The very public battle over Bell's plan to acquire Astral has generated much noise in the past weeks.
The most visible opponents are Québecor, Cogeco and Eastlink. Others, such as Rogers and Telus, have also made their views public and presented their case to the CRTC. According to La Presse, more than 832 organizations have made submissions to the CRTC on the proposed transaction which will hold public hearings starting September 10th.
Nowhere is the battle more visible than in Québec. The Québecor-owned Journal de Montréal has been running ads almost every day. The story is similar to the one being told in English Canada: "If approved, the giant new company would end up with a staggering 79 TV channels including HBO Canada, TSN, CTV and The Movie Network. This means you may face pressure to pay for Bell Canada services you don't want."
In Québec, however, the argument goes further and adopts a distinctly more nationalist tone. This deal is described by its opponents has posing a threat to Québec's cultural industry. The Société St-Jean Baptiste, the staunch defender of French language and culture, is quoted in this mocked movie poster as being "very bad news for Québec".
Aside from the issue of media concentration, opponents in Québec argue that it goes against Québec’s cultural interests. Some have gone has far as saying that George Cope, Bell’s CEO, does not speak French even when Bell’s annual meeting is held in Montreal. It’s a politically charged issue and the three major parties are against the deal. The PQ said it would do everything possible to block it. The leader of the CAQ, François Legault, stated that this transaction was bad for Québec and Jean Charest, while not publicly opposing the deal, indicated that his party wanted guarantees on the jobs, head office and operations of the new entity.
Bell’s bold response in Québec
Bell has been responding with a barrage of ads stressing its commitment to Québec’s economy and culture; head office in Québec since 1880, $20MM spent in 2011 alone in cultural sponsorships and partnerships, 46 of its senior execs live and work in Québec, etc.
Bell also claims it has committed to spending $20MM to support mental health initiatives.
All this is meant to shape public opinion in Québec.
The ‘coup de grâce’ has to be this week’s announcement of a Bell and Cirque du Soleil partnership to form a new entity that will create and distribute multimedia content for television, cinema and digital platforms.
According to Bell, the partnership is unrelated to the planned acquisition of Astral but is consistent with its spirit. Daniel Lamarre, head of Le Cirque du Soleil was quoted in La Presse saying that ‘just like the merger of Astral and Bell, this commitment to invest in content and job creation in Québec will be beneficial not only for consumers but for Québec’s creative and media sectors in general”. (The translation is mine.)
Quebeckers’ beloved Cirque du Soleil is not only taking sides but getting in bed with Bell. If that doesn’t do it for Bell. I don’t know what will.
- For more on this, read Steve Faguy's blog post.