Canadian Cablers: Live and Let Live

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Ottawa-The country's MSOs aren't fretting over telco giant BCE Inc.'s pending acquisition of CTV Inc., owner of Canada's largest private TV network and a host of cable-TV channels. Instead, all they're demanding is the right to make such mega-purchases, too.

"We believe cable companies should have the ability to own content," said Jan Innes, vice president of communications at Rogers Communications Inc., which owns Rogers Cable Inc., Canada's largest MSO.

This is why Rogers supports the principle underlying BCE's CTV takeover, which still has to be approved by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the country's broadcast regulator. Like a child in a large family, Rogers hopes to share in any privileges BCE might win.

If BCE does win CRTC approval, it will have succeeded where cable TV has failed. In the past, the CRTC feared that distributors that own many channels would wield too much power in the marketplace. As a result, Innes said, the commission has blocked requests from Rogers and Shaw Communications Inc. to make major programming acquisitions.

In each case, the MSOs were trying to buy stakes in specific pay TV channels.

Still, the Canadian cable-TV industry hasn't given up trying. At press time, Shaw was appearing at a CRTC hearing, seeking approval to buy radio and TV stations from Western International Communications Ltd.

To make the deal more palatable to the CRTC, Shaw has spun off its broadcast assets into a separate company called Corus Entertainment Inc. It's not known whether the CRTC is smiling on the WIC deal or not.

But what happens if the CRTC approves BCE's CTV takeover? "Obviously, if Bell is allowed to own content and cable's not allowed to own content, that's going to be a huge issue for us," Innes said. Given the fact that BCE is trying to penetrate cable TV's turf with its "Bell ExpressVu" direct-to-home platform, "there's got to be a level playing field," he added. BCE declined to comment.

There are some indications that the CRTC may green-light BCE's bid. It recently approved CTV's acquisition of NetStar Communications Inc., the majority owner of The Sports Network, Le Réseau des Sports Inc. and Discovery Channel Canada.

Before that decision was made, BCE announced that its CTV takeover was conditional on the NetStar deal going through. Had it not, BCE would have dropped its $US1.6 billion offer for CTV.

It is extremely likely that if the CRTC approves the CTV deal, it will also give Shaw and WIC the thumbs-up. In Canadian politics, regulators usually accord players equal treatment.

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