Bell Media is ending multiple television newscasts and making other programming cuts after its parent company announced widespread layoffs and the sale of 45 of its 103 regional radio stations.
News stations such as CTV and BNN Bloomberg would be affected immediately, according to an internal memo sent to Bell Media employees on Thursday.
The memo, signed by Dave Daigle, vice-president of local TV, radio and Bell Media Studios, and Richard Gray, vice-president of news at Bell Media, said weekday noon newscasts at all CTV stations except Toronto would end.
It is also scrapping its 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts on weekends at all CTV and CTV2 stations except Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
Daigle and Gray said “multi-skilled journalists” would replace news correspondent and technician teams reporting to CTV National News in Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, while other correspondent changes would be made in Ottawa.
Earlier in the day, Bell Media’s parent company BCE Inc. announced it was cutting nine per cent of its workforce.
The company announced Thursday in an open letter signed by chief executive Mirko Bibic that 4,800 jobs “at all levels of the company” would be cut. Fewer than 10 per cent of the total job cuts are at Bell Media specifically.
This round of job cuts is BCE’s largest in nearly 30 years, Bibic added during a Thursday conference call.
Some employees have already been notified or were to be informed Thursday of being laid off, while the balance will be told by the spring. Bibic said the company will use vacancies and natural attrition to minimize layoffs as much as possible.
Bell is also ending evening programs The Debate, This Hour and Top 3 Tonight on CTV News Channel, which will be replaced by a four-hour news broadcast on weeknights beginning at 6 p.m.
At BNN Bloomberg, weekday daytime programming is “being streamlined” to reduce the number of separate broadcasts.
Daigle and Gray also said W5 will shift from a standalone documentary series to a “multi-platform investigative reporting unit” featured on CTV National News, CTVNews.ca and other news platforms.
2nd major layoff
It marks the second major layoff at the media and telecommunications giant since last spring, when six per cent of Bell Media jobs were eliminated and nine radio stations were either shuttered or sold.
In a separate internal memo, Bell Media president Sean Cohan said the company intends to divest 45 radio stations to seven buyers: Vista Radio, Whiteoaks, Durham Radio, My Broadcasting Corp., ZoomerMedia, Arsenal Media and Maritime Broadcasting. The sales are subject to CRTC approval and other closing conditions.
The stations being sold are in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
“We’ve effectively sold off half of our radio portfolio. That’s a significant divestiture and it’s because it’s not a viable business anymore,” said Bell chief legal and regulatory officer Robert Malcolmson in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“We will continue to operate ones that are viable, but this is a business that is going in the wrong direction.”
BCE increasing quarterly dividend
While some financial analysts anticipated that BCE would be making changes and likely laying off employees, “I think these are much bigger than what people were anticipating,” Patrick Horan, a portfolio manager at Agilith Capital, said in an interview with CBC News.
“The source of this is a dividend policy that has really become out of whack,” added Horan.
BCE also announced Thursday that it would now pay a quarterly dividend of 99.75 cents per common share, up from 96.75 cents per share.
Dividends are a portion of earnings that companies pay out to their shareholders, usually every quarter.
“Typically, the companies pay about 50 per cent of their earnings in dividends, and they’re up to about 130 per cent right now of their earnings. So I think that’s pressuring the company to produce more free cash flow.”
Malcolmson of Bell Media said the company is in the midst of a “digital transformation” for both entertainment and news.
But whether or not prioritizing digital growth is viable for the company in terms of generating profit remains to be determined.
“We’re investing in it; we’ll see,” said Malcolmson. “Without some form of regulatory supports, it’s tough.”
He blamed the federal government for taking too long to provide relief for media companies as well as the CRTC for being too slow to react to a “crisis that is immediate.”
That extends to two pieces of legislation intended to help Canada’s struggling media sector: Bill C-18, also known as the Online News Act, meant to force tech giants to compensate Canadian news outlets for their content, and Bill C-11, which updates the Broadcasting Act to require digital platforms such as Netflix, YouTube and TikTok to contribute and promote Canadian content.
Ottawa remains in a standoff with Facebook parent company Meta over C-18, with the company continuing to block news links on its platforms. Meanwhile, the federal government capped the amount of money broadcast media can get from Google’s $100 million annual payments at $30 million, with the remainder to go to print and digital news outlets.
‘Underwhelming to say the least’
“In practice, it’s not going to do anything. It’s underwhelming to say the least,” said Malcolmson.
“We’ve been advocating for reform for years. It’s not coming fast enough and when it does come, it doesn’t provide meaningful help.”‘
Thursday’s job losses at Bell Media are also directly tied to regulator direction on Bill C-11, Malcolmson said.
The CRTC held a hearing late last year exploring whether streaming services should be asked to make an initial contribution to the Canadian content system to help level the playing field with local companies. The commission hopes to implement new rules in late 2024.
But the Bell executive said the company needs immediate relief, which could come from a fund it has proposed that would see streamers subsidize local or national news.
“We hope they do that but we can’t wait two years for that to happen, so then you see actions like this today,” he said.
News losing $40M a year
Bell has fought other regulatory decisions over the past year that it says makes things harder for its struggling broadcast division.
That includes an October application to the Federal Court of Appeal seeking to overturn a CRTC decision that renewed its broadcast licences for three more years. It argued that decision was made without a public hearing and could result in the regulator prejudging its requests last June to waive local news and Canadian programming requirements for its television stations.
Bell Media’s advertising revenues declined by $140 million in 2023 compared with the year before, and the company’s news division is seeing more than $40 million in annual operating losses, Bibic stated in his letter.
He added during the Thursday call that the company is “shifting our focus away from overly regulated parts of our business” to areas where they’re seeing growth and investment potential.
“We want to deliver news but we want to find a way to make this work,” he said, adding that media companies are facing increasing competition from tech giants, while navigating an advertising slump and the decline of traditional broadcast media.
On Thursday, Bell said it could also further scale back network investments on its telecom side as it remains at odds with the CRTC over what it calls “predetermined” regulatory direction.
Asked about the company’s image in light of continued cuts, Malcolmson noted the size of Bell’s executive team has been reduced in recent years and executive salaries remain frozen.
“We have a duty both to our shareholders and to our employees to make sure we manage the business in a rational way,” he said.