Seven months after bidding $3.38-billion for Astral Media, BCE Inc. will find out at the close of markets this afternoon if the controversial union is going to receive the blessing of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
If the acquisition is approved, BCE – which operates as Bell Media – will be one step closer to owning more than 100 radio stations and almost 90 TV channels, setting competitors on edge with the prospect of an extraordinary level of market concentration.
Last month, the CRTC held a week-long hearing on the acquisition in Montreal that was characterized by high theatrics, Doomsday scenarios, and eleventh-hour pledges of Bell’s corporate munificence. The Commission says it considered thousands of interventions on the matter, from two-sentence e-mails from members of the public complaining about Bell’s intention to change the format of a popular English-language Montreal sports radio station, to supportive letters from many of the country’s program producers who do business with Bell.
While the acquisition may be approved as submitted, the CRTC appeared to catch executives of Bell and Astral off-guard when it announced Wednesday afternoon that it would release its decision today. The late notice suggested the Commission does not want to be seen favouring the companies it is regulating.
The decision is expected to go one of three ways. In order of increasing likelihood:
* The deal is killed entirely. This seems highly unlikely, and would indicate an extraordinary suspicion at the CRTC toward Bell and the arguments it made. But while the Commission’s new chairman Jean-Pierre Blais may have some legitimate reason for raising an eyebrow, it’s hard to see any fundamental differences between executives at any of the companies that appeared before him – either those at Bell or Astral, or the entertainingly blustery Pierre Karl Péladeau, the CEO of Quebecor Inc., who will face harsh competition in Quebec if the deal passes. If he upsets Bell, every other executive in the industry should be worried about what he’ll have in store for them, too.
* The deal goes through without alterations. Given the tenor of the CRTC’s questioning last month during the hearings, this too seems improbable. Even Bell seemed to sense that a multimillion-dollar campaign over the summer waged by competitors to demonize its enlarged market power had dented its image, leading the company to promise on the first day of the hearing that it would launch a previously unannounced “Netflix-like service” with some of its most popular programming, as well as a French-language news channel for Quebec it had never previously mentioned.
* Approved, with conditions. The CRTC wants to ensure a so-called “diversity of voices” on the TV lineup, which requires it to figure out whether the market share of the combined Bell and Astral TV channels exceeds certain levels of concentration. Bell submitted viewership data that argued it would still be below the threshold, but even if it is forced to divest some channels to lower its market share, that might not be a net loss for the company, which may be happy to sell off some of its money-losing CTV2 channels. The Commission might also insist Bell change the programs it pledged to fund with the $200-million tangible benefits package it proposed, or increase the amount of money.
But even if Bell gets approval today, the CRTC isn’t the only government body studying the acquisition: the Competition Bureau recently indicated it was “increasingly concerned” about some of the deal’s possible consequences.