Telco's Astral buy raises French-Canadian market share

MONTREAL — When Bell Canada, the country’s leading TV owner and telecom player, paid $3.4 billion to take over Montreal-based cabler Astral Media, it was a call not only for Canadian media giant Quebecor to sit up and take notice, but for French-Canadian producer to bring out their wares.

Bell and Quebecor are already locked in a fierce battle in the phone market in Quebec but, until Bell’s March 16 deal, Quebecor pretty well had the French-Canadian TV market to itself. Quebecor owns Canada’s No. 1 French-language TV network TVA and a slew of cable channels.

But by snaring Astral, Bell — which previously owned one French-language cabler, the RDS sports network — snaps up many of the region’s leading cable channels, including lifestyle channel Canal Vie, documentary channel Canal D, drama web Series Plus and youth outlet VRAK.TV.

If the deal passes the usual regulatory hurdles (including approval from the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission and the federal Competition Bureau), Bell will have a market share in French Canada of 32%, just under Quebecor’s 35%.

TV folks in French Canada are upbeat over the deal, figuring the increased competition can only help producers. The Bell Astral channels certainly won’t buy less local programming, says Jacquelin Bouchard, prexy of Pixcom, one of Canada’s leading producers.

“The French-language market is a market unto itself. It’s always been a market where there is lots of local, French-language production,” Bouchard says. “Bell and Quebecor will have almost the same market share. Maybe the increased competition will mean the two groups put more cash into programming.”

With the deal, Bell takes a dominant position in the Canadian market. Last year, it acquired CTV, Canada’s top network, along with its cable channels. More recently, it teamed up with rival telecom and broadcast company Rogers to buy Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, which owns the National Hockey League’s Toronto Maple Leafs and the National Basketball Assn.’s Toronto Raptors.

“For the first time, wireless, TV and media will now represent the majority of Bell Canada’s revenue,” Bell CEO George Cope said at the press conference announcing the Astral takeover.

Bell also picks up some English-lingo TV properties in the deal, notably the Movie Network, HBO Canada and the Canadian Family and Disney channels. Bell already owns many local cable channels, including Discovery Channel (Canada), the Comedy Network, MTV (Canada), Space and MuchMusic.

The deal further underlines the consolidation in the local TV business. Now almost all major properties are owned by just four players — Bell, Quebecor, Rogers (which owns the City-tv stations) and Shaw Communications (which bought the CanWest Global stations).

Michael Prupas, CEO of Muse Entertainment (“The Kennedys,” “Pillars of Earth”), says the growth of Bell enables Canada to produce more series with worldwide potential.

“It helps to have strong players that are ready to get behind you,” Prupas says.

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