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Foreign ownership changes must include broadcasters, Asper

Ottawa, - More foreign investment wouldn't threaten Canadian content and should be available to all broadcasters, says the head
of CanWest Global Communications.

"We think the economic benefits far outweigh the potential and illusory threats to culture," Leonard Asper, president and CEO of
Canada's second-largest private broadcaster, told MPs last Thursday.

He urged the Commons industry committee to raise or even scrap foreign ownership limits for telecommunications firms, but only if
broadcasters get the same treatment.

The all-party committee is to recommend in coming weeks whether to change rules restricting foreigners to minority stakes in Canadian phone companies.

Foreign ownership is now limited to 46.7 per cent for the operating arms of domestic phone and cable TV firms.

Asper argued that overlapping interests mean investment caps can't be lifted for the telecommunications sector alone.

"There are many important competitive linkages among providers of telecommunication services, cable and satellite distributors of broadcast signals," he said. While satellite companies have said they should be treated the same as telecommunications firms, Asper urged MPs to also include conventional and cable broadcasters.

Canadian content rules would still be enforced by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), he stressed. "They're going to be upheld because licensing depends on it," Asper said.

"The international experience is that foreign companies bend over backwards to show they are good corporate citizens and comply with the rules."

He also downplayed fears that foreign owners would cut Canadian jobs.

"You have to employ local people to put local productions together."

CRTC rules require broadcasters to have an overall Canadian content of 60 per cent on average, and 50 per cent during prime time. In addition, eight hours of "priority Canadian content," often dramas, must be aired weekly.

CanWest owns the country's largest newspaper chain, including the National Post, forged from the former Southam newspaper group, now
called CanWest Publications Inc., and the Global TV Network.

A telecommunications company such as BCE Inc., owner of Bell Telephone, is also in the satellite TV business through Bell ExpressVu. And it holds a majority stake in Bell Globemedia, owner of the Globe and Mail newspaper and CTV, one of CanWest's major broadcasting rivals, Asper said.

In such a climate, excluding CanWest from increased foreign investment "could have a very significant effect on our bottom line."

Smaller companies struggling to compete against telecommunications giants BCE and Telus Corp. have pushed for an end to foreign ownership limits.

They say established firms have access to large reserves of cash, while start-up competitors must fight over limited amounts of risk capital.

Some broadcasters earlier told the committee that foreign limits should be maintained to protect Canadian culture on air.

"CanWest does not subscribe to that narrow and protectionist view," Asper said.

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