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Crony Capitalism?: Revolving Door between Telecom-Media-Internet Industries in Canada and Ex-Politicos

Where do ex-politicians go when they retire? It would appear that they take up sinecure amongst the boards of directors at Canada’s leading telecom-media-Internet (TMI) companies.

The appointment of recently retired Industry Minister Jim Prentice to Bell Canada’s board of directors and Stockwell Day’s appointment to Telus, respectively, in the last two weeks has tongues wagging. Many think it ain’t right, others see no problems; I see it as business as usual, systemic and a big problem that contradicts the ideals of a free press and any notion that TMI policy in this country is anything more than industrial policy and a major industry player protection racket.

Of course, not everyone sees things this way. As one lobbyist from the software industries in Canada badgered me over the weekend on Twitter, what’s an old political hack suppose to do when they leave office? What’s wrong with Prentice and Day taking up shop at Bell and Telus?

Well, lots. If it was just Prentice and Day stepping from the halls of Parliament to paneled boardrooms of Corporate Canada, perhaps it would be exceptional and not much to be worried about.  However, if we look at the boards of directors at the top ten TMI players in Canada, we see that they are not the exception but the rule. The boardrooms are brimming with their type, with a total of fourteen directors – an ex Prime Minister (Brian Mulroney at QMI), an ex-first lady (Mila Mulroney at Astral), two former Chairpersons of the CRTC (Francois Bertrand at QMI and Andre Bureau at Astral, and more, as the chart below shows – occupying these coveted spots.

Top 10 Telecom-Media-Internet Companies and the Ties that Bind

Ownership Politicos as Directors Family Members as Directors Links With Other MediaCos
Astral Greenberg Andre Bureau (CRTC chair)

3

Paul Godfrey (PostMedia)
Mila Mulroney Phyllis Yaffee (Dir. Torstar)
Bell Publicly Trade (Diversified) Jim Prentice (Cons. Ind. Minister) Not Relevant
E. C. Lumley (Lib. Cab. Min)
Carole Taylor (BC Fin Min)
Cogeco Audet (64%)

1

Rogers (36%)
PostMedia Godfrey (6.5%) David Emerson (Lib. Cab. Min)

1

Quebecor Péladeau Brian Mulroney (Cons. PM)Francoise Bertrand (Chair CRTC)Kory Tenycke (VP Sun News, ex Harper Dir. of Communication)

1

Rogers Rogers John H. Tory (ex. Ont. PC leader)David Peterson (ex Lib Premier Ont.)

4

Issabelle Marcoux (Transcontinental
Shaw Shaw Sheila Weatherhill (PM Advisory Cmmt on Public Service)

3

Torstar Atkinson, Thall Hindmarsh, Campbell, Honderich Roy Romanow (ex Premier of Saskatchewan)

2

Phyllis Yaffee (Dir. Astral)
Globe & Mail Thomson (65%)

2

OTPF (25%)
Bell (15%)
Telus Publicly Traded Diversified Stockwell Day (ex CPC Cab. Minister) Not Relevant

14

16

Sources: Corporate Annual Reports and Forbes Corporate Executives & Directors Search Directory <http://people.forbes.com/search&gt;

Things are particularly strange in Canada by the added fact that eight of the top ten TMI companies in this country are family-controlled. This degree of media mogul control and political ties to the inner sanctums of top media companies is reminiscent of an ‘ancien capitalism’, where families and the ‘political class’ are in charge rather than citizens and ‘expert’ managers at the helm of publicly-traded firms where ownership is dispersed and corporate operations transparent.

Things are different in the US, where Eli Noam points out in his authoritative Media Ownership and Concentration in America that the number of owner-controlled media firms fell from 35 percent to just 20 percent between 1984 and 2005 (p. 6). I think that Noam slightly exaggerates the decline given that five of the top global media conglomerates — Comcast (the Roberts family), News Corp (Murdoch family), Viacom-CBC (Redstone family), Bertlesmann (remnants of Bertlesmann and Mohn families) and Thomson Reuters (Thompson family) – are of this type. Moreover, the media baron still cuts a large figure at the top ICT and Internet companies to, think: Apple (Jobs), Facebook (Zuckerberg), Google (Page, Brin and Schmitt), Microsoft (Gates and Ballmer), Yahoo! (Yang), IAC (Diller and Malone) and CBS (Redstone).

The ongoing case of the telephone hacker scandal in the UK reminds us that with the Murdock family – Rupert and his son James – at the helm, we are far from the end of the era when media moguls ran supreme. Thus, while not totally unusual, the degree of ties between moguls and political appointments at Canada is of a different kind and more extensive. Such arrangements are backwards, if you will, and more like nations with a tradition of oligarchic capitalism, as in Russia and Latin America, then in the liberal capitalist democracies of the US and Europe.

It is not that we just have an outmoded system of family control with ex-politicos having positions of influence right across the ranks of TMI sectors, but also that the main players have ownership stakes in one another’s companies, as is the case with Rogers owning about a third of the equity in Cogeco and Bell a residual 15 percent stake in the Globe and Mail.

Also blunting the sharp edge of competition and independence between different players in the market is the fact that directors on the board of one company sit on the boards of supposed rivals. Phyllis Yaffee, an industrial stalwart with oodles of experience and one who actually does have the expertise and savvy to fill a directors’ shoes is on boards at Astral and Torstar. Paul Godfrey, also an old hand and savvy operator in the business, sits on the boards at Astral and PostMedia Co. —  the company a company that he has spearheaded the development of to assume ownership of the twenty odd newspapers (Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star, National Post, Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette, etc.) left behind by the wreckage of Canwest. That wrecked vassal is yet another company that was family controlled (the Aspers) and not shy about stacking its board with ex politicos (e.g. Derek Burney, ex. Chief of Staff for Harper).

We also, as I have said repeatedly in this blog and elsewhere, a very highly concentrated set of industries. Altogether, the big 10 firms listed in the table above account for just under three quarters of all revenues in the TMI industries (excluding wired and wireless telephone services). I think the two are related.

It is not just that all our TMI industries, individually and as a whole, are very highly concentrated, but that policy and regulation in this country does not deal with this fact. Instead, policy-makers and regulators, to a large degree, cultivate concentration on the grounds that whatever problems this raises will be offset by industrial gains.

As David Ellis pointed out the other day, the CRTC does not regulate the TMI industries on the basis of any known standards of market concentration, but functions primarily to grease the supply-side of the industrial machinery that make up the TMI sectors.

The problem is not just that this leaves consumers and citizens on the sidelines while industry calls the shots. The problem is that the phenomenon of politicos on the boards of directors at the major TMI companies, and the revolving door between the regulator and government policy-shops on one side and industry on the other are pervasive, enduring and systemic.

What this means is that we cannot just look for one-off instances of influence peddling, as in, say, the allocation of spectrum in past and forthcoming wireless auctions, as Peter Nowak points out. Nor is that putting Harper’s former Director of Communication, Kory Tenyecke in the position of VP at QMI’s Sun News will leave a dirty trail of finger prints on every story covered, with lurid tales of stories spiked and stories spun to favour Harper and the Conservatives.

To be sure, a few cases of such things will happen, with one or two leaking out to become grist for the mill and confirming some people’s worst fears. The problem is deeper than that, however, and less easy to suss out in terms of what it all means. However, as I showed during the election this year, it is true that of the twenty-two papers that issued endorsements for Prime Minister in the last election, all but one stood foursquare behind Harper — a wall of Conservative editorial opinion behind the Conservative candidate for PM.

Yet, the meddling hand of direct owner or political influence is much more subtle, and rarer than this. Instead it takes place at two more general levels: corporate policy making and the allocation of resources, say, resources for faster Internet connections, more journalists and coverage of world affairs and the environment versus cut-backs, low levels of investment and fluffy content to titillate and instigate bickering rather than understanding and civil discourse. It is at this general level that directors hold sway. Indeed, that’s what they’re hired for, to set long term policy and make sure that those directly controlling the purse-strings do so wisely.

Beyond this, the real problems are three-fold: First, the revolving door between regulator (CRTC) and those who make the rules while in government, on the one hand, and the TMI companies, on the other, institutionalizes an approach to media policy as industrial policy and a strategic game. The extent of this also means that everybody in the game must adopt a similar strategy, which only aggravates the problem and makes things all the less apparent in terms of who and what is really calling the shots.

Consequently, regulation and policy-making is not so much about guiding the development of telecom, media and Internet in relation to democratic and free press values but industrial policy concerns. As I stated earlier, the CRTC serves principally to grease the supply-side machinery of these industries, rather than regulating in the public interest or in relation to a broad understanding of how people actually use media facilities and what we want. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that the last known sighting of the CRTC’s old motto, “communication in the public interest”, was in December 2008 (see here). It has disappeared from the top of its webpage and prominent place on the front of publications ever since. No wonder some commissioners and the vice-chair have a hard time understanding the link between media and democracy.

Such arrangements are an affront to common sense and to principles of a free press in liberal capitalist democracies. They smell bad and smack of crony capitalism unfit by even the standards of liberal capitalist democracies.

Finally, they fly in the face of liberal theories of a free press. According to classical theories of the free press, and especially Whig tales of press history from the rise of advertising-funded mass media in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the media are suppose to be independent of government. They are also to serve as a watchdog nurturing the public sphere rather than as waiting lapdogs for retired politicos in the hope that they can tilt the industrial policy-making game in their new masters’ favour.

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.

Big, Brash & Bold: Drop all Telecom-Media Foreign Ownership Limits

A new report by the CD Howe Institute came out today. It’s not big, just 3 pages and seemingly informed by a bunch of guys sitting around a table at the Howe’s ‘inaugural meeting’ last week (June 17).

It is brash, and some might dress it up as bold: drop all limits on ownership of telecoms and media industries in Canada, it says. Full stop.

No phase out. No ‘newcomer advantages’, full stop again. No attempt to separate the ‘medium’ (wires, spectrum, sewer access) and the message (broadcasting, integrated suite of ‘content’ from mags to blogs) from one another. A digital free for all, you might say.

Perhaps the gentlemen, and they were with the exception of only a single woman, thought this might be a good idea while they sat around and chatted last Friday afternoon. Apparently, there were not so many women ‘law & economics’ types available to join them, given that all but out of the 16 places apparently went to the guys and boys from Bell (see below). I guess ‘law and economics’ types like Sheridan Scott, a hard liner in these matters, and Monica Auer, who generally takes the opposite tack by speaking eloquently and passionately on the telecom and media workers’ behalf, weren’t available, or any of the other smart dames roaming these circles as I saw, in the minority, at the CRTC’s hearings this week.

I looked at the composition of ‘the deciders’ not just because their gender was so obviously skewed, but because I recognized the names of most of the guys. One in particular leapt out, Jeffrey Church, a University of Calgary economics professor. By all accounts, he’s an excellent teacher. Professor Church caught my eye because, in addition to advising the ‘big 3Ps’ in Canada as I’ll call them — Petroleum, Alberta Beef Producers, Pharma — Professor Church just wrote an economic analysis for Bell as part of the very, very important vertically-integrated telecom-media-Internet hearings now being held by the CRTC.

According to Church in his voluminous 93 page submission on Bell’s behalf, vertical integration is good for consumers and for Canada (p.5). I disagree, strongly, for reasons set out regularly in this blog (e.g. here) and my column for the Globe and Mail on Monday.

It’s not just Church that is so closely tied to Bell, but also Marcel Boyer, Bell Canada Professor Emeritus of Industrial Economics, Université de Montréal, as the CD Howe report indicates on the back of this slim 3 page ‘report’. 2 out of 16 does not a majority make, obviously, but their presence does stand out.

The rest of the lot in this ‘law and economics’ crowd does not seem very adventuresome, either. I know one professor occupying a BCE endowed chair that won’t be called upon, Professor Robert E. Babe at the University of Western Ontario, for he has traced the propensity of telecoms historically to go from limited competition to ‘total consolidation’ on a regular basis.  Let us say that the fact that Howe ‘report’ has zero to say about such notions is not all that surprising.

The 3 page ‘report’ is candid that dropping the foreign ownership limits on everything – telecom, media, internet — will not increase the number of competitors in the market. As it states, “given the small size of the Canadian market, the consensus view saw no major change in the number of national competitors”.

Translation, the big three companies in wireless telecoms — Bell, Rogers, Telus — for instance will still account for about 94% of the market (according to CWTA 2010), but they might be owned by yet a larger foreign based telco (Vertizon, the ‘new’ AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, etc.) or may private equity funds. Me, I have doubts many foreign investors — telcos, priv equity funds, banks — will even come if permitted to do so (or if we want ‘em to on such ‘carte blanche’ terms). I’m not alone on this, and hardly radical, given that even the World Bank states that the keys to effective foreign ownership is a ‘strong state’ able to regulate and competition.

Instead, the Council of 15 wise men and 1 smart woman says, drawing on newfangled theory about ‘competitive innovation’ drawn from the right-wing side of Schumpeterian ‘innovation economics’, that “the gains from liberalization would likely result . . . from better performance by telecommunications market participants”. Umm, I hope so, especially because its this same crowd breying for the withdrawal of any meaningful conception of regulation or state intervention. The CRTC’s horizons have been blinkered and public ventures like CANARIE have had their wings clipped. How foreign capital will ‘improve’ performance standards in Canada is not clear to me/self-evident.

The report advocates this ‘regulatory shock and awe’ to be developed in one swell swoop, with no distinctions kept between telecoms and broadcasting, between networks and content, between incumbents and newcomers. The telecom-media-Internet sectors are now so entangled on account of digitization and how people use media that they must be treated together as a whole. Partial agreement there about treating things ‘holistically’.

More targetted measures are suggested as alternative to foreign ownership for whatever “cultural policies” might be left over. Some of these ‘targetted measures’ I believe in — securing financing for content production, shelf space, strong CBC — and they have been promoted by at least two of the same writers involved in today’s 3 page missive (e.g. see Hunter and Iacobucci, with a third author Michael J. Trebilcock).

There are several problems with this “report”, however, that make it’s contribution to public discussion dubious, despite the fact that it will gain much attention.

1. Three pages is not a report and should not be pitched as one.

2. The Council of the Wise is skewed along lines suggested above, ie. by Bell and by Gender. Bell has always had a visible hand in the telecom, broadcasting and media industries, indeed, since it began broadcasting speeches, songs and sermons in the 1880s and took-over the Chairmanship of the 1905 Mulock Commission which had originally been convened to look into the underdevelopment of the telephone system in Canada in the early days of the 20th century.

So, that Bell continues to be front and centre 100 years later, at the dawn of the 21st century, is both a marker of continuity and somewhat unsurprising, but equally suspect/problematic in each of these occasions. The presence of Bell’s hired gun (Church), a Bell sponsored ‘academic chair’ (emeritus, Boyer), and BCE CEO George Cope’s speech at the C.D. Howe two months ago all so bunched up in time and common stance has a whiff of something not quite right about it.

3. While I don’t actually have many problems with increasing competition and dissolving lines between the medium and the message, or the network infrastructure and content, we also need to be upfront about the fact that the former (media infrastructure) are generally scarce and the latter (messages) abundant. In today’s OECD Communication Outlook 2011, it is clear that, generally speaking, the top 2 ‘netcos’ in each of the OECD countries account for between two-thirds and three quarters of fixed and mobile telecom network markets in each of the OECD countries (pp. 56-59). This means:

  • that Netcos generally should be regulated for market power, ‘messagcos’ generally not.
  • ties between Netcos and Messagcos are congenitally fraught with problems and propensity for anti-competitive behaviour.
  • Free speech standards and the values of a ‘networked free press‘ are also at play (and here). As the United Nation’s Human Rights Council recently stated, those standards apply to the Internet and people should have, as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of the Rights stated before it in 1948, the freedom to receive and impart any information, through any media regardless of frontiers. At the CRTC Hearings on vertical integration the other day, Bell’s Mirko Bibic and Shaw’s brass called the idea that people should have access to any content on any device “preposterous”. The C.D. Howe ‘report’ is oblivious to these considerations.

4. The C.D. Howe report misses reality and the ‘big picture’. Perhaps this is because there is not a whiff of heterodox thinking among the ‘law & economics’ experts who wrote it. Not one ‘ecclectic’ economists, not one wild eyed, crazy lawyer, not a communication and media scholars or a historian in sight.

This is too bad because as long as it continues to be the case, people will continue to talk past one another. And it also means that ‘reports’ like this one, and the policies and approaches that actually do follow close in tow in the ‘real world’, will lack legitimacy.

5. Without being able to expand their horizon, the authors of the C.D. Howe ‘report’ blithely countenance “North American integration”. Economically, as I said above, I don’t have a particular problem with that, although I doubt that things will pan out as they expect, and even that what the Howe folks do expect ain’t much (“better performance” from same number of players).

Politically and culturally, however, there is a problem, not with Cancon and ‘traditionalist/romanticist’ conceptions of culture, but ‘network culture’. Netcos and search engines are now closely allied with state security, military strategy and defense contractors.  It’s probably best to keep some clear blue water between these domains. The authors give no hint that they have even thought of this.

Netcos, ISPs, search engines, etc. are also constantly being badgered by lobbyists as well as politicians in Canada and the U.S. to play a greater role on behalf of  media and entertainment industries (for most recent and strong opposition to this from within just the mainstream’, see here). The approaches have differed, with the last government in Canada wisely turning down lobbyists push to have ISPs play the role of ‘copyright cop’, disconnecting people who repeatedly are identified as ‘copyright bandits’.

The International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI) launched it’s efforts to lean hard on ISPs and search engines, and less on Digital Rights Management (DRM), in 2008. It has been picking off ‘wins’ for this agenda around the world, but not so much yet in Canada.

Yesterday, CNet journalist Greg Sandoval reported that AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon “are closer than ever to striking a deal with media and entertainment companies that would call for them to establish new and tougher punishments for customers who refuse to stop using their networks to pirate films, music and other intellectual property”.  That turn-of-heart, in turn, he reports, was eased by coaxing from the Obama Administration and the National Cable TV Association.

The pressure is already strong in Canada, but so far government and regulators have refused to make ISPs the deputies of the media and entertainment industries or to regulate the Internet as a broadcast distribution medium. On law and order, however, the push is for a stronger state and more compliant Netcos and Searchcos.

While there’s lots of dots to connect between all of these latter points, the key idea is that integration at the network and market levels is going to increase pressure to harmonize tougher matters that impinge greatly on network media, and thus network culture. That the blokes and one women from C.D. Howe have nary a word about this and don’t dare let the phrases ‘network neutrality’ and ‘open media’ cross their lips is a problem of the first order because those concerns, as sure as night follows day, are at the heart of the emergent network media culture. How can foreign ownership be reconciled with these concerns should be the question, rather than if it if good or bad altogether.

In sum, until we can start speaking one another’s language and stop passing off economic and policy platitudes backed by those with big stakes in the game, the nominal ideas presented in this “report” should be shelved and other big questions — vertical integration, for example — put on hold.

Ultimately, Pork, Petroleum and Pharma are not the same as telecoms and media. We need some new thinking for ‘new media’.

Until we recognize this, we’re not going to get very far, at least in a a way that takes into account the full range of issues at hand, rather than the economists narrow measuring rod of value.

Rubber Stamp or Real Questions?: CRTC Addresses Vertically Integrated Media for Next 2 Weeks

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.

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