Media groups rethink plans after takeover nixed

MONTREAL — Bell Canada and Astral Media are set for some major changes in the wake of the Canadian broadcast regulator’s surprising decision last week to nix Bell’s proposed $3.4 billion take-over of Astral. It is expected that Bell will remain on the acquisitions trail while Astral will at the very least sell some of its assets.

It’s unclear what Bell and Astral will do now. The only thing for sure is that Bell is already contesting the decision. On Monday, the telecom and broadcast giant sent a request to the Prime Minister’s office asking the cabinet to tell the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) that it has to follow its own policies. Bell argues that the regulator didn’t even follow its own policies in rejecting Bell’s bid.

Bell claimed that the CRTC used “never-before used criteria to deny the BCE-Astral transaction.”

Bell and the CRTC have also gotten into a fight over how much market-share the combined Astral-Bell would have had if the deal had gone through. The regulator said Astral-Bell would have controlled 45% of English TV viewing and 35% of French. Bell claims those figures are way too high, that it would only have 33% of the English market and 24% of the French marketplace.

The government has not yet given an answer to Bell’s request but the sense is that it is quite unlikely that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government will step in and overturn the CRTC decision.

Most observers feel that Astral will still be sold either in whole or in pieces. The problem with selling Astral as one entity is that there are not many players the size of Bell ready to step in to make the acquisition. Its telecom competitor Telus might but Telus execs have always said they are not interested in moving into the broadcast biz.

Rogers might be another potential suitor for all or some part of Astral. Bell could also come back and try to buy some of the Astral assets, like perhaps the French-language TV stations, since breaking into the French-language market was one of the key reasons Bell wanted Astral in the first place.

There is also speculation that Bell might once again take a run at buying the V network, French-Canada’s third-largest TV web. Bell was talking to Remstar, which owns V, just prior to the Astral sales process, but those talks broke down when Bell started looking at the much bigger acquisition of Astral.

If the deal had gone through, Bell would have had to dole out more than $200 million to the Canadian TV biz, but some in the industry, like leading actors union ACTRA, are applauding the CRTC because they believe Bell was not going to spend enough on Canadian production if the deal had been approved.

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