Telus tells CRTC that Bell shouldn't be allowed to buy Astral without safeguards

MONTREAL – Bell would have too much control over content and the potential to negatively affect consumers and competitors if it’s allowed to buy Astral Media, Telus Corp. said Thursday.

Telus was the latest telecom rival to tell the CRTC that Bell’s acquisition of the speciality TV channel and radio broadcaster shouldn’t be allowed, or if it is approved it must have conditions and restrictions.

“Consumers want to buy rights for all content on all platforms,” Telus executive Ann Mainville-Neeson said Thursday after making her company’s case to the broadcast regulator.

“They want to watch TV on their TV, on their mobile devices, on their tablets, on their laptops. When Bell goes out to the studios, it buys content rights that way and we want to be able to buy them from Bell in that way and from other vertically integrated companies.”

Telus said Bell (TSX:BCE) is trying to sell its content in pieces, making negotiations more difficult and expensive.

“Adding significant new assets to Bell’s content portfolio through approval of this acquisition of Astral will only make matters worse,” Mainville-Neeson, director of broadcast regulation at Telus, told the CRTC.

Vancouver-based Telus provides cellphone, Internet and TV services, but doesn’t own any media assets and must negotiate with Bell and others for programming content.

“It’s really essential that we get all of these rights at one price,” added Richard Stursberg, a senior adviser on media and entertainment strategy for Telus.

Telus (TSX:T) disputed Bell’s claim that its price for content rights on all mobile platforms is $3 million a year and said it’s more than $8 million a year.

“The point of all this is that Bell is already big, it has clear incentive and opportunity to behave anti-competitively to the detriment of consumers and it is clearly making it difficult for the commission to manage compliance,” Mainville-Neeson said.

VMedia Inc., an IPTV service which will appear Friday at the hearing, has launched a complaint with the CRTC against Bell over access to some of its specialty TV channels, including TSN and MuchMusic.

“We have been stonewalled by Bell Media and we simply no longer believe it wishes to negotiate a fair deal with us in good faith,” said Alexei Tchernobrivets, chief executive of Toronto-based VMedia.

“Bell Media has subjected us to an outrageous series of delays, pre-conditions and obstacles which we have not experienced with any other channel provider in Canada or the U.S. We have no choice but to take this matter to the CRTC.”

VMedia said it would be competing against Bell TV and it filed the complaint after more than a year of “fruitless efforts” to negotiate agreements.

There has been a long list of companies and groups that have come out against the proposed acquisition of Astral (TSX:ACM.A). 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.

Bell has countered 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.

Telus said Bell doesn’t need to be bigger to create a made-in-Canada Netflix to compete against online companies offering TV services.

“I actually think they’re manufacturing a bogey man to justify this acquisition,” said David Fuller Telus’ chief marketing officer.

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

Rogers (TSX:RCI.B) and Quebecor (TSX:QBR.B) have also come out against the deal, while Calgary’s Shaw Communications (TSX:SJR.B) supports it.

Radio fan Rahul Majumdar came before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to speak against Bell Media’s plan to look at selling TSN radio in Montreal.

Bell told the hearing earlier this week that if the CRTC shoots down changes it wants to make at some of its Montreal radio stations, it will consider putting the local TSN station up for sale.

“Eliminating TSN 690 may help Bell-Astral satisfy CRTC ownership rules, but the price will be a further erosion of Montreal’s sports broadcasting system,” Majumdar said.

He noted that Calgary, Winnipeg and Ottawa-Gatineau all enjoy 24-hour sports stations.

Majumdar also touched on linguistic reasons for not supporting Bell’s proposed changes.

“Montreal is a bilingual, multicultural city and I believe that its sports fans must be served in both of Canada’s official languages,” he said. “I am dismayed at the manner in which Bell neglects, downplays and outright dismisses its English clientele and English Montreal sports radio.”

But he also said French-speaking Montrealers deserve an all-sports station that would serve them, too.

Bell is asking the CRTC to convert its English language TSN sports radio to French language RDS all sports radio and Bell says it will add more sports content to its all-talk station CJAD in Montreal to serve the English market.

Bell has already told the hearing that it will divest 10 radio stations in five markets as part of the deal to buy Astral.