MONTREAL – Bell should be forced to sell Astral’s Movie Network pay TV service if the CRTC is going to allow the $3.4-billion revised merger of the two companies to go ahead, Rogers Communications Inc. said Tuesday.
However, Rogers (which owns Maclean’s) also told regulatory hearing reviewing the proposed deal it would like to buy Astral’s Movie Network for itself and add it to its own services, including mobile and on-demand.
Rogers said it expects Bell will impose financial terms to make it more difficult to get the English-language pay TV service’s movies and programs and ultimately make it more expensive for consumers.
“These are premium services that hold the multi platform rights to ‘must have’ feature films and HBO series,” said Ken Engelhart, vice-president of regulatory at Rogers (TSX:RCI.B).
“They are the jewels in the Astral crown. We think it would be unwise to allow these services to be acquired by Bell Media.”
The CRTC turned down Bell’s purchase of Astral Media last fall, saying it wasn’t in the best interests of Canadians and would have made Bell too dominant especially in the TV market.
Allowing Bell to keep Astral’s English pay TV services would still give it too much control of the market, Engelhart told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
Rogers had asked the CRTC to make Bell sell off the English pay TV assets during the last round of hearings too, but wouldn’t say at that time if it wanted to purchase them. At the hearing Tuesday, Rogers told the CRTC it was an interested buyer.
“We would at least look at TMN,” Engelhart said of Astral’s Movie Network.
When asked by the CRTC who else could buy the English pay TV services other than Rogers, Engelhart replied: “I think with the amount of money that thing generates there will be a buyer.”
Bell (TSX:BCE) and Astral (TSX:ACM.A) have said combining the two companies will better allow them to compete with companies like Netflix.
Rogers replied that most major Canadian TV providers will roll out some kind of competitor to online TV and movie provider Netflix.
“I don’t think you need to approve the transaction in its current form in order to have that kind of competition in the marketplace,” said Dave Purdy, Rogers vice-president of digital television products.
“We certainly plan on rolling out our own subscription products that will compete with Netflix.”
Bell and Astral are seeking approval of a revised deal that among other things would see Bell sell all of Astral’s English language specialty services and one of its English pay TV services. However, it would keep eight specialty and pay of Astral’s channels including the Movie Network.
A consumer advocacy group also asked the CRTC to turn down the revised deal for a second time, saying a bigger Bell won’t be better for competition or choice.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre said there would be more Bell content and services available to consumers, but at Bell’s price and on Bell’s terms.
“Bell’s version of the public interest envisions a bigger Bell that provides more Bell services and content to consumers on Bell platforms — or on a competitor’s platform, but at Bell’s price and on Bell’s terms,” said Janet Lo, legal council for the Ottawa-based group.
“But we believe Canadians and the public interest deserve better and that more is not always better,” Lo said.
She said the market already isn’t meeting consumers’ expectations for choice, flexibility and affordability, and approving the deal doesn’t promise to make the situation any better.
“The public interest test is a high standard _ as it should be _ and we do not believe that the proposed transaction meets this high bar.”
Bell has said it will also sell 10 of 84 radio stations owned by Astral (TSX:ACM.A) and will acquire less than half of Astral’s French language specialty services.
The telecom giant also said it’s making a commitment to keep all local television stations open and plans to increase air play for emerging Canadian artists to at least 25 per cent on relevant radio stations.