You come home from work and want to relax in front of the TV. You flip around the channels, but you can’t find your favourite show. You check your cable company’s video on demand service, and the show isn’t there either. You look at your tablet, smartphone, Apple TV and any other devices or gadgets for streaming online TV content, but your show is still missing in action.
This, in short, is the future that Canadian TV viewers could face if the Bell/Astral Media deal is allowed to go forward.
Bell has struck a deal to acquire Astral Media, one of Canada’s last few remaining independent media companies. If this deal goes through, Bell will control almost 45% of key TV content across the country.
I’m not usually one to call for government action, but in this case, the CRTC has no choice but to reject this deal – for a number of reasons.
The first reason has to do with consumer choice. Even now, as Bell has already started offering its own TV channels on mobile devices linked to a Bell contract, non-Bell users have been locked out in many instances. For example, CTV shows now take close to a week after their air dates before they’re released on cable companies’ video on demand services. On CTV’s own iPad app, the content, which when it first launched was extensive, has been reduced to bare bones. Bell subscribers, meanwhile, get everything right away.
This, of course, is against CRTC rules. Bell, and others, were told that they had to make content available to all consumers across all platforms and couldn’t play favourites. Bell has already violated that rule, and the company has now said that it’s willing to push the limits even further, just to see how far it could go before being shot down by the CRTC. This may be a fun game for industry insiders, but consumers lose big time.
Second, this deal would give Bell a virtual or near monopoly. It would control the majority of vastly popular TV shows, and could, and likely will, withhold content from non-subscribers. Bell would acquire HBO Canada, for example, which is in the process of bringing to Canada the hugely popular HBO Go mobile app. For all we know, Bell will make access exclusive to Bell subscribers – and might also pull HBO Canada from cable companies, particularly in Western Canada (CTV/Bell has a long track record of antagonizing Western Canada), as it would now own the Movie Network in Eastern Canada, which also carries HBO Canada, but not Movie Central in the western half of the country (Movie Central also carries HBO Canada, but could lose that privilege if Bell feels like sticking it to the West again).
Third, with a virtual monopoly and controlling most of the popular content and channels, Bell could extract even higher carriage fees (to be passed on to – you guessed it – us, the consumers) and conditions from cable companies, such as Shaw or Rogers. For example, Bell could tell Shaw Cable that, in order to continue carrying, say, Space in HD, it had to drop Sun News Network and give CTV News a more prominent channel position. If Shaw refuses to accept the conditions or pay a steeper fee for each Bell-owned channel, viewers could lose a lot of their favourite channels and programming.
Quebec, too, is affected, because the Astral Media deal includes several French-language channels. If the province’s main cable-TV provider, VidÈotron balks at the conditions set by Bell, Quebeckers could lose a lot of content as well.
So, then, several wars would break out, with cable companies refusing to carry Bell content, while Bell would remove Shaw Media, Quebecor, etc. content from its satellite service and mobile devices. In the end, consumers would have to subscribe to two or more services (and buy the necessary equipment) just to get a fraction of the TV content they used to get through a single service.
In addition, as content owner, Bell could withhold its content from third-party over-the-top streaming services like Apple TV. Such shows would still be available to US iTunes downloaders, but in Canada they’d be blocked and available only on Bell devices.
Obviously, this deal wouldn’t serve consumers at all, which is why it must be strongly opposed. Let’s hope the CRTC is listening and will reject this deal, as surely it must.