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TV news at a crossroads as financial strain deepens, experts say

A CRTC logo is shown in Montreal, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. Experts say BCE Inc.'s request that the CRTC waive local news and Canadian programming requirements for its television stations is the latest signal that Canadian journalism is under threat. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

TORONTO — BCE Inc.'s requests for the federal telecoms regulator to waive local news and Canadian programming requirements for its television stations is the latest signal that Canadian journalism is under threat, say those who study the media industry.

One of two applications by Bell Media on June 14 requested the CRTC drop requirements for spending on local news and on the number of hours per week that stations are required to broadcast locally reflective news in major and smaller markets.

The applications were filed the same day Bell announced it is cutting 1,300 positions, shutting or selling nine radio stations and closing two foreign bureaus amid plans to "significantly adapt" how it delivers the news in the face of rising financial pressure.

Magda Konieczna, an associate journalism professor at Concordia University in Montreal, said the move would potentially widen the existing gap in local coverage as industry struggles have prompted job cuts in local markets.

"You see them saying that they want more leeway to cover neighbouring communities, they want more leeway to cover national and international news. People are already getting that stuff," said Konieczna.

"No one else is going to cover my local community except for my local media … Local news is what I really worry about because I think that's where democracy really resides."

Bell's filing noted its 35 local television stations branded as CTV, CTV Two, and Noovo plus three discretionary television news services — CP24, CTV News Channel and BNN Bloomberg — are under financial strain. It asked the regulator to waive the requirement for the company to invest 11 per cent of the previous year's revenues in locally reflective news.

Bell also requested the elimination of a requirement for English-language television stations in metropolitan markets to broadcast at least 14 hours of local programming per week. In Quebec, Bell asked the regulator to do away with its obligations to broadcast at least five hours of local programming per week at its Montreal station.

Colette Brin, director of the Centre for Media Studies at Laval University in Quebec City, said the request illustrates how television news outlets find themselves at a "crossroads" as the industry struggles to adapt to digital news consumption habits.

Brin's research on the Canadian media landscape published earlier this month in a Reuters Institute report found that 40 per cent of the population still get news mainly through television, compared with 52 per cent who get news from online news websites, apps or social media. But just 11 per cent of Canadians indicate a willingness to pay for online news, according to Brin's research. 

"People are concerned with the decline of news offerings," she said

"But there's a saying in French: everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die — the idea of having to pay for something."

The report found CTV News led the way in weekly reach among English speakers for traditional news consumption methods.

"Our ability to really have trustworthy and reliable news from our own country is under threat," Brin said.

"When you're thinking about showing Canadians the world from a Canadian perspective, that's certainly something that we should be concerned about."

Janice Neil, an associate professor and former chair of Toronto Metropolitan University's School of Journalism, said Bell could have a viable argument if its requests allow it to shift some resources toward digital platforms.

"I think it's important that the CRTC acknowledge that the business of producing news is expensive," Neil said.

But she added that if it leads to Bell shrinking news production teams in underserved markets, it would mean fewer reporters available to cover local courts and city council meetings.

'That would be a huge loss," Neil said.

"I unequivocally believe that the decline in the number of reporters who are in Canada generally, and who are covering the public institutions that need to be covered, is a real threat to our democracy."

While the federal government has taken steps to find solutions to the industry's financial woes, primarily through Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, and Bill C-18, the Online News Act, there are concerns neither will be as effective as hoped.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, added fuel to the fire last week when it said it won’t allow Canadian news to be shared on its platforms in response to Bill C-18, which is meant to force tech giants to compensate Canadian news outlets for their content.

Bell has also said it cannot afford to wait for the outcome of the CRTC's consultations on C-11, which would provide relief to media companies through compensation from online streaming companies.

"I'm somewhat hopeful that the Canadian government is going to be able to negotiate with Meta and Alphabet and that there will be a resolution to the issue," said Brin.

"But just the fact that these platforms are so powerful and can actually force the government's hand is not encouraging either."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2023.

Companies in this story: (TSX:BCE)

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version referred to Janice Neil as the chair of Toronto Metropolitan University's School of Journalism, rather than the former chair.