The CRTC has renewed Bell’s Fibe TV community television licences serving Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces, while finding Bell misallocated nearly $36 million in local programming spending.
In a lengthy decision published Thursday, the commission cites Bell for trying to pass off shows like LetterKenny, Let’s Get At’er (a behind the scenes look at the Crave series’ Sudbury shooting locations), and Mary’s Big Kitchen Party (featuring Mary Berg of CTV’s Mary’s Kitchen Crush), as locally reflective.
“Although the descriptions provided by Bell for each of these programs included explanations as to how they are locally reflective, the explanations still appeared to support the conclusion that, for many of the programs, the main function is to cross-promote Bell Media productions that air on Bell-owned commercial television stations and services rather than provide genuine local reflection of specific communities,” the decision states. “This would run counter to the Community Television Policy’s key objective of community reflection, an important element of the definition of ‘local community television programming’ set out in the Regulations, and to the role of the community channel, which, as specified in the Community Television Policy and in Broadcasting Regulatory Policies 2010-622 and 2010-622-1, should be ‘primarily of a public service nature.'”
The CRTC said other community programming produced by Bell appears to promote the interests of other properties owned in whole or in part by the company like professional sports teams the Toronto Raptors, Toronto Football Club and Montréal Canadiens.
The commission also took issue with “local BDU productions” like Etalk: Road to the Oscars and Cirque du Soleil shows, “featuring events and subject matter that appear to be tailored to an audience that extends beyond the local community.”
“In the Commission’s view, Bell has conflated two distinct notions: exhibition and funding. The authorization to broadcast 40% of non-local programming on a community channel is strictly related to exhibition and did not result in an authorization to direct up to 40% of the funding drawn from a specific area towards non-local programming. At the relevant time, the definition of “contribution to local expression” did not include this kind of flexibility,” states the decision.
Local expression budgets funding non-local productions
The commission says Bell was using funding from the local expression budgets of its small exempt BDUs in the Atlantic Provinces to fund expensive non-local productions that were based in either Toronto or Montréal. The CRTC says during the 2017-18 broadcast year alone, “Bell drew a significant amount of money from small exempt services in the Atlantic Provinces to finance the Montréal- and Toronto-based productions – all of which relate to Bell’s commercial programming.”
Bell argued that the programs in question were non-access, non-local programs that met the definition of “community programming,” in that the regulations only require programming be “relevant” to a community. It also submitted that since the regulations do not define the term “relevant,” the widely understood definition of that term must be applied. Accordingly, Bell argued the programs are “relevant” to its audience in the Atlantic Provinces given that it draws significant viewership in those areas.
The CRTC noted that other licensees with the authorization haven’t had issues interpreting their conditions of licence correctly, going further to repeatedly refer to Bell’s actions as “self-serving.”
“The Commission is concerned by Bell’s failure to direct the funds in a manner consistent with its regulatory obligations. While Bell argued that it has interpreted the rules in good faith and has been transparent in its interpretations and practices, the Commission notes that its actions and explanations appear self-serving, as evidenced by the amounts that were allocated to its own local stations rather than being paid to the CMF or directed towards community programming. Furthermore, the Commission is concerned that Bell’s interpretation reflects a broader tendency by the licensee to rely on self-serving practices with funding that should either go towards the operation of a service whose role should be of a public service nature or otherwise be directed towards Canadian programming,” stated the decision.
Accordingly, Bell has been ordered to pay as a condition of licence nearly $18 million to the Canada Media Fund (CMF), corresponding to the excess portion of misallocated contributions to local expression, with the possibility of directing up to 20% of that amount to one or more Certified Independent Production Funds (CIPF).
The commission also questioned Bell on the ambiguity of certain production contracts related to its commercial interests as well as direct programming expenditures that actually appeared to be directed to technical expenses. That included software built for use by TV1 in Atlantic Canada to provide targeted navigation to the TV1 VOD subsection of the Bell VOD storefront.
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