After Getting Bill C-18, Bell Files to Defund Local Journalism, Reduce Cancon Quotas

With the ink barely drying on Bill C-18, Bell is now trying to defund local journalism at the CRTC. This while asking to reduce Cancon quotas.

Yesterday, we reported on the passage of Bill C-18 and becoming the online news act. Throughout this debate, we heard many of the lobbyists pushing for this bill saying that this whole effort was to support local journalism. Sure, the larger players may happen to benefit from this bill, but the smaller players are finally getting on board with this too thanks to this bill. Without this bill, suggested the lobbyists, we will see an increase in news deserts and democracy itself would be under threat. Really, according to those lobbyists, Google and Facebook are the threats to local journalism and this bill would stem that tide.

While these wild claims were very frequently repeated both inside the halls of government and outside, there was never really a good argument to say that Bill C-18 would somehow “save” journalism. If anything, there were pretty solid arguments that said that Bill C-18 actually represents a major threat to local journalism and small media startups. Whether it is through the dropping of news links on Facebook and Google or funding largely going to their heavily subsidized competitors, a case could easily be made that Bill C-18 would have the opposite effect of what the lobbyists were arguing before lawmakers.

When questions arose by critics, the response was always variations of how the criticisms were just disinformation or that the people making those arguments were somehow on the take and part of a grand conspiracy by Alphabet and Meta to kill this bill. There was never any evidence to back up such wild claims and conspiracy theories, but that was the repeated arguments that were made to discredit anyone daring to criticize the bill.

So, now that Bill C-18 is law and become the Online News Act, if the supporters comments were true, you would think that they would be gearing up to bolster operations in local journalism efforts. Hiring should begin in anticipation of this new era of journalism in Canada. This as a result of news organizations feasting from the Horn of Plenty.

Yeah, about that.

Reports have surfaced that the facade of the big journalism organizations looking out for the little guy was dropped before the ink even dried on the new law. Bell Media has filed paperwork at the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) to defund local journalism. From Fagstein:

Saying it can’t wait until the coming review of television policy and group licence renewals completes its long process, Bell Media has filed applications with the CRTC to eliminate all regulatory requirements for local news at all of its CTV, CTV2 and Noovo stations across the country.

“Over the last decade, the operating environment for traditional, private Canadian broadcasters has changed dramatically,” Bell writes in its application. “Whereas in the past, Canadians looked to domestic services for information and entertainment, they can now access a virtually unlimited array of DMBUs such as Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, and Apple+, most of which are foreign owned and controlled.”

Specifically, Bell is asking to eliminate the following conditions of licence:

  • A requirement for English-language stations in large markets to broadcast 14 hours of local programming per week
  • A requirement for French-language stations to broadcast local programming each week (5 hours in Montreal and Quebec, 2.5 hours at other stations)
  • Requirements for locally reflective news in English each week (6 hours in large markets, 3 hours in small markets, and special lower quotas for smaller or regional stations)
  • A requirement for 5 hours of locally reflective news each week on Noovo’s Montreal station
  • A requirement for Bell (as a group) to spend 11% of CTV/CTV2’s gross revenues on locally reflective news and 5% of Noovo’s gross revenues

If the CRTC grants all these requests, the only condition of licence related to local programming that would remain is a general requirement that stations outside metropolitan markets must broadcast seven hours of local programming per week (other smaller stations have exceptions for either less local programming or allowing them to group that requirement with nearby stations). This content would have to be local, but not necessarily news.

This suggests that Bell wants to be largely relieved of the terrible burden of having to produce news programming. So much for being an ardent supporter of local journalism. After all, if they were really about supporting local journalism, why would they even bother trying to reduce these conditions for their broadcast licensing? Of course, this isn’t even the first time we’ve seen Bell call for laws to allow them to move away from local programming. Last year, when lobbying for then called Bill C-11, the same organization was demanding that legislation so they could more cheaply rebroadcast American television programming.

In an echo of those Bill C-11 calls, they are also calling on the CRTC to reduce their Cancon quotas:

Bell has filed a separate application with the CRTC to change its conditions of licence relating to spending on Canadian programming and so-called programs of national interest (scripted dramas, comedies, documentaries and award shows).

Specifically, Bell is seeking to reduce:

  • Overall Canadian programming expenditures to 20 per cent of revenues from 30 per cent
  • Programs of National Interest spending to 5% of revenues from 7.5%
  • Expanding PNI categories to include music programs, music videos, variety and game shows and reality TV (Rogers is making a similar request for Citytv)

By my calculations, the change to the first requirement would mean Bell could save more than $60 million a year it spends on English-language Canadian content, and more than $15 million a year (as part of that Canadian spending) it devotes to scripted programming, documentaries and awards shows specifically.

So, it’s not just local news programming they are hoping to cut, but also Canadian program in general. For anyone out there that said that the large players well and truly have the interest of Canadian local news and programming, this appears to be the true face of that support. Not such a pretty picture, is it? Of course, most people knew that Bell Media has been hacking and slashing for some time already – a theme that people like Lisa Laflamme is all too familiar with. With Bill C-18 serving as a looming shadow on the whole sector, Bell additionally slashed 1,300 jobs and shuttered or sold 9 radio stations as well later on. It would appear that now that lobbyists got what they wanted with the passage of Bill C-18, they can finally stop pretending and get to the business of cutting operations to the bone.

Moreover, it is rather ironic that Bell is suggesting that the future is online and that they want to move to more profitable online operations in general. With Bill C-11 also law, streaming services are already heading for the exits with their investment money in this country. With the Online News Act threatening to see platforms block all news links in this country, it is looking like an increasingly tall order to try and set up shop online and expect the marketplace to be a cakewalk to conquer using techniques that might have otherwise worked prior to these new laws.

You would think that a corporation like Bell would have waited a while for the dust to settle with the recent passage of the Online News Act, but apparently, the veil used to push for this legislation was so thin that it’s hard to really bother hiding the true intentions in the first place.

Of course, all of this was predictable given the exact same shenanigans happened in Australia – the country that lobbyists love to hold up as a shining example of link taxes done right. With Rupert Murdoch slashing 1,250 job at News Corp Australia, the warnings of something like this happening were there all along. Now, history appears to be repeating itself here in Canada with respect to the impact this bill has on jobs. Add this development to the pile of reasons why the critics of these bills were right all along.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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