Producer friend on Bell/Astral: a Canada with 4 TV deciders

Say hi to producer Barri Cohen, who’s not amused…

I’ve long taken a harsh line on the way the cultural community has played into a broken system for subsidizing broadcast Cancon. That’s in part because of the dangerous idea that the public Internet should be “regulated” in ways that would cripple it as an open platform for self-expression and innovation (see my Aug 27 post and, for lots more gory details, the June 2011 post entitled Get yer grimy paws off my Netflix: Ottawa’s big OTT scam).

But I got a chance to expand my horizons this week in a conversation with my old friend Barri Cohen, a long-established indie producer. Barri also happens to be a policy wonk who writes on the regulatory machinations that go with developments like Bell’s takeover of Astral – her handiwork comes up momentarily. One point she drove home makes for a fascinating take on the high costs of lowering competition: one less conglomerate means way less opportunity for producers. Call it over-concentration of green-lighting (references here to the English market only).

Producing for TV of any kind in Canada has always been tough, because our market is small; we have that 800-lb gorilla down south; and our broadcasters have rarely enjoyed spending money to provide decent licence fees for independent producers. That’s why the CRTC has made a big deal of nurturing independent production, along with its highly prized outcome, a diversity of voices in our media. Their approval of Bell will, however, prove once again the Commission is happy to ignore its own much-touted policy goals.

If I take a charitable slant on my own prejudices, I’d say I’m looking to the production community’s long-term welfare by arguing against getting sucked into a tug-of-war over the “public benefits” that go with big acquisitions. The on-screen benefits part (85% of the 10% according to the CRTC’s formula) do not in any way constitute a structural or long-term remedy for the many media things that ail us in this country. On the contrary, this money is a sop thrown to program-makers as a cost of doing business. And it encourages them to cut their own throats by encouraging concentration of ownership, which harms not just us consumers, who already pay way too much for cable, wireless and Internet.

It also harms indie producers – badly. In an already over-concentrated market, Barri and her colleagues will lose Astral as a producing partner, one of only five precious decision-makers for getting their work onto conventional, pay and specialty TV. Here’s how Barri sees it in this re-post of a commentary she’s just written for POV magazine (the brand new POV magazine website has popped up right here).

A PERFECT STORM

“The only thing that really matters in [Canadian] broadcasting is program content; all the rest is housekeeping.”  Fowler Commission (Report of the Committee on Broadcasting), 1965.

— by Barri Cohen, award-winning Toronto producer, writer and director 

Ever since Bell Media announced its $3.38 billion purchase (subject to regulatory approval) of Astral Media, I’ve been worried. As every Canadian knows, Bell has a long history as a monopoly and is used to wagging the dog of the day (be it government or our regulator, the CRTC) to get whatever it wants. Already we’re laboring under consolidated media ecology. Not including a knee-capped CBC/SRC or Quebecor, we have had until now five major players — Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Videotron and Astral—who own and operate the lion’s share of our coast to coast integrated media systems.  If you’re a filmmaker or producer, the nitty-gritty consequence of this is that there’s only a handful of decision-makers in charge of commissioning what is supposed to be a broad range of programs from reality, doc/factual, to comedy, drama, and kids shows.

Taking a wider view, it’s hardly a coincidence that programming took a nose-dive in diversity and innovation about four years ago when media consolidation took off.  As some key bloggers and critics have observed, it’s a textbook case of how such concentration has created a risk-averse culture in broadcast boardrooms. The Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor for one incisively if grimly summed up this depressing trend. “The golden age of television shimmers brightly,” she wrote, “just not in Canada.”

Should the sale go through, we’ll be down to four players and the situation will worsen.

Here’s why the CRTC and the Competition Bureau should go over this deal with fine-toothed combs.

The numbers. Depending who you believe, Bell will either have less than 35% of audience share (as they claim) or well over 40% across radio and tv as some others claim. Well, which is it? The latter would raise alarm bells as it’s the threshold number that threatens the principle of diversity of voice and one that would force the CRTC to really grapple with. Count on Bell to fight hard against audience share and valuation of the deal.

The record. Bell Media’s own recent commissions have been, to put it charitably, problematic. They will have to account for their promise of performance record since they were granted the CTV group license in 2010. So far we know, it has pulled nearly the entire slate of documentary programming out of Bravo; it has failed to commission new comedy series for the Comedy Network (a few pilots only, and one strip game show based on a 1962 format); and its main CTV network slate has relied predominantly on its US shows to draw viewers in (Flashpoint was commissioned by the previous regime).

Windows threatened. The huge fear amongst the more adventurous creators and writers is that Bell’s pattern of throttling programming will destroy the success of Astral interests like TMN (The Movie Network) and HBO Canada. Indeed, in their submission to the CRTC, Bell Media made no commitment to program any Canadian shows on these two networks, certainly none that respects the distinct market Astral created.

Promises, promises. According to the rules, 10% of the purchase price is supposed to be a tangible benefit paid into an aspect of the media industry. Bell has tabled a request that some $40 million in benefits be directed towards themselves to build out infrastructure in the North. Hopefully all interveners will demand the Commission not buy this heinous form of avarice.  Adding further insult is Bell’s proposed schedule of ‘benefits’ for new programming. They don’t want to spend a dime before year six, and then extend it into year ten. Did someone forgot to inform Bell that licenses are seven-year terms?  It’s a request that betrays contempt both for the process and for content creators, and is as crazy-making as it is demoralizing.

Put it all together: Monopolistic telephone folks potentially in charge of 79 channels, 107 radio stations, and more than 100 websites. We’ve arrived at this media concentration mess because the CRTC consistently got away with favoring industrial goals over cultural ones.  Both have to be addressed according to the Broadcasting Act, as Fowler et al. well understood.  Let’s hope the nation’s creators and their associations will fight hard to reclaim the balance.

Used by permission