Bell-Astral deal promises new Canadian content

Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE) president and chief executive officer George Cope (L) and Ian...

Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE) president and chief executive officer George Cope (L) and Ian Greenberg (R), president and chief executive officer of Astral Media Inc., speak at a news conference in Montreal, March 16, 2012. (REUTERS/Christinne Muschi)

QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:23 PM ET

MONTREAL - Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE) told a CRTC hearing that its deal to buy Astral Media will lead to a new film-streaming service and a French news operation, but the broadcast watchdog immediately challenged the promises.

BCE, parent company of Bell Canada, told the hearings Monday that its proposed $3.4-billion purchase of Astral will offer Canadian alternatives to foreign giants such as Netflix and Apple.

BCE president and CEO George Cope said "the broadcasting system requires companies with the means to compete with foreign broadcasters like Netflix, Apple, Google and Amazon."

He noted that more than 10% of Canadians subscribe to Netflix, representing more than 11 million hours of television viewing per week.

Cope said his Montreal-based telecom giant would create English and French video-on-demand services to go head-to-head against Netflix.

He also announced a "new national French news service based in Montreal" though Bell wouldn't say if it would be a 24-hour, all-news television channel.

Astral president and CEO Ian Greenberg added that his stable of cable channels and radio stations would be the "first line of defence" against foreign services by allowing Bell to deliver content on all of its platforms.

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais compared the announcements by Bell and Astral executives to "rabbits" in a hat, adding that the companies would have to prove their proposed deal will be in the best interest of Canadians.

"The burden of proof rests entirely with Astral and BCE," said Blais.

The CRTC will rule on the deal in October following the public hearings.

Bell says the deal would give it control of less than the maximum 35% English-language market share decreed by the CRTC. But a monitoring report by the broadcast watchdog reports a figure of 39.7%, which would be higher than the allowable.

News of the Bell-Astral deal prompted competitors Cogeco, Eastlink and Quebecor to launch a "Say No to Bell" joint campaign.

They have received support from Rogers, Telus and the Canadian Cable Systems Alliance (CCSA), who say the transaction is not in the best interest of consumers and would be bad for competition.

Quebecor owns QMI Agency and Sun Media and has a 30% share of the television market in Quebec.

Four consumer groups have also banded together to oppose the merger.

BCE is Canada's largest telecom company and its multimedia division, Bell Media, owns 28 television stations and 30 specialty channels, notably CTV and TSN.

The company also owns 33 radio stations and dozens of websites, including the Sympatico.ca portal.

Astral, also based in Montreal, founded The Movie Network in 1984 and now owns several pay and specialty television channels as well as conventional and satellite radio stations.


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