Pierre Lescure, a former news anchor in France who became CEO of European pay TV giant Canal Plus, is a puzzling figure at Universal Studios. Lescure's autobiography, "History of Desires," is an account of his life and the rise of Canal Plus, from its launch in 1984 to the eve of its marriage to Vivendi, at once compelling and frustrating.
Reviewed from an English translation of the book. There are currently no plans for an English-language edition.
Pierre Lescure, a flamboyant former news anchor in France who became CEO of European pay TV giant Canal Plus, is a puzzling figure at Universal Studios. A year ago, following a two-pronged acquisition of Seagram and Canal Plus, Vivendi Universal head Jean-Marie Messier gave Lescure the reins of the studio’s film and TV divisions. But here in the U.S., Lescure never had the visibility of either U Studios prexy Ron Meyer, who reported to him after the Vivendi merger, or Barry Diller, who last week became Lescure’s boss, supplanting the Frenchman as Messier’s deputy overseeing U’s suddenly expanded film and TV assets, now known as Vivendi Universal Entertainment (VUE). That makes Lescure’s autobiography, “History of Desires,” an account of his life and the rise of Canal Plus, from its launch in 1984 to the eve of its marriage to Vivendi, at once compelling and frustrating.
The 56-year-old, globe-trotting Lescure, who once dated Catherine Deneuve, is an unusually colorful figure in the buttoned-down, corporate upper ranks of Hollywood. He salts his memoir with fond references to old films and details of his peculiar obsessions: he’s a manic collector of bric-a-brac, from Disney memorabilia to erotic movie stills (“I have spent ages going through the flea markets of New York, with my fingers numb with cold, to look for photos of Betty Page”).
The son of communist activists — his father was editor of the leftist newspaper L’Humanite at a time when the French communist party won 25% of the general elections — Lescure has a subversive streak befitting the brash, experimental spirit of Canal Plus in its early years. The company introduced X-rated movies to French TV and was known for its outrageous comedy show, “Les Nuls, Nulle Part Ailleurs.” Lescure says he was planning to call his autobiography “The Farting Fly” after one “Les Nuls” sketch, in which a bearded scientist in a lab coat examines a flatulent insect under a microscope. (Jack Welch and Sumner Redstone — who published their own business memoirs earlier this year — have nothing on this guy!)
The creation of France’s first pay channel, whose film, sports and entertainment programming was modeled, in part, on HBO, is a story that should resonate with American showbiz insiders. But they face an all but unbridgeable cultural gap in the details here of the people and programming decisions, and the internal political battles, that marked Canal’s rise to the top. Even less captivating is the litany of Canal Plus employees (one paragraph is devoted to the head of security) who march through these pages. “Our victory in the face of doubt, threats, conspiracies and humiliations served to create an extraordinary corporate spirit at Canal and laid the foundations for a team spirit which still exists today,” Lescure says, lapsing into the airy flackery typical of more mundane corporate memoirs.
Coming more than a year before Vivendi U’s acquisition of USA Networks, the book has also proven to be ill-timed. Lescure’s role as the presiding spirit of Vivendi’s European TV and film operations, and director of synergies between the Euro and U.S. operations of VUE, appears secure for now. Lescure has described himself as a “go-between” whose main job is “building bridges between divisions and continents.” But the top management structure at VUE is a work in progress, overseen by a famous contrarian — Diller — who has neither a salary nor a contract. Pinched between Diller and Messier, Lescure may find himself squeezed out, or may eventually assume a larger role at Vivendi U as the company divests its utilities assets and becomes an even larger, global media player. Either way, it appears that the third act of Lescure’s career has yet to be written.