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and I can't do a thing about it

Monopoly…a Canadian way of doing business

A lot of you will look at the deal to buy Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) by Bell and Rogers as simply a sports deal. You may be questioning what this means for the future of your favorite sports franchise, be it the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors, TFC (the soccer team), maybe even the Toronto Blue Jays or one of the other six NHL teams in Canada. If you are a sports fan in this country and whether you love the dismal Toronto franchises, or love to see them fail year after year, there are real sporting implications…the truth though, whether you like to hear it or not, is that the future of the Leafs success on ice is mostly irrelevant in this deal.

The sale of MLSE is about content rights, who will control the television, radio, internet, mobile, etc. rights to the sporting content generated by these teams. In those terms this is a very frightening deal. Bell and Rogers are already the two most powerful media conglomerates in Canada. They own and manage, some would say mismanage, 80 television stations including all of the major sports stations on TV. They own 88 radio stations including all of the major sports-talk stations. They will pick up an additional three television licenses that MLSE owns. Together they own the vast majority of Canada’s online and mobile services. You think that it’s just Bell and Rogers? Think again. They also own Virgin, Solo, ChatR and Fido, and of course the largest satellite and cable companies too.

It’s hard to believe that a few short years ago it was deemed illegal for a cable or satellite company to own a television station, let alone a network. Thank you CRTC.

This concentration of power will be bad for everyone. While Bell and Rogers are busy divvying up the nation, they leave little room for their competition. This means they can do with sports content what they have done with mobile technology and cable and satellite delivery. They can control access and they can control price. All you have to do to see the future is to look at what these to companies have done in the past. Canadians pay among the highest rates in the world for mobile service and internet access, and Bell and Rogers continually strive to keep competition out through influence on government and regulatory bodies and with unfair discount practices that disappear when the competition is wiped out. To quote Ellen Roseman in the Toronto Star, “Rogers and Bell bludgeon customers into accepting a flurry of extra charges for wireless phones. They hit them with unexpected bills for data roaming and third party text messages.”

Roseman goes to describe some of the dirty practices of Bell and Rogers that include discounts that evaporate before the subscriber ever sees them, raised prices that make the discounts offered moot, and of course, some 8000 complaints from Canadians to the government last year about how they are being treated by telecommunications companies like Bell and Rogers.

I expect to see access to Toronto’s sports franchises on radio and television to change in three ways, first, you will see far more games on Rogers Sportsnet and TSN and expect to see fewer games in which let’s say the Calgary Flames or Winnipeg Jets own the rights. Why pay the owners of a third party NHL club when you can pay yourself and fill the same amount of air time? Second, I see fewer opportunities for non-MLSE affiliated channels like CBC and Global to get the rights to the most popular sports entertainment. Finally, I see the possibility of a new pay channel that replaces Leafs-TV and Raptors-TV with a new sports channel that forces the public to pay big subscription fees to gain access to games that will no longer be available on any other channel, think MSG Network (Madison Square Gardens) or YES Network (Yankee Entertainment) two very profitable networks in the United States that control all of the most popular sports franchises in the New York City area.

Lastly I want to make a point about the way sports journalism will be affected. Since the owners of MLSE will now control virtually all of the sports broadcast media who will be left to criticize the missteps and worse the arrogance of this new sporting monster?

Will the guys at The Fan or TSN Radio take on their corporate bosses? Will they lose jobs and be punished for doing so? Does anyone see the conflict of interest here? Does anyone at the competition bureau or the CRTC care?

In the past few months Rogers and Bell have been busy buying the services of dozens of the best print sports writers to fill slots on radio and television and to write for new magazines. Most have quit their print jobs like Stephen Brunt, some like Damien Cox keep a foot in both camps. It is my contention that just about every sports writer in Canada is at least partially beholden to either Bell or Rogers. Sure you may write for a local paper in Vancouver that’s owned by the Post group or an independent in Toronto like the Toronto Star, but you all supplement your income, your reach and your popularity with appearances on one of the Bell or Rogers sports television and radio channels. Do you want to blow your chances for more guest shots? I think not. So, when the Toronto Raptors decide to spend less money and refuse to sign a free agent that’s available and who might make the team competitive, or merely watchable, will you write about it or just keep it to yourself? When TFC charges more for tickets than Manchester United (this is already a fact) will you shout about it in your column or is discretion a better road to take? For those of you who haven’t seen it, The Globe and Mail, which should stop calling itself Canada’s national newspaper, barely noticed this story. Why?

Sports journalism is for the most part an oxymoron in Canada. The last bastions were the daily newspapers in the major cities. Bell and Rogers have figured out how to co-opt even this small amount of opposition. Now it can only get worse.

Canadians in general and sports fans in particular will be the big losers if this deal is allowed to go through. The only way to stop it is if all Canadians get up of their backsides and scream at their political representatives. There’s one thing more powerful than the money and influence Bell and Rogers can and do wield, that is the threat of losing the next election.

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Guessing Game in Egypt

The Egyptian Revolution was and still is a remarkable story. Thousands of people taking to the streets and squares of an autocratic country, standing up for the rights and freedoms we take for granted in Canada. For close to three weeks we watched and listened to world shaking events live as they happened half a world away. Once again the power of the people was too much for a dictator to deal with. We have seen similar scenarios play out in places like Berlin and Manila. We have also seen it go the other way most recently in Teheran and decades ago in Beijing. I suppose it is the failures in China and Iran that make the story so poignant in Egypt. It is the possibility of brutality, ugliness and doom that make one turn on Al Jazeera or CNN to witness what’s going on, all the while hoping and praying for the success of the brave folks who are standing up to their undemocratic leaders.

While musing on the events in Cairo it is impossible for me to not also think about the successes and failures of the journalistic coverage of those events. It was truly the best of times and the worst of times for 24 hour news stations.

Trying to cover and understand live events, especially massive events like a revolution is a daunting task for even the best minds in journalism. In Egypt it was the possibilities not the actual events that were so riveting. Let’s face it, except for the day when the protesters were attacked by Mubarak supporters on camels, there was not much to see. Tens of thousands of people milling about, sleeping, arguing and most of all, waiting don’t make for great pictures. What kept the story going was the speculation. What would the Mubarak government do? Would Mubarak call in the troops to force an end to the protest? Would Mubarak attempt to negotiate a peaceful end? Would he finally have to quit the leadership as the crowds were demanding?

It was truly exciting because we did not know how it would end. And this is where the networks failed. To be fair, I don’t know if it was possible to succeed, but for eighteen days and more viewers were bombarded not with facts but with speculation: one former ambassador to Egypt speculating that Mubarak could not be forced out; an academic who guessed that Mubarak had no choice but to leave. On and on the experts droned for hours that morphed into days and weeks. The poor viewer was left with a cornucopia of opinion. It’s too bad no two experts seemed to agree on anything. The facts were few and far between. The details did not add up to any real understanding of what was going to happen in the end. It was closer to sports play-by-play than it was to journalism. Between periods or innings we went back to the experts, the former players and managers to assess what they were seeing. Only when there is little or no action, what the heck were they basing their comments on?

The day before Mubarak left we were told that he was going to make a statement. All the so-called experts announced that he was quitting. Wrong again. Mubarak said he was staying until the next election and asked the people to go home and allow the economy to get back to normal. So that was it. The insiders and pundits quickly offered that the revolution was almost over. Mubarak would stay. He would change his style of government but he was not going anywhere. That speculation was still going strong when Mubarak abruptly left for a resort in the Sinai and his vice president, Suleiman, was left to announce that Mubarak had finally quit. Jubilation ensued, not just in Egypt, but all around the world. The experts were back and proclaiming the revolution over and won by the people of Egypt.

I hope they are right this time, but let’s face it, while Mubarak is gone, it is the army that has taken power. The generals are saying all the right things…new constitution, free elections in six months or more, but hey, from here it looks like another military dictatorship, at least for now.

In the last few days we have begun to read and hear about the root causes of the revolt. Soaring food prices and massive unemployment emboldened the people of Egypt. As Bob Dylan said, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you have nothin’ to lose.” There are even some questions beginning to trickle out about whether the military will readily give up power. Good. But where were these questions and background while the story was happening? If you believed CNN and Fox it was only the successful revolt in Tunisia that led to the Egyptian uprising. Al Jazeera English was better, but they too got caught up in the speculation to the sometimes exclusion of the facts.

24 Hour news once again had a great story to tell. As far as pictures and images were concerned, they did a great job, especially considering the pressure they were under from the Egyptian authorities. But as far as concrete information was concerned, all news was a wasteland of speculation, guesswork and boring interviews with out-of-touch experts that were sitting hundreds or thousands of miles from the action. Like I said earlier, I don’t know if there was any way around this problem. The longer a story lasts the more difficult it is to find new angles and new talkers, but I do know that some context about conditions in Egypt that allowed for all those people to spend 18 or more days in Tahrir Square would have helped me to understand the story.

Oh, and once again as a major story breaks, CBC NN and CTV News Channel become almost completely irrelevant. I have asked this question many times before and I ask it again: why would anyone who has access to Al Jazeera English or CNN watch a major international event on CBC NN or CTV News Channel? Unless Stephen Harper is in trouble, or Bev Oda is fudging the truth again, why would I watch a Canadian all news channel at all? It’s not the fault of the CBC and CTV news staffs that they are badly outgunned by the big international networks. But it is a fact and calls into question the ability and usefulness of Canadian all news networks unless Bell Media and the government of Canada are willing to properly fund such enterprises.

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , ,

About the Author

Howard Bernstein is a former TV producer. He has worked at CBC,CTV, Global and has produced shows for most Canadian channels as an independent producer.

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