Growing chorus opposes Bell-Astral merger 0
Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE) President and CEO George Cope (L) and Astral Media Inc. President and CEO Ian Greenberg share a laugh after a news conference in Montreal March 16, 2012. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
OTTAWA - Even before the CRTC has a chance to hold hearings on Bell Canada Enterprises' (BCE) proposed $3.4-billion takeover of Astral Media, BCE is under fire for alleged anti-competitive conduct elsewhere.
The federal Competition Bureau is investigating BCE over claims that it's trying to force consumers to subscribe to Bell's services to access BCE-owned programming, like CTV and TSN, by keeping that programming away from other cable or satellite TV companies.
"Based on information received to date, the commissioner is concerned that Bell is imposing, or seeking to impose, unlawful restrictions on competing (distributors') ability to access and distribute Bell-owned content," said Vincent Millette, a law officer for the Competition Bureau, in a sworn affidavit.
The affidavit was part of an application to the Federal Court to order several media companies to produce documents that the Competition Bureau would use in its investigation.
The bureau withdrew its application after the companies involved indicated they would give investigators the information they wanted.
Meanwhile, as the CRTC prepares for a Sept. 10 hearing on the BCE-Astral marriage, more voices have joined the chorus opposing the creation of what they say would be a media behemoth that would undermine competition.
Telus warns that Bell could hold almost half of Canada's English-language television audience share following the merger.
"We are calling on consumers to go to the Competition Bureau, go to the CRTC or go to (www.saynotobell.ca) website," said Ann Mainville-Neeson, director of broadcast regulations at the satellite TV, phone and Internet service provider.
If Bell swallows Astral, it would put 70 TV channels, about 100 radio stations and dozens of websites under one company's control.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) warns that as BCE grows, it gains more power to demand distributors include Bell-owned content in programming packages.
"A bigger Bell will force its own content down the throats of other competitors in the market, and then force consumers to purchase that content regardless of whether they want it or not, or pay higher prices for the content they do want," said Janet Lo with the PIAC, a non-profit organization that works on consumer issues.
BCE has said that buying Quebec-based Astral would be "levelling the playing field with the long-dominant media company in Quebec -Quebecor," which owns Sun Media.
Critics, however, have pointed out that the deal wouldn't change market ownership in Quebec but would alter the national picture dramatically.