Cable service alliance say Bell’s clout is costly for consumers

September 14, 2012  |  Canadian Press  |  Comments

The Canadian Cable Systems Alliance said Friday that Bell will have too much control over programming if it’s allowed to buy Astral Media and suggested that consumers will pay the price if competition is reduced.

“This transaction would give Bell control over the marquee programming content, both English and French, that is available to Canadian consumers,” said Alyson Townsend, president and CEO of the Canadian Cable Systems Alliance Inc.

An Ontario member of the cable alliance told the CRTC that it’s required under a new Bell contract to distribute sports channel TSN – one of the specialty channels owned by Bell’s affiliate CTV – in its basic cable package.

The contract pushes up the cable operator’s wholesale costs and will force it to increase monthly fees for about half of its customers by about 10%, a Nor-Del Cablevision spokesman said Friday at a CRTC regulatory hearing in Montreal.

Glenn Baxter of Nor-Del Cablevision said he has 2,173 customers in five small, rural communities with many of his customers being seniors.

Townsend also said Bell does not need to own Astral to compete with online TV and movie distributor Netflix – a type of internet content distributor known in the industry as a “over the top” service.

Townsend asked rhetorically what the Bell-Astral deal is really about and why is it happening now?

“The real answers to those questions have more to do with cutting Bell’s own programming expenses and driving competitors out of the distribution business than standing up to foreign [over the top[ services,” Townsend said.

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Bell will make a final submission later, as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission wraps up a week of hearings.

There has been a long list of companies and groups that have come out against the proposed acquisition of Astral, a friendly deal between the companies valued at about $3.4 billion when it was announced March 16.

BCE Inc. owns Bell Canada, the CTV television network, the former Chum radio stations and numerous specialty TV channels, as well as online sites for them all. Astral is primarily a media company, owning dozens of radio stations, specialty channels and an outdoor advertising business that includes billboards.

Bell has countered its critics by saying it needs to be large enough to compete with global companies, especially in newer digital forms of media that relay content to mobile phones, tablets and other devices.

It announced at the open of this week’s hearings that Astral would enable it to create a competitor to the U.S.-based Netflix online video service, which delivers movies and television programs for a monthly subscription fee.

The Astral deal would continue a years-long trend of increasingly concentrated ownership of Canadian media companies.

Rogers and Quebecor have also come out against the deal, while Calgary’s Shaw Communications supports it.

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