Industry organizations tell CRTC their views on BCE/Astral deal

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This week, industry guilds and groups including the Writers Guild of Canada, the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC), ACTRA and the Documentary Organization of Canada presented their cases for and against the takeover of Astral Media by BCE Inc. to the CRTC.

The overarching concerns amongst the organizations were maintaining the CRTC’s Diversity of Voices Policy, the value of the transaction and BCE’s proposed television benefits package.

The DGC’s national executive director and CEO Gerry Barr said that if the purchase goes through “there will be ‘one less door to knock on’ for independent producers and the creative community to reach Canadian audiences.” He added that BCE is on its way to “unprecedented market share in the English-language market.”

The DGC said that BCE’s revised television benefits proposal “remains deficient in a number of ways,” namely that it deviates from meeting the regulator’s standard to commit at least 85% of television benefits funds to on-screen programming.

“The DGC urges the commission to reject this proposed benefits initiative and require that funds be reallocated to on-screen programming for the development and production of Canadian feature films,” DGC national policy manager Peter Murphy said.

Meanwhile, the Writers Guild of Canada and ACTRA expressed support for the transaction, “but not without hesitation,” said ACTRA’s Ferne Downey.

Both organizations urged the commission to make a balanced decision and fair valuation, also noting diversity concerns related to media consolidation that could result from the proposed takeover. They too were worried about the structure of the benefits package’s on-screen programming spend. They also reminded the commission that BCE’s increased investment in Canadian PNI stems from CRTC policies, and not independent BCE decisions.

“Only when we have a happy audience can we have a healthy, sustainable industry,” said Writers Guild exec director Maureen Parker.

“It is important to the Canadian broadcasting system that there is a diversity of programming and programmers making decisions in order to provide Canadians with real choice. Bell’s interest in reducing the cost of programming and the cost of promoting that programming could easily lead to a homogenization of programming across its services,” the WGC argued.

The WGC requested that the CRTC make it a condition of licence that Astral maintains a separate PNI CPE to encourage separate management of programming.

The Documentary Organization of Canada opposed the transaction, calling BCE’s application “worrisome.”

Its executive director Lisa Fitzgibbons stressed that BCE’s application at present does not include a commitment to support production and broadcasting of French- or English-language documentaries on any of Astral’s channels, and further argued that the consolidation would lead to doc producers facing only one licence for several channels, versus previously being able to negotiate separate licenses.

“Consolidation has led to commissioned programming that is suitable to each group’s entire stable of broadcast holdings, rather than the specific mandates of the individual channels. And it is the DOC’s view that consolidation is the main reason for the marked decline of the documentary genre on our screens.”

The DOC recommended at a minimum of $15 million (or equivalent value) be allocated to documentaries in both languages.

The CRTC hearings continue today.

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