The deadline for interventions in Bell Media’s request for regulatory programming relief passed late last week with 19 submissions received by the CRTC, the majority making the case against the broadcaster’s proposal.
Bell is specifically seeking a reduction in Canadian programming expenditures (CPE) from 30% to 20%; a reduction in minimum PNI (Programs of National Interest) expenditures from 7.5% to 5%; and an expansion of the current PNI categories to include analysis and interpretation, music and dance, variety, game shows, general entertainment, human interest, and reality television. In return, it’s proposing to increase its independent production acquisitions from 75% to 100% of PNI expenditures. Bell has also asked the commission to drop current requirements to broadcast specified levels of local news.
ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists), representing over 28,000 performers working in English-language recorded media, reiterated its position on similar applications filed by Corus Entertainment and Rogers Sports & Media.
The union’s submission maintains that Bell’s proposal expands the definition of PNI so broadly as to undermine its fundamental purpose. It’s proposing a new approach in which the broadcaster would be compelled to spend $200 million a year for the next five years on Canadian fiction, drama and scripted comedy programs, saying public policies “have underpinned a corporate behemoth with total gross revenues of $24.2 billion in 2022, up 3.1% from the previous year, and net earnings of $2.9 billion.”
“Bell Media concludes from their analysis of the current state of its services and the industry, that Bell Media needs to reduce expenditures of CanCon and PNI because they can’t make a sufficient profit from it. ACTRA’s conclusion from understanding the current state of the industry is that Bell Media and others should be required to invest substantially more on drama and scripted comedy programs, so that Canadians can chose to watch a high-quality Canadian fiction program whenever and however they consume audiovisual content,” the submission states.
ACTRA points out that Bell Media’s segment revenues alone in 2022 amounted to $3.3 billion, a 7.2% increase from the previous year, with adjusted EBITDA of $745 million. It maintains that for “less than the budgets of two average Hollywood movies,” the broadcaster could make a “lucrative investment that will be positive for the corporate bottom line and shareholders.”
The Forum for Research and Policy in Communications (FRPC) is also in opposition, saying that due to the company’s size, any decisions the CRTC makes about Bell’s applications will have consequences for Canada’s broadcasting system. According to CRTC data cited by FRPC, Bell’s 35 local TV stations took in 40% of the revenues of Canada’s 92 local TV stations in 2021/22, while its 32 discretionary TV services took in 38% of revenues reported by the 174 discretionary TV services licensed to operate in Canada. Bell Media’s programming services accounted for 38% of Canadian programming expenditures reported by all private TV stations, and 48% of the CPE reported by discretionary TV services.
The Forum’s submission says even with these requirements, Bell’s television stations reduced their expenditures on local TV from 2017-22 by 15.5%, with station staffing levels decreasing by 16%.
“Had the CRTC granted Bell approval of these applications in 2020/21, FRPC estimates that the company would have saved $257 million in reduced expenditures on CPE, and that independent producers would have seen their income decrease by 12% (or $11.7 million),” states their submission. “FRPC opposes approval of Bell’s applications because the applications offer no evidence showing how approval will implement Parliament’s broadcasting policy for Canada, and because data from the CRTC and Bell indicate that the effect of granting the applications would be a net loss to the broadcasting system and independent producers.”
Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB), meanwhile, is urging the commission “to give serious consideration to all such applications, as private Canadian television and radio broadcasters grapple with unprecedented, even existential, disruption in the Canadian broadcasting system.”
“Ultimately, what these applications demonstrate is that in the face of unprecedented competition for content, audiences, and advertising dollars from unregulated online providers, Canadian broadcasters need operational and regulatory flexibility now. Canadian broadcasters cannot continue to operate under rules established in a very different business context,” wrote CAB President Kevin Desjardins.
Among the major broadcasters, Rogers and Corus both support Bell’s request to drop local news quotas at CTV, CTV2, and French-language news network Noovo.
“We recognize the crucial importance of local news and information programming, and we want to continue delivering it for many years to come. However, Corus and other private Canadian broadcasters will not be able to sustain generally unprofitable news operations at current levels absent a change in regulatory approach that yields meaningful new financial and operational flexibility,” reads the Corus submission. “This includes lower topline spending obligations; greater discretion to develop and deliver Canadian programming that is tailored to our audiences; and more opportunities to select (rather than be dictated to) how best contribute to the policy objectives of the Broadcasting Act. In short, we can no longer work within the prescriptive requirements of the past.”
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