MONTREAL — With telco Bell Canada’s $1.3 billion acquisition of CTVglobemedia due to close next month, the stage is set for the next big battle in the Canadian TV biz — ownership of content for mobile devices.
Bell, which goes under the corporate moniker BCE, will soon own the country’s leading TV network, CTV, and many of the top cable channels to add to its mobile phone service, web site Sympatico.ca and satellite platform Bell TV.
Once that happens, all Canada’s top terrestrial webs will be controlled by major players in the cable, satellite and mobile phone business, hungry to snare deals that give their distribution services exclusive access to content.
And that’s something many in the biz are concerned about.
Most times, auds can choose whether to watch a show on any of the terrestrial webs. But if that show is shifted to, say, BCE’s cell phone service Bell Mobility, the country’s largest player with roughly half the market, many free-to-air viewers are cut out.
A recent example of this was “Your Canadiens,” 14 half-hour profiles of players on the Montreal Canadiens hockey team. The show debuted in the fall exclusively on satcaster Bell TV and Bell Mobility, but premiered on terrestrial TV only last month on CTV’s sports channels TSN and RDS.
Program availability is a particularly sensitive issue, since most local programming is made with assistance from funds backed by taxpayers’ money. Because of this, when regulator the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission approved BCE’s acquisition of CTVglobemedia on March 7, it slapped a moratorium on exclusive programming agreements for cell phone or Internet services. The moratorium will be in effect until after the regulator’s hearings into vertical integration in the TV business, which are due to begin in June.
BCE already has a number of deals for exclusive use of content, including one for cell phone rights to NFL games. Such deals already in place are not impacted by the CRTC ruling.
Actors union ACTRA is among the consumer groups looking forward to the hearings.
There are benefits to vertical integration, says ACTRA’s director of public policy Joanne Deer, because income from the lucrative cell phone biz can offset cash-strapped areas like local news.
“We just want to make sure there are rules in place so that Canadians have access to a full range of content,” she adds. “As consumers, it just doesn’t seem fair that someone can lock down content and say you’re not allowed to watch this program because you’re not a subscriber to Bell. What is especially sensitive to us is when the content is produced with taxpayers’ money.”
The broadcast landscape in Canada has shifted dramatically in the last year. Aside from BCE taking control of CTVglobemedia, cabler and Internet provider Shaw Communications acquired the TV assets of CanWest Global, including CTV’s archrival Global.