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Astral reworking deal for takeover by Bell

Expected to sell broadcast assets in bid to win regulatory approval

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MONTREAL -- Astral Media Inc. is reworking a friendly takeover by telecom giant Bell that's expected to see the Montreal company sell some broadcast assets to win regulatory approval.

The CRTC killed the $3.4-billion deal last month, saying it wasn't in the best interest of Canadians.

Astral confirmed Friday it's still talking with Bell in hopes of finding a way to save the deal, including filing a new application with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

"The timing and details of any such application have not yet been determined," Astral said in a statement.

The Globe and Mail newspaper reported Friday that those familiar with the talks say the new deal seeks to overcome regulatory opposition with a plan to auction off a number of Astral's English broadcast assets.

Bell has postponed the deadline for the deal until Dec. 16 and both parties can further extend it by one month.

Telecom analyst Troy Crandall said Bell will probably pick the assets it wants and Astral could be left with potentially "lesser-performing" assets to sell. Rather than going through the courts, it looks like they're just going to restructure the deal and put in a new proposal," said Crandall of MacDougall, MacDougall & MacTier. "If I were Bell, I would obviously want to cherry-pick the best assets."

Astral has 25 specialty TV services, including the Movie Network, Family Channel and Disney XD, and 84 radio stations.

Bell, owner of the CTV TV network, has said it wants to put Astral's content on smartphones, tablets, computers and traditional TVs and compete with foreign online rivals such as Netflix.

BCE declined to comment Friday.

Crandall said the CRTC was concerned about the level of dominance Bell would have in the English-language television market.

In rejecting the deal, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said BCE would have controlled almost 45 per cent of the English TV viewership and almost 35 per cent of the French if the takeover were been allowed.

"BCE failed to persuade us that the deal would benefit Canadians," Blais said in his recent ruling. "It would have placed significant market power in the hands of one of the country's largest media companies."

But Bell disagreed, saying Bell and Astral combined would have an English-language TV market share of 33.5 per cent and the combined companies would have a 24.4 per cent stake in the French-language TV market, both within the rules.

The discrepancy arises because Bell includes U.S. competitors in the calculations while the CRTC does not.

The CRTC has said if the takeover deal came before it again, it would have to be substantially different. Such a deal would also have to be approved by the Competition Bureau.

However, telecom analyst Eamon Hoey said BCE should instead look outside Canada for telecom acquisitions to grow instead of trying to buy Astral. Other telecom companies have used this strategy and were successful, he said.

He cited the example of South Africa's MTN Group, which operates in 21 African and Middle Eastern countries and has 187 million subscribers.

"We've got a great company here that's got lots of opportunities around the world and should be out taking them," Hoey said of BCE.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 B19

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