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Bell asks CRTC to drop local news requirements after mass layoffs

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TORONTO -

BCE Inc.'s media arm is asking the federal telecommunications regulator to waive local news and Canadian programming requirements for its television stations, saying its obligations are based on outdated market realities.

In an application to the CRTC filed June 14, Bell Media requested the regulator 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 application was 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.

In its filing, Bell 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 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 also asked the regulator to do away with its obligations to broadcast at least five hours of local programming per week at its Montreal station.

Among the other asks, Bell urged the CRTC to allow for its stations in major markets to no longer have to broadcast at least six hours of weekly locally reflective news. For its non-metropolitan stations, Bell wants to be able to broadcast less than three hours of locally reflective news each week.

It also asked the regulator to waive the requirement for the company to devote 11 per cent of the previous year's gross revenues to the acquisition of or investment in locally reflective news.

"The requested relief we are seeking would allow us to better manage our regulatory obligations through the evolving competitive landscape of the Canadian broadcasting industry in the face of competition from digital media broadcasting undertakings," the application stated.

The filing noted Bell Media's average annual news operating loss totalled $28.4 million between 2016 and 2019, a figure which jumped to $40 million last year as web giants scooped up the Canadian advertising market.

Bell said the CRTC's implementation of the Online Streaming Act has the potential to provide relief to media companies through compensation from online streaming giants, but it cannot afford to wait for the outcome of the regulator's consultations on the legislation.

It reiterated many of the concerns expressed last week by Bell chief legal and regulatory officer Robert Malcolmson about the legislation, which received royal assent in April and is now in a consultation phase.

Malcolmson said the core issue for Bell is that popular U.S. content isn't available to Canadian broadcasters because American platforms are offering it directly to consumers on their in-house streaming services. He urged policymakers to mandate assurances that would allow Canadian broadcasters to pay American companies in order to air that content.

The regulator has begun its own first three of at least nine consultations on the bill, which will likely span more than a year.

"Notably, absent this relief, we will be required to continue operating these stations in an environment of significant regulatory uncertainty while the Commission works to implement Bill C-11's policy directives," the application stated.

"The traditional broadcasting industry is in crisis, which is why the Commission must act now and grant the regulatory relief we are seeking."

Last week's layoffs included a six per cent cut at Bell Media. Malcolmson told The Canadian Press the company was undergoing "a consolidation of news gathering (and) news delivery" with "one news-gathering and delivery platform."

In a second application filed by Bell on June 14, the company also requested that the CRTC reduce its obligation for Canadian content spending on English-language television stations from 30 per cent of the previous year's revenues to 20 per cent.

It also asked to reduce the amount its English-language television stations must spend per year on programs of national interest from 7.5 per cent of the previous year's revenues to five per cent.

"The reduction we are proposing ... will ensure that broadcasters are better able to sustain themselves and compete," the filing stated. "Such an approach may improve broadcasters' prospects allowing them to better invest in the long term in Canadian productions."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2023.

CTV News is a division of Bell Media, which is part of BCE Inc.

Statement from BCE Inc. provided to CTV News

Bell Media is the leading provider of local news in Canada, but to sustain news operations into the future, public policy changes are desperately needed now. Even though we are Canada’s news leader, Bell Media’s news operations lost $40 million in revenue last year. Without changing how we operate to align with today’s shifting consumer demands, these operating losses will only grow. Now is the time for the CRTC to make reasonable regulatory improvements that will provide more flexibility in how Bell Media and other broadcasters deliver local news in major and smaller markets.

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