It's official: Bell is trying again. The company announced Monday morning that it has reached a new agreement to acquire Astral Media, and will submit a revised proposal to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, one that will address the commission's concerns about Bell becoming too big.
Details of the bid won't be known until the CRTC publishes the application, which could take months, but it's expected Bell will sell off some English-language television assets to stay under the CRTC's ownership cap, and Bell says it will improve its tangible benefits package (with at least 85% of it going to on-screen initiatives).
CKGM will stay English
One detail we do know concerns CKGM. Bell says it will ask the CRTC for an exemption to the common ownership rules to allow it to keep TSN Radio 690 as an English station. From their FAQ:
We heard sports fans in Montréal loud and clear. Their passion for sports talk radio is unparalleled. Loyal and devoted, they responded in droves in an effort to preserve CKGM (TSN Radio 690) as an English-language sports radio station. As a result, as part of our new application, we are filing a request for an exception to the CRTC’s Radio Common Ownership Policy to keep TSN Radio 690 as an English-language sports radio station. As a result of tremendous listener response, we think it’s a discussion worth having. We believe an exception to the Policy is reasonable, consistent with previous regulatory practice, and the only way to preserve CKGM as an English sports talk station. Montréal sports radio fans deserve it.
An exemption from the policy is certainly what many listeners were calling for after Bell decided to blame the CRTC for its decision to request TSN be turned into RDS Radio. But it would also mean four of the five English-language commercial radio stations in Montreal (or four of the six if you include the soon-to-be-launched TTP Media station at 600AM) would be owned by the same company.
Normally, CRTC rules state that one company can own no more than two AM and two FM stations in a single market (English and French Montreal are considered separate markets), and that in markets with fewer than eight commercial radio stations, one company can own no more than three.
The combined Bell-Astral would have a 61% total market share and a 79% commercial market share in English Montreal.
It's odd to hear Bell say on one hand that it understands the CRTC's concerns about concentration of ownership on a national scale and then argue it needs to own more radio stations in Montreal than the policy would normally allow. (Of course, it's just as odd for Cogeco to cry about Astral's market power in radio when it got a similar exemption allowing it to own three French-language commercial FM radio stations in Montreal. In that case, it was so it could hold on to CHMP 98.5FM as the flagship station of a Quebec-wide radio news network.)
Since there's no application to change CKGM's licence, they can't turn around and make it French if the CRTC decides not to allow Bell to own four stations. Instead, it or one of the other former Astral stations would likely be sold to bring Bell under the ownership cap. And since CKGM has the poorest ratings, it would likely be the one to go.
So while RDS Radio isn't an imminent threat, CKGM and its staff aren't out of the woods yet.
Say No To Bell vs. Canadians Deserve More
If there's one thing Bell has learned most from its previous attempt, it's that it needs a better PR campaign to convince Canadians to be on its side. So it launched CanadiansDeserveMore.ca along with a corresponding Twitter account. Expect to be bombarded by ads from Bell touting the awesomeness of this deal, particularly on television and radio stations owned by Bell Media and Astral. And, if Quebecor and others aren't convinced this new deal addresses all of their concerns (I'm guessing it won't), expect a similar ad campaign from Say No To Bell on channels owned by Quebecor and Cogeco, and possibly Rogers and others as well.
The public will have a chance to comment on the application when it's published by the commission.