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Fallout over Bell deal frames Astral’s future

Astral CEO Ian Greenberg speaks at the company's AGM in Toronto on Dec. 13, 2011.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

When Canada's broadcaster regulator shot down BCE Inc.'s $3-billion deal for Astral Media Inc., BCE executives complained often and loudly about why the deal should have been allowed.

BCE launched its counter-assault with a flurry of e-mails, followed by a tour of some of the country's largest newsrooms to allow chief executive officer George Cope to express his contempt for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's decision.

Then there was Astral's reaction (or lack of). The company issued a three sentence response under the following headline: "Astral notes the CRTC decision on its acquisition of Bell."

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Chief executive officer Ian Greenberg has been able to avoid the topic, at least in the press, since the deal was rejected almost two weeks ago. But when the company reports its fourth quarter earnings on Wednesday, analysts will be looking for any hints of what comes next for the media company.

After all, Mr. Greenberg painted a bleak picture of the company's future as a standalone entity when he appeared before a CRTC hearing in September and explained why the company was put into play in the first place.

"From my perspective I think the industry has been great and will continue to be great," Mr. Greenberg said as he defended the deal, which would ultimately be rejected because the CRTC felt it would put too much power in Bell Media's hands.

"But I really think it takes a larger scale. I could see the winds against an independent company like Astral not being able to compete with global players any more. On that basis, we have to face realities. It was clear in my mind a combination of Bell and Astral would accomplish that goal."

While analysts will finally get to press Mr. Greenberg to state his plans for the future, there is still some time on the clock on the Bell-Astral deal. Both sides have the ability to push the deal's deadline into mid-January, regardless of what regulators have to say.

And while Bell is holding out hope that the federal government will intervene and force the CRTC to push the deal through, Mr. Greenberg's thoughts are likely drifting to the future.

He never wanted to put the company up for sale, he said during the hearings, but his family members felt it was time. When the company reports Thursday, investors may find out whether the rough ride of the last few months has changed their minds.

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