A CRTC hearing is not unlike an Italian soccer game whose pace is constantly interrupted by skirmishes. There is the player lying on the ground who is howling with pain, in an Oscar-worthy performance. And there is the apparent culprit who is raising his arms in outraged disbelief, while ferociously arguing with the referee.
Shooting for a goal in a bland conference hall, Canadian media barons act no differently than calculating soccer players. They are all masters at CRTC theatrics.
On Tuesday, it was Pierre Karl Péladeau’s turn to testify during the hearings into BCE Inc.’s proposed takeover of Astral Media Inc., and what a show it was. The president and CEO of Quebecor tore to pieces the proposed $3.4-billion deal before lashing out against its executives.
“Their arrogance knows no boundaries,” he said of Bell’s top brass, who Mr. Péladeau accused of acting as though they already owned Astral, even before Canada’s broadcasting regulator rules on whether to approve the controversial deal.
Mr. Péladeau contends that no Western country concerned about competition has ever gone so far as to approve what BCE has proposed. The Quebecor boss compared its rival’s market position to that of Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset, the largest media group in Italy. This domination – called “monstrous” by one of his executives – will “eventually squash all competition in Canada,” Mr. Péladeau stated.
The numbers are indeed impressive: Besides the CTV Network, Bell and Astral would control more than 80 pay-per-view and specialty TV channels and roughly 115 radio stations.
But to hear Mr. Péladeau, you would think that George Cope is an Iranian general with his index on an atomic bomb detonator.
The fiercest critics of the BCE-Astral deal have come from Quebec, from Mr. Péladeau and from his old ally in the cable industry, Cogeco president Louis Audet.
That’s ironic, because in the Quebec market, a merged BCE and Astral would still be in a second place, with 25 per cent of French viewing. In first place? Quebecor, with 30.5 per cent, according to CRTC figures for 2010-11. Among private radio operators, BCE and Astral would claim about one-third of the market – far behind Cogeco’s 67 per cent share.
Some of the fierce criticism from Quebec has to do with the loss of another important Montreal head office – and with the fact that while BCE is officially headquartered in the city, its decision making has gravitated toward Toronto under George Cope’s leadership.
During the election campaign, Parti Québécois MNA Maka Kotto vowed to block the Astral deal with every means at the provincial government’s disposal, be it through a special law or by challenging the deal in court. “We will lead an incessant battle … to stop this takeover of our broadcasting means by Toronto,” said Mr. Kotto, a possible culture minister in Pauline Marois’s cabinet.
Constitutional experts seriously doubt Quebec would have the legal authority to stop the deal, or the political capacity to act with a minority government. But with BCE’s recent experience with the courts – think of the botched buyout of the company by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund, which lingered for months in the courts – it is not an idea that Bell executives would welcome.
Hence the additional “tangible benefits,” an extra $41-million in goodies that BCE executives promised on Monday to sweeten their deal, including a new French all-news channel that would compete with Quebecor’s LCN.
Of course, this “rabbit in the hat,” as it was dubbed by the new CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais, is nothing to appease the fiery Mr. Péladeau. But then, nothing really could. After all, it takes one dominant media mogul to recognize another.
In the French media, the BCE-Astral deal is sometimes described as the most important transaction in Canadian media history. It isn’t. Quebecor’s acquisition of cable operator Vidéotron, a $5.4-billion transaction made at the height of the Internet bubble in 2000, had a bigger impact on the communications landscape.
And while the CRTC did not examine the full implications of that deal, they are now fully clear to Quebeckers. With popular tabloids and the most watched TV network in Quebec, not to mention music stores that feature the records of house artists, Quebecor Inc. has pushed the cross-promotion of its brand and its stars to unseen heights.
That’s not to mention the politicians who tremble at the idea of being targeted by Quebecor Media. Or the ones who doled out millions to the future Quebec City hockey arena, where Mr. Péladeau hopes to bring back an NHL franchise.
The CRTC chairman wanted to know how the influence of a merged Bell-Astral is any different than Quebecor’s. Mr. Péladeau reluctantly admitted he was right – while still criticizing Bell’s outsized influence and purchasing power in specialty TV.
“If this transaction is approved, there is no turning back,” he warned gravely.
And no one knows that any better than Pierre Karl Péladeau.