Bell-Astral Layoffs? Acquisition Could Mean Head Office Job Cuts Due To Overlap, Analyst Says

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BELL ASTRAL LAYOFFS
Astral CEO Ian Greenberg speaks at the company's AGM in Toronto on December 13, 2011. Bell has reached an agreement to acquire Astral Media Inc. for $3.38 billion. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn) | CP

MONTREAL - Head office job cuts are expected to result from telecom giant BCE's $3.4-billion deal to acquire Montreal-based specialty broadcaster Astral Media (TSX:ACM.A), an analyst said Wednesday.

UBS analyst Phillip Huang said there will be duplication at the two head offices, though he did not quantify how many cuts could come as a result of the merger.

"We believe there is significant function overlap between Bell Media and Astral's head offices, and expect substantial synergies," Huang wrote in a report.

BCE's proposed acquisition of specialty television and radio broadcaster Astral media aims to create a media powerhouse that provide digital content to consumers online on their personal computers and tablets and on mobile devices like smartphones as well as traditional TV screens.

In terms of jobs, BCE (TSX:BCE) has said there would be some duplication, but has not been specific about possible cuts.

"There is clearly some duplication just in terms of the fact that we're both public companies," BCE chief executive George Cope told a news conference about the transaction last Friday.

"We'll deal with some of the corporate parts and have to deal with some of the public costs going forward, but generally this is really about a growth story," Cope has said.

Astral has about 460 employees at its head office in downtown Montreal. The company has a total of 2,800 employees in Montreal, Toronto and a number of other Canadian cities.

Astral-owned pay television channels include The Movie Network, which carries HBO and Showtime series, and Family Channel, which will allow Bell push that content across multiple devices to attract more customers and advertisers and sell the content to other providers.

Queen's university marketing professor Ken Wong said any job losses would depend on how much integration there is between the two companies.

Two vice-presidents of finance wouldn't be necessary, for example, Wong said.

"The more integrated they become, probably the greater the synergy opportunities are available — staff reductions," Wong said from Kingston, Ont.

But Astral's billboard and digital advertising division and the operation of its French-language radio stations could very well be left as they are, he added.

Ian Greenberg, chief executive of Astral, has said the leadership of Astral's francophone assets in Quebec is expected to remain in the province.

"I don't think we're going to have any movement to Toronto," Greenberg told the news conference.

Astral has a number of French-language radio stations in the province.

National Bank Financial analyst Adam Shine said the move to acquire Astral will allow Bell to better compete against rival Quebecor Inc. (TSX:ABR.B) in French content across multiple platforms.

"The deal significantly alters Quebec's media landscape by creating a powerhouse in the province and a leader in French content against a strong competitor in Quebecor," Shine wrote in a research note.

But Shine said as a result of the acquisition, BCE will have to sell radio stations in some markets to due ownership limits set out by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Astral is Canada's largest pay and specialty TV broadcaster and owns 84 radio stations in 50 Canadian markets and 24 television services. It is also the third-largest outdoor advertising company and has a stake in the country's only subscription radio service, XM-Sirius Canada.

In 2010, BCE bought the rest of the CTV assets it didn't already own in a bid to broadcast the network's programs not only on television but also on computers, tablets and smartphones, a strategy its competitors Rogers (TSX:RCI.B) and Quebecor Inc. are also pursuing.

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