BCE and Astral Media propose $174.64-million tangible benefits package

MONTREAL – BCE Inc. (TSX:BCE) and Astral Media Inc. (TSX:ACM.A) have proposed a $174.64-million tangible benefits package in a renewed effort to win the CRTC’s approval of their plan to combine two of Canada’s biggest media companies.

The Competition Bureau has approved a revised $3.38-billion deal, with the condition that several of Astral’s pay and specialty television channels are sold.

Bell also hopes to persuade the CRTC, which blocked the first plan last year, that this deal will benefit Canadians,

“Our proposal includes major investments in a broad range of new TV, radio and film content, and the development of innovative ways to deliver this fresh and compelling media to consumers across all platforms,” BCE chief executive George Cope said in a statement.

“This new application to the CRTC clearly demonstrates the tremendous value the combination of these two all-Canadian media brands will mean for the Canadian public and their broadcasting industry.”

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said Wednesday it will hold a new set of hearings starting on May 6.

Under its deal with the Competition Bureau, Bell will keep eight of Astral’s TV channels including the Movie Network, which includes HBO Canada, and TMN Encore as well as the French-language SuperEcran, CinePop, Canal Vie, Canal D, VRAK TV, and Z Tele.

The Competition Bureau said without the sale of Astral’s (TSX:ACM.B) pay and specialty television channels, the deal would likely have led to higher prices and reduced choices for television programming.

Bell said Wednesday that with the asset sales its French-language TV viewership will be 23.0 per cent, while its English-language TV viewership will stand at 35.7 per cent.

In rejecting the deal last year as it was originally structured, the CRTC said Bell would have controlled almost 45 per cent of the English TV viewership and almost 35 per cent of the French-language market.

Bell wants to use Astral’s content across TVs, computers, tablets and smartphones and sell it to its own customers and to its competitors.

The companies argued to the CRTC in September that Canada needs its own online TV and movie service to compete with Netflix and the merger of the two companies would allow that.

However, the deal faced stiff opposition as Telus (TSX:T), Rogers (TSX:RCI.B), Quebecor (TSX:QBR.B) and Cogeco Inc. (TSX:GCO) came out against the takeover.

Under the proposed tangible benefits package, Bell and Astral said they would spend $124.6 million on television with 85 per cent to go to independent, on-screen productions.

Roughly $73.1 million would be spent on French-language programming and $32.81 million on English shows.

The companies also said they would increase funding for its broadcasting participation fund by an additional $2 million over the next five years, spend $2.73 million on consumer education initiatives and $2.69 million for media training and development.

An additional $500,000 would go to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.

Astral and Bell Media will also spend $50.04 million on benefits for radio.