Bell Canada’s takeover of entertainment company Astral Media could mean higher prices for cable and wireless and fewer options for consumers, says a prominent Quebec advocacy group.
Option Consummateurs is urging the CRTC, Canada’s telecom regulator, to reject the proposed $3.4-billion deal.
"The Competition Bureau and the CRTC still have the ability to stop this transaction,” Option Consummateurs CEO Robert Calezais said in a statement. “We’re asking them to think about the rights and interests of consumers."
A combined Bell and Astral would own 117 radio stations across the country, including seven in the Vancouver market, six in both Toronto and Montreal, and multiple stations in numerous other large and mid-sized markets.
Media blogger Steve Faguy estimates the new combined company would control 45 per cent of the commercial radio market in Canada, up from Bell’s previous 31-per-cent share. The addition of Astral's speciality TV channels would nearly double Bell's roster of cable channels.
Bell has agreed to sell off 10 radio stations in Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg, and to switch English-language Montreal sports station TSN Radio 990 to a French sports service, in an effort to comply with CRTC restrictions, which allow a single company to own no more than three stations in any one market (the commission has granted exceptions to allow four.)
“History shows us that this type of mega alliance brings no good to consumers,” Calezais said. “In Canada, we pay much more than in most Western countries for our cell phone service and cable.”
Though that claim is a matter of some dispute -- recent research suggests wireless rates in Canada are becoming competitive with U.S. prices, and Internet access in many cases is cheaper -- the Quebec advocacy group is not the only one raising the alarm about the merger.
Digital rights advocacy group OpenMedia criticized the merger when it was announced in March, saying it would inevitably limit consumer choice.
“As they grow, companies like Bell and Rogers gain even more ability, not to mention incentive, to engage in anticompetitive behaviour,” the group said in a statement. “And with unchecked dominance over Canadians' communications comes higher prices, tighter contracts, more disrespectful customer service, and greater potential for surveillance.”
Option Consummateurs said it's particularly worried about the concentration of media ownership in Quebec, where "independent media are becoming rare."
In explaining the rationale for buying Astral, Bell CEO George Cope stressed the move was designed to level the playing field for Bell with Quebecor, which dominates the province's media.
The CRTC and Canada’s Competition Bureau have yet to review and approve the deal. The CRTC begins hearings on the matter in September.
Astral shareholders approved the takeover in May, but in a surprise move, they rejected a $25-million bonus to be paid to Astral founder Ian Greenberg.
Canada's 7 Media Giants
Postmedia - $1.1 Billion
Postmedia was born in 2010, when the bankrupt Canwest media chain was broken up. A consortium led by then-National Post CEO Paul Godfrey bought Canwest's newspaper assets, including the National Post, Ottawa Citizen and Calgary Herald, as well as both English-language dailies in Vancouver.<br> <br> Pictured: Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em>
Torstar - $1.48 Billion
Torstar's flagship property is the Toronto Star, Canada's largest newspaper. It also owns the Metroland chain of weeklies and the internationally popular Harlequin, publisher of pulp romances.<br> <br> Pictured: The Toronto Star building in downtown Toronto.<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em>
Shaw - $4.74 Billion
Western Canadian cable TV giant Shaw entered the media big leagues with the 2010 purchase of Canwest's broadcasting assets, including the Global TV network. The company was founded by Jim Shaw and is still controlled by his family.<br> <br> Pictured: CEO Brad Shaw<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em><br> <br> <em>CORRECTION: An earlier version of this slide stated that Shaw had purchased Canwest's newspaper assets. It only purchased the broadcasting assets. The company had backed out of an earlier attempt to buy three CTV stations.</em>
Quebecor - $9.8 Billion
Founded by Pierre Peladeau and run by his son, Pierre-Karl Peladeau, Quebecor owns the Sun Media and Osprey newspaper chains, as well as cable provider Videotron, Quebec TV network TVA, and a number of publishing houses.<br> <br> Pictured: Pierre-Karl Peladeau<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em>
Rogers - $12.1 Billion
Founded by Ted Rogers, Rogers Communications is a major player in cable TV and wireless services. The company controls Rogers Media, which operates 70 publications, 54 radio stations and a number of TV properties including CityTV and the Shopping Channel.<br> <br> Pictured: CEO Nadir Mohamed<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em>
Woodbridge (Thomson Reuters) - $13.8B
Woodbridge is the holding company owned by the billionaire Thomson family. It controls 55 per cent of Thomson Reuters, one of the world's largest news services organizations. Woodbridge's revenue is not reported, but Thomson Reuters reported revenue of $13.8 billion in 2011.<br> <br> Pictured: The late Kenneth Thomson, company chairman, in Toronto in 2003.<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em>
Bell Canada (BCE) - $18.1 Billion
BCE is one of Canada's largest corporations, and owns telephone, Internet and TV infrastructure. Its subsidary Bell Media purchased the CHUM group of radio stations in 2006, and Astral Media in 2012. The company also controls CTV, making it a dominant media player in Canada.<br> <br> <em>*Number denotes latest available revenue figure, for parent company</em>