Thursday, December 18, 2008


According to people who study such things, times of great social upheaval give rise to the creation of super-heroes. When we are overwhelmed by world events and personal circumstances we seek escape and look for someone with special powers who might better grapple with what we're facing.

What I start to look for when I see the world going to hell in the proverbial hand basket is what wrong turns we made that got us here and how those who were in charge, apparently working with better personal and inside intelligence than the rest of us own, might have avoided trouble in the first place.

And that invariably leads to one of two conclusions. Either George Carlin was right and "selfish, ignorant leaders are chosen by selfish, ignorant people" OR the people who presume to know what's right for us are posing as super heroes and need to be unmasked.

The photo above was taken at the CRTC hearings last April as CTV head honcho Ivan Fecan and Leonard Asper, Canwest Global's fearless leader, set aside their partisan differences to be among the first of Canada's corporate citizens to seek a government bailout of their media conglomerates.

Both had recently been stretched financially thin by purchasing most of their competitors and appeared as a united front seeking "carriage fees" -- a few bucks annually from each of their viewers to pay for services they had been licensed to provide and historically delivered at no charge.

Last month, the CRTC turned down their request and the above photo ran again in several newspapers when both men axed a significant portion of their network staffs to reduce costs.

I seldom read the online comments to articles posted by the Toronto Star but this time the first response caught my eye. It simply stated: "The man has diamond cuff links".

A lot has been made of the heads of GM, Ford and Chrysler taking private jets to their own bailout hearings or the CEO of Lehman Brothers, who convinced longtime staff to accept severance buyouts and then bankrupted the company so he wouldn't have to pay them.

CTV employees who attended the "Town Hall Meeting" where the layoffs were announced have described how Fecan was asked by a fellow exec whether the company's apparently dire financial situation meant that bonuses would not be paid this year. He was assured bonus packages would arrive as scheduled.

"You hundred or more guys in the back take a hike! Anybody in a suit -- order an extra case of Beaujolais Nouveau."

As governments wrestle with bailouts in the auto industry, there is a growing concern about how the money should be spent. If it goes to save the jobs of auto workers, it's basically welfare that doesn't address the woes of the industry. And if it goes to the companies, it rewards mismanagement.

Many feel relief should only be offered if those in charge are fired for the excesses and incompetence that got them where they are.

The auto industry's real problems might have been brought into painfully sharp focus by a credit crunch. But surely, the only reliable solution to the current crisis is making certain that outmoded business models and decades of myopic vision aren't allowed to continue.

Which brings me back to those two guys in that picture. For during their individual reigns, neither has managed to either design a corporate model for broadcasting in this country that seems able to keep their companies viable or generate product which grew their domestic audience.

Ivan Fecan arrived in Canada in 1987 to take over the management of television programming at the CBC. He'd been considered a local "Wunderkind", who'd impressed NBC program legend Brandon Tartikov so much, Tartikov not only hired him as a VP of Programming at NBC but offered him lodging in his guest house. Presumably that meant he was returning after having been thoroughly schooled at the great man's feet.

I may have been the first producer Fecan encountered here in Canada. That year, I was producing the Genie Awards for the Academy of Canadian Cinema for CBC broadcast and Ivan asked if he could attend our final production meeting -- a concept I found refreshingly responsible of a new network executive.

He arrived on time with two assistants in tow, said some nice things about how much he was looking forward to be back working in Canada and settled in to listen.

Production meetings can be long and tedious but he seemed quite engaged, nodding approvingly at some things and laughing in all the right places.

A common element in Awards shows is something called a "Bumper" -- the moment before a commercial when you get a heads up on what's coming next. We'd designed our bumpers to familiarize the audience with some of the lesser known nominees. They would be shown looking up from their mix boards, design tables or scripts announcing the upcoming award.

I began talking about the status of the bumpers and Ivan touched my arm, "Excuse me, what's a bumper?".

That surprised me a little. This was a guy who supposedly had a background in variety programming. He had taken credit for designing the news format of CITY-TV and had ridden his participation in "SCTV" into a top American network office.

But I explained. He whispered to an assistant, who wrote down "Bumper" on her legal pad accompanied by my definition.

This happened three or four more times during the meeting and could well be construed as somebody open and confident enough to ask questions about terms on which he wasn't clear.

But all of what needed to be explained fell well into the category of "Production 101' and there wasn't a department head in that meeting who wasn't wondering if this guy had been at Tartikov's place to wash the car and clean the pool -- sort of his own Kato Kaelin.

And perhaps we were wrong, because during Fecan's tenure the network created successful series like "The Kids in the Hall", "Road to Avonlea" and "North of 60" along with movies such as "The Boys of St. Vincent", "Conspiracy of Silence" and "Love and Hate" -- television anybody would be proud of.

But those shows amounted to an average of one series and one movie per year of his time in charge, or less than he would have gotten to program in a single season if he'd stayed at NBC. Why had this guy bothered to come back here? And where was this "New Wave of Innovation" we'd been led to expect?

Where was the library of new programming that could feed the soon to arrive specialty channels and burgeoning foreign market? NBC and the other American nets had made that a priority. Around the world, Syndicators were creating their own shows and even their own mini-networks outside the standard network and studio system to mine the new revenue streams.

Not so much here.

I can't tell you how many of the "great" projects that arrived during Fecan's tenure were in development prior to his arrival or how much he was involved in their creation. But I do know the Tartikov style of carpet-bombing the competition with new and innovative shows definitely wasn't part of CBC's way of doing business and very little changed.

A couple of years into Fecan's reign, I was hired over there to write a movie and met with an actual local legend, Jim Burt, to discuss practical matters like delivery. It was April and he told me they'd like to have a draft by December.

"You're giving me 8 months to write a script?", I asked in disbelief.

"Well," he answered, "We try to package everything so Ivan can read it over Christmas."

I was used to seeing LA studio and network executives lugging script loaded Airline Pilot style satchels home every weekend for immediate review.

"Your guy only reads once a year?", I asked. Jim offered a resigned shrug. It's the same shrug CBC producers will give you today when you ask how "MVP" got green-lit or what guy thought it was a good idea to renew "Sophie".

And in some ways, Fecan didn't have to develop much. Because a couple of years before he returned CBC had moved their flagship nightly newscast, "The National" from 11:00 pm to 10:00 pm, pulling their own preemptive Jeff Zucker move that eliminated the need to come up with more than 2 hours of prime-time each evening.

I don't know what finally drove Ivan Fecan over to CTV. It might have been a disastrous move of the news even earlier to 9:00 pm that cut ratings in half. Maybe it was other restrictions and limitations inherent in Public broadcasting. In any event, he was soon in charge of CTV. But the Tartikov programming style didn't surface over there either.

Indeed, if you look over the financial pages reviewing many of his annual reports, you'll find a pattern of "laying off" staff to make the bottom line look better than it would have otherwise appeared.

And while CTV has seen ratings success of late with programs like "Canadian Idol", "Corner Gas" and "Flashpoint", it has continued to follow a passive corporate path, dependent primarily on American programming and burying much of its homegrown product through lack of promotion and a lackluster online and after market presence.

CTV also continues to depend on public funding to support its new media initiatives and has no sizable library of product to monetize through the new media streams now readily available to it.

Just like his time at CBC, Fecan seems unable to step beyond a broadcast model that used to be a license to print money without investing too much sweat equity or company cash. But that business model no longer works -- and frankly hasn't for several years.

Indeed, we now see a somewhat unseemly situation at CTV where jobs and programming are cut while a series produced by Fecan's wife is immediately renewed.

And while Sandra Faire's talents as a producer and the success of her show are no doubt significant -- does it seem proper that while politicians are forbidden from hiring relatives; such restrictions aren't placed on those in the private world who are spending Public money to realize their shows?

This is a conflict of interest that wouldn't be tolerated in any American network and surely should be called into question when it involves taxpayer money.

Otherwise, one is tempted to ask if Fecan campaigned for "carriage fees" to prop up his own lack of management foresight or to top up the joint account.

Over time, Ivan Fecan's Patrician approach and shock of prematurely white hair earned him the affectionate nickname of "Jor-el", because he reminded so many of Superman's dad. And while that image may befit someone working among the elites who manage Canadian programming, Jor-el was no superhero.

He did, however, possess the ability to see trouble coming and prepare for it, something else you can't say about Ivan Fecan.

As more and more of what's going on in Canadian broadcasting gets blamed on "the economy" maybe it's time we started taking a closer look at what might be the real issues, all the while recalling the Albert Einstein quip that "you don't solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created them."

Next time -- in Pt.2 -- the other guy in that photograph. Leonard Asper, a man often referred to in Canadian showbiz circles as "The Boy Wonder".


Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

so for Christmas you decided to serve up a hot potato

wcdixon said...

A very hot potato...zowie.

Brandon Laraby said...

Wow! Daaamn Jim. Wow.

There's a LOT there I didn't know. Very interested to read part 2 now.