Quebec: portrait of a concentrated media landscape

Article  by  Simon CLAUS  •  Published 06.02.2014  •  Updated 06.02.2014
Welcome to Quebec, where two groups share 97 % of the daily French-speaking press.

Summary

The concentration of media ownership, which greatly affects contemporary society, is at the centre of many debates and controversies, because of the societal issues that it raises. Canada, and in particular Quebec, appear to be especially affected by this phenomenon. The province now has one of the most concentrated media ownership levels in the western world. A minority of groups in this Canadian province determine and control the development of the media system.
 
The most emblematic of these groups is undoubtedly Québecor. This company, which exemplifies the media concentration in Quebec, is behind 40% of information produced and distributed in the province. For a little while, this media giant has been sharing this top position with Bell. Transcontinental, Radio-Canada, Le Devoir and few others should be mentioned alongside these two giants[+] NoteFor the sake of completeness, we should include English-speaking Canada, and once more we come across Quebecor and Bell, to which we should add Rogers, the main competitor of Bell. Rogers may not have the same foothold as its competitors in Quebec, but the group is developing wireless, broadband and telephony activities in the province and publishes weekly press products. In English-speaking Canada the two other main companies are the Shaw Group and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the English-speaking equivalent of Radio-Canada.X [1]. How are we to understand this media concentration phenomenon? 
 

Media concentration: a problem or the solution?

At the end of the 1930s, the press group created by Senator Jacob Nicol was already indicative of some concentration taking place within the Quebec media sector. Yet, the issue of concentration did not widely reach the general public’s attention until the 1970s following a succession of company closures and mergers, in particular in 1967 when the newspaper La Presse was bought out by Paul Desmarais, a billionaire who subscribed to a federalist philosophy. So, in 1968, a committee ran by Senator Keith Davey started to question the concentration process taking place. The committee’s report stated that there was a high level of media concentration in Quebec, especially with regard to daily newspapers, and suggested measures to slow down the movement towards media concentration. The ideas put forward by the committee included setting up a press ownership monitoring council, a loan fund to develop publications and a press council made up of those involved in the sector. In the same vein, in 1981, the Kent commission took a very critical look at the phenomenon of concentration in the media sector. This commission stressed the risk of homogenisation of the news brought about by the concentration of editorial content. To guarantee pluralism and independence of the press, the Kent report suggested, first, preventing a single group from owning more than five daily newspapers and over 5 % of the national circulation and, second, implementing a contract that would guarantee editor autonomy.
 
 
Newspaper kiosk (Montreal)
 
The Davey report and the Kent report constituted the first in-depth studies to highlight the matter of media concentration. Neither of these commissions, however, made a significant impact on media concentration in Quebec and in Canada[+] NoteÉric GEORGE, “La concentration: thème récurrent de débat public et sujet brûlant pour le CRTC” in Miriam FAHMY (dir.) L’état du Québec 2009, Fides, pp.341-345, 2009.X [2].
 
It should be mentioned that in Canada, the bodies that approve or reject buy-outs in the media sector are the Competition Bureau and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) that governs radio and television activities in Canada and ensures the laws on media ownership are implemented.

A veritable turning point took place in the 1990s. While the issue of concentration took the back seat, the media sector underwent a series of mergers and acquisitions that greatly increased this phenomenon. This time was characterised by the creation of large media corporations that we now know in Canada and in Quebec. This speeding up of media concentration took place against a particular backdrop that included notably a wave of deregulation of the media sector, financialisation and globalisation of the culture and communication industries (CCI), the formation of large international conglomerates like AOL/Time Warner and Vivendi-Universal, the rise in information and communication technologies and the setting up of “information highways”.
 
Against this backdrop, Canada attempted to build national champions that would be able to invest and innovate in a sector undergoing change, while keeping media ownership national, while Quebec was applying a similar strategy at province level. The concentration of the culture and communication industries covers important cultural and social issues, in particular in Quebec which, with its 8.1 million inhabitants, represents a French-speaking island amidst a continent dominated to a large extent by English (Canada: 35 million inhabitants, United States: 315.6 million inhabitants). As François Demers noted, at the end of the 1980s, there was a reversal of opinion on the matter of media concentration with “concentration going from being a threat to society to concentration being seen as a nationalist economic strategy”[+] NoteFrançois DEMERS, Concentration des entreprises de presse: vers une reconfiguration du paysage médiatique au Québec et au Canada, Les Cahiers Du Journalisme, n° 8, 2000, pp.192-203.X [3]. This position explains the flexibility of the authorities regulating the media industries.
 
It should be noted that the majority of media companies became listed on the stock exchange in the 1990s, which led to their funding capacity increasing tenfold, considerably boosting certain external growth transactions. 
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The acceleration of media concentration in the 1990s-2000s

Without going into detail on all the mergers and acquisitions that took place in the 1990s-2000s, we should introduce the most significant in order to comprehend how the media groups mentioned here function.
 
In 1994, Rogers bought out Maclean Hunters for $ 3 billion. Even if this operation mainly concerned English-speaking Canada, it set off a movement that would soon affect the whole country – and Quebec in particular. A few years later (1999-2000), Bell bought the television network CTV Inc. and formed an alliance with the Canadian group Thomson, the owner of the newspaper Globe and Mail. These operations form part of a strategy of cross-ownership and “convergence” put in place by Jean Monty. In 2010, Bell, that had given up on its convergence strategy when the Internet bubble burst, decided to pick this strategy back up by fully buying out CTV for $ 3.2 billion.
 
Following a similar strategy, in 1999, Cyberpresse ltée was created within the Gesca group, which in turn produced the web portal Cyberpresse.ca two years later. This web deployment was accompanied by a significant transaction when the Gesca group – already the owner of four daily newspapers (La Presse, La Voix de l’Est, La Tribune and Le Novelliste) - got its hands on three daily newspapers in the Unimédia group (Le Soleil, Le Droit, Le Quotidien) in a written press market that was already quite restricted.
 
In the same year, Québecor completed one of the largest operations of the decade by buying out Vidéotron, a cable television company, and the television group TVA, with the support of the government via the Caisse de dépôt et de placements du Québec. This operation expressed Québecor’s wish to become a major player in the media and communication sector, controlling both the distribution channels and the content.
 
In 2008, Télévision Quatre Saisons (TQS), of which Cogeco held majority ownership was bought out by Remstar. After getting rid of the newsroom and a number of programmes, TQS was reborn on 31 August 2009, under the name of V. All these mergers and acquisitions in the media sector took place at the same time as business rationalisation. Their aim was to reduce costs as much as possible and to achieve optimum profitability for their investment. 
 
 
 
The last major episode in this series was the announcement of a takeover bid of Astral by Bell on 16 March 2012 for $ 3.4 billion. The CRTC believed that Bell would have too much control of the media market, so it rejected the bid once in October 2012. However, on 27 June 2013, three months after the Competition Bureau gave its consent for a modified version of the operation, the CRTC went back on its decision and authorised the takeover. In this new version, Bell committed to letting go of a few specialist French-speaking channels and radio stations and to invest $ 246.9 million in projects to promote the production of Canadian content. The idea we find here is that it is necessary to create large champions in order to keep and stimulate national creativity. The deal was signed on 5 July of last year for $ 3.2 billion.
 
This series of operations shows very clearly how the recent history of the media in Quebec is characterised by “a reduction in the number of players, and an increase in their scale”[+] NoteMarc RABOY, Les médias québécois: Presse, radio, télévision, inforoute (2nd édition), Gaëtan Morin éditeur, 2000. X [4]. The media sector in Quebec may now be defined as an oligopoly with a high level of horizontal integration and domination by companies taking part in a strategy of cross-ownership. By way of an example, Quebecor, which set up Le Journal de Montréal in 1964, first of all opted for a vertical and horizontal integration policy for the written press, and then chose to pursue cross-ownership. Québecor is now a large conglomerate doing business in the sectors of printing, newspaper publishing, magazines and books, video, retail sale of cultural products, television broadcasting, business telecommunications, cable television, Internet access, Internet portals and telephony.
 
The cross-ownership operations referred to above follow the same merger strategy as that pursued by Times Warner/AOL. Even if the latter failed following the bursting of the Internet bubble, it greatly influenced the culture and communication industries. This type of policy aims to achieve a greater yield through economies of scale and synergy effects between various media owned by a company.

 
 Source: annual company reports
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Press, Radio, Television: concentrated sectors

Now, a few groups have a high level of control over the media market in Quebec. The research that we carried out with the GRICIS research centre[+] NoteAs part of the “Concentration de la propriété des médias, changements technologiques et pluralisme de l’information”, run by Éric George.X [5] has made it possible to draw up an inventory by sector.

 

 
 
The written press has an extremely high level of concentration. According to the Ministry of Culture and Communications, there are 12 French-language dailies (including free newspapers) and 2 English language dailies in Quebec. In this market, if we just look at French-speaking paid newspapers, we see that Quebecor and Gesca control around 97 % of the circulation of dailies in Quebec. Le Devoir, the only independent newspaper, accounts for only 3 % of this market. The weekly market in Quebec has no cause to be jealous of the daily market, because of the 200 weeklies sold in Quebec, the Hebdos Transcontinental group owns 75 and Quebecor has 65.
 
 
In Quebec, there are around one hundred private, commercial radio stations. Before the merger of Bell\Astral, Astral and its 24 stations made up the largest radio group in Quebec. Throughout the whole of Canada, Astral controls 17 % of the private, English-language radio market, a percentage that increases to 42 % for private, French-language radio stations. Then comes RNC Media which owns 14 radio stations and finally Cogeco which possesses 13. The other owners of commercial radio stations are smaller and operate regionally. By way of an example, in the radio sector (French and English speaking) in Montreal, just a few groups control the majority of the readership share, and the merger between Bell and Astral has merely accentuated this concentration.
 
Just like with the radio sector, the merger between Bell and Astral shook up the television landscape, in particular by challenging the domination of Québecor via its flagship channel TVA and by accentuating a little more the concentration of this market. There are no figures yet on the new structure of Bell, but we can estimate, by adding up the market share of Astral and Bell, that this media giant controls around 33.7 % of the French-speaking television market. We can witness the battle raging between the large groups to control television. It should be mentioned that these “historic companies” also have to deal with the emergence of new players” such as You Tube, Netflix and Apple TV, which forces them to develop new products such as Illico tv, an on-demand digital television and video service created by Québecor. 
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“Convergence” as the end outcome

The policies of concentration, integration and rationalisation pursued by the media groups in Québec come under a “global convergence strategy”. So, in 2001, in its annual report, Québecor made the following statement: “Convergence at Quebecor: firm and concrete!” For its part, Bell chose to implement the 3 C strategy of “connectivity, content, and commerce”. Gesca decided to incorporate its various activities[+] NoteRenaud CARBASSE, “Du solide et du concret”: concentration de la propriété et convergence journalistique au sein du groupe Quebecor Média. Canadian journal of communication, n° 4, 2010, pp.585-595X [6].
 
“Convergence” is based on 3 pillars: legal (a policy of deregulation in the media sector), economic (cross-ownership) and technological (digitalisation). With this kind of strategy a company aims at sharing its infrastructure and integrating various services in order to enjoy the economic benefits of working in synergy with different kinds of media. The idea is to reduce labour, administration and equipment costs, attract advertisers by making global offerings, as well as setting up crossover forms of sales and promotion[+] NoteFrançois DEMERS, Concentration de la propriété des médias et réaménagement de la place publique médiatique : leçons des affaires Voilà et Star Académie. Les Cahiers du journalisme, n° 16, 2006, pp.46-69.X [7].
 
The innovations achieved in digitalising signals and in implementing broadband network policies have contributed considerably to developing these convergence strategies. Over recent years, Bell and Rogers have invested massively in wireless and broadband networks just like Québecor, which has improved its telecom infrastructure and has turned to “new media”. For a few years, the distribution activities seem to be one of the keys to dominating the media industries[+] NoteGaëtan TREMBLAY, La théorie des industries culturelles face aux progrès de la numérisation et de la convergence, Sciences de la Société, n° 40, 1997, pp.11-23.X [8]. Investments in these businesses, which require significant financial resources, merely serve to create even more concentration in these industries. For the “historic companies”, even though it is important to invest in new technologies and platforms, the battle taking place is also for content. The companies need to have programmes and content that can be broadcast via several platforms and to feed its “pipes”.

 
 
 La Presse & Le Devoir
  
To draw a conclusion on this matter of “convergence”, let’s take another look at the Gesca case. In 2008, following various buy-outs, which were mentioned earlier (purchase of Cyberpress Inc. and Unimédia), the editorial teams of La Presse and the Cyberpresse portal merged[+] NoteMarc-Olivier GOYETTE-CÔTÉ, Renaud CARBASSE and Éric George, Converging journalism, Journalism Studies, 13(5-6), 2012, pp.753-762.X [9]. On 24 October 2011, Cyberpresse.ca became LaPresse.ca. With regard to the company’s change of name, Caroline Jamet, president of Éditions La Presse and Éditions Gesca, explained that “with the increasing number of platforms in recent years, we had two brands side by side, although in reality the content came from the same source”. In April 2013, to symbolise the culmination of its convergence policy, the Gesca press group launched an iPad application, La Presse+, which was the result of three years of research and development and an investment of $40 million. As Guy Crevier explained, the aim of the application was to become the “flagship of its information ecosystem”. We can see their desire to create a more attractive offering that would entail implementing strategies to integrate journalistic productions and multi-media distribution.
 
So, a few groups dominate and determine the structure of the media system, demonstrating the “socio-economic trends” in play in these industries. The consequence of these dynamic trends is a high level of concentration of media ownership within the province of Quebec.
 
When we look at the phenomenon of concentration in the media sector, two aspects need to be borne in mind: the concentration of company ownership and the concentration of editorial content – whereby the second form of concentration usually results from the former. In the case we are interested in, we could legitimately say that the phenomena of concentration of media ownership and of “convergence”, which we have just mentioned, help to increase the concentration of editorial content in the Quebec media. The situation, however, raises some fundamental questions regarding the guarantee of pluralism of information. If initially we cannot establish that media concentration harms the pluralism of information – in a situation that is increasingly characterised by media industry concentration as well as by merchandising of culture and information – it is essential that we think deeply about the social and democratic issues raised by these trends.

Translated from the French by Peter Moss
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References

Renaud CARBASSE, « Du solide et du concret  : concentration de la propriété et convergence journalistique au sein du groupe Quebecor Média », Canadian journal of communication, n° 4, 2010, pp.585-595.

François DEMERS, « Concentration des entreprises de presse : vers une reconfiguration du paysage médiatique au Québec et au Canada », Les Cahiers Du Journalisme, n° 8, 2000, pp.192-203.

François DEMERS, « Concentration de la propriété des médias et réaménagement de la place publique médiatique : leçons des affaires Voilà et Star Académie », Les Cahiers du journalisme, n° 16, 2006, pp.46-69.
Éric GEORGE, « La concentration : thème récurrent de débat public et sujet brûlant pour le CRTC » dans Miriam FAHMY (dir.) L’état du Québec 2009, Fides, 2009, pp.341-345.
 
Marc-Olivier GOYETTE-CÔTÉ, Renaud CARBASSE et Éric George, « Converging journalism », Journalism Studies, 13(5-6), 2012, pp.753-762.
 
Marc RABOY, Les médias québécois : Presse, radio, télévision, inforoute (2e édition), Gaëtan Morin éditeur, 2000.
 
Gaëtan TREMBLAY, « La théorie des industries culturelles face aux progrès de la numérisation et de la convergence », Sciences de la Société, n° 40, 1997, pp.11-23.

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Crédits photo :
-Illustration principale : Matthieu / Flickr
-Kiosque à journaux (Archives de la Ville de Montréal / Flickr)
-La Presse et Le Devoir (Bob August / Flickr)

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  • 1. For the sake of completeness, we should include English-speaking Canada, and once more we come across Quebecor and Bell, to which we should add Rogers, the main competitor of Bell. Rogers may not have the same foothold as its competitors in Quebec, but the group is developing wireless, broadband and telephony activities in the province and publishes weekly press products. In English-speaking Canada the two other main companies are the Shaw Group and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the English-speaking equivalent of Radio-Canada.
  • 2. Éric GEORGE, “La concentration: thème récurrent de débat public et sujet brûlant pour le CRTC” in Miriam FAHMY (dir.) L’état du Québec 2009, Fides, pp.341-345, 2009.
  • 3. François DEMERS, Concentration des entreprises de presse: vers une reconfiguration du paysage médiatique au Québec et au Canada, Les Cahiers Du Journalisme, n° 8, 2000, pp.192-203.
  • 4. Marc RABOY, Les médias québécois: Presse, radio, télévision, inforoute (2nd édition), Gaëtan Morin éditeur, 2000.
  • 5. As part of the “Concentration de la propriété des médias, changements technologiques et pluralisme de l’information”, run by Éric George.
  • 6. Renaud CARBASSE, “Du solide et du concret”: concentration de la propriété et convergence journalistique au sein du groupe Quebecor Média. Canadian journal of communication, n° 4, 2010, pp.585-595
  • 7. François DEMERS, Concentration de la propriété des médias et réaménagement de la place publique médiatique : leçons des affaires Voilà et Star Académie. Les Cahiers du journalisme, n° 16, 2006, pp.46-69.
  • 8. Gaëtan TREMBLAY, La théorie des industries culturelles face aux progrès de la numérisation et de la convergence, Sciences de la Société, n° 40, 1997, pp.11-23.
  • 9. Marc-Olivier GOYETTE-CÔTÉ, Renaud CARBASSE and Éric George, Converging journalism, Journalism Studies, 13(5-6), 2012, pp.753-762.
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