Downsizing Had Been a Huge Theme at CTV Thanks to Bell Media

It’s been described as a staffing crisis at CTV. Bell Media executives are being blamed for it.

One of the main talking points about Bill C-18 (Canada’s link tax) is that the legislation was needed to save journalism. Part of the argument is that big platforms like Google and Facebook had hoovered up all the ad revenue and that news outlets were struggling to pay the bills, thus causing massive layoffs and even the closure of news rooms.

Naturally, there are plenty of other reasons for these issues to crop up as well. For instance, the massive COVID-19 pandemic causing a massive drop in advertising because who the heck would advertise their small business selling merchandise at a time when it was forced to close due to lockdowns? Trust us when we say that we saw the decline through Google Adsense during the pandemic. We know first hand that this was a thing.

Of course, there are a host of reasons why massive layoffs would happen that go far beyond the whole “just blame Google” trend. One really big reason is the fact that the media industry has been undergoing a transition from print media focused to digital only focused. A great example is Sing Tao going from print based to digital only. Indeed, a major part of layoffs is the fact that the newspaper wasn’t relying on print distribution any more. Why hire a fleet of newspaper delivery people when the news was going to be sent digitally to subscribers? As a result, the layoffs affected both the delivery and print process of that newspaper.

The above examples showcase how such issues would have happened even if Bill C-18 was law all this time. The digital transition was going to happen anyway. What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic would have had a negative impact on advertising whether link taxes are in or not. So, that alone tells you that even if Bill C-18 is this magical silver bullet that its supporters claimed to be (which it is most certainly not), the above problems would have never gone away.

Another huge problem facing the industry is consolidation. Now, consolidation is by no means a journalism specific issue. In fact, consolidation has affected numerous industries from telecommunications to game development to the forest industry to, well, almost anything you can think of these days. While some industry analysts like to just shrug off the whole idea of conglomerates getting bigger and controlling more and more aspects of your daily life, there are real consequences behind this. A big one is that large acquisitions tend to be followed up by large waves of layoffs across the board.

In fact, earlier this month, we even noted this problem hitting after the T-Mobile Sprint merger where thousands of people lost their jobs in a huge wave of layoffs. Since Rogers and Shaw were trying to merge, it became a great example of what could very easily happen here in Canada as well.

Of course, consolidation isn’t bound to any one industry. There’s no rule saying that a game developer can only buy other game developers for instance. Consolidation for the last decade or more has happened across industry lines. One example of this that has worried network neutrality advocates is the consolidation of telecommunications and broadcasting. If your ISP, for instance, also runs CTV, there is a financial incentive to simply herd those internet subscribers over to CTV owned media properties and websites. In fact, there is also an incentive, to expand on our example, to slow down the internet for competing services like Netflix or YouTube as well.

It’s a pretty big reason why network neutrality advocates consider their mission to be so critical. If YouTube were to be reduced to 56K modem speeds while the ISPs own services have speeds measured in the hundreds of gigabytes per second, you can see the anti-competitive problems start stacking up extremely quickly. Sadly, rules surrounding network neutrality in Canada has been in limbo for quite some time (it’s held together by duct tape and a California lawsuit in the US).

Quality of service is only one problem with these types of consolidation. In 2012, Bell acquired CTV and created Bell Media – a conglomerate corporations that owns, among other things, a major ISP and a major broadcaster. This actually affects how these companies behave in the courts. Before, when telecom companies were separate companies from media companies, there was a major fight over whether or not Canada should block websites based on complaints about copyright infringement. Media production companies would demand that such sites be censored while the ISPs would say something to the tune of “not so fast”. After the acquisition, this changed and you had the absurd spectacle of the company going to court to demand an order be applied on themselves to censor websites. Earlier this year, they got what they want. Who would have thought someone would successfully to go court and put in an order to shut themselves up?

Now, a major scandal had erupted earlier this year when long time reporter, Lisa LaFlamme, was abruptly laid off. There have been many theories as to whether it was because she was female or because she was aging and her hair had gotten more grey. There has been a surprising lack of evidence to point to that says that she was let go because her hair was getting more grey. However, there has been some evidence to suggest that her being a woman did play a role. This, however, seems to be only part of the story. Apparently, the new executives had been trying to take CTV into a whole new direction. LaFlamme reportedly resisted this. From Canadaland:

LaFlamme clashed with Melling on two key issues: one, as previously reported by The Toronto Star, was a dispute about the size of the budget CTV News had dedicated to coverage of the Ukraine war – LaFlamme wanted more resources than Melling wished to provide.

In another instance, LaFlamme stood up for her executive producer Rosa Hwang when Melling tried to shuffle her off of the CTV National News broadcast and into a role at their local Toronto news channel, CP24.

But the issues that CTV journalists have with Melling run deeper. “He’s a company man,” says the high-level CTV source. “He does not stand up for the journalists…He doesn’t like it when women push back and he brags about how he’s destroyed careers of anyone who dares push back.”

Melling also allegedly interfered with CTV’s news coverage, breaking a promise Bell Media made after a prior incursion from an executive into the newsroom.

In April of 2015, Bell Media’s then-president and CEO George Cope ousted Bell Media president Kevin Crull for interfering in CTV News coverage, and vowed that “the independence of Bell Media’s news operations is of paramount importance to our company and to all Canadians. There can be no doubt that Bell will always uphold the journalistic standards that have made CTV the most trusted brand in Canadian news.”

In the fallout, Melling went on leave. From the CBC:

The head of CTV News has gone on leave following the ouster of news anchor Lisa LaFlamme.

Michael Melling, the vice-president of the news division at CTV’s parent company Bell Media, “decided to take leave from his current role effective immediately to spend time with his family,” according to an internal memo sent Friday and obtained by CBC News.

“His decision reflects our shared desire to support the newsroom and do what’s best to help the team move past the current circumstances to focus on delivering the stories that matter to Canadians.”

The memo was signed by Bell Media senior vice-president Karine Moses.

However, in a separate Friday statement, Bell President and CEO Mirko Bibic said Melling is on leave “pending the outcome of [a] workplace review.”

Now, a recent report is saying that the ousting of Lisa LaFlamme was far from an isolated incident. In fact, the report actually goes so far as to describe the move to oust her as the tip of the iceberg when it comes to staff layoffs. From the Toronto Star (likely paywalled):

Five days into his job as president of Bell Media, Wade Oosterman cleaned house.

In a January 2021 memo to staff, the 59-year-old executive and four-decade veteran of the telecommunications industry announced the departures of several Bell Media executives, including the heads of original programming, Bell Media Studios, and content sales and distribution.

“To continue to lead in a transforming industry, our operational structure needs to make doing business with us easier while also enabling necessary investment in the exciting new content and technology innovation opportunities ahead,” Oosterman told his staff.

The memo was coded in corporate speak, but the company’s financial statements painted a clearer picture: Bell Media, a subsidiary of BCE Inc. which owns popular news channels like CTV News, CP24 and BNN Bloomberg, was losing money. With advertisers cutting their spending amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the subsidiary reported an annual revenue decline of 14.5 per cent in 2020 — or a loss of $467 million — from the same period the year before. Since the start of the global health crisis, in March 2020, BCE Inc.’s stock price had tumbled 14 per cent.

In the weeks and months after Oosterman took office, Bell Media axed hundreds of workers in rapid succession — long-time employees and senior managers alike. Several former staff who spoke with the Star remember being called into abrupt virtual meetings where, in the span of roughly 90 seconds, they were fired en masse without much explanation.

That kind of downsizing has, over the past year and a half, significantly reduced salary and payroll expenses for Bell Media, a move that will likely amass savings and boost revenue in the long term. But to an extent not quite seen before at the media division, it has also provoked an internal staffing crisis and an external optics nightmare that could threaten the news company’s brand.

According to multiple sources close to Bell Media, the recent ousting of CTV News anchor Lisa LaFlamme, one of Bell’s most popular and accomplished journalists, is the latest example of Bell executives’ “obsession with head counts,” an unrelenting focus on how many staff work in the media division, how much money they make, and how to shrink those numbers fast.

(Hate tip: @MGeist)

All of this follows a very familiar pattern here. Consolidation happens, big promises of a brighter future ahead are made, then when the camera’s stop rolling, quietly start issuing massive amounts of layoffs. The problem was that one of those layoffs bit Bell Media in the rear and blew the lid off of this whole story in the first place. It’s actually impressive how long this had been going on and it managed to stay off the public radar for so long.

A question can be made here, had Bell not bought CTV, would the layoffs happened to this extent? Probably not. The pandemic might have caused some staff layoffs, but it is a tough sell to say that they would have been happening to this degree now that the corporation consolidation has taken place.

An even bigger question would then follow: would Bill C-18 have stopped any of this? Absolutely not. Bell Media is obviously going to do what it can to appease shareholders. Even if millions of dollars were flowing into the waiting bank vaults of Bell Media executives, the layoffs would have likely happened anyway. The only difference would be that Bell Media is able to pay shareholders a slightly larger dividend after. Good luck selling a convincing case that exclusively increasing shareholder value at one of the largest media giants is somehow what is going to save journalism.

If anything, this is a spectacular way of not only showing that Bill C-18 is built on false promises and lies about how the internet works, but it also showcases the importance of network neutrality along the way. Saying that Google and Facebook are solely to blame for what is going on at traditional journalism outlets is extremely misleading. Saying that Bill C-18 is what is going to “save” journalism is about as unconvincing as an argument can get. As consolidations continue, we’re going to see this cycle repeat over and over again with, at most, different flavours. If anything, all of this should spark a major re-think about Bill C-18 and what is really going on in the sector of journalism and broadcasting.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



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