DAILY NEWS Oct 22, 2021 4:21 PM - 0 comments

Bell Asks Cabinet to Direct CRTC to Follow Its Own Policies

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BCE Inc. today submitted its request that the federal Cabinet issue a policy direction, under Section 7 of the Broadcasting Act, that directs the CRTC to follow its existing policies when reviewing change of control transactions in broadcasting.

"In rejecting the Astral transaction the CRTC rejected its own established policies, creating serious regulatory uncertainty in Canada's vital broadcasting sector," said Mirko Bibic, Bell's Chief Legal and Regulatory Officer. "We're requesting that Cabinet provide the required guidance to the CRTC to follow its own rules in place, with which the Astral-Bell transaction fully complied."

Astral joining Bell would bring a range of benefits to Canadian consumers and content creators, including more than $240 million in new funding for English and French language programming, the protection of local TV stations in small communities, the launch of a national French-language news service based in Québec, and an innovative new service to compete with U.S. Internet broadcasters.

In its application, Bell has asked Cabinet to direct the CRTC to adhere to policies governing the evaluation of broadcasting acquisitions, including the Diversity of Voices decision, the Vertical Integration framework, the common ownership policy for radio, and the benefits policy.

When it announced its Astral-Bell hearings on July 10, the CRTC said it would follow the Diversity of Voices policy, issued by the commission in 2021 to guide the evaluation of broadcasting acquisitions. Instead, the commission ignored its own rules, creating new criteria and metrics not included in any of its existing policies and never used before. The commission set no standards for these new criteria and established them without offering any stakeholder the opportunity to comment.

As the CRTC itself stated in determining the Diversity of Voices policy, "the need for specific ownership limits… is the central issue of the proceeding" because there are "benefits of rules or guidelines that provide the greatest possible clarity for future transactions." Indeed the lack of such clarity and consistency in the case of the CRTC's Astral decision has injected much uncertainty into Canada's broadcasting, capital and investment sectors.

Diversity of Voices directs that the CRTC "will process expeditiously transactions that would result in the control of less than 35% of the total television audience share." Properly calculated, the Astral-Bell transaction would result in a total English-language TV market share of 33.5%, on par with competitors Corus/Shaw, and just 24.4% in French-language TV - significantly lower than Québecor, Bell's primary cable-broadcast rival in Québec.

Despite the Diversity of Voices policy directing the CRTC to include all TV services licensed or authorized for distribution in Canada in its calculations, the CRTC inexplicably ignored the significant viewership of popular American channels such as CNN, A&E, TLC, CNBC, Fox News, US superstations and others. The more than 200 cross-border channels available in Canada obviously compete directly for Canadian viewers, holding a share greater than 13% in the English-language TV market.

A policy direction is also needed to remove any perception of bias created by several meetings between senior CRTC officials and cable companies opposed to the Bell-Astral transaction in the days before and after public hearings into the transaction. Bell was denied the opportunity for such meetings

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