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Report on Business Quebecor raises competition concerns over Bell’s plan to acquire V channel

Quebecor Inc. is pushing back against an acquisition that would give Bell Media a greater presence on the French-language TV dial.

Bell, a division of BCE Inc., announced on Wednesday that it would acquire the V channel and its digital assets, as well as video streaming service Noovo.ca, from privately-held Groupe V Média. Financial terms were not disclosed.

The deal includes the Montreal-based channel as well as TV stations in Quebec City, Saguenay, Sherbrooke and Trois-Rivières, and three affiliate stations in Gatineau, Rivière-du-Loup, and Val-d’Or. Groupe V Média’s specialty channels, Elle Fictions and Max, are not part of the deal. Bell Media owns the CTV Television Network as well as a number of specialty TV channels.

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Quebecor – which owns TV stations in Quebec under its TVA Network, as well as specialty channels and subscription streaming service Club Illico – fired back on Thursday, saying the deal would “further undermine an already precarious ecosystem by allowing a dominant player to become still more so.”

Quebecor has regularly sparred with Bell, most recently over the terms of Bell’s TV services carrying Quebecor’s specialty channel, TVA Sports.

In April, Quebecor launched a public relations campaign accusing Bell of competing unfairly, and blacked out the TVA Sports signal for Bell customers just in time for the first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs. After a hastily arranged hearing into the matter, the federal broadcast regulator ordered Quebecor to maintain the signal for Bell subscribers.

On Thursday, Quebecor again accused Bell of pursuing consolidation in order to gain an undue competitive edge. In a statement, the company outlined concerns that Bell’s ownership of a wide range of media properties could allow it to “dictate market trends and prescribe advertising rates,” as well as giving it an advantage in negotiating for rights to television content. Quebecor also cited the Competition Bureau’s 2018 decision not to approve Bell’s $200-million acquisition of French-language specialty channels Historia and Séries+ from Corus Entertainment Inc., saying this transaction should also raise competition concerns.

The Bureau would not confirm Thursday whether it is reviewing the deal.

Quebecor also called on the Quebec government to intervene. The government is a shareholder in some of Groupe V Média’s assets through its financing and investment arm.

Pierre Fitzgibbon, Quebec’s economy minister, told reporters Wednesday that the government will wait to see what the CRTC says about the deal and its regulatory implications.

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Speaking after an event in Montreal, the minister said he believes the production of French-language content should be increased. He said he spoke to Bell executives before the announcement and received indications the company would move in that direction.

“There is a risk” of media concentration in the space with the transaction, the minister acknowledged, before adding: “I presume that Bell bought this company because they want more French-speaking content. So the diversification of content is a good thing.”

Bell intends to increase investments in French-language news and content, spokesperson Marc Choma said on Thursday.

“The dominant player in the market shouldn’t fear it – competition is a positive for viewers of course but also benefits the entire media industry in Quebec,” Mr. Choma said in an e-mailed statement.

Bell said it expects the deal to close in the first half of next year.

With a report from Nicolas Van Praet in Montreal.

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