Monday, March 4, 2013

Free choice in communications? (Competition Tribunal says no)

To my surprise and dismay, the Competition Tribunal has approved Bell Canada's takeover of most of Astral Media's assets.   This comes some time after a similar buyout attempt was rejected.  Yeah, Bell will have to divest several cable channels -- namely  Family Channel (Read:  Disney Channel Canada), Teletoon (English and French), Teletoon Retro (English and French), Disney XD, the Cartoon Network, Disney Jr. (English and French), Historia, Séries+, MusiquePlus and Musimax.   The consent decree also forces Bell not to require cable and satellite companies to force them to carry other channels as a condition of carry premium networks TMN and SE.  

Big hairy deal -- especially since it means Canadian Regulators Totally Clueless will almost certainly approve the marriage (such that it is) now.

True, none of the channels show any news content per se except the French music channels.   But it is still a very sad day. Because it looks like CTV gets the radio stations -- and their news content; and that means less choice.   We shouldn't go back to the situation from even recently when FM stations were forced to play classical music on Sunday nights -- even heavy metal ones.   But where does national ownership lead us?

Because it was impractical for solely local outlets to provide the kind of programming that requires a national focus, even when affiliated as part of a loose network, local media meant just that -- local.      Close to the people.   Diversity of viewpoints, too, even locally.  Were it not for some rules which are more strictly enforced in Canada than in the US, there would be no local DJs.   And that can be crucial in case of a crisis.

We've seen in some cities in the States six or seven radio stations owned by a faceless corporations.   Remember about ten years ago when one town (Minot, North Dakota) had a gas leak, the Emergency Broadcast System was supposed to have been activated with orders for residents to clear the town but this didn't happen -- and years later the faceless corporation still hasn't apologized?  (Guess shareholders are more important than 6000 people in the sticks -- who gives a fudge if they died?)   No one did die, because the police got on their asses and told people to leave, door to door, but it was a close call.   And why did this happen?   All six stations were remotely programmed from head office -- just preprogrammed music, six different formats, on a remote control loop -- no DJs, just local commercials.  And no one even thought about breaking in for a special bulletin.

Can we expect that in Canada?   It's just a matter of time, really.

Maybe we do need a second national radio news broadcast every night to compete with CBC One's World at Six.  But having CTV News, or Rogers or Corus program it, would be as welcome as a shot in the head.    And besides, this arrangement allows Bell to sell package deals for advertising, on radio and television, while those who would want only one or the other would have to pay more per unit.   Shouldn't that be as illegal as not setting limits on carrying the movie outlets?

It's also worrying because in the areas where Bell has its incumbent telephone territory, it's rolling out fibre optic television, which as DSL internet uses phone wires, and introducing it in more and more cities -- my guess is that they're trying to get people off its satellite service.   Reports are its library of on demand programs is more vast than even cable.   But if you control the content of the on demand channels you already own, and you set conditions on competitors to put on their content, isn't that also anti-competitive?

Don't forget when the anti-Canada Quebecor bought the rah-rah Canada Toronto Sun, there was supposed to be a firewall between the two companies.   That lasted a month or so.  When ToSu bought the joke station "Toronto One" the agreement was the paper's newsroom wouldn't encroach on the station.   It took a couple of weeks for the station to start having its newscasts from the floor of the paper -- and that station quickly became SunTV and then Sun News.

This is pathetic.   And the CRTC should call the bluff.   Annul the marriage, all together.  Astral is worth selling, and Ian Greenberg deserves to cash in for building a company from nothing to a power player.   But surely someone not currently in the national game should get a chance.   Another voice would be welcome.   It's about choice.   Otherwise, the exodus to alternate online media and on demand content will continue unabated -- and if they're almost all American outlets, our voice will be gone all together.

For what it's worth, we're headed in that direction anyway, merger or no merger.

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