Paul Bronfman: BCE's $3.38 Billion Astral Media Takeover is 'Bittersweet'

The acquisition of the Canadian radio and TV giant, which operates HBO Canada, caps off a long and successful business alliance between Montreal's Greenberg and Bronfman families.

TORONTO - If Paul Bronfman appeared especially quiet of late, it’s because he was carrying a secret.

“I’ve had a lot of trouble keeping my mouth shut,” Bronfman said Friday after details of a $3.38 billion takeover deal by phone giant BCE Inc. for Canadian broadcaster Astral Media were finally unveiled.

Toronto-based Bronfman is the second-largest shareholder in Astral Media, while Montreal’s Greenberg family, which founded the company in 1961, controlled the company with 55 percent of the voting shares.

“It was just time,” Bronfman said of the acquisition of a half-century old company started by Astral Media CEO Ian Greenberg and his three brothers, Harold, Harvey and Sidney, as a photo concession in a Miracle Mart department store.

“I’ve known Ian since I was eight years old and went into the Guy street photo shop with my father, and Ian, Harvey and Harold Greenberg were behind the counter,” Bronfman recalled Friday.

But the ties between the Greenbergs and the Bronfmans were founded on more than processing holiday photos.

In the early 1980s, the Greenbergs might never have entered the Canadian pay-TV business, then floundering, and gone on to form a major Canadian TV, radio and outdoor advertising giant now acquired by BCE, but for Edward Bronfman and Peter Bronfman.

The Movie Network, backed by its HBO and Showtime output deals, is today a very profitable eastern Canadian pay TV business, as is Movie Central in western Canada for Corus Entertainment.

And Astral and Corus jointly operate HBO Canada to keep them ahead in competition with Netflix Canada and other emerging U.S. digital platforms operating north of the border.

But making a buck for Astral in pay-TV in the early 1980s called for the Greenbergs to bet the farm by receiving a much-needed investment from the Bronfmans.

Ultimately, that bet on the Greenbergs paid off, and in effect paid out Friday as BCE offered a premium to voting stockholders to acquire Astral Media as part of a cash and stock deal.

“Obviously this is an exciting moment in the history of Astral,” Ian Greenberg told an analyst call Friday morning after the blockbuster takeover deal was announced.

“We’ve come to know Bell very well as a commercial partner over the last 50 years. And… I truly look forward in the future to seeing the Astral brand become even stronger as part of the Bell family,” he added.

Still, Paul Bronfman said the acquisition, while enriching him personally, was “bittersweet,” given the life-long alliance between the Greenbergs and Bronfmans.

In many ways, Bronfman owes his own career to the late Harold Greenberg, an early mentor.

Bronfman’s first summer job was at the Guy street photo shop, and he got his start in the film business working at then Astral Bellevue Pathe during the 1980s.

And when the late Stephen J. Cannell approached Harold Greenberg in 1988 about a studio venture he planned in Vancouver, the Astral boss passed, but encouraged Bronfman to go out on his own and team up with the Hollywood producer.

And so was born North Shore Studios, which became the future home of The X Files, and the cornerstone of Bronfman’s Comweb Group studio and production equipment rental empire today.

The sale of Astral Media is also the end of another era as it represented the last of Canada’s family-controlled broadcast groups, including the Thomsons’s CTVglobemedia, the Waters’ Chum Ltd. and the Aspers’ CanWest Global Communications Corp, to hold out against ownership by a cable or telecom giant.

“There’s a lot of emotion for Ian and the family,” Bronfman, who is also chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios, insisted on Friday.