Hitting a high note at Bell Media

Playback's annual Best of the Year issue kicks off with Randy Lennox, the new president of Bell Media bringing a "Bat Out of Hell" approach to TV.
Randy Lennox - crop

Randy Lennox has changed the culture at Bell Media. That’s what insiders at the top broadcaster are saying, crediting the recently minted president with bringing a more creative focus to the business. And they’re calling it a breath of fresh air in the wake of bean-counter predecessors.

“The culture I’m trying to bring is that the world is flat and I’m approachable. If the receptionist has an idea, I want to know about it,” Lennox says in response to this observation.

Lennox characterizes himself as a “Canadian-content guy” and has in a short time greenlit serialized dramas Cardinal and The Disappearance for CTV, historical drama Frontier for Discovery, and satirical news show The Beaverton for The Comedy Network. And coming in early 2018 is CTV’s music competition series The Launch, in which up-and-comers vie for the chance to record a new song.

The latter was hatched by Lennox and his friend Scott Borchetta, head of Nashville’s Big Machine Label Group, which counts Taylor Swift among its artists. The Launch is a natural for Lennox, the former president and CEO of Universal Music Canada who helped make international phenoms out of Justin Bieber, Drake and The Weeknd.

But Canadian TV always has been a harder sell internationally, and no doubt Bell honchos hoped Lennox’s winning streak would carry over. He joined Bell Media in August 2015 as president, entertainment and broadcasting, added programming to his portfolio a year later and took over as prez this past February upon Mary Ann Turcke’s departure.

So far, so good: the first six-episode run of small-town investigative drama Cardinal, produced by Toronto’s Sienna Films and eOne, averaged 1.1 million viewers and has sold in key markets including the U.S., U.K., France, Spain, and Scandinavia, and has been greenlit for two more cycles.

Lennox is equally bullish about Frontier, a chronicle of the 18th-century fur trade produced by Newfoundland’s Take the Shot Productions and ASAP Entertainment. The deal was done with Netflix getting world streaming rights, while Bell Media offers the series in Canada on its CraveTV digital platform. After a first season in which the show brought in an average 365,000 viewers on specialty, Bell Media similarly signed on for another two cycles. “Once we know we have a tiger by the tail we’re not to afraid make a long-term commitment,” Lennox says.

The Disappearance, in which a young boy’s vanishing upends a family with dark secrets, was originally intended as a mid-season replacement, but Bell Media was so impressed with what they saw that it launched the series in the crowded 2017 fall schedule, where it averaged 850,000 viewers after three eps, making it the top new Canadian program of the season. The Disappearance is produced by Montreal’s Productions Casablanca in association with NBCUniversal International Studios.

There is a formula to these shows in the quest for international eyeballs: Hollywood-style production values, a mix of Canadian and American talent — The Disappearance‘s Peter Coyote, Cardinal‘s Billy Campbell and Frontier‘s Jason Momoa, soon to break as Aquaman on the big screen — yet no fear of Canadian settings and themes.

The series also adhere to a new, more global directive at Bell Media. They are produced with international partners on board, and the broadcaster, in return for its licence fee and the CMF funds it triggers ($6.1 million in the case of The Disappearance), gets a piece of foreign sales, which was previously the exclusive domain of producers.

“We tend to have a substantive amount of skin in the game. We want to be fair and equitable, but we should enjoy some share of international revenue,” Lennox says.

Regarding The Launch, Bell Media has been actively looking to sell both format rights and the show itself to international broadcasters, and Lennox believes with the series’ star mentors – including Shania Twain, Fergie and Boy George – the latter is possible. He also promises the program will break new artists and play to Bell Media’s various platforms, including iHeartRadio and 105 radio stations.

“If we find the next Shawn Mendes, we’re going to be able to take a big swing across all our assets,” he says, adding that the series has garnered “sensational feedback and interest” from potential international partners.

The program’s ownership structure represents a departure: whereas Bell Media may have previously owned a minority stake in CTV originals, if any at all, it co-owns The Launch with Big Machine. Bell Media is executive producing while Eureka! Productions and Insight Productions are servicing the series.

Still with music, Bell Media was not happy that CBC landed broadcast rights to The Tragically Hip’s final concert in Kingston in August 2016, say insiders. So Lennox, who dealt with the band at Universal, commissioned Long Time Running, a behind-the-scenes account of the entire tour. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier and produced by Toronto’s Banger Films, it premiered at TIFF. It was originally scheduled to air on CTV on Nov. 12 but an airdate was added for Oct. 20, three days after frontman Gord Downie passed away.

Of course, the media co has long had a strategy of bringing aboard U.S. hits, which continues to be the brand’s bread and butter. CTV boasts the fall’s top series: The Big Bang Theory and spinoff Young Sheldon, which premiered to 3.6 million viewers. On Space, Star Trek: Discovery averaged 1.2 million viewers over five episodes – record ratings for a specialty series.

Perhaps Lennox’s most surprising move of the year has been leading Bell Media’s first foray into live musical theatre by partnering with New York’s Iconic Entertainment Studios on Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell The Musical, an adaptation of the 1977 Meat Loaf album that has sold a reported 43 million copies worldwide.

The venture only seems like a head-scratcher until Lennox explains that, as with everything he does, it’s all about synergies.

“I went to [parent company] B.C.E. and said: ‘I believe this is the right risk for us to take because emanating from theatrical works is the soundtrack album and merchandising, and emanating from that is a live television show and emanating from that could be a film,” says Lennox, one of the musical’s producers.

The show opened in Manchester in March, where it sold out, followed by London, where it received enthusiastic reviews. The curtain rose in Toronto on Oct. 14 and initial sales led to an extension through the new year. As for a Bat Out of Hell broadcast, Lennox says, as he is prone to, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”