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Astral Media dominates Canada

Playhouse Disney channel now top TV player

MONTREAL The bow of the Playhouse Disney channel is just the latest sign of how broadcaster Astral Media has quietly become one of the dominant pay TV players in the Great White North.

It also shows just how well Montreal-based Astral gets along with Disney.

The Canadian kids pay channel, which launched Nov. 30, is the first to bear the Disney moniker that is not owned or run by Disney.

“It’s a testament to the long-term relationship we’ve had with them,” says Joe Tedesco, VP and g.m. of Playhouse Disney and the Astral-owned Family Channel. “We’ve had a relationship with them for 20 years with Family Channel and we’ve reached a point where there’s that level of trust.”

The Disney Channel has never been available in Canada and has instead sold the majority of its programming to the Family Channel since its birth in 1987.

Canadian broadcast regulator the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission has closed the door to many U.S. cable networks, including MTV, HBO and the Disney Channel, preferring to let Canadian-owned feevees acquire programming from those U.S. channels and build their own audiences.

Family Channel has an exclusive output deal for Canadian rights to all Disney Channel content, including “Hannah Montana,” “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” and “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.”

Astral Media CEO Ian Greenberg decided to create Playhouse Disney because the company didn’t have enough room on the Family Channel schedule to cater to 2- to 8- year-olds, who are the target demo for Playhouse Disney. Several of the Disney shows on Family Channel will move to Playhouse Disney, including “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” and “My Friends Tigger and Pooh.”

Tedesco says Astral’s close relationship with Disney is also a plus for the Canuck TV production industry, noting that two Canadian shows developed for the Family Channel — “Life With Derek” and “Naturally Sadie” — both ended up on the Disney Channel Stateside.

Around 60% of the programming on the Family Channel and on Playhouse Disney is provided by Disney.

Playhouse Disney will compete with the Corus-owned preschool channel Treehouse, though the Astral channel will skew just a little older. Tedesco certainly believes there is room in Canada for another tyke channel.

“Just look at your TV dial and think of all the adult channels,” he says. “And how many do you have for younger kids? If there was one market that was underserved, it was the kids’ sector. The mainstream broadcasters, other than CBC and some of the provincial public broadcasters, are not catering to kids.”

Astral doesn’t tend to make the headlines, but the company has, with little fanfare, built a tidy little empire in Canada with a slew of English and French pay TV channels and radio stations.

When it recently acquired Standard Radio, Astral became the biggest radio-station owner in the country, with 82 stations. Its other pay TV channels include the Movie Network, animation web Teletoon (co-owned jointly with rival broadcaster Corus), Super Ecran, Canal Vie and MusiquePlus.

Astral had been in discussions last year to acquire pay TV owner Alliance Atlantis but that property was scooped up by CanWest Global. Astral had also looked into buying Chum but lost the broadcaster to CTVglobemedia.

Astral VP Alain Bergeron says his company is still looking for acquisition opportunities.

“If there was any further consolidation and it fit our criteria, obviously we’d like to look at that,” Bergeron says. “We’re interested in growing our core businesses.”

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