Bell’s Bid to Take-Over Astral Encounters Mounting Opposition: Interview on the Lang and O’Leary Exchange
After a week since the CRTC’s stopped accepting interventions and a little under a month before hearings begin in Montreal, opposition to Bell Canada’s bid to take over Astral Media — the eighth largest media company in Canada, largest radio broadcaster and fourth biggest pay tv provider — is mounting. Some of this made a big splash in the past week as the Say No to Bell campaign backed by Quebecor, Cogeco and Eastlink was kicked into high gear.
However, while we may wonder about the motives behind the cable companies’ campaign to derail Bell’s take-over of Astral, they are not alone. Far from it, actually. Telus, too, has lined up solidly against the deal. The Independent Broadcasters Group — those without the shelter of the big four vertically integrated companies (Bell, Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor) that dominate Canada’s telecom, media and internet landscape — have also lined up serious concerns with the transaction.
The Canadian Media Producers Association filed a similar position paper but appears to think that its concerns can be taken care of with a little more money flowing from Bell to its members by upping the scale of the ‘tangible benefits’ that Bell has proposed (Interventions can be found on the CRTC’s website here). The research consultancy, Analysis, also put out a study showing that Canada has amongst the highest levels of pay television concentration and vertical integration amongst the G8 countries.
Whereas Bell has argued that its acquisition of Astral does not trigger any need for review, based on its market share and the CRTC’s guidelines, many of the submissions beg to differ. Apparently, one of the things missing from Bell’s low-ball calculation of its own market share is that it didn’t count the audiences of pay tv services that Astral jointly owns with others, such as Viewer’s Choice Canada Inc. Historia & Séries+, Teletoon. That’s one way to do the numbers and if lazy journos keep repeating them, well maybe they’ll be harder to dislodge as “the truth”.
Bell also argues that the CRTC’s vertical integration rules put into affect last fall eliminates any concerns that it will not offer access to its distribution facilities and programming on non-discriminatory terms. Well, no. The companies behind the Say Not to Bell campaign, Telus, as well as the Independent Broadcasters Group all argue that the new rules are, at best, a “work in progress”, and that experience to date falls far short of assuming the Pollyannaish portrait of the world painted by Bell. Access to content is a thicket of discontent. So too should be the fact that while Bell lifts its bandwidth caps for its own online video services, it applies them to rival services such as Netflix. This is the pay-per internet for everybody else’s services except those within the Bell corporate-fold. That fold will become much bigger if Bell does acquire Astral.
As readers of this blog might recall from a post last week, I prepared a study for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Consumers’ Association of Canada, Canada Without Poverty, and Council of Senior Citizens’ Organizations of British Columbia’s submission to the CRTC opposing the Bell/Astral deal. My basic argument is that the CRTC has ample grounds to seriously review this transaction and perhaps to put the kibash on some of its central aspects altogether.
Most importantly, with respect to specialty and pay tv services that are the crown jewel in the Astral Media crown, the transaction would give Bell a market share of over 42% and thus at the high end of even the CRTC’s own relatively weak standards. The deal is a boundary pusher and the CRTC ought to draw a line in the sand. The fact that the deal would further stitch up the control of large vertically integrated companies across the telecom-media-internet landscape, and at rates that are extremely high by both historical standards in Canada and relative to global norms, also provides a strong basis from which to dash this transaction.
It is good to see not just the opposition to this transaction gaining momentum but also that PIAC’s intervention and the study I wrote for them have gained a fare amount of attention. Yesterday, the CBC’s website gave some great coverage to the study. Later in the day, the Lang and O’Leary did as well and invited me in to chat about it with them. The 7 minute video clip from the Lang and O’Leary Exchange is below: