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Is Bell taking over Astral to get millions in public subsidies?

Last year telecom giant Bell unleashed a new $3.4B plan to take control of Astral Media, one of Canada’s largest media companies. Canada has one of the most highly concentrated media systems in the industrialized world, and this deal would only make this situation worse by giving Bell a monopolistic share of the media market. Now, it seems that the takeover would also give Bell millions in public funding from the Canada Media Fund (CMF), making the deal bad for Canadians on all possible fronts.

The CMF provides broadcasters with government funding to promote new and innovative Canadian content in a way that levels the playing field and reflects the rapidly changing media landscape. In order to support production in television and digital media, broadcasters are allocated specific amounts based on past performance.

For the 2013-2014 period, Bell has been allocated the second highest share of all the broadcasters, at almost $32.6 million. Now it looks like if the Bell-Astral deal goes ahead, the $5.6 million in CMF subsidies currently set aside for Astral Media will be added to Bell’s already full pockets. This means that rather than being used to encourage media innovation, a large chunk of CMF funding is going to help Bell further cement its power over Canada’s media system.

The proposed takeover brought a lot of attention to the problems of ‘vertical integration’ in the run-up to the CRTC hearing last year. Owning more of our media system gives Bell a stranglehold over the content we consume and the delivery of our daily communications. When one company owns the medium and the message, there is a strong profit incentive to push content that it owns, or restrict access to other content it doesn’t control.

Canadians have, en masse, voiced their opposition through the StopTheTakeover.ca petition and the CRTC has denied the deal once already, sending a clear message that Bell had not shown the takeover to be in the public interest or of benefit to the Canadian broadcasting system. Undeterred, Bell is now trying again—even trying to unilaterally change Canada’s broadcasting rules—and, after making some tweaks to their original takeover deal, is re-applying to the CRTC.

The hearings for this second attempt started yesterday, and the new ‘watered down’ version of deal doesn’t look any better.

Canadians have spoken out against the deal, calling for Big Telecom/Media giants to be split up, to create a level playing field with affordable choices and room for innovation. But if Bell gets control of Astral the opposite will happen, with the media giant obtaining an even larger share of the broadcasting market and creating excessive concentration of Canadian media and communications assets.

Bell is pursuing an outdated business model that reduces customer choice, forces subscribers to pay for content they don’t want, and banks millions in taxpayer-funded subsidies. It seems that Bell’s priority is getting as much money out of Canadians as possible, without any consideration of what citizens actually want.

On the issue of Bell’s takeover so far, the CRTC has been on Canadians’ side and has emphasized that its top priority is to "put Canadians at the centre of their communications system." But we need to ensure that they know we’re still paying attention, and that we won’t put up with even more of Canada’s key media assets going to Bell.

Let the CRTC know that we won’t stand for Bell’s shameless cash-grab. We won't let Big Media restrict Canadians’ telecom, news, and media choices.

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