12 July 2006

Film at 11

This just in. Breaking News. And other media clichés!

Bell Globemedia, the owner of, among other things, the Globe and Mail, the CTV television network, and a gaggle of specialty channels like the Comedy Network, TSN, Discovery Channel, and MTV Canada, has just announced that it is planning to acquire the CHUM Inc. for $1.7 billion. CHUM owns 33 radio stations and 12 television stations, including the popular and pioneering CityTV stations across Canada.

I was alerted to this news a couple of hours ago when a reporter from CityTV called me to do an on-camera interview about the ramifications of this acquisition (film at 6, actually). My concern - shared with many others around the media world and the blogosphere - is that of concentration of massmedia ownership. It is the editors and producers who direct the pointing of cameras and microphones that tell us what to pay attention to, in other words, what we should consider as important in our world. Marshall McLuhan used to say that there could only be one active war in the world at a time, since the television cameras could only point in one direction at a time. Although both the media and the world have changed considerably since McLuhan's time, it is true that for "hard news" reportage, the world relies on on-the-scene journalists to source materials. It is also true that the vast majority of Canadians rely on the conventional newsmedia for information. The fewer media owners, the fewer diverse voices are loudly heard. The fewer voices, the less vigorous is the public discourse, and that is detrimental to democratic process and participation. What's more, fewer owners means that greater influence can be exerted by politicians and policy makers.

My guess is that the CRTC would not approve the acquisition without requiring divestiture of some television stations, especially where there is overlap. The business strategy may well be for Bell Globemedia to acquire the radio properties, plus the CHUMCity's specialty channels, such as FashionTV, Bravo, Star!, SexTV, and MuchMusic, all of which have extensive content licensing revenues. They will likely kick the CityTV A-channel stations overboard, rather than sacrifice the local CTV affiliates. The question is, who might be the likely buyer? TorStar Group is awaiting approval of an investment in BGM, so they might not be a likely (read: approvable) suitor. Craig and Quebecor have just divested themselves of television holdings, as did Shaw a few years back. CanwestGobal has the same overlap problem as does BGM, with much less cash (and cash flow) to play with. CBC... well, enough said...

For a wild and crazy idea, perhaps we'll see an American company enter the Canadian market, perhaps fronted by some Canadian partners. We've seen it happen in the satellite radio business, and before that, in the mega-bookstore business some years back. Even wilder and crazier might be an Internet company seeking to build some content production expertise and capability. YahooCanadaTV or GoogleCanadaTV? The Canadian market would be a perfect one in which to launch an interesting experiment, not in convergence, but in pervasive proximity production. After all, the slogan of the news desk is "CityTV. Everywhere!"

Update (13 July 2006): Speaking of being kicked overboard, 281 CityTV operations and news staff from every location except Toronto lost their jobs within hours of the major announcement. Seems that the branch CityTV locations will become not much more than fancy community access channels: "Citytv stations in Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg will move from traditional one-hour evening newscasts to a new daily half-hour local news magazine show "In Your City", with in-depth coverage of community stories coupled with a new daily half-hour national and international news package currently being planned."

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