Bell will launch a Canadian competitor to Netflix and will stream content in both official languages, the media conglomerate announced as CRTC hearings into its takeover of Astral Media got underway today.
CEO George Cope says the service will be available on demand and on any device, and will use content from Bell Media, Astral Media and other sources.
"Combining the unique pay TV strengths of Astral with Bell Media's broad range of programming will create a Canadian service that truly stands apart from those of international providers," Cope said, while declining to offer any specifics of how the system would work or what it would cost.
Roughly 10 per cent of Canadians are Netflix subscribers. But the service doesn't pay taxes in Canada and doesn't contribute to Canadian content, Cope noted.
Sale of radio stations
Cope also announced plans for an all new French-language news service to be launched in Montreal.
He also announced BCE plans to sell 10 radio stations in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa in order to ensure the company fully complies with CRTC rules.
Seven of the radio stations are ones the company will acquire in the Astral deal. The remaining three are existing Bell-owned stations
All those announcements were part of the company's attempt to win over the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's permission for its $3.4-billion acquisition of Astral Media.
CRTC commissioner Tom Pentefountas took issue with the notion that the company was trying to "pull rabbits" out of its hat by making product announcements at a CRTC hearing.
Cope said he felt compelled to announce the streaming television service as a reaction to all the negative press the company has received because of a media campaign financed by rivals aimed at scuttling the deal.
The CRTC is probing what will happen to Canada's media landscape if it allows the deal to go through. Bell officials will plead their case before rivals Quebecor and Shaw get their say Tuesday morning.
The regulator will hear from industry stakeholders, arts groups, professional rivals, consumer groups and technology experts before passing judgment.
Much of the disagreement over the deal stems from how much of Canada's airwaves Bell will control if the deal is approved.
Bell says if the deal goes through, it would own 33.5 per cent of the English-language market, under the 35 per cent threshold set by the CRTC for approval.
Telus wants feds to halt deal
But not everyone agrees with that math.
Telecom competitor Telus Corp. has argued that the purchase of Montreal-based Astral, along with Bell's part ownership in the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment TV assets, and its stake in joint venture assets, such as Teletoon, would give Bell 49.5 per cent share of the English-language television audience.
The "Just Say No To Bell" campaign's website says if the deal is successful, Bell would control 37.6 per cent of TV viewing. It wants the federal government to stop the deal.
"The big question is what percentage of the viewing market will Bell end up with after this transaction is concluded," said telecom consultant Mark Goldberg.
"That's the fundamental issue to be explored," said Goldberg, of Mark Goldberg & Associates in the Toronto area.
BCE announced the $3.4-billion Astral deal in March 2011. It was the conglomerate's biggest attempt at kickstarting its convergence strategy, a media buzzword that essentially means one company has a stake in every aspect of the media pipeline, from creation to production to distribution.
The Astral deal would give Bell important new content for online services and mobile devices like smartphones and tablet computers. In 2010, BCE bought the rest of the CTV assets it didn't already own for $1.3 billion.
CTV operates more than 25 stations across the country, 30 specialty channels including sports networks TSN and RDS online video programming and properties such as CTV.ca, TSN.ca, RDS.ca, MuchMusic.com, MTV.ca and TheComedyNetwork.ca. It also owns CHUM Radio, which operates more than 30 radio stations throughout Canada.
Astral is Canada's largest pay and specialty TV broadcaster and owns 84 radio stations in 50 Canadian markets and 24 television services. It is also the third-largest outdoor advertising company and has a stake in the country's only subscription radio service, XM-Sirius Canada.
If the deal goes ahead, Bell said it would control 24.4 per cent of the French-language market. Bell has said the acquisition of the Astral media assets will provide more competition in Quebec's French-language market which is dominated by Quebecor Inc.