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Bigger is better, Bell tells CRTC

Makes final pitch to buy Astral Media

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MONTREAL -- Bell should be allowed to buy specialty TV and radio station company Astral Media to get bigger to take on foreign online competitors such as Netflix, BCE CEO George Cope said Friday as part of the telecom giant's final pitch to the CRTC.

If the $3.4-billion deal is shot down, Astral's assets will ultimately be split up, guaranteeing the continued foreign dominance in every way online content is delivered, Cope said.

Astral owns 25 channels, including The Movie Network, HBO Canada, French-language Super Écran, Family Channel, Disney Junior and more than 80 radio stations.

"Canada should not have to wait any longer to deploy a viable, national multi-platform solution, backed by a company with the resources to compete against well-funded global competitors," he said on the final day of the regulatory hearing.

If the acquisition is approved, Bell will have even more content from Astral to put on TVs, computers, smartphones and tablets of its own customers and to sell to its competitors. Bell bought the rest of the CTV assets it didn't already own in 2010 to put more programming across the four screens.

Meanwhile, the CBC objected in a last-minute letter to the CRTC on Friday to Bell's plans to set up a national French-language all-news service.

CBC's French-language service has RDI, a 24-hour all-news service and Quebecor runs French all-news service LCN. Bell's proposed service would mean a third French-language all-news competitor based in Montreal.

The CBC has objected to Bell using $20 million to start the all-news service from the more than $240 million it will contribute to what's called a "tangible benefits" package -- an additional financial obligation -- if the deal is approved.

Bell said it's confident its French-language news service will go ahead.

"I think we'd be surprised to see CBC or SRC (Société Radio Canada) come forward and say that another voice of news for the French community isn't a strong addition," Kevin Crull, president of Bell Media division, said after the hearing.

The use of the tangible-benefits package by Bell to launch an all-news service raised some eyebrows, though.

The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists told the CRTC it would be "completely inappropriate" to use the money to fund the news service.

"There are a number of great proposals for social benefits submitted for BCE's consideration -- including from the Broadcast History Museum and the Actor's Fund of Canada," said ACTRA president Ferne Downey.

"These are worthy beneficiaries for whom even a little would mean a lot," Downey said.

During Bell's final pitch to the CRTC, Cope played down the potential dominance Bell would have. "As we've made clear, Bell's share of English-language TV viewing will be 33.5 per cent following the Astral-Bell transaction," Cope said.

That's under the 35 per cent threshold set by the CRTC.

Cope also said Bell makes its TV content available to its competitors, denying accusations the company has been an unwilling or difficult negotiator and has pushed up prices.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 B17

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