By David Farrell
Bell Media: Let’s Talk About It
I can’t recall ever receiving as many calls as I have this week about the goings-on at Bell Media and rightfully so as the telco implodes, throwing hundreds of employees out on the frigid salt-stained streets in the first week of February with a pandemic raging and an economy stoked on emergency funds from the federal respirator.
With over 200 employees pink slipped Tuesday, the company responded to an inquiry from The Canadian Press about the cuts at the corp with the following clinically approved statement:
"As the media industry evolves, we’re focused on investment in new content and technology opportunities while also ensuring our company is as agile, efficient and easy to work with as possible. That includes programming changes affecting some on-air positions, but I think it’s pretty clear by now that our policy is not to comment on individual employees."
Well, policy or not, let’s talk about it because the human carnage is very real, even devastating if one stops to think about those employees in their late 40s and 50s who find themselves turfed into the cold.
Needless to say, our hearts go out to all of them because their prospects for finding immediate work in a covid-infected recession are about as bright as a ten-watt lightbulb in a mine shaft.
The cause of this HR disaster goes back 20 years or more when the publicly traded company was looking for new territory to conquer, new ways to beef up its stock value, add lustre to shareholder dividends and give some glam to its staid but safe telephone, cable and satellite divisions. The buzz at the time was all about content, and broadcast media that were lucrative and significantly growing in value. In 1998, BCE embarked on a convergence strategy, combing content creation and distribution within BCE to be front of the bus in the emerging Internet market. All of a sudden, the staid corp added sizzle to its swizzle stick with a cocktail of acquisitions that would cost it billions and lead to a reported 4,000 payroll cuts. At last count, BCE employs 52K people.
Undeterred, it continued on its path of convergence, BCE danced to the tune of various fund managers and eventually won its way with the acquisition of the CTV network for $2.3B, quickly followed by the $1.7B purchase of CHUM Ltd.’s 33 radio stations, 12 local television stations and 21 specialty television channels (in 2006). As a portent of things to come, within hours of the deal becoming public knowledge, CHUM cut 281 jobs across the country.
The company now owns 109 radio stations, 21 television stations and 29 specialty channels.
It didn’t stop there. In 2011, the company ponied up one half of the $1.07B asking price for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (with rival Rogers Communications an equal partner in the deal). The company owns a roster of assets which includes the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC, the Air Canada Centre and digital channel Leafs TV. A year later it purchased Astral Media’s assets (which included 84 radio stations and a bundle of premium and specialty channels) for approximately $3.8B, and, in 2014, it launched Crave TV–its subscription video-on-demand service. More recently it acquired the French-language V Media Group in Quebec, a controlling interest in the Pinewood movie Studios complex in Toronto, and, under license, re-branded its radio assets under the iHeartRadio brand.
Somewhere in the above paragraph, Bell Media hired UMC CEO Randy Lennox to expand, exploit and unify the company's sprawling media holdings and make convergence a reality rather than just a word it peppered into its stockholder reports.
Unfortunately, the grand scheme got scuppered. Over the years, in an effort to reap the rich profits its broadcast divisions were earning, it had stripped the brands of the very things that made them special, valuable, enduring. This came about by sacking high-priced talent, cutting original programming, syndicating news and some morning shows and turning music stations into jukeboxes that played the same music coast-to-coast, give or take the occasional nod to local requests.
Necessarily, audiences’ numbers started ebbing, and then blue chip and local advertisers discovered they could effectively preach to the converted using Facebook and a galaxy of other online forums for fewer dollars. Adding stress to an already fatigued division, covid hit like a hammer driving a nail into a waiting coffin. Suddenly BCE saw its once profitable media assets shrivel and shrink and that’s when the corner office decided it was time to alter course and pursue the stable revenues that subscription services brought in. These were profitable divisions that pension funds and asset managers could rely on when forecasting future income.
Media became a second-class citizen. Most of the cuts that Bell Media is making this week, cuts that follow a procession of earlier layoffs, come from its AM stations. These are money losers, though not always so. News editors, writers, reporters and show hosts across the country have been shown the door. Local news doesn’t pay for itself. Centralized news feeds have proven to be more economical. Original shows cut, once iconic brands like CJAD and CFRB (News 1010) discounted, cast to the back of the bus. It’s a step away from disinheriting them altogether, and that will come when the cost of replacing aging transmitters is assessed and the land values they sit on is appraised.
They say that covid has changed the world. It has certainly accelerated change and brought on a new era for citizens who think nothing anymore about shopping, working, socializing and even amusing themselves online. Just ask Jeffrey Toobin.
Few if any of my friends now own a CD player. I think I’m the only one I know with a transistor radio. The world has changed. BCE is lurching toward its new reality. The convergence of the pipe and the content that passes through it is undergoing a transformation. We are moving into a subscription society. More content is now behind pay-walls. AI is transforming the workplace, whether we like it or not.
BCE has made more than its share of wrong turns. Today it is transforming itself yet again. Sadly, the cost is borne by hundreds of people who worked hard to produce content we thought we needed. The corner office is telling us we really don’t need it as much as we thought, or if we really must have it, then give them a credit card and they will gladly let you into their walled garden.
Clearly Randy Lennox wanted none of the above. I can’t blame him. He’s a content guy. A social networker. As he stated in his exit Playback interview, managing an organization is his least favourite part of the job. He’s left that task to Bell Group Vice Chair Wade Oosterman, and Lennox will announce his next adventure when he’s good and ready. Meantime, this is his first sabbatical from a 24/7 work schedule since he started his professional life more than 30 years ago. He’s working on taking a break, and for now it looks like a good time to be staying at home with his wife.