), specialty and pay TV, broadcast TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, search engines, social media sites, online news sources, browsers and smart phone operating systems. These are the essential elements of the network media economy.

Concentration trends are assessed sector-by-sector and then across the network media as a whole using two common analytical tools — concentration ratios (CR) and the Herfindahl – Hirschman Index (HHI). While we cite our sources below, by and large, the following documents and data sets underpin the analysis in this post: Media Industry Data, Sources and Explanatory Notes and the CMCR Project’s Methodology Primary.

Media Concentration: Contentious Debates, Main Issues

Some consider discussions of media concentration in the age of the internet to be ridiculous. Leonard Asper, the former CEO of bankrupt Canwest, quipped, “the media have become more fragmented than ever. People who think otherwise probably believe that Elvis is still alive”. Chris Dornan points to how a Senate report that came out in 2006 was written by a bunch of Senators with their heads buried in the sand.

In Bell Astral 2.0, BCE said that while many critics allege that concentration in Canada is high, the evidence, “regardless of the metric employed – proves otherwise” (Bell Reply, para 46). When there are thousands of websites, social networking sites galore, pro-am journalists, a cacophony of blogs, 744 TV channels licensed for distribution in Canada, ninety-five daily newspapers and smartphones in every pocket, how could media concentration possibly be a problem?

If there was ever a golden media age, this is it, argue Thierer & Eskelen, 2008. Media economics professor, Ben Compaine (2005) offers a terse one-word retort to anyone who thinks otherwise: Internet.

Shackling media companies with ownership restrictions when they face global digital media giants like Google, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, and so on is to condemn them to a slow death by strangulation (Skorup & Thierer, 2012; Dornan, 2012). Journalist’s too often share this view mostly, it seems, because they rely on industry insiders while considering balance and objectivity to be achieved when two industry insiders are shown to disagree with one another. 

Critics, in contrast, tend to see media concentration as steadily going from bad to worse. Ben Bagdikian, for instance, claims that the number of media firms in the US that account for the majority of revenues plunged from 50 in 1984 to just five by the mid-2000s. Canadian critics decry the debasement of news and the political climate of the country (here and here). Others see internet as another frontier of capitalist colonization and monopolization (Foster & McChesney, 2012).

A third school of scholars aims to detect the influence of changes of media ownership and consolidation by quantitatively analyzing reams of media content. They generally find that the evidence is “mixed and inconclusive” (here). The newest of such studies, Cross-Media Ownership and Democratic Practice in Canada: Content-Sharing and the Impact of New Media, comes to similar conclusions (Soderlund, Brin, Miljan & Hildebrandt, 2011).  

Such findings, however, proceeds as if ‘impact on content’ is the only concern, or as Todd Gitlin put in many years ago, as if ‘no effect’ might not be better interpreted as preserving the status quo and thus a significant problem in its own right.

A fourth school of thought, and one that I largely subscribe to, sees the shift from the industrial media of the 19th and 20th centuries to the online digital media of the 21st century as entailing enormous changes. However, it also argues that these changes also entail an equally enormous “battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environment” (Benkler, 2006, ch. 11). The history of human communication is one of recurring ‘monopolies of knowledge” (Innis, 1951) and oscillations between consolidation and competition (John, 2010; Babe, 1990), so why should we expect this to be any less true today(Noam, 2009; Benkler, 2006; Wu, 2010; Crawford, 2012)?

As Noam (2013) states after reflecting on the results of a thirty-country study, concentration around the world is “astonishingly high”.  Whether Canada ranks high by international standards, low or in between will be dealt with in a subsequent post.

The core elements of the networked digital media – e.g. wireless (Rogers, BCE, Telus), search engines (Google), Internet access (ISPs), music and book retailing (Apple and Amazon), social media (Facebook) and access devices (Apple, Google, Nokia, Samsung) – may actually be more prone to concentration because digitization magnifies economies of scale and network effects in some areas, while reducing barriers in others, thereby allowing many small players to flourish. A two-tiered digital media system may be emerging, with numerous small niche players revolving around a few enormous “integrator firms” at the centre (Noam, 2009; Wu, 2010).

All this matters because the more core elements of the networked media are concentrated, the easier it is for dominant players to exercise market power, coordinate behaviour, preserve their entrenched stakes in ‘legacy’ media sectors (e.g. television and film), stifle innovation, influence prices and work against market forces and the needs of consumers and citizens (see here, here, here, here and here).  Large consolidated telecom, media and internet giants also make juicy targets for those who would turn them into proxies working on behalf of the copyright industries, efforts to block pornography, and as part of the machinery of law enforcement and national security (see here, here and here).

In sum, the more concentrated the digital media giants are, the greater their power to:

  • set the terms for the distribution of income to musicians, journalists and media workers, and authors (Google, Apple, Amazon);
  • turn market power into moral authority by regulating what content can be distributed via their ‘walled gardens’ (Apple);
  • set the terms for owning, controlling, syndicating and selling advertising around user created content (Google, Facebook, Twitter) (van Couvering, 2011; Fuchs, 2011);
  • use media outlets they own in one area to promote their interests in another (see Telus intervention in Bell Astral, 2.0 pages 4-6 and here);
  • 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, long-standing concerns remain as well. Consider, for example, the fact that every newspaper in Canada, except the Toronto Star, that editorially endorsed a candidate for Prime Minister in the 2011 federal election touted Harper –three times his standing in opinion polls at the time and the results of the prior election.

Ultimately, talk about media concentration is really a proxy for conversations about consumer choice, freedom of the press and democracy. Of course, such discussions must adapt to changes in the techno-economic environment of the media but the advent of digital media does not render them irrelevant (Baker, 2007; Noam, 2009; Peters, 1999).

Methodology

Measuring media concentration begins by defining the media studied, as noted at the outset. I then collected revenue data for each of these sectors and for each of the firms within them with over a one percent market share. This handy dandy list of sources and others listed here were used.  

Each media is analyzed on its own and then grouped into three categories, before scaffolding upward to get a birds-eye view of the entire network media ecology: (1) platform media; (2) content media: (3) online media. The results are analyzed over time from 1984 to 2012. Lastly, two common tools — Concentration Ratios (CR) and the Herfindhahl – Hirschman Index (HHI) – are used to depict levels of concentration and trends over time within each sector and across the network media ecology as a whole.

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 media concentration (see Albarran, p. 48). The Competition Bureau uses a more relaxed standard, with a CR4 of 65% or more possibly leading to a deal being reviewed to see if it “would likely . . . lessen competition substantially” (p. 19, fn 31).

The HHI method squares and sums the market share of each firm in a 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 a single firm has 100% market share. The US Department of Justice set out new guidelines in 2010 for determining when concentration is likely to exist, with the new thresholds set as follow:

HHI < 1500                                 Unconcentrated

HHI > 1500 but < 2,500             Moderately Concentrated

HHI > 2,500                                    Highly Concentrated

At first blush, these higher thresholds seem to water down the earlier standards that had been set at lower levels and used since 1992. The new guidelines, however, are probably even more sensitive to reality and tougher than the ones they supersede.

This is because they go beyond setting thresholds to give more emphasis to the degree of change in market power. For instance, “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”, observes the DOJ (emphasis added, p. 19).

Second, markets are defined precisely based on geography and the relevant details of the good at hand versus loose amalgamations of things that are based only on superficially similarities. This is critical, and it distinguishes those who would define the media universe so broadly as to put photocopiers and chip makers alongside ISPs, newspapers, film and TV and call the whole thing “the media” versus the ‘scaffolding approach’ we use that starts by analyzing each sector before moving up to higher levels of generality from there until reaching a birds-eye perspective on the network media as a whole.

Third, the new guidelines also turn a circumspect eye on claims that enhanced market power will be good for consumers and citizens because they will benefit from the increased efficiencies that result. What is good for companies is not necessarily good for the country (see Stucke & Grunes, 2012).

Lastly, the new guidelines are emphatic that decisions turn on “what will likely happen . . . and that certainty about anticompetitive effect is seldom possible and not required for a merger to be illegal” (p. 1). In practice this means that the goal is to nip potential problems in the bud before they occur; to “interdict competitive problems in their incipiency”, as the guidelines say (p. 1). Crucially, this means that experience, the best available evidence, contemporary and historical  analogies as well as reasonable economic theories are the basis of judgment, not deference to impossible (and implacable) demands for infallible proof (p. 1).

These assumptions overturn a quarter-century of economic orthodoxy and its grip on thinking about market concentration (see Stucke & Grunes, 2012 and Posner). Freed from the straight-jacket of Chicago School economic orthodoxy, and the subordination of policies and politics to economists and judges, the new guidelines set a tough hurdle for those with the urge to merge. It was precisely this kind of thinking that killed the bid by AT&T – the second largest mobile wireless company in the US – to acquire the fourth largest, T-Mobile, in 2011, for instance (also Stucke & Grunes, 2012).

In Canada, in contrast, the CRTC Diversity of Voices sets up thresholds for a broadly defined TV market in which a proposed deal that results in a single owner having less than 35% of the total TV market will be given the green light; those that fall in the 35-45% range might be reviewed; anything over 45% will be rejected (para 87). Unlike the Competition Bureau that uses the CR4 method whereby a deal that result in a CR4 over 65% may be reviewed to determine whether it will substantially lessen competition, the CRTC has no such guidelines, although a recent accord between the two regulators might change this.

The CRTC’s threshold for TV, instead, is based on a single snapshot of a single company’s share of one broadly defined market – the total TV market –“before” and “after” a single transaction. It is a static measure that has no sense of trends over time, the relational structure of markets or any capacity to analyze the drift of events across media and the network media ecology as a whole.

The Competition Bureau draws selectively from the US HHI guidelines. It does not use the HHI thresholds. Instead, it focuses on “the relative change in concentration before and after a merger” (emphasis added, p. 19, fn 31). How faithful it is to either its CR4 guidelines or the HHI criteria for judging relative changes in market power is open to question, however, in light of its decision earlier this year to bless Bell-Astral 2.0 (here). In Canada regulators appear to mostly make it up as they go along rather than consistently follow a coherent set of guidelines.

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

There has always been 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?

The BRC did this because, it argued, in the face of much corporate bluster, that allowing the telegraph companies to give away the AP news service for free to the leading newspaper in one city after another might be good for the companies but it would “put out of business every news-gathering agency that dared to enter the field of competition with them” (1910, p. 275). In a conscious bid to use telecoms regulation to foster the development of rival news agencies and newspapers, the BRC forced Western Union and CP Telegraphs to unbundle the AP news wire service from the underlying telegraph service. It was a huge victory for the Winnipeg-based Western Associated Press – which initiated the case – and other ‘new entrants’ into the daily newspaper business (Babe, 1990).

Media concentration issues 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 before springing to life again after a huge wave of consolidation in the late-1990s and turn-of-the-21st century thrust concerns with media concentration back into the spotlight. Three inquiries between 2003 and 2008 were held 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); (3) the CRTC’s Diversity of Voices report in 2008.

Competitive Openings and Two (three?) Waves of TMI Consolidation

As I noted in my last post, the media economy in Canada grew immensely from $39 billion in 1984 to $73.3 billion last year (in inflation-adjusted “2012 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. Concentration climbed significantly in both of those sectors.

Conventional as well as pay and subscription television channels expanded during this time as well. 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.

Concentration levels remained very high in wired line telecoms in the 1980s and early 1990s, too. Mobile wireless telecoms services were developed by two incumbents, 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 began to climb again, notably after the dot.com crash in late-2000.

In the 1980s and early-1990s, consolidation took place mostly among players in single sectors. Conrad Black’s take-over of Southam newspapers 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 national commercial television networks by the end of the 1990s: CTV, Global, TVA, CHUM, TQS.

While weighty in their own right, these amalgamations did not have a big impact across the media. 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 less than half that amount today (20.4%).

Gradual change defined the 1980s and early-1990s, but things shifted abruptly 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), but peaking 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’s 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 the biggest film distributor in Canada.

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

The massive influx of capital investment that drove these waves of consolidation across the telecom, media and Internet industries is illustrated in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Mergers and Acquisitions in Media and Telecoms, 1984–2012 (Mill$)

Mergers and Acquisitions, 1984-2012

Sources: Thomson Reuters. Dataset on file with author.

Mergers and acquisitions rose sharply between 1994-1996, and spiked to unprecedented levels by 2000. The collapse of the TMT bubble ended such trends, until they restarted again between 2003 and 2007 before being ground to a halt by the Global Financial Crisis (2007ff), and with only a tentative step up since. These patterns reveal that trends in the network media economy parallel the state of the economy in near lockstep fashion; they also closely track those in the US and globally.

Consolidation has yielded a specific type of media company at the centre of the network media ecology in Canada: i.e. the integrated media conglomerate. While popular in the late-1990s in many countries, 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; Jin, 2013; Skorup & Thierer, 2012; Thierer & Eskelen, 2008; Waterman & Choi, 2010).

Despite deconvergence trends elsewhere, in Canada media-telecom and internet conglomerates are still all the rage. Figures 2 and 3, in fact, illustrate the acceleration of the trend toward vertical integration from 2008 to 2012, largely due to Shaw’s acquisition of the Global TV and a suite of specialty and pay TV channels from Canwest (2010) and Bells re-purchase of CTV (2011).

Figure 2:

Vertical Integration+NME 2008 w telecom

Figure 3:

Vertical Integration+NME 2012 w telecom

Sources: Media Industry Data, Sources and Explanatory Notes

By 2012, four giant vertically integrated TMI conglomerates accounted for 56% of all revenue across the network media economy: Bell (CTV), Rogers (CityTV), Shaw (Global) and QMI (TVA). Add Telus to the fold and the number swells to 71 percent. The ‘Big 5’ are joined by a second tier of a dozen or so more focused entities: the CBC, MTS, Google, Cogeco, Torstar, Sasktel, Postmedia, Astral, Eastlink, Power Corporation, the Globe and Mail, Facebook and Netflix, ranked on the basis of Canadian revenues.

Strip out the wireline and wireless telecoms sectors and we get a more sensitive view of what is going on across the rest of the media universe because those two sectors are so big that they cast a shadow over everything else. From this vantage point, the big ten’s share of revenue reached it’s low point in 1996 (51.7%), before reversing course to reach 58% in 2000. By 2004, the big four’s share of all revenues (without telecoms) soared to 70%, where things have stayed basically flat since.  The big 10’s market share in 2012 was 69%: Bell, Shaw, Rogers, QMI CBC, Google, Cogeco, Torstar, Postmedia and Telus, in that order.

The big four’s share of the network media economy rose significantly to 48% in 2010 (after Shaw’s acquisition of Global) and rose again to 51% in 2011 (when Bell re-acquired CTV), where it has basically stayed since — an all-time high and well above the low point CR4 score of 24% in 1996. Media concentration in Canada is currently more than twice as high as in the US based on Noam’s analysis in Media Ownership and Concentration in America.

Figure 4 below depicts the relative share of the major players in the network media economy as things stood in 2012, without the telecommunications sectors. 

Vertical Integration+NME 2012 w:out telecom

Figure 4:

Sources: Media Industry Data, Sources and Explanatory Notes

The next section doubles back to look at things sector-by-sector, and within the three main categories in which we group these sectors:

  • platform media (wireline & wireless, ISPs, cable, satellite, IPTV);
  • ‘content’ (newspapers, tv, magazines, radio);
  • ‘online media’ (search, social, operating systems).

At the end, I combine these again one last time to complete the analysis of the network media industries as whole.

Platform Media

All sectors of the platform media industries are highly concentrated or at the high-end of the moderately concentrated scale, and pretty much always have been, although Internet Access is a partial exception.

Table 1: CR and HHI Scores for the Platform Media Industries, 1984 – 2012

CR & HHI Network Industries, 2012

Sources: Media Industry Data and Sources and Explanatory Notes.

CR4 and HHI measures for wireline telecoms scores fell in the late-1990s as some competition took hold. They reached their lowest level ever at the time between 2000 and 2004 before the the dot.com bubble collapse took out many of the new rivals with it (CRTC, 2002, p. 21). Competition waned thereafter until 2008, but has risen since. Levels of concentration for this sector are very high nonetheless by both the CR4 and HHI measures.

Mobile Wireless

Much the same can be said with respect to wireless services. They have consistently been highly concentrated, and still are, despite the advent of four new entrants since 2008: Mobilicity, Wind Mobile, Public and Quebecor.

Some recent studies argue “that there is not a competition problem in mobile wireless services in Canada” (see here and here). That conclusion rests on questionable assertions about efficiencies are often asserted but seldom hold up under scrutiny and contestible markets theory in contrast to realities on the ground (see here, here and here).

Claims that there is no wireless competition problem in Canada clash with the reality that CR4 scores have been stuck in the ninety-percent range for the entire history of wireless in Canada, a level well-above the Competition Bureau’s standards. Concentration is a durable fixture in the wireless sector rather than something that will wilt over time. CR and HHI scores have drifted downwards since new rules to encourage new entrants were adopted for the spectrum auction in 2008, but in 2012 the HHI score was still 2873 – far above the 2,500 market that defines a highly concentrated market. 

Two competitors – Clearnet and Microcell – emerged in the late-1990s and managed to garner 13.4 percent of the market between them, but were taken over by Telus and Rogers in 2000 and 2004, respectively. It is still too early to tell whether the new entrants will fare, but with only 7% market share in 2012 they were just half way to restoring the high-water mark of competition set a decade ago with mounting signs of trouble swirling about all of them, except Quebecor and, to a lesser extent, perhaps Wind – but these are points for next year’s post.

Internet Access

As the telecoms and Internet boom gathered steam in the latter half of the 1990s new players emerged to become significant competitors, with four companies taking over 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, where it stayed relatively steady for much of the rest of the decade. Since 2008, however, the CR4 has crawled upwards to reach 59% last year.

HHI scores for internet access doubled between 1996 and 2000, but are still low relative to most other sectors and to this measure’s standards for concentration. However, this reflects the limits of the HHI method in this case, since 93% of residential internet subscribers use one or another of the incumbent cable or telecom companies’ for internet access. The top 5 ISPs account for 76% of all residential high-speed internet access revenues (CRTC Communication Monitoring Report, pp. 143-144).

Climbing down from national measures to the local level, internet access is effectively a duopoly, with the left over 7% of the market not dominated by the incumbents scattered among 500 or so independent ISPs. TekSavvy is the biggest ISP with an estimated 180,000 subscribers in 2012 and just over 1% market share. Other small ISPs are on the wane (Primus). Indy ISPs’ market share has increased slightly from 2010, but it has stayed flat for the past two years and is nowhere near returning to the high-water mark of competitive internet access in the late-1990s. 

Canada has relied on a framework of limited competition between incumbent telecom and cable companies for wireline, wireless, internet access and video distribution markets. Incumbents still dominate all of these sectors, while smaller rivals continue to eek out an existence on the margins in each.

Cable, Satellite and IPTV

Concentration in cable, satellite and IPTV distribution rose steadily from low levels in the 1980s (850) to the upper end of the moderately concentrated zone (by the new HHI guidelines) in 1996 (i.e. HHI=2300), before drifting downwards to the low 2000s by the turn-of-the-century. This is where things have stood until recently as the incumbent telcos’ IPTV services exert pressure on the incumbent cable companies.

The cable, satellite and IPTV industry is still largely a duopoly at the local level. The CR score has dropped 5% since 2004 but the big four still dominate with 81% market share: Shaw (25.1%), Rogers (22.3%), Bell (21.1%) and Quebecor (12.5%). Add the next five biggest players – Cogeco (7.5%), Eastlink (3.8%), Telus (3.6%), MTS (.9%) and SaskTel (.9) – and all but two percent of industry revenues are accounted for.

The telcos’ IPTV services are making incursions into the incumbent cable and satellite service providers’ turf, accounting for 7.5% of the TV distribution market by revenue in 2012 (based on my numbers, or about 6.7% percent using CRTC data)(see p. 110). In terms of subscribers, IPTV services account for 10% of the market (CRTC numbers are slightly lower, p. 111) (see here for partial explanation of the differences).

Since IPTV services began to be rolled out by MTS and SaskTel in 2004, followed later by Telus and Bell in 2008 and 2009, respectively, the HHI score has fallen 320 points (see Table 1 above) and now sits at the lower end of the “moderately concentrated” scale. The threat to incumbent cable companies is greatest in western Canada, where MTS, SaskTel and Telus have rolled out IPTV services faster than Bell from Ontario to the Atlantic.

Within the platform media industries as a whole, new players have emerged, but it is primarily the expansion of incumbent telcos and cable companies outside their traditional turf and into one anothers’ industries that is generating the greatest effect. There has been a modest increase in competition in all platform media sectors in recent years since except internet access. While new technologies have increased the structural complexity of platform media, they have not disrupted the long-standing trajectory of development when it comes to tv distribution: more channels, and a few new players, but with more of the whole in the hands of the old.

The Media Content Industries

Television

In the late 1980s until 1996, concentration in broadcast TV fell sharply while the specialty and pay TV channels emerging at this time displayed similarly high levels of competition. TV became much more diverse as a result.

Such trends abruptly reversed in the late-1990s, however, with something of a lag before the specialty and pay TV market began to follow suit. After the turn-of-the-century concentration levels for TV climbed steadily and substantially. The upswing since 2008 has been especially sharp. Figure 5, below, shows the trend in terms of CR scores; Figure 6, in terms of the HHI.

Figure 5 CR Scores for the Content Industries, 1984-2012

CDN Content Industries, 1984-2012 (CR4) 

Figure 6 HHI Scores for the Content Industries, 1984-2012

CDN Content Industries, 1984-2012 (HHI)

Sources: Media Industry Data and Sources and Explanatory Notes.

In 2012, the largest four television providers controlled about 78% of all television revenues, up substantially from 71% four years earlier. In terms of the 700 TV channels actually operating in Canada, the big four own 171 of them in total and which account for just under four-fifths of all revenue: Shaw (66 tv channels), Bell (61), Rogers (24) and Quebecor (20). In contrast, in 2004, the big four accounted for 62% of the TV biz, a time before major players such as Alliance Atlantis and CHUM had carved out a significant place for themselves in the TV marketplace (circa 2000-2006), respectively.

Concentration across the total TV market has been pushed to new extremes in recent years, first, by Shaw’s take-over of Canwest’s television assets in 2010 and, second, by Bell’s buy-back of CTV the year after that. They would have been higher yet had the CRTC approved Bell’s acquisition of Astral Media – the fifth largest television provider – rising to about 86%. The about face on that matter in 2013 will be dealt within in next year’s version of this post.

In 2012 the largest four tv providers after Bell and Shaw are: the CBC, Rogers, Astral, and QMI, respectively, and in that order. Together, they accounted for 91% of the entire television industry last year. 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 has become markedly more concentrated in the past two years.

CR and HHI measures for tv were the lowest in the 1990s 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 significantly more diverse because the CBC no longer stood as the central pillar in tv and radio, while specialty and pay television channels were finally making their mark. Today, the latter are the jewel in the TV crown, but they are highly concentrated by the CR4 measure, with a CR4 of 81%, yet only moderately so by HHI standards with a score of 1906.

Newspapers

Concentration in the newspaper industry rose steadily from 1984 until 2008, when it peaked.  In 1984, the top four groups accounted for 61% of all revenues, a number which had risen to about two-thirds of the market in 1996 – a level that stayed fairly steady for most of the next decade before rising again to an all-time high within the time frame studied here in 2008. At that point, the four largest newspaper groups accounted for three-quarters of the market: Canwest (23.7%), Quebecor (21.5%), Torstar (19.3%) and Power Corp (10.5%).

Levels have since declined considerably by either the CR4 or HHI measure, with the former falling to 69% in 2012 and the latter dropping from 1628 in 2008 to 1,398 – well within the ‘competitive’ range by the lights of the new HHI standards or only moderately concentrated by the old standards. The new conditions likely reflect Postmedia’s decision to sell some of its newspapers (Victoria Times Colonist) and to cut publishing schedules at others. Indeed, its market share has fallen steeply from 24% in 2008 when the papers were still in the hands of Canwest to just 17% last year, and within a significantly smaller market. A few new publishers have also emerged amidst the tough times now facing the newspaper industry, notably Black Publishing and Glacier Publishing in western Canada.

Magazines

Of all media sectors, magazines are least concentrated, with concentration levels falling by nearly one half on the basis of CR scores and two-thirds for the HHI over time.

Radio

Radio is also amongst the most diverse media sectors according to HHI scores, and only slightly concentrated by the C4 measure. The shuffling of several radio stations between Shaw/Corus and Cogeco in 2011 had continued the long-term decline in concentration, but in 2012 there was an uptick as the CR4 rose from 56% to 60% and the HHI from 954 to 1027. Bell’s take-over bid for Astral – Canada’s largest radio broadcaster – would have further pushed radio along this path had it have been approved by the CRTC in 2012. Levels of concentration would have been high by the CR measure, with the CR4 rising from 60% to 68%, but with an HHI of 1371 it would still have been well within the unconcentrated zone by the revised HHI guidelines or moderately concentrated by the old ones. .

Online Media

As the earlier discussion of internet access showed, there is little reason to believe that core elements of the Internet are immune to high levels of concentration. But what about other core elements of the Internet and digital media ecology: search engines, social media sites, browsers, operating systems and internet news sites?

Concentration in the search engine market grew markedly from 2004 to 2011. CR4 scores have been persistently sky-high during these years, rising from 93% in 2004 to almost 98% in 2011, while HHI scores have been off-the-charts in the 4000-7000 range. Google’s dominance seemed to be locked in the low 80%-range, with others lagging far behind, during this period.

Google’s share of search, however, tumbled in 2012 to just under 68%, although this still leaves Microsoft (17.8%), Yahoo! (5.4%), and Ask.com (6.2%) trailing far behind. The CR4 and HHI scores are still sky-high at 97% and 4995, respectively, and as Table 2 shows.

Table 2: CR4 and HHI Scores for the Search Engine Market, 2004-2012

Search Engine CR, 2004-2012

Source: Experien Hitwise Canada. “Main Data Centre: Top 20 Sites & Engines.” last Accessed May 2013.

Social media sites display a similar but not quite as pronounced trend. Facebook accounted for 46% of unique visitors to such sites in December 2012, followed by Twitter (15%), LinkedIn (12%), Tumbler (12%), Instagram (9%) and Pinterest (6%) (Comscore). Again, the CR4 score of 85% and HHI score of 2762 reveal that social networking sites are highly concentrated.

Similar patterns hold for the top four web browsers in Canada. Microsoft’s Explorer (55%), Firefox (20%), Google’s Chrome (18%), Apple’s Safari (5%) have a market share of 98 percent (Netmarketshare).  In terms of smart phone operating systems, the top four players accounted for 96 percent of revenues: Apple’s iOS (55%), Google’s Android OS (29%), Java (7%), Nokia’s Symbian (5%). RIM (3%) and Microsoft (1%) accounted for the rest (Netmarketshare).

Internet news sites are an exception to the extremely high levels of concentration in the online digital media environment. Internet users time on top 10 online news sites nearly doubled from 20 to 38 percent between 2003 and 2008. Most of that increased time is spent on sites that are extensions of well-known traditional media companies: cbc.ca, Quebecor, CTV, Globe & Mail, Radio Canada, Toronto Star, Post Media, Power Corp. Other major sources included CNN, BBC, Reuters, MSN, Google and Yahoo! (Zamaria & Fletcher, 2008, p. 176).

Despite this rapid “pooling of attention” on the top 15 or so news sites, concentration levels stayed flat between 2004 and 2007. They declined thereafter until 2011 – the latest year for which good data is available. Online news sources are not concentrated by either the CR or HHI measure and are diverse relative to any of the other sectors, except magazines.

Table 3: Internet News Sources, 2004-2011

Online News Sources, 2004-2011

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

Combining all the elements together yields a birds-eye view of long-term trends for the network media as a whole. Figure 7 below gives a snapshot of the state of the network media economy in 2012, listing those sectors that were unconcentrated, those that were moderately concentrated and finally those that were highly concentrated by HHI standards.

Figure 7: Concentration Rankings on the basis of HHI Scores, 2012

Concentration Rankings, 2012

Clearly, things are not all to one side, with several sectors showing low levels of concentration. However, there is no shortage of segments where concentration is either moderately high or very high. Perhaps one of the most striking things to stand out from Figure 7 is the extent to which core elements of the internet and digital media ecology seem to be prone to very high levels of concentration.

Figures 8 and 9 show the trends over time on the basis of, first, CR1, CR4 and CR10 scores, followed by a depiction of the trends based on the HHI.

Figure 8: CR 4 Score for the Network Media Economy, 1984-2012

CR1, 4 & 10, 1984-2012 Iw Telecom)

Sources: Media Industry Data and Sources and Explanatory Notes.

 

Looking the entirety of the network media economy, several distinct points emerge: The biggest company’s share of revenues across the whole of the media twenty-eight years ago was 48%; in 2012, it was 26.4% albeit in a vastly larger media universe. That company in 1984 was BCE; it is still the same company today, and substantially larger than the second and third ranked firms, Rogers and Shaw.

The CR4 levels today are about the same as they were twenty-eight years ago: 66.7% versus 65.1%. Today, the top 10 firms have a larger market share than they did in 1984: 81% versus 76%. These figures would have been higher had the CRTC given the green light to BCE’s first bid to acquire Astral in 2012, as Figure 8 shows.

Figure 9: HHI Scores for the Network Media Economy, 1984-2012

HHI 1984-2012 (w Telecom)

Sources: Media Industry Data and Sources and Explanatory Notes.

As Figure 9 shows, the HHI fell by half from 1984 to 2000. Trends then moved erratically for the next few years before stabilizing in the 1200 to 1300 range, before a significant step up in 2010 and with another potential step in the same direction last year before the CRTC nipped Bell’s bid to acquire Astral in the bud.

The results depict a competitive scenario by the revised 2010 HHI standards (or moderately concentrated by the old standards) – if we take the ‘total media universe’ as the beginning and endpoint of analysis (e.g. Ben Compaine, Ken Goldstein, Adam Theirer). But this is problematic for several reasons.

First, it obscures trends at lower levels of analysis, i.e. sector-by-sector and then by category – platform media, content media and online media – before moving to the total network media. We use the “scaffolding method” precisely so that we can pick up on such things.

Second, such conclusions skate over the fact that while concentration levels according to the most sensitive measure – the HHI — fell greatly between 1984 and 2000, they have basically stayed flat ever since, with a significant uptick since 2010.

Third, from the point of view of the CR4 and CR10, there is a distinct u-shape trend over the past three decades. Concentration fell steeply in the 1980s until 1996-2000, when there was a sharp reversal leading to the CR4 being pretty much the same now as it was thirty years ago. On the basis of the CR10, concentration levels were higher in 2012 than in 1984, i.e. the CR10 in 2012 was 81% vs. 76% in 1984.

From this perspective, concentration has grown significantly over time. At best, one might argue that the CR and HHI scores cut in somewhat different directions, or at least the latter are not so pronounced as the former, and thus the results must be seen as mixed. There is little reason, however, to view the current state of affairs and contemporary trends through rose-tinted glasses.

Concluding Thoughts 

Several things stand out from this exercise. First, we are far from a time when studies of media and internet concentration are passé. Indeed, theoretically-informed and empirically-driven research is badly needed because there is a dearth of quality data available. Moroever, general developments and the press of specific events – Bell Astral 1.0 in 2012, the resurrected version of the Bell Astral deal that was approved earlier this year, and now the wireless wars in which some claim there is no competition problem in mobile wireless services at all versus those who argue the opposite – demand 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 2012 reconfirmed that at every step of the way. The CRTC still needs a dramatic overhaul of how it releases information and of its website. The underlying data sets included in the Communications Monitoring Report, Aggregate Annual Returns, and Financial Summaries should be made available in a downloadable, open format (also see David Ellis’ series of posts on this point).

The regulated companies themselves must also be made to be more forthcoming with data relevant to the issues, not less as they so strongly desire (see here for a recent example). The CRTC also publishes too much data that does not square with what the companies themselves state in their Annual Reports. Good decisions cannot be made poor data.

The trajectory of events in Canada is similar to patterns in the United States. Concentration levels declined in the 1980s, rose sharply in the late-1990s until peaking circa 2000 and staying mostly flat thereafter. While processes of deconsolidation and vertical dis-integration have taken hold in the US — with the exception of Comcast’s 2011 blockbuster take-over of NBC-Universal — trends in Canada are running in the opposite direction and with the forces of concentration having gained momentum since 2010.

Of course, trends are not all to one side. The assets from the bankrupt Canwest have been shuffled in recent years, and the process is ongoing with Postmedia selling off further papers in the past year, thereby allowing small newspaper publishers to grow (Black Publishing, Glacier). Some significant new entities have emerged (e.g. Blue Ant, Post Media, Remstar, Teksavvy, Netflix, Tyee, Rabble.ca, Huffington Post, a worker-owned TV station in Victoria, CHEK, and a and CHCH in Victoria and another independently owned TV station in Hamilton, CHCH).

The overall consequence is that we have a set of bigger and structurally more complicated and diverse media industries, but these industries have generally become 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.

The next two posts will look at the state of media concentration in the English- and French-language regions of the network media economy, followed by another that will look at the state of media concentration in Canada relative to the US and the thirty countries studied by the International Media Concentration Research (IMCR) project, including the U.S. Germany, Japan, Australia, the UK, France, and so on. The final two posts in the series will profile the top 20 TMI companies in Canada as well as trends with respect to ownership, boards of directors, revenue, profits and debt.

KeyWords: Bell and Astral Discover the Public Interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 1, below, shows what I found.

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

Sources: See below.

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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).

CMCR Project 2012 Data Release: Concentration Trends in the Telecom-Media-Internet Industries in Canada, Part 1

Highlights (original posted to Canadian Media Concentration Research Project website)

The CMCR analyzed the financial results for Canada’s biggest TV providersradio broadcastersspecialty, pay and video-on-demand services as well as cable, satellite TV and IPTV providers released by the CRTC in early April. Our analysis shows that concentration levels in 2012 remained high in all areas, except radio.

Using two standard research tools to assess media concentration – concentration ratios and the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) — our analysis shows that:

  1. Concentration levels for all of the industry segments for which the CRTC released data, except radio, remained high in 2012;
  2. However, such levels eased slightly in all segments addressed relative to 2011, except for specialty and pay TV services.

You can access all of our raw data not just for 2012, but from 1984 onwards here.

Discussion

Coupled with the annual reports of publicly-traded companies, the CRTC’s 2012 data allows us to construct a fairly comprehensive portrait of the current state of telecom, media and internet concentration in Canada.[1]

While concentration levels remain at the high end of the spectrum according to both the CR and HHI measures, and by international standards, there was a slight uptick in competition in four out of the five areas covered by the CRTC’s data for 2012:

  • In the $3.5 billion conventional TV sector, the CR4 declined from 87% to 83%, while the HHI score dipped slightly from 1966 to 1943. The decline is likely due to the fact that Bell and Shaw saw small declines in their revenues and market share, while two mid-size TV stations that were formerly a part of Canwest have continued to carve out a spot for themselves: the employee-owned CHEK TV in Victoria and Channel Zero’s CHCH in Hamilton.
  • A small dip could also be seen in the $7.5 billion total TV segment (an amalgam of conventional TV with specialty and pay TV), where the market share held by the big four — Bell, Shaw (Corus), Rogers and Quebecor — declined from 79% to 77%, with a corresponding decline in the HHI score as well.
  • Trends for the $8.7 billion cable, DTH and IPTV pointed in a similar direction, with the big four’s share declining modestly from 83 percent to 81 percent, largely due to the growth of Telus, MTS and Sasktel’s IPTV services in western Canada and Bell’s IPTV offering in Ontario and Atlantic provinces.
  • Finally, the $2 billion radio industry continued its long-term downward drift, with the CR4 sliding from 55.5% to 53.4%.

Concentration levels in the $4 billion Pay and Specialty TV services – the fastest growing and most lucrative segment of the TV industry – stayed steady at the high end of the CR4 (81.6%) and HHI (1905) scales. This is likely due to the fact that the growth of newcomers such as Blue Ant and Channel Zero was offset by a rise in Bell’s share of pay and specialty TV services, largely because of the substantial increase in revenue at its English and French-language sports channels, TSN and RDS, respectively.

The preliminary analysis offered thus far is important because the CRTC released the 2012 data in early April, just days after its deadline for submissions regarding BCE’s renewed bid to acquire Astral Media. As a result, none of the interveners was able to include it in their formal, written submissions to the public hearings that took place last week, except for Bell.

Bell filed an updated analysis based on the 2012 data with the CRTC in its Reply to interveners on April 16. In doing so, it used the new data to repeat and buttress its rejection of critics’ claims that the deal gives Bell too much market power:

. . . close review and analysis of the post-divestiture Bell-Astral in each of the English and French television markets – regardless of the metric employed – proves otherwise (Bell Reply, para 46).

Consequently, Bell asserted, there are no barriers from the standpoint of media concentration that should stand in the way of the CRTC approving the deal (Bell Reply, 2013, pp. 4, 11 – 20; also see the report Bell submitted from its consultant, CMI here, Appendix 3, or here). With today’s release of the CMCR data, readers can examine the evidence for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

Regardless of whether you agree with Bell’s view of the world or not, the fact that Bell and nobody else could update the public record for the Bell-Astral hearings using 2012 evidence is deeply troubling. I will have more to say about these issues in a series of upcoming posts. However, as the Commission settles in to make its decision on the Bell-Astral transaction, the public should have as much access as possible to the evidence upon which key elements of the decision will turn.

The CMCR project does not just present the relevant data company by company, or on the basis of ‘before’ and ‘after’ snapshots to gauge, for instance, the one-off impact of the Bell-Astral transaction on Bell’s stand-alone share of the TV market. Instead, our analysis of the 2012 data relies on two fundamental tenets of good scholarship on media concentration:

(1)  a long-term focus on concentration trends over a 28-year span from 1984 to 2012;

(2)  using two standard research tools to examine the structure of media markets rather than changes in the stand-alone market shares of individual media firms: Concentration Ratios and the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI).

These research methods are essential because snapshots of just one or two media sectors or firms are often selectively used to make unwarranted generalizations about the larger media ecology. Moreover, ‘before’ and ‘after’ snapshots fail to capture dynamic trends over time. These are precisely the kinds of commonly used techniques that serve to muddy the waters, and that sound methodology in media concentration research is explicitly designed to counteract (Noam, 2009, chs. 1-3IMCR, ndCMCR, 2012).

Analysis of the 2012 data also reconfirms the existence of a fundamental problem in the CRTC’s data for pay and specialty TV: key aspects of it cannot be reconciled with the results found in the audited annual reports of several companies covered by the Commission’s data sets. Tallying up the CRTC’s data for Astral, for example, yields a figure of $540.9 million, while the company’s Annual Information Form indicates a figure of $562 million, after the revenues from its two conventional TV stations, in-house advertising and online segments are excluded (see p. 8 and PWC, 2012, pp. 45, 52 and PWC, 2013, p. 60).

Nor is the Astral example an anomaly, as I will show in a subsequent post. This is not a view that we reached lightly but only after lengthy discussions with a Commission analyst well acquainted with the Individual Pay, Pay-per view, Video-on-Demand and Specialty Services Financial Summaries being referred to.

We hope readers will find our analysis of the 2012 data helpful in relation to other matters, as well. In the next week we will also release our analysis of the 2012 data for vertical integration between cable, satellite and IPTV distributors (BDUs) and TV and radio broadcasters in English- and French-language markets, and for Canada as a whole.

Our analysis will also be updated as new data becomes available for the remaining telecom, media and internet industries covered by the CMCR project: wireless and wired telecoms, Internet access, search engines, music, newspapers and magazines.


[1] The CRTC released total revenue figures for pay and specialty TV and broadcast distribution services; it did not do so for conventional TV or radio. To estimate revenues for these two sectors, we used last year’s cumulative annual growth rates cited in the Communications Monitoring Report, while checking that figure against other quality sources such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ (2012) Global Entertainment and Media Outlook, 2012 – 2016 to help ensure the reliability of our estimate.

Competition Bureau Blesses Bell – Shaw Take-Over of Astral Media

Bell Astral Round 2 officially got under way today with an announcement by the Competition Bureau that it will conditionally approve the deal. In the Competition Bureau’s words, “Today’s agreement is essential to preserving choice for consumers and ensuring continued and effective competition in this area.”

The Competition Bureau and Bell place a great deal of emphasis on the pay and specialty tv channels and radio stations the latter agreed to sell off to get approval for the deal, as well as the modest restrictions that the Bureau imposed to prevent Bell from blocking rivals’ access to two marquee channels in the Astral line-up: The Movie Network and Super Écran.

The bottom line, however, is that no amount of divestitures can obscure the fact that already extremely high levels of media, telecom and internet concentration in Canada — by historical, international and anti-trust standards — will become a lot higher yet (see here). At least that will be the case, if the CRTC does not steel its spine for a second time to take a much more expansive view of the issues than the Competition Bureau’s myopic views of the deal’s impact on economic efficiency and “relevant advertising markets”. 

More important than the conditions placed on the deal is what Bell did get. Bell already owns thirty pay and specialty tv channels (e.g. CTV News, ESPN, Comedy Network, TSN, Réseau des Sports, Discovery Channel, etc.) and it will add eight more if its deal with the Competition Bureau sticks: the French-language SuperÉcran, CinéPop, Canal Vie, Canal D, VRAK TV, and Z Télé, and English-language services The Movie Network, HBO Canada, and TMN Encore. This, too, must be seen on top of the 28 conventional tv stations that Bell owns that make up its CTV1 and CTV2 networks across Canada.

Thus, even after the divestitures required, Bell will still hold 66 tv channels and its share of the pay and specialty tv market will rise sharply from 27.4% to 38.7%. But as I’ve always said, media and internet concentration is not about the market share of a single player but the structure of the relevant sectors and the telecom, media and internet (TMI) industries as a whole.

Thus, more important than just Bell’s dominant market share is that in the pay and specialty segment of the tv industry, the big 4 companies’ — Bell, Shaw, Rogers and the CBC, in that order if the deal succeeds — share of revenues will rise from 87.6% to 90.5%. This is far in excess of the CR4’s typical threshold for establishing a prima facie case of concentration of 50% and well above the Competition Bureau’s own standards set for banking (para 47)

An already sky-high Herfindahl – Hirschman Index (HHI) score of 2270 will move into uncharted territory at over 3000 (recall, that the U.S. Department of Justice typically uses an HHI of 1800 as a threshold for defining high levels of concentration) (on questions of the CR and HHI methodology, see here). Table 1, below, shows the results. 

Pay and Specialty Television Ownership Groups, Revenue, Market Shares and Concentration Levels, 1984-2011 (1)
2004 2006 2008 2010 2011 Post Comp Bureau Divestitures
Shaw/Corus (4)

18.7

15

17.5

31.7

33.1

35.1

  Canwest

2.1

1.9

16.1

Shaw
Bell

27.4

38.7

CTV Globemedia

28.4

26.3

Rogers

15.8

15

10.9

11.5

12.3

12.3

Astral

5.9

13.2

17

15.9

15.6

Bell – Shaw

CBC/Radio Canada

6.4

6.3

5.1

4.3

4.4

4.4

Quebecor (5)

1.6

1.9

2.5

3.5

3.9

3.9

Pelmorex

1.9

1.9

1.7

1.4

1.3

1.3

Fairchild (Chinavision)

1.2

1.2

1

0.8

0.8

0.8

MusicPlus/MusiqueMax (7)

0.6

0.6

0.5

0.6

0.4

0.4

Cogeco (as TQS from 2001-08)

0.1

0.1 (Remstar)
Spec and Pay TV $ (14)

2050

2428

2929.9

3459.4

3732.1

3732.1

Conventional TV $

3159.9

3175.9

3381.4

3405.6

3491.9

3491.9

Total TV $

5209.9

5603.9

6311.3

6865

7224

7224

C4

61.9

57.1

72.9

85.4

87.6

90.5

HHI

1181.27

1205.71

1816.24

2069.58

2269.24

3084.6

Sources: CRTC’s Communication Monitoring Report and its Pay and Specialty Statistical and Financial Summaries; Corporate Annual Reports.

While Bell’s take over of Astral will have minimal effect on conventional over-the-air television, its impact on the total tv market, an amalgamation that adds conventional tv stations to the pay and specialty tv segment, will be significant. Bell’s share of total tv revenues will rise from just under 26% to just under 32%. Sure, these figures fall beneath the CRTC’s threshold of 35% set out in the Diversity of Voices ruling in 2008, but that is more a measure of the weakness of the rules rather than a satisfactory state of affairs. The CR4 for the total tv market will rise sharply from 81% to just under 90%; the HHI will similarly shoot upwards from its current excessive level of roughly 1900 to 2284, as the following table shows.

Total Television Market

2004

2006

2008(2)

2010

2011

Post Comp Bureau Divestitures
Bell

25.7

31.6

Shaw/Corus (7)

7.4

6.5

7.1

21.4

24.4

25.4

CBC/Radio Canada (4)

22.8

21.2

22.1

20.5

20.8

20.8

Rogers[vi]

3.8

7

9.7

11.6

10.5

10.5

Astral

6.2

6.5

7.2

8.1

8.1

 Bell – Shaw

Quebecor (8)

5.9

6.1

5.8

5.5

5.6

5.6

Remstar

0.9

0.9

0.9

Total TV $

5209.9

5603.9

6311.3

6865

7224

7224

C4

63.6

61.9

75.7

79.7

81.4

88.3

HHI

1310.6

1290.09

1750.26

1796.93

1897.01

2284.4

One of the more perverse outcomes of the state-of-affairs overseen by the Competition Bureau is how it plays to one of Canada’s other major TMI conglomerates: Shaw. Indeed, while there is much talk of divestiture, the arrangements brokered by the Competition Bureau effectively dismantles Astral Media — the ninth largest media company and most significant non vertically-integrated media enterprise in the country — in a way that allows Bell to keep the company’s crown jewels while handing over much of everything else to Shaw.

Indeed, Shaw is a major beneficiary of this transaction, moreso than citizens, consumers and the public will ever be. This is because Corus, which it controls through common ownership by the Shaw family, will pick up the two English-language radio stations as well as the half-a-dozen pay and specialty channels that Bell must sell: the bilingual Teletoon/Télétoon service, English-language Teletoon Retro and Cartoon Network (Canada), and French-language Télétoon Rétro, Historia and Séries+. Bell will also sell off ten other radio stations and another half-dozen specialty and pay channels: The Family Channel, Disney XD,Disney Jr. (English and French), MusiquePlus and Musimax.

This horse-trading amongst dominant players in the industry overseen and blessed by the Competition Bureau smacks of the worst in Canadian regulatory traditions, i.e. the state giving its seal of approval to incumbent interests in already concentrated markets. The matter is made all the more unsavoury by the fact that Shaw was Bell’s only industry ally in Round One of the Bell-Astral deal, supporting Bell’s application to the CRTC and largely sitting silent on the sidelines. The rest of the industry and many others — Quebecor, Cogeco, Telus, MTS, Sasktel, Eastlink, the Independent Broadcasters Association, public interest and consumer groups, etc — fought strategically and on principled grounds against the original deal. The upshot of these arrangements is the creation of two roughly equal behemoths, Bell and Shaw, with each accounting roughly for 38.7% and 35.1% of revenues in the pay and specialty tv sector, respectively, and about 31.6% and 25.4%, respectively, of revenues in the total television market.

Call it a duopoly, but it certainly is not competition in any normal sense of the term. On what should be the more exacting terms of creating the most diverse media possible in line with the ideals of the free press and democracy, such arrangements are a travesty.

Indeed, it is exactly this kind of insider coopetition that has defined Canada’s TMI industries for too long and which the original CRTC decision looked like it might undo. The Competition Bureau’s Consent Agreement certainly blunts that hope, if not kills it outright.

To be sure, this transaction has always been animated by the idea that Bell’s acquisition of Astral might just put it in a better position to undo Quebecor’s dominance of French-language media markets. Is we keep our eyes focused only on the ‘clash of titans’ scenario in which the end game is to pit an even bigger Bell against Quebecor, there is some truth to this, but focusing on only one or two players is not the proper way to assess the structure of any market, let alone media markets.

Looking at Table 3 below, we can see that on the basis of revenues, the CBC is currently the largest player in French language television markets, followed by Quebecor with roughly 24 percent market share and Astral with just over 17%. Bell, V Interactions and Shaw/Corus trail far behind with 8.2, 4.4 and 2.2 percent market share, respectively.

Table 3: French Language Total Television Revenues (Millions), 2007 – 2011

2007

2009

2010

2011

PCBD*

2011 Market Share

PCBD Mrkt Share)

BCE

7.2

8.2

113.5

123.5

327.5

8.2

21.6

Quebecor

278.2

335.9

337.1

364.3

364.3

24.1

24.1

Astral

223.2

235.2

238.3

260.2

22.8

17.2

1.5

CBC(3)

489.7

532.9

606.7

629.5

629.5

41.6

41.6

V Interactions

64.4

61.9

66.5

66.5

4.4

4.4

Cogeco

107.0

Shaw

6.1

5.7

30

33.2

66.5

2.2

4.4

Canwest

18.5

22.3

Shaw
Others

137.6

123.4

46.5

35.6

36

2.4

Total French-language Conventional TV

817.5

826.0

892.0

925.8

925.8

925.8

925.8

French pay and specialty TV

450.0

502.0

542.0

587.0

587.0

587.0

587.0

Total French-language TV

1267.5

1328.0

1434.0

1512.8

1512.8

1512.8

1512.8

CR4

91.0

 91.7

HHI

2699

2818.9

Sources: CRTC (2012). Communications Monitoring Report and Aggregate Annual Returns and company Annual Reports.

If the scenario contemplated by the Competition Bureau’s Consent Agreement goes ahead, Bell will replace Astral as Quebecor’s biggest commercial rival.  Shaw/Corus’ place in the French-language market will also be strengthened on account of the increased share in French-language TV services that it will have. While such a scenario might put two of Canada’s largest TMI conglomerates on a more equal footing in Quebec, the elimination of Astral will reduce the number of independent media groups and further drive up already extremely high levels of concentration within Quebec and across the Canada as a whole.

That concentration is already extremely high in Canada there can be no doubt, with the big four firms (CBC, Quebecor, Astral and Bell), as Table 3 above shows, controlling 91% of all revenues. The CR4 will rise if Bell acquires Astral to just under 92%, while the already sky-high HHI will rise from an exceptional 2699 to 2818.  To be sure, these increases might appear modest, but it cannot be emphasized enough that this is only because concentration levels are already off-the-charts by any reasonable measure.

The claims that a bulked up Bell will make for a more formidable competitor to Quebecor is even less convincing when we look beyond the domain of television. In radio for example, while Bell will bulk up on French-language radio stations to complement its English-language stations, Quebecor isn’t involved in radio at all. Net outcome? More concentration in radio, but zero benefit in terms of competition and diversity.

The table below shows the results with respect to French-language radio.

French-language Radio Revenues  

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

Post CompBur Divestitures $ Mills)

CBC

155.5(4)

161.9

166.2 (4)

145.1

140.3

140.3

Astral

108.8

109.5

108.4

107.9

108.7

Bell – Shaw

Cogeco

30.3

33.2

36.3

41.8

84.1 (1)

84.1

Corus

48.1

49.3

50.4

55.5

BCE

108.7

Total Fench Private Radio Rev

224.9

230.9

238.4 (2)

251.1

258.4 (3)

273.2 (5)

Total Fench Radio Rev

380.4

392.8

404.6

396.2

398.7

407.7

Sources and Notes:  CRTC (2012). Communications Monitoring Report and Aggregate Annual Returns and company Annual Reports; CBC figure for 2007 is based on estimate of 41% of CBC radio revenues allocated to French language services, as per 2008. For 2009, the Aggregate Annual Returns identifies French radio rev for CBC as 170.5, however it is 166.2 in the Canadian Media Monitoring Report; Cogeco data for 2011 from Annual Report differs (p. 29) from CRTC figure of $113.6 (Aggregate Annual Return).

Moreover, while Bell will divest ten English-language radio stations as part of its agreement with the Competition Bureau, more importantly it will retain 77 out of Astral’s 84 radio stations. Add that to the 30 that Bell will retain in its existing stable and it will have 107 radio stations across the country — a development that will, as I stated last year when this transaction was first announced, see Bell “catapult from being the fifth ranked player in radio to top dog”. It’s exact share of revenues can’t be precisely counted, but would be about 26% before the divestitures and likely somewhere around 21-23% afterwards by my estimation.

This is not terribly high, but it does reverse the trend of declining concentration in radio, which is pause enough for concern. Indeed, the best the Competition Bureau can muster in this regard is that it “is satisfied that the proposed divestitures are sufficient to ensure the transaction will not result in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in any radio market.” That’s a far cry from saying that it will contribute anything positive. 

Finally, Quebecor’s dominance of French-language newspapers and magazines will remain completely unscathed by Bell’s acquisition of Astral, since neither of them is involved in either of these areas, except for Bell’s minority stake in the Globe and Mail. Given the protracted strife and lock-outs at Quebecor’s Journal de Quebec and later the Journal de Montreal in recent years, and Pierre Karl Péladeau’s commitment to using his media outlets to push a clear political and ideological agenda, there is no doubt a great deal of antipathy toward Quebecor in Quebec, across the country and amongst journalists in particular.

This has no doubt fomented a desire to undercut Quebecor’s ability to seemingly lord over the French press with impunity. While that no doubt plays well into Bell’s claims about increasing competition with its erstwhile rival, the fact that it has no stake in the French press further weakens its claim.

Ultimately, the CRTC might yet turn back Bell’s bid to take-over and carve up Astral Media by taking a more expansive view of these matters under the Broadcasting Act and, more importantly, from within the traditions of a free press and democracy. At the same time, however, the fact that the Competition Bureau moved on its own today does not bode well.

Two years ago in the United States, by contrast, the Department of Justice and FCC worked hand-in-glove in relation to the closest parallel to the Bell-Astral agreement: Comcast’s acquisition of NBC – Universal in 2011. To be sure, both regulators gave the green light in that instance, but the terms were a far cry from the weak measures that appear to have been adopted by the Competition Bureau on its own.

We still await details of the Competition Bureau’s Consent Agreement, but so far, its actions seem woefully myopic and unhinged from even its own standards of assessing market concentration. This, however, is probably the price we play when fundamental matters of communication and democracy are left to those who see the world only through a constrained economic lens.

The net outcome of this transaction will be demonstrably higher levels of concentration in both French and national pay and specialty tv markets as well as the total tv market overall. The same will be true with respect to radio.

It will also further the extremely high levels of vertical integration across the entire sweep of the TMI industries. That, in turn, will, at the very least, solidify our dubious honour of having the second highest levels of cross media ownership concentration among the 14 comparable countries surveyed by the International Media Concentration Research Project. In fact, it will likely make us Number 1 on this measure.

At the same time, the idea of carving up the market between Bell and Shaw smacks of too much that is unsavoury of how media policy in this country has worked for far far too long. This has to change. There was hope that such change might be in the air last year when CRTC spiked the first incarnation of the Bell Astral deal.  That hope just got dimmer.

 

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.

Journos as Megaphones: The Globe and Mail Covers Bell

Once again, yet another story in the Globe and Mail yesterday was out peddling a tale of doom and gloom about the state of conventional commercial television broadcasters in Canada. This time, the story came hot on the heels of a Supreme Court of Canada ruling Thursday that threw cold water on the idea that cable, satellite and IPTV services should pay broadcast tv companies — Bell (CTV), Shaw (Global), Rogers (CityTV), Quebecor (TVA), the CBC, and a smattering of smaller independents — to deliver their signals to the tv screens of Canadians across the country.

It was a small victory for the non-vertically integrated entities that have long been in the business of television distribution, such as Cogeco, Eastlink and other cable companies, as well as several telcos across the country that are trying to expand their IPTV services in order to break into this highly concentrated field: Telus, MTS Allstream, Sasktel. Even Rogers, given its relatively small place in the conventional tv universe, opposed the fee-for-carriage model being touted by Bell, Shaw and a few others.

However, rather than entertaining the idea that the Supreme Court’s decision might be a good thing because it means that there will be no new ‘fee-for-carriage’ charges on already expensive cable and satellite bills (i.e. a “TV Tax”), or that it could foster more competition in the anemic tv distribution biz, where the big four — Shaw, Bell, Rogers and Quebecor — control roughly 84 percent of industry revenues, the Globe and Mail article hands the narrative over to the loser in the case: Bell.

Instead of framing the victory as potentially a small victory for consumers, or examining the Supreme Court decision itself, the article rips and reads from Bell’s talking points. Of the 813 words in the article, 144 are direct quotes from Bell; the Supreme Court decision gets 37.

Indeed, Bell sets the narrative frame for the story from the get-go, not just in terms of the sheer volume of ink spilt transcribing and transmitting its view to readers, but by the fact that it is the first to be quoted, and extensively so, with paragraphs five and six completely handed over to the company’s talking points. Here’s Bell setting the stage in paragraph five, lamenting why the decision is bad, not for itself, but Canadians:

“TV viewers across the country would have benefited from long-term stability for their local television stations, which currently rely on an advertising market that has seen permanent structural change, and is no longer able to fund such a model on its own.”

A few paragraphs later, Bell locks down the frame that sticks for the rest of the story: “the ad market for local television is in permanent decline.”

But hold the phone! Are any of these claims true? Umm, there’s room for interpretation, although not in the Globe and Mail’s piece, but the answer is basically (i) mixed if we look just at broadcast television advertising revenue, (ii) no if we look at total revenues for broadcast tv and (iii) an even bigger NO if we look at advertising revenues for all tv services.

As the CRTC’s most recent Communication Monitoring Report shows, advertising revenues for conventional tv for the past four years have been basically flat, hovering between $2,320 – $2,350 million. Advertising revenues went to hell in a hand-basket in 2009, but have risen by nearly $220 million in the two years since (p. 73).

If we look at all revenues for conventional television, the picture is even clearer. While revenues plunged in 2009 at the height of the economic downturn, other than that they basically stayed flat between 2008 and 2010.

By 2011, revenues for conventional tv were up $86.3 million over the previous year and over $100 million more than they had been at the outset of the global economic downturn in 2008. They were roughly $315 million more than five years ago, i.e. $3,491 in 2011 versus $3,176.2 million in 2006 (all revenue figures can be seen here). Not bad, really, and hardly the picture of distress portrayed by Bell.

Every media economist knows that the fortunes of advertising supported media hinges on the state of the general economy. In light of that, the fact that conventional tv has weathered the economic downturn, and done so whilst so much else in its environment is in a heightened state of flux, is not a catastrophe, as Bell and the Globe and Mail would like us to believe, but quite remarkable.

Perhaps if we dig deeper to look at advertising revenues across all television services as a whole, we will see the deep structural shift that Bell claims is happening, and which the Globe and Mail simply transcribes and transmits, as dollars are forever siphoned away from television in favour of the internet?  Um, no.

The big picture for advertising revenues across all television services (conventional and pay/specialty) is even more unequivocal: television advertising revenues have risen steadily and substantially over past twelve years, as the following figure shows:

TV Advertising

Source: Interactive Advertising Bureau (2012). 2011 Actual + 2012 Estimated Canadian Online Advertising Revenue Survey; Interactive Advertising Bureau (2009), 2008 Actual + 2009 Estimated Canadian Online Advertising Revenue Survey.

While there is absolutely no doubt that all of the players are scrambling to come to terms with new realities and still moving grounds, it is precisely because conventional television is not in crisis that the CRTC decided earlier this year to phase out the much hated Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF) that it had put into place in 2008 when things really did look rocky.

Journalists do a disservice to their readers by packing stories and what purports to be analysis with talking points from Bell rather than doing the leg work needed to access readily available data that paints a fuller and, by and large, very different picture.

Of course, there is tons of room to argue over the evidence but the flat portrait of conventional tv in decline painted at the Globe and Mail obscures the terrain of debate. If this was just an isolated instance, then perhaps we could just move along, nothing to see here. My sense, however, is that it is not.

To be more specific, we saw exactly this kind of coverage by the Globe and Mail when the CRTC quashed Bell’s bid to acquire Astral Media (see here and here, for example). Bell was essentially given free reign to vent, to tell us why the CRTC decision was wrong, how the CRTC under new chair J.P. Blais had gone activist, how Astral’s market cap had taken an undeserved beating as a result, what George Cope and Kevin Krull planned to do about things, and finally, when Bell teed up a second bid for Astral its move was pitched as somehow being routine, just another kick-at-the-can, when it is anything but.

There’s two final points to be said on these matters, at least for now: first, the task of journalists is not to act as conveyer belts for corporate PR and a monochromatic view of the world. Readers deserve better.

Second, and in this particular context, the fact that the owners of the Globe and Mail, the Thomson family, have a significant equity stake in Bell, and Bell holds a 15% stake in the Globe and Mail, raises questions about the ability of journalists to cover this beat without serving on bended knees. There is no proof that Globe and Mail journalists are taking orders from headquarters on this stuff, and if they were, the chance that we could know about it are about zero since we have no access to the internal workings of the newsroom and the day-to-day routines of journalists.

The fact that researchers can seldom gain access to the internal working of media organizations is why I do not generally like to try to connect my analysis of the structure of the media industries with the quality of the content they provide, whether good, bad or otherwise. One thing that this means, however, is that we have to trust journalists and for that to happen they have to give us good reason to do so.

People who own stuff like to tell others what to do and certainly have the potential to do so within the media, so it seems to me that journalists must walk the extra mile to demonstrate their autonomy rather than serving up Bell’s view of the world in one case after another in which the company finds itself on the losing end of the stick. Two months ago, the context was Bell Astral, two days ago the Supreme Court. Tales of doom and gloom advance a policy agenda and in this case, that of Bell and a few others, and that is why it is so important not to parrot what they have to say.

With Bell Astral Round Two likely to be teed up in the New Year, we deserve better journalistic coverage of the media industries in this country and I sure hope we get it. The last thing we need is yet another rooftop from which the most powerful and well-endowed media voices in the land get to shout about their view of the world and how things oughta be.

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