BCE Inc. (Bell) and Astral Media sat down today to try again and convince the CRTC that the Bell’s proposed acquisition of the independent media company would benefit Canadian creators, consumers and all citizens. Ian Greenberg, CEO of Astral, called attention to the threat of Over-the-Top providers (OTTs) such as Netflix and insisted that Bell is the company that would have the capacity to meet that challenge. George Cope, CEO of BCE, also emphasized that this transaction would better connect Canadian consumers with entertainment, and Kevin Crull, President of Bell Media, re-affirmed Bell’s commitment to Canadian content and independent production. The presentation reiterated some of the key highlights of the proposed package – $174 million in tangible benefits, the divestiture of some of Astral’s English- and French-language TV services, a French-language programming centre based in Montreal, and the sale of 10 radio stations.
The CRTC Commissioners took turns asking the Bell-Astral panel questions about different aspects of the transaction. Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais reviewed BCE’s resulting market and viewing shares in Canada, emphasizing the need to understand that although Bell’s share in the French-language market might only be incrementally higher than Astral’s current stake, these services would now be placed in the hands of a national, vertically-integrated company. The Chairman also considered safeguards to impose on Bell should the transaction be approved, including structural separation and the adoption of individual Vertical Integration Code clauses as conditions of licence.
Commissioner Suzanne Lamarre questioned Bell’s request for an exception to the CRTC radio Common Ownership Policy in order to could keep its Montreal station, TSN 690, as an English, all-sports station. If the Commission were to grant the exception, Bell would own four of the five English commercial radio stations in the Montreal area. Commissioner Lamarre questioned Bell’s views on the public interest of issuing such an exception and explored the possibility of divesting either TSN 690 or another of Bell’s stations.
Commissioner Tom Pentefountas focused on local content, questioning how this transaction would incrementally benefit local programming. Bell replied that the incrementality would be derived from ensuring stability in the radio ecosystem and promoting local talent through multiple, national platforms.
Commissioner Elizabeth Duncan questioned different aspects of the Bell-Astral’s valuation of the entire transaction, which could have resulted in a lower sum of tangible benefits.
Finally, Commissioner Peter Menzies asked Bell-Astral to elaborate on the proposed tangible benefits package. When asked what it thought of PIAC’s suggestion of assigning a portion of the tangible benefits package to consumer research rather than to a consumer broadcasting education program, Bell replied that the benefit was not intended to be advocacy-based. Bell appeared to suggest that the $2.7 million could be placed in a separate fund which would operate in a similar way to the Broadcast Participation Fund. Commissioner Menzies particularly honed in on how Bell would ensure that the benefits package would be truly “tangible” or would truly enhance the Canadian broadcasting system.