Bell Wants to Cut Local News Requirements Across Canada

Bell Media has applied to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to eliminate local news requirements for its stations across Canada. This move raises concerns about the future of local coverage.

The application, filed on June 14, requests the CRTC to remove obligations for spending on local news and the number of hours per week that stations must broadcast locally-reflective news. This comes as Bell announced the same day that it is cutting 1,300 jobs, closing nine radio stations, and shutting down two foreign bureaus due to financial pressures.

Bell’s application comes at a time when many media companies are struggling with layoffs and financial challenges. The news follows the recent passing of a bill in Ottawa aimed at levelling the advertising playing field with big tech companies like Meta and Google.

Bell’s application states that its 35 local television stations, along with three discretionary television news services, are under financial stress. The company has requested the removal of requirements for English-language television stations in metropolitan markets to broadcast at least 14 hours of local programming a week. It also wants to reduce the requirement for locally-reflective news broadcasts in major markets.

Dwayne Winseck, a professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communications, described Bell’s move as “aggressive” and warned that it could pose a threat to local journalism, speaking to The Star.

Bell’s request comes in the context of two new bills — Bill C-18, the Online News Act, and Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act. These laws are intended to support media companies in Canada. Winseck criticized Bell’s move as an attempt to take advantage of these new laws.

In its filing, Bell Media said its news business averaged an annual loss of about $28 million per year from 2016 to 2019, while that number increased to $40 million in 2022, with the blame on web tech giants for dominating Canadian advertising.

While Bell’s broadcast television stations may not be profitable, Winseck pointed out that the company has very profitable sectors, particularly in telecommunications. He accused the company of “cherry-picking” elements to support their case.

Bell’s application also requested a reduction in its obligation for Canadian content spending on English-language television stations from 30% to 20% of the previous year’s revenues. It also seeks to reduce the amount its stations must spend per year on programs of national interest.

Winseck expressed concern that if Bell’s requests are granted, it could negatively impact local news coverage. He said, “We see these stations increasingly detached from their local conditions of operation.”

Bell stated that it cannot afford to wait for the outcome of the regulator’s consultations on the Online Streaming Act. The company reiterated concerns expressed by Bell’s chief legal and regulatory officer, Robert Malcolmson, about the legislation. Malcolmson urged policymakers to mandate assurances that would allow Canadian broadcasters to pay American companies to air their content.

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