Decade in Review: Ivan Fecan is Playback’s Person of the Decade

Once given the tools, CTV topper Ivan Fecan created a media empire that dominates the Canadian landscape, a feat that secures him honors as Playback's Person of the Decade.
Ivan Fecan - Nigel Dickson

Zen and the art of empire building

Ivan Fecan is Playback‘s Person of the Decade, but one could argue that is only because it would be too much of a mouthful to name the departing president and CEO of CTV Globemedia ‘Person of the Last 17 Years.’ That’s how far back you’d need to go to build the case that Fecan has had a more significant impact on the Canadian media landscape than any of his peers.

Central to the argument is that he managed to build what is today Canada’s biggest broadcast empire, literally out of nothing.

Consider this: In late 1993, when Fecan jumped ship as head of English TV at CBC to join Baton Broadcasting, CTV was a non-network. It was a co-op of seven members, of which Baton was one. Baton itself owned roughly 12 percent of CTV, plus stations in Saskatchewan and Ontario.

By 2010, when it was announced that BCE was, pending regulatory approval, to acquire 100 percent of CTV’s operations at a price tag of $3.2 billion, the network was Canada’s largest private broadcaster, number one by virtually every measure that counts.

Between 1996 (when Fecan was appointed Baton’s president and CEO) and 2000, he reinvented Baton into a national player through acquisitions, mergers and start-ups, including the purchase of CTV and most of its affiliates. At that time CTV, was still a perpetual ratings loser, with Global maintaining a strangle-hold on the top 20 nationwide.

“If we couldn’t buy CTV, we were thinking of starting our own network: the Baton Broadcast System, BBS,” says Fecan. “But ultimately, the prize was to buy out our partners at CTV, something the founder of Baton, Big John Bassett was trying to do since 1961. But finally, due to a particular set of circumstances, we were able to accomplish that.

“That gave us the tools for the last 10 years. Without having a cross-Canada network, without getting into specialties, we could not have become what we are today.”

In a wide-ranging interview in his Queen Street office, Fecan is in a jovial mood. He speaks frankly to the areas he feels the greatest passion for, but is quick to crack jokes and is eager to keep the conversation light.

When asked what challenge gave him the greatest grief, he laughs and without hesitation says, “The greatest grief was when we owned a piece of the Leafs; they didn’t win the Stanley Cup. You know we’re all about winning.”

The predominant accent color in his office is white, a striking compliment to Fecan’s signature white mane. The walls are white, as are the shelves upon which sit pictures of his wife of 29 years, Sandra Faire, plus assorted shots, including one of Fecan carrying the Olympic torch this past winter and a shot of Ken Thomson, with whom Fecan had a close bond before the Baron’s death in 2006.

Fecan sits behind a massive white desk, which in turn faces a large white boardroom table that can accommodate two dozen. On the far wall reside 21 black monitors broadcasting various CTV Globemedia channels.

And what of the last decade?

Well, in 2000, Fecan was front-and-center in negotiations to have CTV acquired by BCE and soon after was central in acquiring the Globe and Mail, creating convergence powerhouse Bell Globemedia. Fecan emerged as president and CEO of the new company. Among the company’s properties was Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, folding both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors partly under Fecan’s care.

That year also saw CRTC approval of CTV’s purchase of NetStar Communications, which brought Discovery, TSN and RDS into the CTV fold. One of the forgotten stories of that period is that Canwest actually came out in 1999 with an $875-million bid to acquire Netstar from a consortium that included a group of private investors that owned 68 percent and ESPN which owned the remaining 32 percent. But CTV ultimately emerged as the owner thanks a $908-million bid and to Fecan’s savvy dealings.

“How he did it was amazing,” says Jim Hinds, an investment banker and partner in Newcrest Capital who has been advising Fecan since 1997.

What Fecan understood was that while Canwest was dealing with the private investors, who were largely interested in dollars and cents, CTV could change the course of the deal by securing the trust of ESPN and parent company The Walt Disney Corporation, which had a sufficient lever to kill the deal and really wanted a good partner in Canada.

“It was all about relationship building with people whose interests were initially adverse to his. He went out and developed relationships with these guys from ESPN,” says Hinds. “In the course of about three weeks, we secured the deal and raised about $750 million to buy it.”

There is a Zen-like calm to Fecan, something perhaps in his vocal intonation, a contrast to many of his frenetic peers who seem to be in perpetual motion even when sitting still. But don’t be fooled. Below the calm surface lies an executive renowned for being on top of every detail and having a learning curve so short that former colleague Trina McQueen once famously described it as “a learning dot.”

“The secret sauce is his absolute demand of himself. He works 24/7. Ivan creates a standard that is so high, and then blows through it. He believes that you can break the sound barrier, so to speak,” says Susanne Boyce, president, creative, content and channels at CTV. Boyce has known Fecan since they both worked at CBC. She followed him to Baton in 1995. “And he is absolutely in the Now. That is very Zen. He can also synthesize something, get to the crux of an issue very quickly.”

“He is probably the most individually capable executive I’ve ever run into,” agrees Hinds. “When I first got to know him, he knew nothing of the public market. Within six months he knew almost as much as I did. And I’d spent a decade learning. He can focus on understanding things he doesn’t know about, get a handle on them very quickly, figure out how they apply to him and make it work.”

That detailed focus comes to the fore later as Fecan gives a tour of the construction zone that has been the main floor of CTV’s headquarters for months. He stops to chat with contractors asking specific questions, clearly following the progress and making sure that his vision is completed to the last facet.

The space that used to house various CHUM and CITY-TV “environments” is old stomping ground for Fecan. Following an early stint as a public affairs producer for CBC Radio where he created the hit series Quirks and Quarks, Fecan was recruited by Moses Znaimer to help launch CityPulseNews. It was here that the trendy news producer famously broke an ankle trying to jump a fence to cover a train derailment story, one of many clues that belie his calm exterior.

The move to CITY-TV was the first step in what became a meteoric rise that also saw Fecan leave news and current affairs to rejoin CBC as programmer.

In 1985, Fecan moved to New York, where he apprenticed under programming legend Brandon Tartikoff as VP creative affairs at NBC.

“I’ve been very blessed to have worked for a lot of very strong visionary people,” Fecan says. “But Brandon would be in a class by himself. He is the greatest television programmer of all time. And that’s saying a lot, because he learned from (Fred) Silverman and (Grant) Tinker. And these guys weren’t slouches, either.”

After a two year stint at NBC, 33-year-old Fecan returned again to CBC taking over the programming reigns of the entire English network. Here, for the next seven years he shepherded a slate of shows which continue to resonate decades later. These included Degrassi Junior High, Street Legal,Kids in the Hall, Royal Canadian Airfarce, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, The Road to Avonlea and MOW The Boys of St. Vincent.

To producer Linda Schuyler it’s his visionary thinking that she finds most compelling. Schuyler and Fecan’s relationship stretches back to 1987. “He is the one person in Canada who has this genuine broadcaster vision. And it’s a particular vision.”

That vision lead Fecan to turn to Schuyler in 2001 when she was developing Degrassi: The Next Generation. Fecan saw an opportunity to prove the TV model for convergence just as the first iteration of the CTV-BCE convergence play was taking shape.

“With the BCE benefits, we built a website with which we won a number of awards. It really was the prototype for Facebook. It was a closed system for kids to chat with one another. Again, this was an example of Ivan being in touch with everything at the right time,” says Schuyler.

“I didn’t realize it until I looked back, what a critical moment it was. Everybody does [web properties] now as a matter of course, but in 2001, that wasn’t how it was done… convergence was the word of the day, and Ivan made sure that we were the flagship for that.”

The last decade has been full of firsts for CTV. In 2002, TSN and Discovery become the first two Canadian specialty channels to broadcast signals in high definition. Also that year, CTV enjoyed a record 2.65 million viewers who tuned in to watch Ryan Malcolm be crowned the first-ever Canadian Idol. In 2006, CTV launched MTV in Canada, TSN’s SportsCentre became the first newsroom in Canada to deliver news programming in high definition and CTV launched Canada’s first multi-channel broadband service.

Also in 2006, Bell Globemedia acquired CHUM in a $1.4 billion transaction, which extended the empire into radio and brought into the fold another handful of money-making specialties including MuchMusic, CP24 and Space.

Of course all this success does not come without stumbles and challenges. Following the high-profile emergence of Bell Globemedia, it took only a few short years for BCE bosses to decide that the theory of convergence was not producing anything approaching tangible results. And so, BCE divested itself in 2006 of its majority position.

The purchase of CHUM properties also brought frustration and challenges that included a CRTC order that CTV divest itself of the crown jewels of the deal, the CITY-TV stations nationwide, which were sold to Rogers Media.

“I regret very much that we didn’t have a chance to hold onto CITY,” says Fecan. “I think we would have taken CITY in a very different direction than it has ultimately gone under Rogers. I understand why they are doing what they are doing. But because we would have owned both CTV and CITY, we would have been perhaps truer to the original alternative vision that CITY had.”

In its stead, CTV was saddled with struggling A Channels, which had previously helped drag both Craig Media and CHUM out of existence.

There was further negative press around layoffs and the closing of “A” Stations in Wingham, Windsor and Brandon as a result of the economic downturn.

Then there was the ugly bun fight over “fee for carriage” that went public in 2009 putting Fecan front and center as CTV and Canwest tried to convince the public and CRTC that Canada’s conventional broadcasters needed a piece of the action on cable fees.

Yet, while these events certainly had impact on the lives of those who lost their jobs and on the communities that lost their voices, the circumstances were largely economic. None of these stand likely to blemish Fecan’s legacy, one capped this past winter with the groundbreaking coverage of the Vancouver Olympics.

It has been dubbed as the biggest project in Canadian broadcasting history, consuming more airtime and producing more online video than anything before it. It also came with a historic price tag. Having bought the rights to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games and 2012 London Summer Games for $153 million, the Olympic consortium between CTV and Rogers is regarded as the high-water mark for Olympic coverage.

Central to the CTV-Rogers pitch to the International Olympic Committee was the multiplatform aspect of the coverage; that every second would be on some screen somewhere.

“The truth is, when we made the presentation [five years earlier], it could not have worked because we didn’t have the people or the technology to make it work. Fortunately, by the time the event came along, the people were there, the technology was there, and it all gelled,” says Fecan.

“[But] that’s what having vision is about. You make a prediction about where you think things are going to be at a certain point in time and then you work like hell to get there.”

The Olympics were such a success, in fact that BCE president and CEO George Cope has gone on record to say that it was the wall-to-wall coverage that convinced him to take another shot at vertical integration and bring CTV back into the fold.

The latest BCE deal, to Fecan’s mind, was absolutely critical in view of the fact that CITY-TV, Canwest and TVA were all now under BDU control.

“If your competitors are all vertically integrated, then you have to be. Bell buying this company means that it is going to survive. I was very worried about the future of this company if there wasn’t a vertical integration solution, if somebody didn’t buy us that had the distribution side,” Fecan says.

Today, CTV operates 27 over-the-air stations across the country; 30 specialty channels, a network of popular online properties; and 34 radio stations throughout Canada. Pick any random week and CTV shows fill the top-20 ratings, including: CTV Evening News, Big Bang Theory, Amazing Race and Grey’s Anatomy. And, with So You Think You Can Dance Canada, Canadian Idol and Flashpoint. CTV also boasts the most highly rated domestic shows of the last decade, an acknowledgment to the fact that while CTV has been shrewdly and aggressively building revenue through the acquisition of US-made programs, Fecan and his team have been equally astute in using that success to continue creating best-of breed home-grown shows.

“I think we would be hard-pressed in the history of Canadian broadcasting to find anyone who has made a larger contribution,” says Schuyler. “Can we think of a single person since CBC launched that has had the extraordinary impact that Ivan has had? He’s not just man of the decade. He really has shaped Canadian broadcasting.”

Photo: Nigel Dickson.