Musings Of A B’cast Exec

If not the best-known broadcasting executive in Canada, Ivan Fecan certainly is one of the most controversial. The Toronto native joined NBC in the early 1980s after serving an apprenticeship with Moses Znaimer, head of independent television station CITY-TV, and with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

In 1987, he left Los Angeles, where he was an NBC VP of programming, to return to the CBC as director of programming at the age of 33. He was promoted in 1991 to vice president of arts and entertainment and, soon after, given overall responsibility for English TV at the public broadcaster.

In that role, he was one of the architects of something CBC brass called “repositioning” – a radical approach to program scheduling that, at first, drew more criticism than praise.

Revolutionary change

The most revolutionary change was moving the CBC National News from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m. in order to create a latenight slot for more demanding, less ratings-driven television fare.

Fecan also was responsible for some of the most successful shows ever on the CBC, including “Street Legal,” “Road to Avonlea, ” “North of 60,” “Kids in the Hall” and “Material World.”

He left the CBC in 1993 to join Baton Broadcasting Inc., Canada’s third largest broadcaster, and, as Baton’s exec VP and member of the board of directors, he has since awakened the sleeping giant, revitalizing its dormant production activities and positioning it as the controlling shareholder of the CTV Television Network.

Variety’s Harvey Enchin recently spoke with him about the state of the Canadian broadcasting industry.

Variety: How do you explain the rationalization and consolidation we’re seeing in the Canadian broadcasting and cable industries? And is it good or bad?

Fecan: I see consolidation as a worldwide trend and one that, for whatever reason, is coming to Canada later than it came to other countries and other industries. So I don’t see it as being uniquely Canadian in any respect. As an officer of a publicly traded company, I think it’s a good thing, because costs have gone up. We’re still in a recession in Canada – we’re not out of it by any stretch – and we need to restore profitability to broadcasting companies.

Variety: How can a conventional broadcaster like Baton survive in the multichannel era?

Fecan: It is our fervent belief that people’s needs for shared experiences and their need to know what’s going on in their own communities will ensure the long-term survival and health of conventional broadcasters. However, that doesn’t mean conventional broadcasters can go about their business the same way they did 20 or 30 years ago. Clearly, they need to focus more tightly on things that provide meaningful value for the audience, and get out of things that don’t.

In our situation, we have 20 TV stations and, by virtue of a very rapid and aggressive acquisition program over 10 years, we’ve become one of the largest broadcasting groups in Canada. However, our style of acquisition involved really only connecting the businesses at the reporting-line level. We allowed them, even encouraged them, to run their own businesses in their own communities. That just didn’t make sense in this day and age.

Today, we encourage them to do what they do best, which is local news. But much of the infrastructure in terms of technical, organizational, administrative, financial and sales we’ve consolidated so that we don’t have 20 vice presidents of finance or 20 program directors. We have one of each, freeing up people in local stations to concentrate on retail sales and local news, which is where, we believe, they provide value that the 500-channel universe doesn’t provide at the moment. Satellites won’t tell you what’s going on in your community.

Variety: It’s often said the Canadian market is too small to support the production of U.S.-style high-quality, big-budget TV shows. The result is that American shows draw bigger audiences in Canada than Canadian shows do. Is this a problem and, if it is, how can it be resolved?

Fecan: I don’t know that the Canadian market is too small to support some production of international TV shows. In Canada, we currently produce on a below-the-line basis a large percentage of American TV movies and theatricals and some series like “X-Files,” which is shot in Vancouver. But we’re a small country and we’re living next to a giant, a giant that is able to flood the market with programming at a much smaller cost than Canadians can do, so they have an enormous competitive advantage.

We found success in selling movies-of-the-week and miniseries that we’ve developed in Canada to American networks. The very first (was) “Love and Hate”; I sold (it) to NBC and it was No. 1 for the week, done entirely without American input.

“Road to Avonlea,” CBC’s most successful dramatic show, was also the Disney Channel’s most successful dramatic show. That was developed in Canada for Canadians, but with an eye on the export market. But we can’t do it all; we’re not a nation of a quarter billion.

Variety: On a more personal note, what did you learn as vice president of creative affairs at NBC Television Network, and how did your experience there influence what you did at CBC when you returned in 1987?

Fecan: I’m still taking inventory of all the things I learned. In any intense experience, you learn more than you realize at the time. I certainly learned a lot about scheduling and how it can make or break shows. (Brandon) Tartikoff is a master at this. I learned a great deal about the importance of writer-producers.

Today it sounds really obvious to say that, but 10 years ago in Canada the industry was more business-producer driven than creative-producer driven. Certainly, the first thing I did at the CBC was institute a massive development program for writers, and today, eight or nine years later, CBC is still benefiting from that, and I see that as a huge accomplishment. And Baton is benefiting from it because we’ve made deals with many of the writers that have emerged in the last seven or eight years. The Canadian system places much greater value on writers and on writer-producers than it did years ago, and I think that’s a very positive thing.

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