Sunday, June 24, 2007


A cold snap hit New Orleans on the opening day of The 1997 NATPE Convention. Within hours, the trendy men's wear store across from the Convention Center had sold out its entire stock of overcoats, sweaters and gloves as the California contingent snapped up anything they could find to fend off the bitter chill.

Inside the cavernous meeting halls, attendance was slim for the early morning panels and lectures, as attendees opted to breakfast in the comfort of their hotels before venturing to the icy banks of the Mississippi. Television luminaries from franchise showrunners to network heads found handfuls instead of hoards awaiting the insights and information they had come to deliver.

All except one.

Fred Rogers took the stage at the final breakfast meeting, accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award to a standing ovation from several thousand television execs who had either grown up or watched their children grow up in his neighborhood.

Wearing his trademark sweater and sneakers, the man who once said, "I went into television because I hated it so." was as gentle and ego-less as he had been for more than 30 years in the public eye.

But "Mr. Rogers" didn't want to talk about making television for children or share anecdotes from his career that morning. He wanted to talk about the people in that room -- and what was wrong with us.

Arriving at New Orleans airport, he'd noticed the squadrons of private planes parked on every spare patch of runway. He'd seen the long lines of limos outside and had toured the lavish sales displays of the world's networks and studios. He wondered what any of it had to do with making good television.

As the hushed room hung on his every word, he read a poem. I don't know whether it was something he'd penned some time before or on the spur of the moment. But it was about kids defining themselves and their status by their toys, instead of sharing the best that was inside them. It concluded with a wonderful line..."Remember your toys aren't you -- your toys are beside you."

Two events of the last couple of weeks got me thinking about that speech. The first was the sale and subsequent dismembering of the CHUM/CITY empire. The second is the ongoing hockey soap opera as Canadian Billionaire Jim Balsillie attempts to buy and move the Nashville Predators to Hamilton.

It's far too early to know for certain how either of these events will finally play themselves out. But in both cases, they feel like the triumph of money, power and ego over something that was special and good and more important to the future.

CITY-TV launched as an independent television station in 1972. Coincidentally, on the same day Canada won the legendary hockey summit series against the USSR. From the beginning, it was different, tapping into the exploding entertainment scene in the city and soon becoming its vanguard.

In the ensuing years, CITY's original programming spawned MUCHMusic, Fashion Television, BRAVO, SPACE and other specialty channels to serve a clearly defined audience that already had a committed relationship with the home station.

CITY pioneered the Breakfast television market, the concept of constantly roving reporters and videographers, as well as a myriad of program models designed to directly connect with local viewers. Its headquarters became the cornerstone of the hip Queen Street West scene and the burgeoning Club District, those streets regularly closed to accommodate the frenzied crowds that gathered for events sponsored by the various affiliated networks.

In the early 1980's, CITY was acquired and then subjugated by the more corporately astute CHUM conglomerate. A few years ago, its founder and visionary guru, Moses Znaimer was forced out of management and a sort of hubris set in that made it ripe for acquisition.

Two summers back I had a pitch meeting at CHUM/CITY on the afternoon the network was outbid for a US dance competition show by CTV. The Execs present were apoplectic, convinced CTV had little interest in the series beyond keeping it from them.

Broadcasting, like all human endeavors, adheres to the Golden Rule: "He who has the Gold makes the Rules." And then, as now, CTV was the richest guy in the room.

CTV in corporate form (CTVglobemedia) was aware it was rolling the dice when it went before the CRTC looking to acquire CHUMCITY Inc. and hold onto the five CITY stations in major markets as part of its $1.7-billion takeover.

And many feel CTV's gamble was based on that aforementioned Golden Rule. The purchase was their prerogative as the Big Dog. In other words, when money talks, all other opinions are expected to automatically shush.

So money talked -- but the gamble failed.

The CRTC approved the acquisition, but on the condition CTV sell the CITY channels. As a result, CTV ends up with MUCH, BRAVO, SPACE etc, as well as the small market A-Channels, literally the body, while the head is severed and tossed to Rogers.

This was acknowledged as Solomon like wisdom by various friends of Canadian Broadcasting. But little old me, sitting on my couch with my remote didn't see anything good coming from it. In fact, instead of launching a much needed "fourth network" I think it spells the end of something that was very special, not to mention uniquely Canadian.

What was served by letting CTV keep the A-Channels instead of the CITY stations?

The CRTC says it couldn't approve the deal because it was "inconsistent with the Commission’s common ownership policy".


"That policy stipulates that a licensee may not operate more than one conventional television station in one language in a given market".

This made me wonder if anybody at the CRTC actually owns a TV or subscribes to the cable and satellite systems they regulate.

Because from my cushioned perch in the Toronto "Market", I can watch CTV and with one deft flick of my thumb connect to either CITY-TV or A Channel's Barrie station. So how exactly have I -- or the diversity of Canada's airwaves been "protected" by this decision?

I mean, if Ivan Fecan wants to control my thoughts, why is it harder if he has to do it from CTV and an A Channel vs CTV and a CITY Channel?

It also strikes me as kinda dumb for CTV to spend $1.7 Billion not to get everything they wanted...

Observers who attended the CRTC hearings felt CTV's aggressive and somewhat entitled assault on the clearly outmoded CRTC rules put them on the wrong side of the Commissioners and resulted in this somewhat Pyhrric victory.

CTV ends up with a bunch of specialty channels they will clearly benefit from owning. But the price may have been more than they are worth in the truncated acquisition. There's also a good chance programming will suffer until the bankers and other funds backing the sale satisfy their own Golden rules.

In addition, CTV gets a piece of downtown real estate destined to house their flagship newscasts. Perhaps "Canada AM" can replace "Breakfast Television" and the "Canadian Idol" franchise can mesh with MUCH and a likely return to that channel of MTV content. But I doubt it. Because CITY operated with a different mindset and many of those minds will move when Rogers moves.

More importantly, the integrated broadcast and production culture that made CITY/BRAVO/MUCH/ETC viable has been eliminated. Shows and employees will no longer cross pollinate. Therefore, it will cost Rogers more to make CITY style programming -- and that probably means less money for other (read "new") programming.

It seems to me, CTV should have read the ruling and said, "Well, okay, let's forget the whole thing." Perhaps what they got is better than nothing. But part of me feels they saw themselves losing face (and some new toys) if they bailed, so now they're stuck making what they've got work.

Likewise, Rogers, a company whose broadcast culture had ownership in Omni, Sportsnet and the Shopping Channel, has primarily been a community cable broadcaster. Their logical transition to the sophomore level of small market ownership with the A Channels, now must ramp up to service a more sophisticated and demanding group of markets.

You have to wonder if their Execs, for months planning one kind of schedule, were all that happy to change horses in midstream. Now they are also in the position of satisfying audiences expecting the type of programming CITY previously delivered -- much of which may no longer be available to them.

Do they have the experience and creativity to jump these hurdles and become a viable Fourth Network? We'd all better hope so, or television in this country is going to become even more one note than it already is.

At the moment, both companies are confident they can increase the value of their new assets. But they are in a business that is steadily losing customers and afflicted with a shrinking advertising base.

My big fear is that they'll beat each other up acquiring US programming that comes with a more or less quantifiable return rather than invest in programming they can actually own and fully exploit in the future.

But then Guys with money wouldn't have money if they didn't know what they were doing and success always breeds success, right?

Which brings me to Jim Balsillie, Billionaire owner of Research in Motion, creator of the Blackberry and aspiring NHL owner.

Jim (and I can call him Jim because we Jims are informal that way) bid on and backed away from purchasing the Pittsburgh Penguins a few months ago. Depending on which story you believe, either he or the NHL killed the deal over his plan to move the franchise to Hamilton.

Now he's bidding $50 million more than the Nashville Predators are worth with the same plan in mind. The conventional wisdom is that his offer vastly increases both the paper value of all current NHL franchises as well as what can be charged bidders for expansion teams. Therefore, Jim's made all the other owners a ton of money just by turning up with his wallet, so how can they say "No" to him?

His first move after over-bidding for the franchise was to tell Commissioner Gary Bettman he wasn't moving the team and his next was to sign an arena deal in Hamilton and start selling season tickets.

This puts him in conflict with the League's bylaws, the Commissioner, the Fans of Nashville as well as the two current franchises (Toronto and Buffalo) whose local jurisdiction intersects the city of Hamilton. In layman's terms, this means Jim can't move there without infringing on their existing fan bases, television penetration and God Given right to print money without interruption.

According to what passes for wisdom on Sports radio stations, this may all sound duplicitous and dumb when Jim doesn't even own the team yet. But he's "a real smart businessman who doesn't make mistakes", and "has pockets deep enough to win this fight".

In other words, he's the richest guy, so he should get to make the rules.

Well, for starters, Jim's a really smart businessman who paid $450 Million to another software firm a couple of years back for patent violations in the design of the Blackberry. He dragged that suit out, because he was the big dog, when he probably had the option to settle earlier and for much less. Only when a federal court in the US began considering a ban on Blackberry service did Jim cave -- and then the patent holder turned the screws a little more to maximize his own profit.

Somehow, all that doesn't strike me as the mark of a smart businessman.

I heard a friend of Jim's interviewed this week, relating a story that was also quite telling. By all accounts, Jim's a real nice guy (his name's Jim, how can he not be) but after losing a $20 bet on a golf game, he apparently was almost beside himself. The friend told him to relax, it was only $20. Jim's heated response, "No! It's not!"

Rich guys. Money buys deference. But it doesn't make you something you're not.

And if you look at the big picture, selling a team to Jim and moving it to Hamilton could be one of the worst things that could happen to the NHL.

Maybe hockey isn't thriving in Nashville, but it's doing better than it was 10 years ago. New fans are constantly finding the game. They may not provide the immediate gratification an owner would find in Hamilton, Winnipeg, Halifax or anywhere else in Canada. But to grow, a sport needs to cultivate new fans, not just keep preaching to the same choir.

The NHL is hoping to expand to Houston, Kansas City and Las Vegas, where producer Jerry Bruckheimer wants to place a team. None of those are hockey hotbeds. But they are large and viable markets that can further expand the fan base and make a major American television deal for the NHL more likely.

One has to wonder how much that TV deal is jeopardized if the Nashville market is lost by Jim moving the team. And one also has to wonder if expansion to the cities mentioned makes sense at the current $190 Million price tag, but much less sense if the price cranks up (because of Jim's overbid) to $220 or $240 Million.

More kids are playing hockey every year in the US. This year the top picks in the Junior draft were all Americans. These kids are going to need new places to play or all that hard work, training and growth of a fan base will have been for naught.

But the Canadian fan who just wants a local rooting interest doesn't care about those things. Hell, as a frustrated Leafs fan, I wish Jim would move the Predators to Toronto. It's been a long time since we had a real NHL team in this city!

But here's what money talking in this instance could mean...

Atlanta sees Hamilton do well in the hockey mad Golden Horseshoe and moves to Niagara Falls. Tampa decides to set up shop in Mississauga; both places offering access to larger markets than Winnipeg or Quebec City.

Given the rule changes Jim would have to force to make his move, neither he nor the league would be able to prevent these eventualities. And suddenly, Jim's team isn't making money either -- and what the nets are paying for TV rights becomes as fragmented as the local market.

If you want an example of where this already exists, look at Australian Rules Football, an incredibly wild and exciting game that was born in Melbourne. Today, Melbourne is home to 9 of the AFL's 17 teams. That's right. Half the league is in one city. And while Melbourne has more than enough crazed fans to fill its stadiums, when half the games are only of rabid interest in one location, there's no money in National broadcasts. So the game has never grown as it should have.

Adding another team in the Ontario TV market can only further fragment already declining audience numbers for the Leafs and the Sabres. God knows what it'll do to Ottawa, who have been the poor cousins for 12 years in a local market already splintered by Montreal and Toronto.

So if Jim gets what his money says he should have, he may actually hurt the financial base of two Canadian teams that are currently making money and a team in Buffalo that's on the bubble.

I can't believe I actually agree with Gary Bettman on something! I might be required to turn in my passport.

The problem with our world is that it's all about money, numbers and market share. Too many good things wither because people with money can't see an immediate return.

Which brings me back to Fred Rogers...

Through the 1950's, Mr. Rogers wasn't very successful with his concept of using television to "nurture" those who watched it. Then in 1963, he moved to Toronto, where he had been contracted by the CBC for a 15 minute children's program entitled "MisteRogers" (sic) in which he made his on camera debut.

The show was a hit with kids, but 3 years later, the CBC decided it knew better and that its money was better spent elsewhere, canceling the show. Fred moved back to Pittsburgh, launching the identical concept as "Mister Rogers Neighborhood". Four decades of children later, his sweater and sneakers reside in a place of honor in the Smithsonian Institute along with the trolley, Eiffel tower, tree and castle that were created by CBC Designers.

The Guys with the Gold will always make the Rules. But money is short-sighted and rarely gives worthwhile endeavors a chance. What endures and makes a difference in life does not come from the toys. It comes from people who care about more than that.

"Remember. Your toys are not you. They are beside you."


Unknown said...

Amazing piece, and thanks much for your note. Posting my response now.

I'd like to understand more about the TV/media company buyouts, etc. Sounds like a mess that i haven't heard of (not surprising). I'll have to do some quick wiki reading to see if i can get some history.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for sharing this Jim. Just posted this, with a few comments, on my blog as well.

I wish the best for you and the media company mess. I know the impact of how that plays out will be felt down here as well, just as Nashville loosing hockey can/may/will impact hockey in Canada.

Kelly J. Crawford said...

I agree with every word you said about the CHUM/CTV situation, Jim. What a mess to have to sort out -- and I'm not sure we're all going to end up the better for it, once the dust has settled.


Anonymous said...

Your mention of Fred Rogers' comments at the NAPTE convention reminded me of his statement to the US Senate (via Youtube).