Canada antitrust agency approves BCE-Astral deal with conditions

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Canadian incumbent required to divest some of its TV assets.

Canada’s antitrust agency said Monday it has approved BCE Inc.’s amended acquisition offer for Astral Media Inc. on the condition BCE sell off some pay- and speciality-television assets.

The approval from the Competition Bureau means the two companies have cleared an important regulatory hurdle in their second attempt to close this deal, valued at 3.38 billion Canadian dollars ($3.29 billion) and first announced a year ago this month.

Without the agreed-upon divestitures, the bureau said the BCE takeover of Astral “would likely have led to increased prices, less innovation and reduced choice for television programming.”

In a separate statement, Corus Entertainment Inc., a specialty-TV and radio operator and Astral rival, said it agreed to acquire the 50% of Teletoon, a cartoon specialty-TV operator, it doesn’t already own, and two radio stations that BCE will acquire under the Astral deal. In a separate transaction Corus also agreed to buy out Shaw Communications Inc.’s stake in another specialty-TV station ABC Spark and sell its 20% stake in Food Network Canada to Shaw. Corus said it is spending a combined C$494 million to acquire the BCE and Shaw assets.

BCE’s initial bid for Astral–the largest supplier of English- and French-language pay-TV services–was rejected last October by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, as the Canadian broadcast regulator said the transaction would hinder competition in the country’s TV and radio sectors.

A month later, the two Montreal-based companies said they submitted an amended takeover agreement that they say attempts to address regulatory concerns. Details of that amended offer have yet to be released. The CRTC said it would release later this week details regarding a new round of public hearings to discuss the latest BCE-Astral tie-up.

“This positive news from the Competition Bureau is a major step forward in uniting Astral and Bell Media and delivering on our promise to grow investment and competition in Canadian broadcasting,” George Cope, president and chief executive of BCE, said in a statement. A representative for Astral referred media inquiries to BCE.