The jockeying for Astral Media Inc.'s highest-profile assets has begun, as Rogers Communications Inc. signalled the company would consider buying some of Astral's specialty channels if the company is sold off following a failed takeover attempt by BCE Inc.
BCE is hoping the federal government will step in and save its $3-billion deal after it was rejected by broadcast regulators last week, but analysts don't think intervention is likely. Few Canadian companies could outright buy the Montreal-based Astral and its stable of radio and television assets, but firms such as Rogers see a chance to bulk up if the company is sold piece by piece.
Canadian cable, satellite and IPTV providers are racing to build their own online services to compete with Internet-based competitors such as Netflix, and Astral's specialty channels such as HBO Canada and The Movie Network own the rights to the hugely popular content that could serve as the backbone for any new Canadian mobile television offering.
Other companies – including BCE's Bell Media division and Shaw Communications Inc. – could also find themselves bidding for the specialty channels and their exclusive programming such as Girls, Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire.
"If selective assets – and I think the key word being selective assets – became available over the course of the [next] number of months that strategically fit ... we would evaluate them at that time," Mr. Pelley said during a conference call to discuss the company's third-quarter results.
BCE's bid for Astral was rejected by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission last week. The regulator said the deal would make the company too powerful a force, particularly because it sells television services to subscribers as well as content such as TSN to its competitors.
It is unclear if any other companies could take a run at Astral in its entirety – Quebecor Inc. is already a big player in Quebec where many of Astral's television and radio assets are focused, and Cogeco Inc. recently spent more than a billion dollars to buy a U.S. cable operator.
Cogeco chief executive officer Louis Audet said the CRTC's firm rejection of the deal would make most bidders think twice before committing. But a Rogers executive said on Wednesday that BCE's size made it a unique proposal that regulators couldn't accept.
"If you look at the numbers that Bell has on the broadcasting side and the scope and breadth of their assets on the distribution side, I don't know if any country would have permitted this merger," said Ken Engelhart, Rogers senior vice-president of regulatory affairs. "Like, if you look at all the other Western democracies, nobody has numbers like that. So, I don't see this as being some sort of situation where Canada is going to be an outlier. Quite the contrary, I think it makes us quite consistent with our trading partners."
Astral has more than 80 radio stations and 25 television services. While it operates specialty services such as Teletoon and Family, HBO and The Movie Network are seen as its most coveted channels. Companies such as Rogers may not be as willing to pay for the secondary channels, particularly considering many in the industry believe the specialty channel market has peaked and are leery of overpaying for assets that may be past their prime.
A report by U.S.-based consultants IHS said earlier this year that 92 per cent of Canadian households will have some sort of pay-television service in their home by the end of 2012, but high prices and more Internet offerings are likely to drive people away from traditional television providers in the coming years.
"The Canadian peak in pay-TV subscriptions comes three years after the same event occurred in the United States," IHS stated in the report. "Canada reached the peak later due to delayed economic effects and severe data caps implemented by cable operators in the country."