Canada's on border patrol

Alliance Atlantis safeguards sought

Canadian broadcast unions and guilds are warning that an American company could control one of the major domestic broadcasters here if the country's TV watchdog OKs the takeover of Alliance Atlantis Communications by CanWest Global Communications and equity partner Goldman Sachs & Co.

"If the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) ap-proves this transaction, then an American corporation will have a large stake and powerful voice in what Canadians can watch and when," Maureen Parker, executive director of the Writers Guild of Canada, said Friday in a submission to the CRTC.

Ahead of regulatory hearings beginning Sept. 5 that will consider the Alliance Atlantis takeover, the CRTC on Friday received a slew of written interventions.

Most of the nearly 200 submissions supported CanWest Global's quest for regulatory approval for its acquisition of Alliance Atlantis' 13 cable channels. Many came from domestic producers dependent on both CanWest Global and Alliance Atlantis to buy and air their content.

The CAN$2.3 billion ($2 billion) takeover, unveiled in January, will see Alliance Atlantis' 13 channels combined with CanWest Global's Global Television network to create a broadcasting powerhouse with two conventional networks, 21 analog and digital specialty channels and a stake in five additional specialty channels.

But Canadian guilds pointed to Goldman Sachs' financing of the Alliance Atlantis takeover as bad news for the Canadian TV sector.

"If decisions about our broadcasting system are made in corporate boardrooms in New York and Los Angeles, Canadians will lose their cultural sovereignty and national identity," said Stephen Waddell, national executive director of domestic performers union ACTRA. He reflected widespread concern that the investment banking and securities firm's equity stake will give it undue influence over how the Alliance Atlantis cable channels are programmed and run.

"Canadian broadcasters, now more than ever, fill our airwaves with American reality programs and dramas in primetime," Waddell said before urging the CRTC to hold the line on foreign encroachment onto the Canadian airwaves.

The CRTC, when weighing the Alliance Atlantis takeover, will examine the deal's structure to see who is ultimately left in charge of the new broadcast entity, CanWest or Goldman Sachs.

Monique Lafontaine, general counsel at the Directors Guild of Canada, urged the CRTC to uphold the country's foreign ownership rules, which bar American companies or other foreign players from having "effective control" of domestic media assets.

"The existing foreign ownership rules must be upheld. No exception should be made," Lafontaine said.

The Canadian Media Guild, which represents broadcast journalists and technicians, argued in its intervention that the takeover, if approved, would represent a "significant move toward further concentration of ownership" in the Canadian broadcast sector.

The guild called for the CRTC to impose a wall between the Global Television network and the Alliance Atlantis cable channels and for CanWest Global to be compelled to increase its investment in homegrown TV series.

Without such protections, the CMG argues the domestic broadcast industry will suffer "a loss of distinct outlets for independent producers to sell their work, a loss of distinct outlets for advertisers and a loss of media jobs."