In part 2 of this series, we went over the case of CanWest Global Communications. The case serves to illustrate that an ever increasing centralization of the media communications industry and can lead to a disaster for journalists, publishers, and the Canadian public. Fortunately, there have been media watchdogs, activist groups, and industry watchers that have championed for the cause of defending and monitoring the media landscape.
One such group has been the Canadian Media Guild.
Canadian Media Guild
The Canadian Media Guild is a democratic trade union representing 6,000 workers in the Canadian media. Their members work at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Société Radio-Canada (CBC/SRC), The Canadian Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse (AFP), TVO, TFO, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (aptn), ZoomerMedia, Shaw Media and CKOI Radio Gatineau (Québec). They also represent media freelancers as well.
Back in 2007, the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) published a paper titled: Six reasons to stop CTVglobemedia’s takeover of the CHUM stations. The report was sent to the Canadian Radio Television Committee (CRTC), who are the regulators in the digital media, and print communications industry. In it, they stated the effects of a more centralized media industry will lead to a bigger monopoly:
1) A private media monopoly in Canada is much more certain as each new merger deal is announced. If the three most recently announced mergers were approved, there would only be about 3 more deals, before there would be an effective private media monopoly in Canada
2) Being a monopoly is great for the company and its investors, but its “antithetical” to the modern free enterprise system and to the principles underlying the Canadian broadcasting system as enshrined in the Broadcasting Act. The paper argues, that a single private company, answerable first and foremost to its shareholders, cannot be trusted to “Safeguard, enrich, and strengthen the cultural, political, social, and economic fabric of Canada”. And it will have no compelling reason to “encourage the development of Canadian expression by providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, ideas, values, and artistic creativity…”
3) In the heavily regulated field of broadcasting, private companies get market protection from new and foreign entrants in exchange for providing the public benefits outlined in the Act. Unfortunately, the push to increase profits tends to reduce thoe benefits, such as high quality local content, to optional status when they are not as profitable as other programming strategies
The CMG’s 6 reasons to stop the takeover are indicated below. The bullet highlights the issue, the red X highlights the current problem the CMG anticipates, and the green checkmark represents the CMG’s solution.
- The policy “generally permits ownership of no more than one over-the-air television station in a given market.” The policy “ensures the diversity of voices in a given market, and helps to maintain competition in each market.”
- However, the CRTC made an exception to that policy when it granted the WIC licences to CanWest in 2000. Meanwhile, spending on Canadian programming has not increased, nor has the airing of quality Canadian programming in prime time on the Global and CH networks controlled by CanWest. It is not clear how Canadians benefitted from the exception to the common ownership policy.
- In the coming licence renewal process, CanWest should be denied licences for both Global and CHUM stations serving the same market. That will level the playing field for conventional broadcasting and eliminate CTVglobemedia’s “me too” argument.
- There would be less local programming, and especially original news programming.
- The recent Senate report on the state of the Canadian news media points out that consolidation of radio ownership has reduced the availability of local news on the radio. The same trend is happening among national newspaper chains, where content has been centralized and journalists have been laid off. And TV is not immune to the trend. On the same day that the CHUM sale was announced in 2006, CHUM management cancelled local TV newscasts in four cities: Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. For its part, CanWest has also signaled the possibility of reducing its local TV news offering because of declining profitability, despite benefitting from the “synergies”of its consolidated TV network and newspaper chain
- We believe that this cross-ownership will continue to have a negative impact on quality local programming, permitting media conglomerates to pick and choose, based on market conditions and not public interest, where to prioritize, or forego, less profitable local content. The situation gives people with power and money more ability to shape news coverage in a local market, which can have a real impact on how the public learns about and participates in political processes. Instead, cross-media ownership should be examined by the Commission to determine the impact on local programming, and on quality Canadian content in general.
The CMG has the same worry as veteran broadcaster George Orr, who said, “The remaining companies have found that they can make more money by being adequate, and limiting investment in newsgathering, than they can in being excellent.”
- There would be more repetition of programming across stations and across media lines, and therefore less original, new content to attract and hold Canadian audiences.
- CTVglobemedia is proposing to limit repetition to 10%; that’s 10% more duplication than now exists between CTV and CHUM stations. And who will be monitoring whether this 10% promise is kept over time? It appears to be difficult enough to get broadcasters to honour all of their licence requirements, let alone live up to promises made when trying to get approval for a deal.
- There would be even fewer editorial voices. Concentrated and cross-media ownership tends to centralize editorial decision-making in fewer hands. This has an impact on editorial content, regardless whether newsrooms are formally separate, since corporate decisions can affect how news programming is defined and what role it plays on each platform, as well as how newsgathering resources are deployed
- For example, after eliminating its electronic newsgathering capabilities and reducing its news production staff at Sun TV in Toronto, Quebecor has launched an ambitious project to converge its news platforms for both French- and English-language services, despite making a commitment to the CRTC through the TVA and Sun TV licence processes that it would not do so.
- Media consolidations inevitably lead to a loss of jobs
- There were layoffs at the CHUM TV stations on the very day the deal was announced. The loss of decent-paying, skilled jobs is bad for local economies. It also means a reduction in the number of people creating programming. With fewer people working in the media, there is less opportunity for a diversity of voices to be presented to Canadian audiences. Cultural diversity is especially at risk from job cuts because people from equity-seeking groups tend to have the least job security
- Greater concentration of media ownership means fewer markets for advertisers and for content creators to sell their work. As well, with increased program repetition across stations, there would be less time in the schedule to air new productions
- Fewer people would effectively define Canadian content and the independence of independent producers would be eroded. The CTVglobemedia proposal on how to manage the proposed $103 million benefits fund that would flow from the current purchase would only accentuate the trend. The proposed benefits would provide an incremental increase in Canadian programming for a few years. However, given that benefits are a one-time cash infusion, they provide no sustainable approach to funding Canadian content production into the future.
- It is possible that CTVglobemedia would, in fact, do as it promises and nurture new, innovative Canadian programming for its CHUM stations. The benefits fund would make it likely in the short-term. But in a post-benefits Canada (eg. once all of the mergers have been done and the money spent) where will the money and commitment come from, beyond the overstretched Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Canadian Television Fund?
- It would appear that the “synergies” provided by media mergers have not actually contributed to an increase in original Canadian programming; in fact, as the Candian Coalition of Audio-Visual Unions pointed out in its submission to the CRTC with respect to NPH 2006-5, private TV broadcasters have reduced the proportion of ad revenue they spend on Canadian programs while increasing the amount spent on non-Canadian programs.
- Clearly the more strategic reason for CTV to own the CHUM stations has less to do with developing Canadian programming than with providing shelf space for the “less attractive” Hollywood shows that CTV must purchase from US studios along with the more “sought-after” ones (page 23, Appendix 1A – CTV Supplementary Brief). It is also about eliminating a growing competitor for the more popular US shows, given that CHUM had begun bidding against CTV and CanWest for Hollywood hits.
In the report’s conclusions, the Guild stated:
We make these submissions because we believe there is no credible case for suggesting the CTVglobemedia deal will benefit the Canadian viewing or listening public. Nor is there a case to be made that advertisers, who continue to pay the bulk of the costs for Canadian broadcasters, will benefit from such increased concentration.
This report was cited as an example of the back and forth exchange of the process and arguments other unions, journalists, and researchers would tend to provide. So it is a good summary of the counter arguments towards centralization of media ownership.
Part 4 addresses other arguments particularly from Parliamentary Committees, against media centralization.