Playback’s 2017 Hall of Fame: Andre Bureau

How the driving force behind the creation of specialty channels in Canada helped shape this country's broadcasting system as we know it.
Andre Bureau 2

A media mogul, a lawyer and an almost-priest walk into the bar…no this isn’t a bad joke, but rather the odd-ball career of André Bureau, former head of Astral Media, the CRTC and Cancom – an industry builder who almost had a very different path in life.

Bureau originally wanted to be a priest. But after two months at the Trois-Rivières, Que.-based Grand Seminary in 1955, he was told by leaders there he should do something – anything – else with his life. He simply wasn’t suited for the collar.

Harsh advice, but crucial in shaping an alternate career path – one that would go on to help define the television industry for years to come.

In fact without Bureau, now 82 and retired, Canada’s specialty channel-heavy landscape might not be what it is today, as the media giant helped shape the future of the channels we watch north of the border.

And while he would go on to lead some of the largest and most influential media companies in Canada, Bureau got his start in telecom in a very round-about way. While studying to become a lawyer in 1955, he hosted a TV program on Channel 4 in Quebec City called Variétés, which promoted new artists. When he started practicing law, he continued his support for the arts when he helped open the Centre culturel de Trois-Rivières, a cultural centre for the city that showcased local musicians, painters and other artists.

He segued into media when a client connection led to the job of EVP at Quebec’s La Presse newspaper, where he worked from 1968 to 1972. From there he moved to former Canadian broadcast company Telemedia as president, overseeing the radio and TV company when it launched its first French-language FM station in Quebec.

When Telemedia merged with satellite TV and radio broadcaster Cancom, Bureau assumed the role of president, leading the company for a decade.

Then in 1983, Bureau got a mysterious call from then-Minister of Communications, Francis Fox that would take his career to the next level. Fox said he wanted Bureau to come to Ottawa to meet with Prime Minister Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, but wouldn’t say why. On his arrival in Ottawa, Trudeau asked Bureau to become the next chairman of the CRTC, taking over from John Meisel. Bureau hadn’t applied for the job, but was cherry-picked because of his varied career. After discussing it with his wife, Bureau accepted and was appointed to the position at 5 p.m. that same day during a Cabinet meeting.

He would go on to oversee the CRTC from 1983 to 1989 through a time of expansion and change – a period that would shape the TV landscape until today. It was during his tenure that the first specialty channels were introduced in 1984: five from Canada (MuchMusic, Action Canada Sports Network – later TSN – Chinavision, Cathay and Telelatino ethnic services) and 17 from the U.S.

It was a decision met with plenty of opposition, from groups including Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) and the now-defunct Canadian Cable and Television Association, says Bureau. In particular, he notes that because these groups were against the new channels, only one media company bucked the trend and applied for a specialty licence: Moses Znaimer with MuchMusic and MusiquePlus.

“The other broadcasters said adding specialty services would kill the system,” says Bureau. “Cable guys were saying they couldn’t afford to increase the cost to subscribers. Everyone was against it. Frankly, it was a question of whether we would let the American services come in as authorized specialized services or if we would do our own. But I believed in the capacity of our production and people to do good specialty programming and it worked very well.”

Industry veteran Richard Stursberg, who worked as assistant deputy minister for telecommunications and broadcasting at the time, says Bureau tried to set up the emerging specialty services in a way where they had the chance to be Canadian and had “a reasonable chance of surviving.” Safeguards included setting specific financing, marketing and programming regulations around the burgeoning channels. “The basis behind which the vast raft of Canadian specialty channels emerged is a result of the work he did,” says Stursberg.

It was “a pretty amazing time in Canadian broadcasting,” says Lisa de Wilde, CEO, TVO, who was a young lawyer working at the CRTC during Bureau’s tenure as chairman.

“It wasn’t a straight line to launching those services; it was more about standing up to the cable industry and providing a sandbox,” she says.

De Wilde says the weeks-long hearing on specialties included a number of new players, such as Vision TV and TV5 Canada, which made it particularly exciting, and also contributed to the feeling that the industry was on the “cusp of something new.” Sounds familiar?

It wasn’t the only time Bureau was ahead of the curve. He was fighting for gender parity in the workplace, “long before it was trendy,” noted former colleagues, including de Wilde, who credits Bureau in part with her path to becoming a media leader today. She said whether it was at the law firm, CRTC or Astral, Bureau championed the careers of many women and encouraged their rise through the ranks. That included filling leadership positions with women, elevating women into key positions at the CRTC, Astral Media, Les Chaînes Télé-Astral and Astral Radio.

In 1989 Bureau left the CRTC and the following year joined Astral as president of its media division, where he continued his focus on specialty. When he joined the company, it had only a handful of English and French channels. By the time he left in 2013, that ballooned to 86 radio stations and 25 TV channels, including specialty powerhouses The Movie Network and Super Écran, when the division was sold to BCE in 2013, for $3.2 billion. He would end his career at law firm Heenan Blaikie, where he also worked throughout most of the ’60s.

For his work, Bureau has received a number of recognitions, including induction into the Order of Canada in 1992. He has also been made a knight of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, was inducted into the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2004 and made an officer of the National Order of Quebec in 2012. Bureau currently sits on numerous boards, including insurance company The Guarantee Company of North America and satellite company TerreStar. He is also on the board for Montreal’s Maison Saint-Gabriel museum and the Jewish General Hospital Foundation.

Bureau’s legacy is still visible in the Canadian broadcasting system today, with former colleagues like VP, business affairs at the Canadian Film Centre John Riley, who was in-house council at the Family Channel while Bureau was chairman of the CRTC and later worked with him at Astral Media, crediting him with shaping the landscape.

“We have a very robust and diverse Canadian broadcasting system and I think a significant part is a direct result of the contributions by André, first when he was chair of the CRTC during a time of technological change and also as a leader in the Canadian industry.”

This story first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Playback magazine