|The CRTC logo. Lookin' more like a shield|
On Thursday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ka-powed BCE Inc's $3.4 billion takeover bid of Astral Media, seen almost as a foregone conclusion just weeks ago. Sure, Bell would have to hand over some radio stations, observers figured, maybe cough up some more money for funding. Tabs would soar at some of Ottawa's finer dining establishments.
But just say no? That word had almost fallen out of use in these "bigger-is-better" business model times.
The thrill of this decision, handed down with stunning speed (the hearings ended just a month ago), is that the CRTC is finally standing up for the consumer. It's like a big business episode of Intervention Canada. Read the conclusion to the CRTC's decision, below:
The Commission finds that BCE has not discharged its burden and demonstrated that, on balance, this transaction is in the public interest. The benefits proposed would advantage BCE and its services, but the Commission is not persuaded that the transaction would provide significant and unequivocal benefits to the Canadian broadcasting system and to Canadians sufficient to outweigh the concerns described above.
Just about everybody else lined up against this mighty media merger, including unlikely bed fellows CBC and Quebecor. The lobbying likely helped, but there are strong signs the new guy in charge, chairman Jean-Pierre Blais, is just a consumers first guy.
The commission found the takeover would give Bell a 43% share of the English Canada media market, twice the share of Shaw, its next closest competitor. Consumers had every right to fear higher prices for TV services, including satellite TV options.
If you create content in this country, you may also be breathing a sigh of relief. There are already so few doors to knock on in Canada to try and get your project on the air. Astral, which somehow enjoyed a staggering 60 consecutive quarters of growth in Canadian television, does green light and produce original content (Call Me Fitz, Living in Your Car) and over the years has provided millions in funding.
So consumers and suppliers both had reason to fear more media concentration in Canada. To give one personal example: when I started freelancing full time nearly six years ago, one of my first jobs was as a regular contributor was to a monthly magazine Bell offered to satellite subscribers. Published out of Montreal, Show was a classy, handsome product.
Then it was gone, suddenly, part of a cost cutting sweep. Some terrific editors were looking for work.
Fortunately, around that same time, I started contributing on a regular basis to Movie Entertainment magazine. Have a story in their current issue on Rory Kennedy documentary Ethel, premiering tonight on HBO Canada.
ME magazine is also a classy, handsome product, a service to folks who subscribe to HBO Canada, The Movie Channel or Movie Central.
Now, products come and go all the time, but I can't say I was encouraged by Bell's track record in regard to providing customers with added value in print form. So, as a supplier and a consumer, thank you CRTC.
It will be fascinating to follow what comes next. All those other media executives, the ones who have testicles, probably felt them leap as it sunk in that this new sheriff in town is also going to rule on a lot of other stuff. Things like Corus re-branding The Learning Channel as VIVA and then OWN. Apparent non-compliance stuff.
But for now, the full stop to the Bell-Astral merger sends a signal to all players involved: the rubber stamp has been retired.