Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau weighs in on Bell Media cuts. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau weighs in on Bell Media cuts. (CPAC on Twitter/X.)

Over the last decade, Canada’s BCE Inc. (parent of Bell Media, which owns TSN, CTV, and more) has gone through several rounds of layoffs. Those have included 380 cuts in 2015, multiple rounds of layoffs in 2017, more than 200 cuts in 2021, cuts of 1,300 people last summer, and now, cuts of 4,800 people (across all of BCE, with an estimated 10 percent of that at Bell Media specifically) and sales of 45 regional radio stations this week. And the latter move has Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau “furious,” as it came right after the federal government granted Bell $40 million in regulatory relief:

Those remarks came at a press conference with Ontario premier Doug Ford (seen behind Trudeau) in King City, ON about a $3.1 billion deal to improve healthcare access and reduce wait times. But Trudeau’s fiery remarks here wound up getting more attention than what he was there to discuss. Here’s a transcription of his remarks:

“I’m furious. This is a garbage decision by a corporation that should know better. We have seen over the past years journalistic outlets, radio stations, small community newspapers, bought up by corporate entities who then lay off journalists, change the quality of offerings to people, and then when people don’t watch as much or engage as much, the corporate entity says ‘Ah, see, they’re not profitable any more, we’re going to sell them off.’

“This is the erosion not just of journalism, of quality local journalism, at a time where people need it more than ever given misinformation and disinformation, but it’s eroding our very democracy. Our abilities to tell stories to each other of how people’s lives are, stories that reflect our own communities and not just central offices in our biggest cities, is part of what binds this country together from coast to coast to coast. With incredible diversity of local experiences and geographies, we need those voices.

“And over the past years, corporate Canada, and there are many culprits in this, have abdicated their responsibilities towards the communities that they have always made very good profits off of in various ways. And as a government, we have been stepping up over the past year, fighting for local journalism, fighting for investments that we can have, all the while fending off attacks from Conservatives and others who say ‘No, no, no, you’re trying to buy off journalists.’

“We’re trying to support journalism in this country and across this country. But no government can do it alone. Canadians need to demand better, as we will be demanding better, from corporate leaders, like in this case Bell, that are eroding Canadians’ ability to know each other, to trust each other, and to trust in the country and the future we are building together. So yeah, I’m pretty pissed off about what just happened.”

The current wave of layoffs and station sales from BCE is not specifically about sports, but it has major implications for Bell Media’s news side, which does touch on sports. In particular, these moves have ended daily noon newscasts on all CTV stations but the one in Toronto, and have scrapped the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts on weekends everywhere but Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa. (This comes after a lot of previous reductions to CTV local newscasts, including having their Victoria/Vancouver Island one (the newscast responsible for the infamous Ravens-49ers Super Bowl mistake last month) produced on the mainland in Vancouver.)

Oh, and these cuts ended famed CTV investigative program W5 (described as the longest-running investigative series in North America, it started in 1966, two years ahead of CBS’ similar 60 Minutes) in its current form. That program has featured many important sports investigations, including ones with TSN’s Rick Westhead on topics from the concussion crisis to the post-career struggles of ex-NHLer Joe Murphy (described well in a book Westhead wrote) to former NHLer Ian White’s painkiller addiction to Tori Sullivan describing an alleged on-campus sexual assault she experienced at Boston College. And Westhead’s years of reporting at TSN on the current Canadian junior hockey sexual assault reckoning (now making huge NHL and international news) would seem to likely to be featured on W5 at some point, but it’s unclear how well that will work after these massive changes to the show.

Bell Media claims the program will “evolve” from a standalone documentary series to become “a multi-part, multiplatform investigative reporting unit” with segments showing up on CTV National News, the CTV News website and other CTV platforms, similar to what ESPN has done with the Outside The Lines brand over the past several years. But those moves have been far from good for OTL, or for serious sports journalism at ESPN. And this one seems to pose similar concerns for investigative journalism (in news and in sports) at CTV.

It’s also worth noting that many of the past BCE layoffs heavily hit sports. The cuts of 1,300 people last summer included shutting down their sports radio station in Edmonton in the middle of the day, while the cuts of more than 200 people in 2021 took out their sports radio stations in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Hamilton mid-broadcast. And they blamed their 2017 cuts at least partially on a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (the Canadian broadcast governing body equivalent to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission) decision to end simultaneous substitution for the Super Bowl, which hadn’t even happened yet.

The simsub front is worth further discussion. The CRTC ended that in 2017, allowing Canadian consumers to actually watch higher-budget U.S. Super Bowl ads that drive cultural discussion on U.S. broadcast networks rather than the cheaper and lower production value Canadian ads (which in many cases, were not even original to the Super Bowl) that Bell took advantage of breaking into the U.S. feeds to show thanks to simsub.

And Bell repeatedly lost court challenges on that decision, and spent a lot of money doing so. But they got simsub back in 2020 thanks to legislative action in a 2018 USMCA trade deal. That was one that saw NFL commissioner Roger Goodell praise then-U.S. president Donald Trump for “leadership and determination” on that issue.

Bell has been posting good ratings numbers and profits on the Super Bowl since while having to put very little work into it. TSN, CTV, and RDS do do some of their own pre-game coverage, including with on-site personalities, but they just simulcast the U.S. game broadcast (albeit with French commentary on RDS), and simsub their ads onto the feed of the U.S. network showing it. So the Super Bowl is a nice profit center for them, and that’s part of what led to them extending their NFL deal in 2022. Oh, and they sent a release on Jan. 31 about record ad sales for Sunday’s Super Bowl LVIII:

As Canada’s home for SUPER BOWL LVIII, Bell Media announced today record ad sales for the NFL’s iconic championship game, airing live from Las Vegas on Sunday, Feb. 11 at 6 p.m. ET on TSN, CTV, and RDS. In advance of the showdown between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, Bell Media confirmed that advertising inventory for SUPER BOWL LVIII is nearly sold out, with limited new inventory available for advertisers looking to have placement in the big game.

“Our calendars are circled for Feb. 11 as audiences across Canada come together for this epic matchup for the Lombardi Trophy,” said Stewart Johnston, Senior Vice-President, Sales and Sports, Bell Media. “Not only is SUPER BOWL LVIII the culmination of a phenomenal NFL season, it’s also the most coveted position for advertisers to showcase their brands for Canadian viewers during TV’s biggest live broadcast of the year.”

FanDuel and Expedia return as sponsors of the broadcast, while advertising partners showcasing creative during the game include PepsiCo, Questrade, Government of Ontario, TD, Kruger Products, L’Oreal, BMW, BMO, Hershey, Boston Pizza, Novo Nordisk, Toyota Dealers, Maple Leaf Foods, Intuit TurboTax, and Fidelity Investments Canada. New partners with a presence in SUPER BOWL LVIII include Temu, Canadian Kawaski Motors, King’s Hawaiian, and more.

This speaks to a larger issue around these cuts, too. Yes, there are challenges at Canadian media outlets, just as there are at media outlets in many other countries. But Canadian federal governments over the years (including the Trudeau-led Liberal majority government from 2015-19, and the Trudeau-led Liberal minority government with support from the New Democratic Party since 2019) have tried many things to support Canadian media corporations.

The efficacy and implementation of those moves can be debated. That includes the current fight with Facebook parent Meta that’s led to Facebook blocking news in Canada. And Google was doing the same before reaching a settlement last fall to pay $100 million CAD into a fund to support Canadian news outlets, and there’s lots of debate about how that fund will be used and overseen.

But there at least have been governmental aid attempts here, and on a larger scale than we’ve seen in many other countries. And many of those particular moves have been at the behest of companies like BCE, including allowing them to buy up local outlets on a scale that previously would have seen regulatory pushback and then the recent $40 million in regulatory relief (coincidentally, the same number BCE claims it will lose on Bell Media this year).

Meanwhile, BCE has said that these moves will let them hike their already-high dividend to $3.99 CAD a share as part of improved overall profits. And that’s why we’re seeing such fiery commentary on this from the likes of Trudeau, Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge, and NDP heritage critic Peter Julian. Here’s some of that, via John Paul Tasker at CBC:

“In the past decade, when acquisitions were allowed by these big companies, it came with a promise,” St-Onge said. “Today, they backed away from that promise.”

St-Onge said it’s not like Bell is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

“They’re still making billions of dollars. They’re still a very profitable company and they still have the capacity and the means to hold up their end of the bargain, which is to deliver news reports,” she said.

…NDP MP Peter Julian, the party’s heritage critic, said Bell’s layoffs are “horrible.”

“We need professional journalism. We need to be able to tell stories about each other and our country. The federal government has simply not been there. They’ve ignored what’s a deepening crisis,” Julian said.

“They’ve been asleep at the wheel. The government needs to start taking this seriously.”

BCE is certainly not alone in making media cuts. We’ve seen massive layoffs at many U.S. media firms so far this year as well, and also at many tech firms. And in Canada alone, Sportsnet parent Rogers has gone through plenty of layoffs and cutbacks itself, as have many other media companies. But the timing of these BCE cuts does feel particularly blatant, with it coming after their regulatory relief and ahead of their record-setting Super Bowl coverage. And that now has figures like Trudeau and St-Onge going in on them in terms often always seen from government officials.

[CBC, CPAC on Twitter/X]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.