Down the Rabbit Hole at the CRTC: Regulator and Big 4 Make Molehill Out of Mountain on Telecom-Media-Internet Concentration Issues
As per my usual practice, this post is a slightly altered version of my column in the Globe and Mail today. It is a a wee bit longer and, as is my standard practice, comes more fully-equipped with citations and sources that you can turn to to follow up on, assess my take on things, and so forth.
In the first of two column’s last week I offered evidence and argument as to why the CRTC’s current vertical integration hearings are not likely to deal effectively with the question of telecom-media-Internet concentration in Canada. Sitting in on three full days of hearings last week has convinced me that the prospects may be even dimmer than I thought.
If you know how to say “voluntary code”, “case-by-case dispute resolution”, “skinny basic”, and status quo, you’re in luck because that’s probably what the outcome will be. Some consumers will benefit with slimmed down and more affordable basic cable and satellite packages and there’s a fifty-fifty chance that a hands-off-Netflix approach is in store, if I am right. The pay-per Internet model and less than a handful of telecom-media-Internet behemoths, however, will be still stand astride a set of highly concentrated industries, and we will be the poorer for this.
The hearings had an Alice-in-Wonderland feel, mainly because the evidence offered by all sides was remarkably poor. Consequently, discussion meandered between speculative worries and rose-tinted visions brought to us courtesy of the great media corporations of Canada.
The CRTC’s refusal to do much original research of its own compounds this problem, and compares badly with research conducted by, for example, the FCC and Ofcom, respectively. Like the mythical beaver that castrates itself in self-defense, the CRTC seems to worry that conducting original research might bias its decisions. Strange.
All of the top brass from Bell, Shaw, Quebecor Media Inc. (QMI) and Rogers attended, sometimes with as many as ten to a delegation. With few exceptions (see below), the Big Four stood as one against almost everyone else, but nonetheless they seem to have set the parameters of discussion around less than a handful of touchstone themes:
- That we should rely on market forces to the maximum extent possible.
- Canadian markets are competitive, small by global standards and need big media companies to compete.
- problems that do arise should be settled one by one after they occur rather than establishing clear regulatory rules before hand.
- concerns about the anti-competitive potential of vertical integration are mostly speculative rather than real.
Rogers allowed a crack of light to peak through when it broke ranks with Bell, QMI and Shaw to table a “code of conduct” that would require vertically-integrated media firms to sell programming rights to traditional broadcasters, such as the five CityTV stations that it owns. While the others tried to belittle or ignore Rogers’ stand on this point, the CRTC seemed to like the voluntary code of conduct idea very much. I suspect we’ll have some version of it.
Otherwise, Rogers, Bell, Shaw and QMI united behind the view that smaller rivals should not be entitled to a regulated guarantee of fair and reasonable access to their networks or the content rights associated with TSN, Rogers SportsNet, the History Channel or any of the other 100-plus television channels they own between them.
QMI’s CEO and majority owner, Pierre Karl Péladeau, scoffed at the idea that exclusive content agreements were a problem. Bell’s chief regulatory front man, Mirko Bibic called the idea that audiences should be able to access content on any device from any provider, anytime, “preposterous”.
Brad Shaw, the CEO and part of the family that controls Shaw Media, bristled when I intervened in a journalistic softball scrum to ask him to respond to the possibility that concerns with vertical integration and media concentration are not based on speculation and fear mongering but current evidence and recurring historical patterns. After shrinking back into my shoes, he returned to typical patter about how vital it is for Shaw to be “consumer centric”.
Over the course of the three days, Netflix was set up as a formidable threat to the Canadian broadcasting system. This may be a shock to some, but I got the sense that the CRTC is not all that eager to assume this role, despite enormous pressure from Bell, Shaw, QMI and (less so) Rogers, the Over-the-Top Working Group, media unions, arts and culture groups, the Senate Committee on Canadian Heritage as well as a pending Supreme Court case.
When I spoke with Michael Hennessy, Telus’s Senior Vice-President, Regulatory and Government Affairs, he came across as a thoughtful man and seemed to better understand the idea that just because a company owns the medium does mean that it should control the messages flowing through them. Telus’ primary focus is on connectivity, he told me, not content.
Telus’ periodic work with Google, amongst other things has taught the company, he also said, that it is better to grant as much access to outside content sources as possible and push control out to the edges of the network and into the hands of Internet users. One doesn’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Telus fan to accept everything that he claimed, but in my view Telus is on the side of angels on this question – even if this has not always been the case.
Telus’ launch of IPTV services over the past few years has been a success by Canadian standards, but obtaining content rights for its IPTV and mobile video services has been a real obstacle, with Bell standing out in this respect since its acquisition of CTV earlier this year. According to a recent OECD study, Canada ranks 19th out of 27 in terms of the percentage of subscribers to IPTV, while rates in Sweden, Belgium and France are four- to ten-times higher (p. 223). One wonders if this low ranking is related to the problems just described and regulatory rules not up to the task of curbing market power across a number of telecom, media and Internet industries?
Commercial broadcasters have been slow to develop online video services, doing so only around the end of 2007, early 2008. It was the CBC, instead, that blazed the way, only to find one of its early attempts to use BitTorrent to distribute an episode of Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister thwarted by Bell’s ‘network throttling’ practices. The big four have accelerated their efforts in the past year, mainly as Bell, Shaw, Rogers, and QMI import the “tv everywhere” from the US so that existing subscribers can access the companies’ own content anywhere, anytime.
Reflecting the fact that commercial broadcasters have been slow on the uptake, Konrad von Finckenstein asked Péladeau why QMI hadn’t launched an online video downloading service to compete with Netflix? The activities of the “state broadcaster” (the CBC), he responded, excessive regulation, and nervous investors were holding it back. The head of the CRTC also asked for evidence that Netflix was a threat to the television system, but was told by Péladeau that he had none.
Smaller players, in sharp contrast, piled anecdote upon anecdote to show that vertical integration is, in fact, a significant problem. Telus, MTS, SaskTel and Cogeco submitted a “joint proposal” as well that sets out a handful of principles that they want enshrined in a sturdy regulatory framework:
- Access to content by television program distributors and carriers should be on fair and reasonable terms.
- Subscribers should be able to access the content they want from the device they want anywhere, anytime.
- Block booking — tying the rights to purchase one television channel to buying several others, among other things – should not be allowed (a stance consistent with CRTC’s favourable view of “skinny basic”, i.e. a minimalist basic cable tv service).
- A tough regulatory regime is needed before-hand and not after the fact, as the big four would like.
- The regulator must assume a tough stance toward vertically-integrated telecom-media-Internet conglomerates that possess substantial market power.
Most independent broadcasters more or less agree with these ideas, with some minor tweaks. Despite their merit, however, the evidence to support these principles, was not convincingly demonstrated by anyone.
The fact that evidence was probably never going to carry the day anyway, however, struck me hard on Day Three when von Finckenstein called Telus’s proposal “over the top”. Newly-appointed Vice Chair of the CRTC, Tom Pentefountas, added to this sense when he asked Michael Hennessy if Telus’ “proposals essentially take the ‘free’ out of the ‘free market’?”
Across the aisle from me, Bibic, the regulatory pitbull from Bell who had made more than one CRTC commissioner wince and waiver during his presentation a day earlier, smiled broadly like The Cheshire Cat. Day 3, and the endgame was coming clearly into view.
Day 3 and the endgame was coming clearly into view.
As I normally do, this post largely replicates my column for the Globe & Mail today with the addition of a few more links so that you can follow up on things that I refer to. I was at the opening of the hearings today and plan to be there a few more times this week and next. I’ll have more to report in a few days.
Altogether, seventy-eight different parties filed interventions with the CRTC. There are 50 scheduled to give presentations over the next two weeks. You can find all of the links to the briefs and studies filed with the CRTC by the companies and other intervenors here.
The CRTC’s hearings on vertical integration began Monday. For the next two weeks this means that the four major vertically-integrated media companies in Canada – Bell, Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor – could face tough questions about whether they have the clout to dominate telecom, media and Internet services across the country and, if so, what should be done to curb that potential?
The hearings were scheduled last November after the CRTC approved cable giant Shaw’s $2 billion take-over of bankrupt Canwest Media’s television assets (27 television stations, the Global network, 30 specialty cable and satellite channels). It was given added impetus after Bell’s $3.2 billion deal to acquire CTV and the A-channels was given the green light in March.
There is every reason to be skeptical about these hearings given that they are a classic case of “bolting the barn door after the horse has already left the stable”. It is also CRTC approvals all down the line that have allowed integrated media conglomerates to become the norm to begin with.
In the U.S., media conglomerates have become the exception (Comcast/NBC-Universal) after the disastrous AOL Time Warner merger, the collapse of the ‘old’ AT&T, break-up of Viacom-CBC, and so on. Indeed, vertical integration is in retreat in almost every other developed capitalist democracy.
We should also remember that Bell attempted – and failed— to extend its reach from the medium to the message from 2000 to 2006 by taking-over CTV, CHUM, and the Globe & Mail. The fate of Canwest was worse. Yet, we seem to be stuck in a time warp, with CEOs, Cabinet Ministers and the CRTC singing in unison that media conglomerates are all the rage, for much the same reason that they did back in the 1990s.
Be that as it may, Bell, Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor Media Inc. (QMI) do exemplify the trend in Canada. They are the ‘big four’ and the hearings are all about them. They stand at the apex of a set of telecom, media and Internet markets that have grown greatly from $42 billion in revenue in 1998 to $73 billion today (in constant 2010$).
The real issues, however, are not about the sheer size of the ‘big four’, but their market power. Between them, Bell, Shaw, Rogers and QMI control:
- 86 percent of cable and satellite distribution
- 70 percent of wireless revenues
- 63 percent of the wired telephone market
- 54 percent of Internet Service Provider revenues
- 42 percent of radio
- 40 percent of the television universe
- 19 percent of the newspaper and magazine markets
- 61 percent of total revenues from all of the above media sectors combined.
That, by any standard measure of concentration, constitutes a highly concentrated market.
The fact that Bell, Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor stand as gateways to so much raises concerns that they will give undue preference to their own services rather than serve as open gateways to the maximum range of entertainment, communication, knowledge and news possible. In this regard, more is a stake than anti-competitive behaviour, because the range of expression available in a society is a barometer of the quality of freedom of expression and democracy in it. None of the ‘big four’ waxes much about this, however, insisting as they do that the laws of normal economics should be the only measuring rod of value.
To be sure, the ‘big four’ are hardly the only players in town. There is also an important second tier of a dozen or so smaller players that have stuck to their knitting in just one or two media: Telus, MTS, SaskTel, Cogeco, Bragg/Eastlink, the CBC, Astral, Postmedia, Transcontinental, Power Corp, Thomson/Globe & Mail, Torstar and Brunswick News. Then there is a third tier made up of the thousands who fill in the nooks and crannies of the media universe: Wikipedia, the Mark, media workers, star journalists, opinion leaders, blogs, your best friend, personal websites and so on.
The position of all these parties turns on where they sit. To the ‘big four’, to the extent that there’s ever been a ‘golden age’ of media, the picture just presented is it. Thousands upon thousands of actors, big and small, making it nearly impossible for any single entity to exert excess influence over it all.
According to Bell’s hired-gun, University of Alberta economics professor, Jeffrey Church, “vertical integration is beneficial for consumers”. According to him and other briefs filed by the big four, consolidation is good for consumers and Canada because:
- it reflects efficiencies, spurs competitive innovation and is a global trend.
- telecom, media and Internet markets in Canada are “highly competitive”.
- our ‘small media economy’ needs a few deep-pocketed ‘national champions’ to compete globally and invest heavily in innovation at home.
- instances of harm are mostly imaginary and few and far between.
- it helps keep “consumers . . . within the regulated system” (Shaw, p. 4)
The collapse of media conglomerates elsewhere, the evidence of market power above, and the fact that Canada has the eight largest media economy in the world, after France and Italy, and just before South Korea and Spain, should raise an eyebrow or two about claims one through three. Claim four is false (see below), and the last one repugnant.
Many in the second tier and ‘nooks and crannies’ of the media also challenge these claims. Telus, for instance, argues that the harms are real, not prospective. Buying program rights, for example, from CTV, the Comedy Network, TSN and two-dozen other channels, it argues, became a whole lot harder, and more expensive, after Bell Media took them over.
Access, a cooperatively run cable-system-cum-Internet provider in Saskatchewan raises similar concerns. Those that have content, but not distribution networks – Astral, CBC, media workers – make a similar case, but point to how control over networks rather than programming rights can cause real world harm.
Periodic squabbles between Quebecor and Bell highlight much the same point, with Quebecor’s SunTV hobbled in equal measure by self-inflicted wounds and its inability to sign an acceptable ‘contract for carriage’ with Bell. Just last week, the CRTC declared that Bell’s decision to move Shaw’s ‘Cave TV’ service into the upper stratosphere of its offerings conferred an undue preference on channels Bell owned, and ordered the change to be reversed. If these pitched Goliath versus Goliath battles are regular occurrences, we can only imagine the problems that David – the little guy – is having.
While Bell, Shaw, Rogers and QMI operate their own online video services, they assert that congestion problems require them to manage traffic through usage-based billing and bandwidth caps, although such measures cripple rival online video distributors such as Netflix, Apple TV, GoogleTV, and so on. Netflix, for instance, downgrades its services relative to standards elsewhere, and bitterly complains about having to do so, all the time. Smart and savvy telecom guys like Jean-Francois Mezei and rabble-rousing groups like Open Media are convinced that such practices are a deadweight on creativity, innovation, freedom of expression and an open internet.
For the public, the practices just listed and networks that are under-developed and over-priced by global standards constitute subtle yet pervasive constraints on how we use and experience the emerging networked digital media. Stubbornly, Canadians lean against the wind and remain heavy Internet users, downloading and uploading to and from Youtube, virtuously contributing to Wikipedia, and watching porn at rates that rank at the very top by global standards.
All this, too, despite the fact that, as Shaw’s brief repeatedly states, the industry and regulators are one when it comes to the goal of keeping “consumers in the existing broadcasting system”. We can only imagine what things might be like if they strove for the maximum freedom of expression possible, rather than only “as much diversity as practicable”, as the CRTC put it in its 2008 Diversity of Voices decision.
Ultimately, the problems of fully-integrated media conglomerates are congenital, not imaginary. They run hand-in-hand with media history the world over and until we accept that, we’ll have to continue settling for scraps off the table as regulators let the ‘big four’, I mean, the market rip.
The following is my column for the Globe and Mail today, with the addition of a few links here and there. I am fully alert to the fact that this is a very, very touchy subject, not least because musicians and artists are at the centre of the debate, but have been, other than a few megastars, the least to benefit financially from either conditions in the past, or those that prevail today.
Those interested in the topic might find my previous two posts of interests in this regard: the first one looks at the ‘methods’ involved in assessing the state of the music industry. It ends with the crucial proviso that we can collect “all the evidence in the world but still be morally stupid because you’ve thrown the artists and musicians amongst us under the bus”. In other words, this is not just about fun and games, but real people trying to make a real living.
That said, however, I am skeptical of the claims typically made on behalf the ‘music industry’, and equally circumspect that the interests of musicians are interchangeable with those of ‘the suits’ in the business. For those who want to hear something similar from somebody ‘inside the biz’, and who really knows his stuff, look at Bob Lefsetz’s newsletter.
Thanks to Bob, I’m listening to two great bands right now: Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons. It’s all about the music, being good, nay great, at what you do, and crucially the fans, those who adore your stuff and rave about you to others.
The second of these two posts sets out the idea that the music industry was in many fundamental ways the offspring of rivalry between the telegraph giant Western Union and then snarly upstart Bell Telephone Company in the late-1870s and 1880s. If rivalry between ‘network technologies’ gave birth to the music industry in the late-19th century, I think it is unlikely that ‘network technologies’ like the Internet and P2P are going to lead to their demise in the 21st century. History, in short, may be a useful and sturdy guide for thinking through the issues now in front of us.
Now, I’ll turn to the slightly revised/extended version of my column from today.
For more than a decade, the music industry in Canada, and globally, has been cast as being in dire straits — a portent of things to come for all media in the ‘digital age’, unless copyright laws are updated soon to combat illegal downloading.
The notoriety of file-sharing networks from Napster in the late-1990s, to Pirate Bay and the meting out of stiff punishment to Limewire is legendary. New sites emerge as swiftly as old ones are prosecuted out of business, fueling perceptions that the music industry is under siege.
Many claim this will only get worse as broadband Internet becomes a taken-for-granted fixture of everyday life. Copyright legislation has been proposed three times since 2005 by Conservative and Liberal governments alike.
Last year’s effort, The Copyright Modernization Act (Bill C-32), died when the election was called. It’ll be back. The Conservative’s election manifesto said it would be.
The Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA), backed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI), argues that legislation delayed is justice denied. While Parliament dithers, they say, musicians and the music industry are getting slaughtered.
According to the IFPI, “overall music sales fell by around 30 per cent between 2004 and 2009” worldwide. The trend in Canada appears even worse, with “recorded music sales” plunging to a third of what they were in 2004, as the following figure shows.
‘Recorded Music Industry’ Revenues in Canada, 1998 – 2010
Source: Statistics Canada; PriceWaterhouseCooper.
But stop the music. What if this image of a beleaguered music industry is badly flawed?
Cont’d on Page 2 . . . . . . . .
My second column for the online edition of the Globe and Mail, was just published tonight.
The article picks up on recent trends with respect to media and Internet concentration in Canada and which came to head last week as Bell, Shaw, Quebecor, Rogers, Netflix, the Canadian Media Production Association, Open Media and hundreds of others filed documents detailing the stance they will take at crucial CRTC hearings on vertical integration and Usage-Based Billing in June and July.
This entry repeats the story with a few additional links and two additional figures to fill out the picture presented in the Globe and Mail version: the first illustrates the growth of the ‘network media economy’ over the past quarter of a century and the second shows concentration trends across eight segments of the media, telecoms and Internet industries between 1984 and 2008.
At stake in the upcoming hearings is control over a set of industries – what I call the ‘network media industries’ – that have grown immensely from $42.3 billion in revenue to nearly $74 billion between 1996 and 2009 (adjusted for inflation), as the following figure shows:
Figure 1: The Growth of the Network Media Economy in Canada, 1984-2009*
Also at stake is whether the ‘business models’ of the dominant telecom and media giants or the open and decentralized principles of the Internet and digital media will set the course of development in the decades ahead.
Lastly, the issues are also fundamentally about media concentration, a hotly contested subject that is as important as it has ever been, but one that is usually compromised by a lack of evidence. Consequently, fiery debates typically take place in a vacuum and closely track ideology rather than evidence.
To take one example, the existence of 500 ISPs suggests a highly competitive market. CRTC data, however, point in the opposite direction, with the ‘old’ telephone or cable providers serving 95% of subscribers and the ‘big six’ alone accounting for three quarters of the market: Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Telus, Quebecor, Cogeco.
My own data shows that concentration climbed sharply between 1996 and 2004, and has stayed remarkably flat ever since, with over two-thirds of Internet access revenues going to the ‘big six’. While not quite as high as the CRTC’s figures, the upshot is still a few players competing in oligopolistic markets.
The problem with the CRTC’s data is three-fold: it focuses only on the top four or five players. It is presented inconsistently from one year to the next. It relies on information that it refuses to disclose. Last year, I filed several Access to Information requests to obtain this data, but was refused each step of the way.
I did so as the lead Canadian participant on the International Media Concentration Research Project – a project led by Eli Noam, a renowned Professor of Economics and Finance, and media expert, at Columbia University. The project includes more than forty researchers from across the political spectrum who are systematically collecting data for every sector of the telecom, media and Internet industries since 1984.
So, what does the evidence for Canada show?
First, that each sector of the media is concentrated by standard measures. Second, that patterns follow a U-shape, with concentration falling in the 1980s, rising sharply from the mid-1990s until peaking in the early 2000s, and staying relatively flat since then. Third, that concentration is high by global standards and more than twice as high than in the US. The trends are shown in the figure below:
Figure 2: Media, Telecom and Internet Concentration, 1984-2008 (Concentration Ratios)
These trends have been encouraged for several reasons. First, there can be no doubt that the Internet has vastly expanded the range of expression available, but this reality often overshadows the fact that several core aspects of the Internet are prone to concentration (e.g. ISPs, search, social networking sites, etc.) and that the biggest players now control an ever-expanding stable of outlets.
Formal rules on media concentration were adopted for the first time in 2008 by the CRTC and this is a far cry better than none at all. However, by using the same criteria used to regulate banking and granting frequent exceptions, the rules are weak and detached from the values of free speech and democracy.
Second, there is too much deference to claims that the traditional media are ‘in crisis’. Such claims are generally false (see here).
In fact, ‘old media’ such as television have grown impressively and new media markets have been a boon for established players. The vast majority (95%) of Internet access revenue ($6.5 billion), for instance, goes straight to the incumbents’ bottom-line.
Companies that have crashed and burned, notably Canwest, were actually profitable. However, saddled with debt, it could not weather the short-term decline in revenues caused by the global financial crisis and forced into bankruptcy in 2009-2010.
Third, the myth that Canada’s small media market requires big players with deep pockets further underpins consolidation. However, Canada has the eighth largest network media economy in the world, after France and Italy and just ahead of South Korea and Spain.
Independent ISPs, tv channel owners (the Weather Channel), online video providers (Netflix) and others have consistently claimed that the big players use their dominant positions to crush competition. The CRTC, despite its own analysis, however, has failed to deal with media concentration head-on. The Harper Government’s directives to rely on “market forces to the maximum extent feasible” have further disarmed the regulator.
These issues will no doubt come to a head during the vertical integration and Usage-Based Billing hearings. Yet, there is every reason to be skeptical about what can be accomplished given that this is a classic case of “bolting the barn door after the horse has already left the stable”. Industry Minister Tony Clement’s recent declaration that vertical integration is the way of the future further reinforces the perception.
This is not the way of the future, however, but of a discredited past. In the U.S., for instance, the fully integrated multimedia conglomerate has become the exception (e.g. Comcast/NBC-Universal) after the disastrous AOL Time Warner merger, the break-up of Viacom-CBS, and collapse of the ‘old’ AT&T. Indeed, the reign of sprawling media conglomerates is in retreat in almost every other developed capitalist democracy.
With events in Canada running counter to trends elsewhere, it is time to think about breaking-up Bell/CTV, Shaw/Global (Corus), Rogers/City-TV and Quebecor/TVA (Sun TV) into two separate parts: network infrastructure and content services. This is called ‘structural separation’ and under this scenario these entities would become wholesalers of network facilities and retailers of their own content and services.
They would sell access to their networks to other content providers and ISPs on equal terms. This would give them an incentive to increase revenues by intensifying the use of their networks by others instead of by prioritizing services and content they own. Over a century of experience teaches a simple rule: when allowed to combine network ownership with the content delivered over them, incumbents will always confer advantages on themselves that they deny to others.
Steps to address this reality are already in place in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Sweden. There may be circumstances in Canada that require unique adaptations of the separations principle. However, only by hiving off control over the medium (networks) from control over the message (content) will innovation, competition, free speech and an open network media ecology trump the incumbents’ vested interests and dogma.
The other day I posted that Telus stands apart from the other dominant integrated telecom and media giants in Canada — Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Quebecor and Cogeco — on several grounds.
First, that while it has Usage Based Billing and bandwidth caps on the books, it has yet to implement them — although it has just announced plans to do so. If it does, it will be in the same league as the rest of the incumbents. Until then, there is still a chance that it will back down.
Second, unlike the other ‘big 5’, it is not a fully-integrated media conglomerate. It does not own broadcasting or other major ‘content’ services.
Third, it is opposed to vertical integration because companies that own the ‘medium’ and the ‘message’ lock up content in ways that are anti-competitive and against open networks. It is already encountering the difficulties that that entails in its attempts to gain programs for its IPTV, mobile tv services, etc.
The following quote from Telus press release announcing its position gets to the thrust of its position:
“The unprecedented concentration of market power in the broadcasting sector created by the common ownership of programming services and distribution platforms requires regulatory safeguards to protect consumers . . . . The potential for abuse of market power is real and the risk to consumers is significant. Without proper regulatory safeguards consumers could soon be facing increased costs and reduced choice in their TV viewing options.” Michael Hennessy, senior vice-president Regulatory and Government Affairs at TELUS.
To be sure, unless it renounces plans for UBB, bandwidth caps and to stop throttling P2P services and OVP (online video providers), Telus is certainly nowhere being on the side of the Angels. However, it has gone part way down the right path, and in so doing, broken ranks with the others who simply see the Internet as a threat and merely an adjunct to their ‘business models’ when useful.
Well, here’s a little bit of shameless self-promotion. It’s the front cover of a new co-edited collection that I’ve put together with Dal Yong Jin, an assistant professor at the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada as well as the College of Culture and Technology, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).
The book is called The Political Economies of Media and will be published by Bloomsbury Academic — the academic publishing arm of the same company behind the Harry Potter series — in June. I think the cover looks great. The authors that have contributed to this volume are exceptional as well: Bernard Miege, Susan Christopherson, Terry Flew, Amelia Arsenault, Guillermo Mastrini, Martín Becerra, Dwayne Winseck, Elizabeth van Couvering, Dal Yong Jin, Christian Fuchs, Aeron Davis, Peter Thompson, Marc-Andre Pigeon.
You can read sample chapters here by myself, Aeron Davis and Christian Fuchs here.
This is a first take on today’s decision by the CRTC to approve BCE’s return to the broadcasting business (full decision here). For those with what constitutes an elephantine memory in these fast and harried times, BCE had taken CTV over once before, in 2000 and failed. It left the television business six years later. Today, it returned with the CRTC’s blessing and typical sop thrown to the Canadian ‘broadcasting system’, albeit at perhaps an even more meagre and self-serving level than usual.
The decision allows Bell Canada Enterprises a second run at making vertical integration and so-called synergies work between its telephone, satellite and ISP (i.e. network infrastructure) businesses and the largest media group in the country, with its CTV and A-channel networks, 31 satellite and cable television channels, 28 local television stations and 33 radio stations. The only things really different than 10 years ago is that BCE has dramatically scaled back its ownership stake in the Globe & Mail (the Thomson family holds the rest) and sprawling media conglomerates have, by and large, gone out of fashion since the turn-of-the 21st century.
Another important thing that should catch our eye is that the value of CTV is now less than it was a decade ago, not because the tv business has shrunk — overall it has expanded from a $5 billion industry to one worth $7 billion (adjusted for inflation) — but because the first six year’s of BCE’s tenure were pitifully poor. CTV was worth less than half its original value when BCE left in 2006. Today, and after all the growth in the industry plus the acquisition of CHUM, the combined value is about the same as CTV was ten years ago: $2.45 billion.
That number is important because it’s the one that the CRTC uses to peg the value of the contributions that BCE will have to pay into the ‘broadcast system’ in order to gain the CRTC’s blessing. At ten percent, BCE’s contribution is $245 million. Even worse, $65 million of that amount will go to directly into the pockets of Bell TV, BCE’s direct-to-home satellite provider.
The rest is for the usual content, news, drama, culture, music, etc. etc. funding — the ‘cultural industries’ sop that the CRTC requires and that company’s on the prowl exploit to line up support for their take-overs from media workers, directors of Journalism and Communication schools across the country, and so forth. The result is greater media concentration blessed by the state with a few crumbs off the table for others with a stake in the game.
Others, with broader interests can go packing. The CRTC fudges the language to conceal the fact that while vertical integration and media conglomerates are on the wane elsewhere, they’re on a tear here in Canada, despite the regulator’s supposed new rules limiting media concentration set into place in 2008.
Elsewhere, the crash in the value of the turn-of-the-21st century star of collosal-sized media conglomerates, Time Warner, wiped out nearly a quarter of a trillion in market capitalization, falling from an estimated worth of $350 billion in 2000 to $78 billion in 2009. AT&T also went belly-up in its aggressive move from the wires into all things media, only to be resurrected in 2005 when the moribund company was bought out by SBC. Vivendi Universal in France is another poster child of media conglomeration gone bad. Others examples are as easy to pile up as leaves in autumn.
But here in Canada, in a manner akin to what takes place in oligarchic capitalist societies — think Russia and South America — giant media enterprises are again on the rise. Today’s blessing of BCE’s acquisition of CTV/CHUM (A-Channel) follows last October’s approval of Shaw’s take-over of the financial wreckage that was Canwest television, and at fire-sale prices to boot!
Of course, the trend is not all in one direction. Indeed, swimming against the tide, in the U.S., Comcast’s, that country’s largest cable provider, acquisition of NBC – Universal was approved by the Dept. of Justice and FCC (but also see Commissioner Michael Copp’s scathign dissent). Besides being exceptions to the rule, it is interesting to compare the US decision approving Comcast’s take-over of NBC with the CRTC’s decision to sanction BCE’s acquisition of CTV/CHUM.
In the US, the Dept. of Justice and FCC put fairly tough demands on Comcast to make its television and film content available to Internet competitors and ‘online video providers’ (OVPs), to adhere to open Internet requirements and to “offer broadband services to low-income Americans at reduced monthly prices; and provide high-speed broadband to schools, libraries and underserved communities, among other benefits” (FCC Press Release).
The CRTC, in contrast, will look at issues of vertical integration in a future set of hearings that it intends to hold on the issue in June. Any of the other issues are not even on the table, or at least so it appears.
Well, another sad day in Canada. A great opportunity to articulate vision and to implement ideas and practices that could build one of the most open media systems in the world. Instead, at the CRTC and in Canada’s media industries, it’s business as usual.