Kevin Newman: The CRTC can tell Bell 'No'
My insider sources confirm what you've all heard: my former employer wants to zero out its spending on journalism.
By: Kevin Newman
I know, I know, dear Line readers. Enough with the traditional media navel gazing. Our day in the sun is over, and we probably deserve some of the decline. Social media has devoured our special status in society, and the fact we even felt we had special status is reason enough to burn our house down. I hear that. But gimme a chance here, okay?
For the past 20 years, every media organization in Canada has shorn newsrooms. In many newspapers and radio the trims are more like a crew cut. The news late yesterday that Postmedia and the Toronto Star are in merger talks is a last-ditch effort to keep reporters in at least one newspaper in each Canadian city. But until last Friday no owner had done what Bell Media said it wants to do: to cut down one of its core premier assets, its local video journalism, until its practically bald.
Bell has applied to the CRTC, the federal regulator of broadcasting (and a whole lot more now), to eliminate most of its local news requirements, while at the same time claiming 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.” It’s not clear what that means, or whether what’s left will contain actual reporting from your neighbourhood.
It signals a surrender.
And yet, Bell Media has been among the most profitable media entities in the country. Its parent company, BCE, even healthier. According to Bell president and CEO Mirko Bibic during the first quarter shareholder meeting in 2023: “Overall, our performance in wireless and Internet helped to drive strong 3.5 per cent consolidated revenue growth, offsetting the impacts of an advertising slowdown within our Bell Media segment.” While net earnings were down from the same quarter a year before, BCE added $772 million in three months to its bottom line.
That’s a fit and healthy parent. But apparently, it’s not enough.
To be honest, I struggled with whether I should speak up about this. I worked for Bell Media for nine years and genuinely enjoyed my employment there as one of CTV News’ anchors and reporters. I almost got laid off twice and had a show with my name on it abruptly cancelled after only seven months on the air, but I was able to leave on my own terms in 2019, did rewarding work, and loved my colleagues. And I respected my managers.
But now it seems my former employer is intent on suffocating its news division and the legacy of thousands who have built its reputation since the first CTV national newscast on October 1, 1961. So, typically, I’m having trouble staying quiet.
Why does that matter if CTV still has at least a little local news coverage? Because without sufficient local news resources, there is no other news. Local video-journalists are the eyes and ears closest to what is happening around the country. They collect most of what you see on CTV National News or CTV News Channel. Reducing their numbers to less than a handful pretty much eliminates significant news-gathering on all of CTV’s 35 affiliated stations.
That stunning demand to the CRTC was filed the very same day 1,300 Bell employees were terminated two weeks ago. At CTV National News, its most experienced journalists were told, in HR speak, that “their services were no longer required.” Those “services” included risking their lives in conflict and crisis zones, working 12 to 14 hours a day, and weekends too, exposing themselves to the world’s trauma so that you and I might better understand the threats to our comfortable lives.
I’ve been told that senior news employees were dismissed on a group video call that lasted barely a minute, and after a press release had told the rest of the world their careers at Bell were over. Did you watch that Succession episode? Yeah, just like that.
By the time the mini-call ended, the on-air reporter’s profiles on the ctvnews.ca website were instantly updated to “no longer works for the company.” Bell Media has laid off so many thousands of journalists, producers, and operations staff this decade that it has perfected, with surgical precision, how to sever employees while they’re still too shocked to try to talk back.
And yet, the reaction in public has so far been muted. Inside CTV News it’s understandable that the remaining employees are fearful of speaking up as senior managers hint of more cuts to come and difficult union negotiations ahead. Typically Bell, like many large corporations, asks departing employees to sign separation agreements that demand they refrain from publicly disparaging the company in the future.
(The Line sought comment from Bell on the matter of separation agreements, and did not receive a reply.)
The irony is not lost on anybody. Journalists who once worked to defend free speech may have to decide between limiting their own, and supporting themselves or their families a little while longer with Bell severance. I left Bell Media on my own accord when I retired, so I am not handcuffed in the same way by pension payments and the like. However, for full disclosure, I agreed not to share business information I acquired during my nine years as a contract worker for the company. So I won’t.
But I am free to report what I’m being told now. And my sources inside CTV News share that the management has quoted financial information that paints a dire picture for its news division.
Its public submission to the CRTC echoes that. As Broadcast Dialogue magazine summarizes:
“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.”
That is absolutely worrying. But it’s tough to discover how Bell arrived at those numbers from its public disclosures. There is little doubt that during the pandemic national advertisers were skittish about putting their products in newscasts that heavily covered the emergency, even though audience numbers for those newscasts soared. Some of those big brands never returned after the emergency eased because, well, the news hasn’t become any easier to absorb.
But that’s not the only thing that’s changed at CTV recently. Bell management’s decision to end the contract of Lisa LaFlamme as national anchor cost its number-one news show ratings in the advertiser-coveted demographic for news, 25-54 year olds. That's almost 200,000 viewers I’m reliably told. In recent weeks, there have been claims by management of a rebound among younger viewers. But that suggests some of the recent financial wounds Bell is claiming are likely self-inflicted because CTV National News hasn’t delivered the audience advertisers were sold months earlier.
(Bell was also asked about these viewership numbers by The Line, and again, did not respond.)
Even so, local news used to be pretty immune to the whims of big brands and national advertisers; it relied more heavily on local sales teams that found plenty of mom-and-pop businesses to support them. Neighbourhood car dealers, the obnoxious guys trying to sell you furniture or buy your gold, smaller businesses like that were once the bread and butter of local stations and news. They were largely abandoned as bigger parent companies laid off local sales staff and centralized all media buying in Toronto to attract the big brands. The “low-hanging fruit” which once supported local news in hard times was kicked to the curb.
Now that the national brands are news skittish, there’s no one left to knock on doors to find the dollars to keep local news going. That, too, is a self-inflicted wound.
Other private media companies have been more successful at finding new sources of revenue in the streaming age. Look at Global News. If anything its parent company, Corus Entertainment, is in much worse financial shape than Bell Media. The share price is unhealthy, its television business shaky, but according to public reporting its news division is contributing more revenue to the company than it did a few years ago because it found new ways to make money. Global has struck new revenue-delivering deals with Amazon Prime and Pluto TV. And so far, it isn’t asking for reducing the number of hours of news production.
There is also financial relief possible not far over the horizon. Parliament has just passed a new law that would force the social media platforms that distribute news and sell ads on it, to share some of that revenue with the newsrooms creating it. Bell says it can’t wait the year or so it will take to create the regulations to get that cash flowing, that it must cut immediately.
Everyone I’ve spoken with understands the business model for news is under severe stress. CTV News management laid that part out for staff ahead of the severe cuts. What isn’t as clear is how those same managers plan to generate more revenue from quality journalism.
Insiders claim that CTV National News now prioritizes building the brands of its anchors, growing their influence on social media, finding “operational efficiencies,” and creating more heated debates in their stories to trigger emotions. It is, largely, a content-branding strategy based around social media, which is itself in decline.
So what are we left with as news viewers? One of Canada’s most profitable corporations wants out of many of its commitments to pay for serious journalism. While it says it’s willing to continue investing in quality investigative reporting at W5 and CTV’s online news, its foreign bureaus are mostly shuttered. Now the bosses have just told local reporters and video-journalists that the company has little commitment to their futures, either.
The Canadian public will pay the price with the loss of professional journalism in their country, their world, and soon their city.
The CRTC has the authority to say no to Bell’s demands because the reality is, television news has always been partially financed by its more profitable corporate cousins. It could dismiss the application and order Bell to continue supporting real journalism using the substantial profits generated by its protected wireless business and its other divisions enjoying the spoils of technological upheaval.
But will it?
The regulator has given Canadians only a month to file any objections to Bell’s plan to shave its news down to a six o’clock shadow. And, well, summer’s here.
Kevin Newman retired from CTV News in 2019.
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