Bell Media is appealing to the CRTC to delete numerous conditions of licence (COLs) around local news coverage for its English- and French-language television stations, saying that regulatory relief is “critical in light of the uncertainty that lays ahead for private Canadian broadcasters.”
One of the largest broadcasters of local news with 35 local television stations – including 14 markets where they are the only local television news voice, according to the application – Bell is asking the commission to eliminate minimum local news programming requirements, saying even without those COLs, its stations “will continue to cover a wide range of quality news that our viewers in markets large or small have come to expect from us.”
Among the requirements it’s seeking to delete immediately until the commission’s next full Group Licence Renewal proceeding are:
- Locally Reflective News—Expenditures: the COL requiring that Bell Media’s English-language television stations shall in each broadcast year devote to the acquisition of or investment in locally reflective news 11% of the previous broadcast year’s gross revenues of the undertaking; and that Bell Media’s French-language television stations shall in each broadcast year devote to the acquisition of or investment in locally reflective news at least 5% of the previous year’s gross revenues of the undertaking.
- Locally Reflective News—Exhibition: all COLs requiring the exhibition of specific amounts of locally reflective news during each broadcast week in both English- and French-language metropolitan and non-metro markets.
- Local Programming—Exhibition: the COL requiring Bell Media’s English-language television stations broadcast in metropolitan markets no less than 14 hours of local programming in each broadcast week; and the licence requirement requiring that Bell Media’s French-language television station CFJP-DT Montréal broadcast at least 8 hours and 30 minutes of local programming in each broadcast week.
In its rationale, Bell makes the argument that having more flexibility would allow it to better serve its local audiences.
“…such COLs have the unintended consequence of forcing our stations to make editorial choices that prevent them from providing our viewers with the most relevant news possible at all times. Events that occur outside a local market, whether nationally or internationally, may still be of importance to our viewers in those markets. For example, relevant news from a neighbouring community could be excluded from a newscast in order to ensure that we remain compliant with our obligation to provide a set number of hours of locally reflective news,” states the rationale. “Coverage of such stories should not be discouraged in favour of meeting outdated regulatory obligations.”
Bell says these COLs are no longer sustainable in the current economic and competitive environment, referencing last year’s CBC/Radio-Canada licence renewal decision, which while referred back by Cabinet for re-evaluation, saw the CRTC remove certain exhibition requirements finding “that as audiences change their viewing habits, the risk of continuing to rely solely on exhibition requirements would be to the detriment of both the CBC and Canadian viewers,” going further to offer the public broadcaster the “flexibility it requires in order to tailor its programming strategies to the needs of evolving audiences swiftly in the years to come on multiple platforms…”
Bell’s application argues there is no valid policy reason that same flexibility shouldn’t be applied to its stations, which it says are now operating at a disadvantage in an eroding operating environment for traditional television with audiences now able to access an unlimited array of streaming options like Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video.
“As we stated earlier, we are concerned that our obligations that are based on outdated market realities will persist for another two years or more…To have them continue to be imposed for another year (or longer) while the Commission addresses less urgent issues related to streamer contributions is simply unfair.”
The application says that in the four-year period between 2016 and 2019, Bell’s average annual news operating loss was $28.4M. In 2020 and 2021, due to advertising revenue declines attributable to the pandemic, that jumped to an average operating loss of $51.2M. In 2022, despite some advertising recovery, operating losses amounted to approximately $40M, as online advertising grew to claim 68% share of the ad market in Canada.
“In light of the passage of Bill C-11, we acknowledge the Commission’s recently launched consultations to modernize the broadcasting system and ensure that online streaming services make meaningful contributions to both Canadian and Indigenous content,” the application states. “While Bill C-11 brings streaming services into the regulated system, a new framework may not be established until the fall of 2025. In the meantime…traditional broadcasters continue to be in crisis while Canadian producers are flourishing. We recognize that is important for the Commission to move forward with implementing Bill C-11, but regulatory relief for the traditional broadcasting industry is the most pressing issue.”
A separate application from Bell seeks a reduction in Canadian programming expenditures (CPE) from 30% to 20%; a reduction in programs of national interest (PNI) spending from 7.5% to 5% and an expansion of the current PNI categories to include game shows, general entertainment and reality television. In return, Bell proposes to increase its obligation from 75% to 100% of PNI expenditures to be made to an independent production company.
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