The Bell-Astral Hearing
Day 4 (May 9)
Media Access Canada, representing the Access 2020 Group of Stakeholders, kicked off the last day of intervener presentations before the CRTC on the proposed Bell-Astral merger. The group criticized Bell and Astral’s limited commitments to Canadians with disabilities, and requested that $6.3 million of the tangible benefits be moved to the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund to be dedicated to closed captioning and described video.
The production company, Première Bobine, then voiced its support for the Bell-Astral transaction and highlighted the threat of Netflix and the need to regulate Over-the-Top providers (OTTs). Première Bobine argued that Canadian companies with deep pockets were needed to acquire foreign broadcasting rights and to become equal rivals to Netflix.
Two interveners representing cable companies appeared before the Commission today. Québecor Média affirmed its strong opposition to the merger, pointing particularly to Bell-Astral’s dominance in the specialty services and sports markets. It also expressed concern about Bell-Astral’s enormous share of the advertising market. This was particularly worrying since Québecor’s media assets are largely in conventional television, which relies on advertising revenues and is already seeing a decline in audience shares. Though asked by the Commission to suggest further structural safeguards such as divestitures, Québecor maintained that it opposed the transaction as a whole. In its opinion, Bell was already “too big.”
The Canadian Cable Systems Alliance (CCSA), which represents approximately 115 independent BDUs, similarly protested Bell’s exceedingly restrictive pricing and packaging conditions, and emphasized that it had no power to negotiate more reasonable rates and terms with the vertically-integrated entity. Smaller cable company owners from Cookshire, Quebec, and Nova Scotia also expressed their challenges in having to rely, at times, on Bell to supply both media content and cable and fibre equipment. The alliance also criticized TV Everywhere as another means by which Bell could control retail pricing set by CCSA members.
There were also groups representing music and television artists in Quebec, including l’Association québécoise de l’industrie du disque, du spectacle et de la vidéo (ADISQ). ADISQ did not oppose the Bell-Astral transaction, but asked the Commission to ensure that Bell would be abound by Astral’s PNI requirements, would maintain a local team that would be in charge of French-language radio programming, and would commit to radio benefits equal to more than 6% of the value of the transaction. A presentation by l’Alliance québecoise des techniciens de l’image et du son, l’Association des réalisateurs et réalisatrices du Québec, la Société des auteurs de radio, télévision et cinéma, and l’Union des artistes noted several concerns about the transaction. These included that decisions related to French-language programming would be made in Toronto, that the value of the transaction had been undervalued by Astral, and that Bell ought be held to Astral’s individual CPE requirements rather than incorporating them into the CPE requirements related to its other services. The group also had certain issues related to the allocation of the tangible benefits, including the English-French split, the TV-film split, and the eligibility of some of the listed recipients.
Other groups appeared as well. The Canadian Council of Music Industry Associations requested that part of the radio Canadian Content Development (CCD) funding from tangible benefits be allocated to its associations. Le Festival international de la chanson de Granby also described the decline of the French-language music industry and expressed its support for the proposed merger.