Why media concentration matters

Thursday, July 20, 2006

With the proposed takeover of CHUM Ltd. by Bell Globemedia, there are many questions to be answered. Will the venerable CHUM chart be merged with the list of finalists for Canadian Idol? Will Globe and Mail columnists be the only pundits approved for appearances on CityPulse News (just as they already seem to be on Canada’s Number One Newscast?). Will there be a new radio station devoted solely to ringtones? Will we be forced to endure even more of the egregiously smarmy Ben Mulroney on our TV screens? And those are just the facetious questions; there are many serious ones as well.

The principal concern raised by the takeover is the elimination of competition and the continuing erosion of alternative voices. While Bell Globemedia has already anticipated objections by announcing that it will sell off the CHUM-owned stations that are currently operating under the A-Channel brand, the reality is this takeover – combined with the simultaneously announced the layoff of 281 CHUM employees, and the elimination of local CITY-TV newscasts in every centre but Toronto – will remove a once-feisty independent voice from the Canadian media mix.

One can’t rationally discuss the current media concentration phenomenon without considering where we’ve been. Keep in mind that the last major media consolidation – the sale of part of Bell Globemedia to the Thompson family, Torstar and the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan – has yet to receive approval from either the Competition Bureau or the CRTC (of course it will receive those approvals, since both bodies are paper tigers who are powerless to stand in the way). Prior to that Rogers bought Maclean Hunter, Quebecor bought the Sun chain, CHUM bought Craig Media, Canwest bought Hollinger, Hollinger bought Southam, and Southam bought everything in sight.

In the ten plus years that I wrote for The Waterloo Chronicle, it was owned by a total of six different companies. During the same period, it went from having a dedicated publisher and circulation department, an editor and three reporters to having a “group publisher” (responsible for over a dozen papers across southern Ontario), one editor and one reporter (with circulation being handled by its parent company). As the quality of the paper declined, the amount of editorial interference increased (not that I blame the editors, who were just acting on direction from above or fear for their jobs).

In Vancouver, there are two daily newspapers that are both published by Canwest Global. They pretend to compete, just like the two Canwest-owned TV stations do. In Halifax, the morning paper and the afternoon paper are published by the same company. The specialty channels that are springing up across our television dials are mostly owned by Bell Globemedia, Shaw/Corus, CHUM, Alliance Atlantis, Astral Media and Rogers. Now that Bell Globemedia is buying CHUM, Corus wants to buy Astral Media. Rogers and Corus are likely suitors for whatever media properties Bell puts up for sale. Radio stations in Canada are largely owned by Corus, Global and Rogers. Are you dizzy yet?

When there are fewer owners, there are fewer voices heard. Five years ago, Canwest started issuing national editorials, and all of their papers were instructed to run them. When Lord Black of Crossharbour was running the show, he regularly issued rebuttals of news stories that were unflattering to him. His wife, Barbara Amiel, was run in every paper regardless of how ridiculous or offensive her arguments were that day. On radio, playlists are now developed at head office. Indeed, there are more and more canned shows (such as John Tesh) dominating Canadian airwaves. Is it any wonder that hardly anyone listens to the radio to hear exciting new music?

So, what’s the solution? A lot of people think that it would be a good idea to throw open the doors to international (primarily American) ownership of media. But, much as I dislike concentration of media in a few Canadian hands, the idea of our national dialogue being controlled by American media is even more intolerable. If you dislike national editorials, as I do, try to imagine “international editorials” being wired in from Houston or Washington. Picture a syndicated Ann Coulter wishing death on Canadian progressive columnists for committing “treason” (we’d have to tell her that Canada’s “Liberals” aren’t even very liberal by our standards).

Besides toughening regulations to prevent one company from completely dominating a media market, the government of Canada needs to strengthen the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. If the market doesn’t guarantee competition, then it’s up to our leaders to ensure that there is competition – not just competition for viewers, listeners or readers, but competition in the marketplace of ideas.

Of course, what do you think the chances are that Stephen Harper is going to care to do anything like that? It’s far more likely that the CBC is in line for even deeper cuts than anything that we’ve seen before. Toronto Star Media Columnist Antonia Zerbesias has revealed that the CBC has already issued a public tender a contract for an outplacement consultant. It’s safe to assume that they are going to need one.
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