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Alliance Atlantis sale: bigger is better for whom?

With the announcement of a deal by CanWest Global and American financial house Goldman Sachs Capital to buy Alliance Atlantis Communications’ 13 specialty TV stations, adding them to an already huge newspaper and television empire, Canada’s media landscape is poised for still greater concentration.

AAC has been a major success story in both broadcasting and the creation of programming, owning a share of the CSI franchise it developed along with CBS. It has some of the most successful specialty stations as well, including the popular HGTV, The Food Channel and Showcase, all major venues for Canadian producers and performers.

Besides the obvious increase in concentration, and the possible impacts on advertisers, employees and the producers of content, there is an additional element of foreign ownership to this deal that would appear, at least on the surface, to violate current regulations.

The sale must still receive federal approval but, given the current government’s record, that seems more likely than not. After all, there was barely a ripple in Ottawa when Bell Globemedia announced another huge broadcast consolidation with CHUM last June. Both deals still need a nod from the CRTC.

More concentration means less choice, fewer jobs
The AAC sale is just one more example of the latest media business mantra: bigger is always better and you’ve got to have a hand in every media platform ? TV, radio, newspapers, the Internet, mobile phones, etc. Few people in positions of authority seem ready to question, at least out loud, what such consolidation will mean for Canadian audiences and readers, content creators, advertisers and media employees.

Take a look at what increased concentration of print, as well as cross-ownership, meant for freelancers. Writers find their material used more than ever before on more platforms, but they don’t typically earn more money. The companies that use their work do. Writers have lost much of their bargaining power because there are fewer purchasers for their material.

Viewers and readers have the dubious pleasure of seeing the same report, or TV program, pop up over and over. And advertisers may well have to pay more when they end up dealing with only two national broadcast behemoths.

For their part, technical operations employees at AAC are in the midst of bargaining their first collective agreement, precisely to gain long-term job stability and opportunities for career advancement so that they can continue to contribute to quality Canadian television. The sale of the company will not change their bargaining goals.

They and their union, the Canadian Media Guild, will fight to make sure they don’t pay a heavy price for the bigger-is-better corporate strategy, which often only works when jobs disappear. So far, no government in Canada has ever trumpeted the idea that fewer good jobs are a benefit to the country.

Media companies themselves report far too little on the realities of media consolidation. They have been granted regulatory and financial support in Canada in exchange for providing Canadians with news and information on the issues that affect them. But when it comes to sustained coverage of media issues in Canada, our media outlets are virtually silent.

And they are not the only ones. The minority Conservative government has gone out of its way to say nothing of substance on its plans for the media industry in Canada. Those of us still trying to follow these issues have been left trying to read tea leaves.

Here’s what we know. Since being elected barely a year ago, the Prime Minister has refused to support an independent parliamentary press gallery, insisting instead that his office select the reporters that get to ask him questions.

The Conservative government dismissed a report from a Senate committee that called for significant regulatory and policy changes to protect the diversity of news in the country in an era of media mergers and convergence. Instead, the government has embraced deregulation in the telecommunications industry, and some MPs have suggested during parliamentary debates that rules requiring broadcasters to produce and air Canadian content should also be eased.

They have also been cryptic about their view of the CBC, upon which the Broadcasting Act continues to confer an important role in the country’s media landscape. In effect, the Conservative government has adopted much the same approach the previous Liberal government did in the last half of its mandate: neglect.

The Conservative government’s apparent silence and inaction is more likely a very deliberate strategy. Do nothing about media mergers and the CBC and we’ll end up pretty much where Conservative policy wonks have been hoping to steer the country for years: bigger corporate profits, fewer media watchdogs, less diversity of news and entertainment, and a very marginal public broadcaster.

Canada may soon have one or two supreme media conglomerates that own the lion’s share of local TV stations, radio stations and newspapers in many communities, further reducing the chance such issues will ever be raised in the media.

Prime Minister Harper’s plan is becoming clear. Does anyone in Ottawa have a different view for the future of Canadian media? If so, now would be the time to say so, loud and clear.

For more information, contact the Guild (info@cmg.ca) at 416-591-5333 or 1-800-465-4149.

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