Note: I wrote this while in university. References are at the end. Enjoy!
Bell Canada and the Vancouver 2010 Olympics
A review of the effects of convergence and potential impacts on the public due to the communication agreements between Bell Canada and the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympics.
In October of 2004, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) for the 2010 Olympics announced Bell Canada (BCE) as it’s “Premier National Partner.” To get the sponsorship label (which, by the way, stands until 2012, covering not one, but four Olympic Games), Bell had to fork over $90 million to VANOC, not to mention the promised $60 million that will create the communication infrastructure and services required to stage the event and, of course, the $50 million towards marketing, aiding athletes and other “community initiatives” (VANOC, 2004, BCE, 2006a). In February of 2005, the announcement was made that, for US$153 million, Bell Globemedia (a BCE subsidiary that owns CTV and the Globe and Mail) and Rogers Media had won the broadcast rights to the Games for both 2010 and 2012. The price for the 2010 broadcast rights was 221 per cent more than what was paid for the 2006 license. International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge said in a press release that, “this substantial offer brings Canadian TV rights to an unprecedented level in terms of value and breadth and quality of coverage” (VANOC, 2005). That was a level the CBC, who has aired the Games since 1996, was apparently not able to meet. In response to their loss, Robert Rabinovitch, the President and CEO of the public broadcaster, stated that, “in preparing our bid to the IOC, we knew, and we know still, that competing to win the rights to broadcast the Olympic Games at any cost is simply not a reasonable proposition for us.” The CBC paid US $73 million to broadcast the 2006 and 2008 games. In 1988, the CTV, before it was owned by BCE, paid just $4.5 million to air the Games that were held in Calgary (CBC, 2005).
The price to pay was high, but we must ask ourselves, what does BCE have to gain? In short, that is profit. According to the CBC, “The first Olympic Games on home soil in 22 years is expected to be a ratings bonanza, which is why both broadcasters opened their wallets and assembled resources to put together the best bid possible” (2005). But what happens to people’s perceptions of the events that play out when they are covered by huge money-making institutions? As a sponsor of the Games, BCE is undoubtedly responsible to promote them through fierce marketing strategies. But could Bell, as a communication service provider, keep it’s influence out of what should be objective coverage of the Games by CTV? Could Bell Globemedia afford to run a negative piece in the Globe, perhaps an opinion column, on the Games now that they have a stake in its success? And how will coverage of other Olympic sponsors and friends of BCE rub on the community?
This essay will attempt to argue that the recent trend towards media convergence will, and has, negatively affected society by limiting people’s options to fair and objective coverage of events, coverage they need to make informed decisions that are central to a democratic state. It will trace the effects of convergence in three areas: a) the reduced quality in journalism that has evolved as a result of the profit-motive taking over every other principle that news operations used to run under; b) the agenda-setting that has, and often has to occur by owners of media to keep certain people in power and others with deep pockets; and c) the overall way that democracy has been threatened due to less voices being heard and represented in the news.
A 2002 article written for the Ryerson Review of Journalism reveals what happens when a TV station and a newspaper share the same owner: a majority of the journalists go, and the ones left behind wear two hats, one for print and the other for broadcast. Surely, this way of saving resources is good for the media owners who need to turn a profit in order to please their shareholders. But the costs are great. Reporters are now treated like machines that must produce a certain amount of product by a certain deadline. They are no longer seen as safeguards of the public’s right to know and thus not given the time it takes to produce stories that will engage audiences in an issue by showing its many angles and sides. That would be a waste of time when there’s TV, print and the Web to prepare for (Healy, 2002). They must only contribute to the profit motive of the company by producing fill so the advertisers will have a place to market their products. This was happening at the CTV and the Globe just two years after Bell Globemedia acquired CTV.
Before this became the norm in many newsrooms across the country, government studies were undertaken to warn of the negative effects of media convergence and the quality of news and programming that would subsequently decline. The most noted is the Kent Commission on Newspapers, released in 1981. As a result of this study, the Trudeau government told the Canadian Radio-television, and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to stop media companies from owning both a newspaper and a broadcast station. A few years later the Mulroney government lifted the lid on the ban and media companies were free to pursue as many media outlets as they wished (McLean, 2005). When they did this, they found themselves strapped for cash and had to conserve resources. The best way to save was to lay many people off and devote less time, energy and funding to producing content (Winseck, 2002).
The result of convergence has been a decline in the quality of news. According to Hackett, et. al., “Since the 1970s and 1980s, more and more news outlets are owned by publicly traded firms dominated by investors with a much stronger commitment to the bottom line than to journalism” (2000). Thus, goals of the newsroom have changed dramatically. First of all, major staff cuts have meant that fewer journalists are doing more work. There is no time to dig deep into matters. Often simply rewriting a press release is what it takes to pass as news (Hackett et. al., 2000).
In a then-and-now description of a local Regina TV station, James McLean notes that since CTV as a major corporation has taken over CKCK, there has been a “drop in enterprise reporting” (2005). This type of investigative journalism used to be the norm at the station, and was central to unveiling and correcting many mishaps that were happening in the community. Reporters, when there were enough of them, were assigned to beats that would allow for not just expertise on a subject, but also the types of contacts where trust had to be established over time in order to get pertinent information. Now, there’s simply no time for beats or “enterprise reporting” because “it is generally easier, cheaper, and less risky to chase daily news stories” (McLean, 2005).
A reliance on advertising for revenue has also meant a change in the type of news that is now being produced. Because the news outlets have to create an “environment” for advertisers, less controversial stories are filling the gaps where investigative ones used to go (Hackett et. al., 2000). Reporters are now under pressure to ignore stories that could turn advertisers the other way and are writing lighter feature and entertainment-like news. The journalists who don’t like the new way of doing things can either quit or challenge their authorities. However, few are likely to do that since, once they’re known for causing trouble at one news outlet, chances are they’ll be known for it at dozens of others that are owned by the same culprit of their disobedience, and thus ruin connections to their source of bread and butter (Hackett et. al., 2000).
There has also been a drop in local reporting. Due to the need to save resources, regional programming has taken over, so that the news that is aired on television is merely an overview of what has been happening in the area, and not really a reflection of the issues happening in the cities where people live, and this is especially true of the more remote communities (Winseck, 2002).
Another article published by the Ryerson Review of Journalism indicates how power can be wielded by media owners through control of press coverage of an event, especially when that event could put them in bad light. When the Calgary Herald went on strike in 1999, the National Post, a sibling of the aforementioned paper, filed only negative pieces about the situation, not giving the strikers’ viewpoint adequate, if any, coverage. Even if management had not explicitly ordered such stories to be written, the newsroom staff knew the rules of the game and went along with it. As the subhead of the article reads, “During the fractious strike at the Calgary Herald, there were two legitimate opposing views. But you wouldn’t have known it by reading the National Post.” Convergence, in this case, clearly played a role in achieving management objectives. Eventually, the strike ended, with most journalists being bought out–not a winning solution to the problem (Yearwood, 2001).
But how could the Post have run positive piece on the story? They couldn’t have in today’s world of media being all about the bottom-line. To do so would threaten their very own interests. Hackett et. al. asks a critical question: “Is it likely, for instance, that the Irving newspapers, with their corporate ties to the forest industry, would report vigorously on forest industry practices in New Brunswick?” (Hackett et. al., 2000). Likely not.
Let’s take a look at corporate ties within the BCE empire. Through its Board of Governors, the company has ties to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and Petro-Canada, all of which are now official sponsors of the Olympics along with VANOC’s “Premier National Partner,” BCE (BCE, 2006a, b). Surely this is no coincidence. So not only is fair and objective coverage of the Olympics threatened, but coverage of these other major corporations will likely be slanted to represent promotional goals (Hackett, et. al., 2000). To do otherwise would be like turning against a member of one’s own family. Either that or there simply will be no coverage of negative mishaps that may occur.
Although profit has always been part of the picture, there is now, according to McLean, “a distance in public accountability” (2005). McLean gives an example of a time when the owner of CKCK Television News, before it was incorporated into CTV, dared not undermine the system of accountability and trust that existed between the station and the Regina community. When the top dog, Paul Hill, did not like something going on in his newsroom, he “[chose] to go through channels at a company he owned,” rather than intervene directly. Surprisingly enough (by today’s standards at least), then-news director Frank Flegel was able to refute the owner’s message with one word to his station manager. And that was that. He “was able to judge the integrity of the journalism to be more important.” If Hill, as a well-known local community member, wished to take further measures, his reputation would have gone down the drain. Today, with the owner of the station in a far away place with a face perhaps not even half the population has ever seen, intervention is not so risky, and agendas can be easily enforced (McLean, 2005).
One of the most noted media owners known for intervening in his news operations is Conrad Black. His actions have shown that an owner can intervene based on political as well as financial interests. As a conservative, Black did whatever he could to promote his ideology in his papers. When senior employees didn’t see eye-to-eye with his views, Black was known to fire them (Hackett et. al., 2000).
The end result of poor quality journalism and agenda-setting by the top has been less diversity in news, fewer choices for alternate viewpoints to be expressed and thus, an inadequate system of democracy where citizens do not receive the information they need to know in order to make conscious decisions. Today, we now have in Canada what McLean calls the “Big Four” (a spin-off of Ben Bagdikian’s description of the U.S. media situation as “The Big Five”). Four major companies now own most of the media in Canada: Bell Globemedia, CanWest-Global Communications, CHUM and Quebecor (McLean, 2005). Winseck, writing in 2002, notes that more than 60 per cent of Canadians are exposed to news in print and broadcast formats that are owned by the same company. To give an example, the National Post is owned by CanWest Global, which runs Global Television, as well as 19 other major city dailies across the country. Meanwhile, as noted above, the Post’s rival, the Globe and Mail is owned by BCE, which also owns CTV (Winseck, 2002) and has an interest in a variety of specialty channels including Discovery Channel and TSN (CRTC, 2006).
Government has been particularly favourable to these types of mergers. They argue that large corporations are needed in order to build “information societies,” which includes the infrastructure required to “catapult Canada into the information age, guarantee that citizens have access to a steady flow of Canadian content, and even ensure our cultural survival in a ‘global information age’” (Winseck, 2002). Some also argue that with the Internet in place, societies should not have to worry about limited access to information, since knowledge is now right at their fingertips. However, as Winseck points out, these new media monsters are taking over the Internet through portals such as Sympatico, which, by the way, also belongs to the BCE family. Because of their existing “well-honed ‘brands,’” people are more likely to visit the sites of these media companies than other, perhaps ‘less credible’ sites. Not only that–though it is hard to believe–most people do not have steady access to the Internet, even if it were a viable option for increasing exposure to a variety of viewpoints (Winseck, 2002). Another argument, put forward by Black himself, in defense of convergence, has been that the market will regulate the voices that are represented since the media have to reach a large audience, with varying opinions and ideologies, in order to survive. However, the Kent Commission on Newspapers noted that, since the commercialization of newspapers, ideologies of the left were not covered as much as ideologies of the right, which most media owners, who belong to an elite group, share. In addition to that, since the rich are the ones with the most disposable incomes, media will tend to attract more upscale, conservative-minded readers than the average left-wing ones since that is who advertisers are willing to pay more for (Hackett et. al., 2000).
This brings to light the process of hegemony that has been evolving among Canadian media since convergence began to take off. As McLean notes, “big companies are poised to control both the content of the daily news and the way it is delivered” (2005). People have only one way of learning about matters that affect them and will eventually learn to accept that way as being the norm. Newspapers now “all read the same, look the same, choose the same sorts of things to write about, and write about them in much the same way, in the same tone, at the same length, in the same story form, and using the same storytelling techniques” (Michael Cobden, qtd. in Hackett et. al., 2000). Furthermore, since people’s main information source now only seems to be providing right-wing angles on issues, they will come to deem that as common and accept it. Meanwhile, alternate viewpoints are drowned by the mainstream. But most people will not have the ability to realize any difference since most news shows still look the same. The only way would be to spend tedious amounts of time looking for information that didn’t make it in the news, which is out of the question for most average viewers. So there has been a veiling, or a numbing effect, of what has really been going on (McLean, 2005).
Sure, challengers of the system have the option of starting their own media outlets, but at a cost that is so great they may never be able to compete at the same level as the “Big Four.” Along with the content they can produce, they’ll need a well-known name for credibility purposes and the ability to deliver their information to mass audiences. And that is not to mention the convincing power they’ll have to generate to get advertisers to do business with them instead of the major corporations that can now deliver their message nation-wide (Hackett et. al., 2000).
To conclude, we have seen the impact that convergence can have, not only within a company, but also on society. The negative effects of media mergers are with us today. Sure, BCE will accomplish the government objective of building new infrastructure to modernize Canada. That is all part of the deal that was signed with VANOC for the 2010 Olympics. But that also means that, when the Games are over, BCE will have access to new markets, allowing its presence to dominate more of Canada than it already does. The long-term effects could be gruesome. Instead of only a threat to fair coverage of the Games, Canadians will have to question the goals of CTV, the Globe and the rest of Bell Globemedia’s assets. Are they there for the benefit of Canadians, as they may claim, or are they there to promote the interests of other subsidiaries of the parent company and to reap massive profits? Already, BCE has begun their marketing, selling a collectors pin with the new 2010 logo on it a their Bell World stores, “increasing traffic to stores across the country by 12 percent and generating strongest mobility sales YTD” (BCE, 2006a). And how should Canadians now view HBC, RBC and Petro-Canada with their ties to BCE? Or, better to ask, how will BCE help the image of those companies, especially during the Games? While BCE will, as a result of the Olympic deal, become somewhat of a new major player in the West, we must question its promise to be at the Games “Making it Simple.” So simple that Canadians will not be exposed to complicated issues that might question the integrity of the company? As their own press release states, BCE has “started an unprecedented 8-year journey that has goals well beyond the provision of telecommunications services” (BCE, 2006a).
BCE. (2006a). Articles. Bell and Vancouver 2010 – Making it Simple for the Olympic Games. Retrieved March 26, 2006 from http://enterprise.bell.ca/en/default.asp?sid=52&did=868
BCE. (2006b). Board Members, Committees & Charters. Retrieved March 26, 2006 from http://www.bce.ca/en/governance/boardmembers/directors/
CBC. (2005). CBC Sports. CTV wins 2010 and 2012 Olympic broadcast rights. Retrieved March 26, 2006 from http://www.cbc.ca/story/sports/national/2005/02/07/Sports/ctv050207.html
CRTC. (2006). BCE Corporate Structure corporative (chart). .Pdf Retrieved March 26, 2006 from http://www.crtc.gc.ca/ownership/eng/title_org.htm#B
Hackett, R. et. al. (2000). The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada’s Press (pp. 47-76). Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Healy, T. (2002). Hack of all Trades, Master of None: Convergence may be good news for business. So far it’s bad news for journalists. Ryerson Review of Journalism. Retrieved March 26, 2006 from http://www.rrj.ca/issue/2002/summer/380/
McLean, J. (2005). When Head Office Was Upstairs: How Corporate Concentration Changed a Television Newsroom. Canadian Journal of Communication, 30, 325-342.
VANOC. (2006). National Partners. Retrieved March 26, 2006 from http://www.vancouver2010.com/en/OrganizingCommittee/SponsorsPartners/NationalPartners
VANOC. (2005). News Releases. Bell Globemedia/Rogers Media to broadcast 2010 and 2012 Olympic Games in Canada. Retrieved March 26, 2006 from http://www.vancouver2010.com/en/OrganizingCommittee/MediaCentre/NewsReleases/2006/01/16/92_0601161324-426
VANOC. (2004). News Releases. Vancouver 2010 selects Bell Canada as Premier National Partner. Retrieved March 26, 2006 from http://www.vancouver2010.com/en/OrganizingCommittee/MediaCentre/NewsReleases/2005/12/20/74_0512201459-598
Winseck, D. (2002). Netscapes of power: convergence, consolidation and power in the Canadian mediascape. Media, Culture & Society, 24, 795-819.
Yearwood, E. (2001). Conflict of Self-interest: During the fractious strike at the Calgary Herald, there were two legitimate opposing views. But you wouldn’t have known it by reading the National Post. Ryerson Review of Journalism. Retrieved March 26, 2006 from http://www.rrj.ca/issue/2001/spring/343/