UPDATE 2-BCE's C$3 bln Astral purchase clears a hurdle in Canada
* Watchdog approves deal, with forced sales and conditions
* Bell says Corus to buy some TV, radio assets
* CRTC due to open public consultation on deal this week
By Alastair Sharp
TORONTO, March 4 (Reuters) - Canada's Competition Bureau has approved BCE Inc's plan to acquire Astral Media Inc for C$3 billion ($2.9 billion), but the Bell parent's offer to buy the media company must still pass muster with the telecommunications regulator.
The competition watchdog said on Monday its approval carried the condition that BCE, a growing broadcaster, must sell some of Astral's pay and specialty television channels, including several Disney channels.
In addition, the bureau said BCE must not impose "restrictive bundling requirements" on any rival provider seeking to carry Astral's flagship movie channels in either English or French.
"It is starting to look more like the breakup of Astral rather than a simple merger with Bell," said Michael Geist, an University of Ottawa academic focused on law and technology. "The bigger question of whether this transaction meets the public interest test at the CRTC remains an open question."
Critics, including BCE's rivals, had complained that an enlarged BCE would use its clout as a content owner to push costs higher across the industry or promote exclusive content over its television and Internet services to poach subscribers. Continued...