BCE huddles under the Big Top with Cirque du Soleil

The Globe and Mail

Acrobats perform during Cirque du Soleil's show "Alegria" in Tel Aviv Aug. 8, 2012. (NIR ELIAS/Reuters)

Send in the clowns – BCE Inc. is turning to the circus to help win support for its controversial $3.4-billion takeover of Astral Media.

The company’s Bell Media division said Tuesday it will invest $15-million to form a television and movie production company with Quebec’s world famous Cirque du Soleil – but added it would “revisit” the partnership if its $3.4-billion deal for Astral Media fell through.

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The Montreal-based company said the joint venture would create television productions based on the Cirque’s unique performances, and distribute the content the company has already created including an upcoming 3D production called Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away.

Bell Media and its parent company BCE are in the midst of the Astral takeover, a deal critics warn would place too much content in the hands of one Canadian company. They worry Bell will charge other cable companies to much money to access its programming, which will ultimately mean higher bills for their customers.

The deal goes before regulators next month, and will also be scrutinized by the country’s Competition Bureau.

Bell said Tuesday that the Cirque deal is an example of the types of initiatives it will undertake once it owns Astral. It has also promised to spend $80-million in the coming years to develop content for the Quebec market.

It didn’t say how much the Cirque partnership would cost, calling it a “multimillion-investment.”

“Supporting the creation of new Quebec-based media jobs and linked to Bell’s pending acquisition of Astral Media, the joint venture is another extension of Bell’s strategy of investment and development of Quebec content,” the company said in a statement.

Bell used the announcement as an opportunity to build support for its pending acquisition. The press release quotes Cirque chief executive officer Daniel Lamarre voicing his enthusiasm for the controversial takeover.

“Cirque du Soleil has always put creative forces from Quebec in the forefront. Like Bell joining with Astral, this commitment to invest in Quebec content and job creation benefits not only consumers but the broader Québec creative and media industry as well.”

On Tuesday, a group comprised of activists organizations from across the country launched a campaign called Stopthetakeover.ca is asking Canadians to send a letter to the country’s Industry Minster and Competition Bureau voicing their opposition to deal.

The group argues Bell will use its size to dominate smaller rivals, charging them high rates for programming that will eventually be passed to consumers.

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