Astral warns against foreign ownership


TORONTO -- Canadian broadcaster Astral Media Inc. on Wednesday urged the federal government to not undermine the domestic TV industry by allowing American media giants to acquire control of Canadian cablecasters and other content carriers.

"Canada must not allow foreign ownership of BDUs (broadcast distribution undertakings) to be the Trojan horse that will destroy the wealth of our culturally distinctive broadcasting system that has taken decades to build," Ian Greenberg, Astral president and CEO, told shareholders in Montreal.

The Canadian government is currently considering loosening, or even eliminating, foreign-ownership limits on domestic content carriers to enable an increased flow of U.S. growth capital into the Canadian broadcast sector.

Greenberg insisted that, should Ottawa dismantle foreign ownership limits, a structural separation and a ban on cross-ownership should be introduced to prevent foreign controlling interests in a Canadian BDU from owning any interest in a Canadian programming company.

Canadian law currently limits foreign ownership of domestic broadcasting companies to 20% direct equity investment and 33% indirect investment.

Canadian media giants like Astral manage to remain in Canadian hands by issuing class-A nonvoting shares to controlling shareholders, while allowing non-Canadians to acquire unlimited amounts of equity in the form of class-B nonvoting shares.

Canadian cablecasters and conventional broadcasters like CanWest Global Communications Corp. have strongly urged Ottawa to reduce or even scrap foreign-ownership limits.

That call is balanced by cultural nationalists who contend that allowing Americans to get their hands on majority control of Canadian broadcasters would strengthen the comprehensive grip that U.S. networks already have on what Canadians watch in primetime and will undercut Canadian sovereignty.