Television

CTV’S GLOBAL CONQUEST

Ivan Fecan made CTV champion of the Canadian dial. But can he stay on top?

KATHERINE MACKLEM October 3 2005
Television

CTV’S GLOBAL CONQUEST

Ivan Fecan made CTV champion of the Canadian dial. But can he stay on top?

KATHERINE MACKLEM October 3 2005

CTV’S GLOBAL CONQUEST

Television

KATHERINE MACKLEM

Ivan Fecan made CTV champion of the Canadian dial. But can he stay on top?

THIS WEEK, ABC will premiere a new series called Commander in Chief, touted as the next big White House drama after The West Wing. Early reviews have been raves. But until last week, no Canadian network was going to air the show, even though CTV paid big bucks in the spring to buy its Canadian rights. Only the series’ early buzz convinced network honcho Ivan Fecan that he should clear space in his hit-packed schedule for the pilot. Fecan was willing to pay for a program he wasn’t planning to run, just to make sure his arch rivals at Global Television didn’t get their hands on it.

That many seem extreme, but that’s how nasty Canada’s TV wars have become: the

tactics are cutthroat; the spoils are huge. And Fecan, considered early in his career to be Canada’s programming Wunderkind, has emerged as a master strategist. Over the past few years, CTV has trounced Global to become the most watched network in the country. By last spring, it had the most primetime viewers, and an astounding 18 of the 20 top-rated shows. Thanks to a roster that included the Academy Awards and TV’s most popular series, CSI, it finished No. 1 in the summer, fall, winter and spring seasons.

While he’s clearly got reason to celebrate, Fecan is now in a spot that’s as precarious as it is enviable. Even a master must know that unless CTV can maintain a holding pattern—and stay at this peak—there’s nowhere to go but down. This in an industry where the stakes are increasingly high.

American programming—which makes up the bulk of commercial prime time in Canada—costs more than ever. Meanwhile,

because there is so much choice, audience numbers per individual show are in decline. As well, smaller broadcasters, such as CITY TV, are biting into what was, until recently, the domain of just Global and CTV. Even History Television, one of many tiny specialty channels now crowding the dial, carries Over There, a new drama about the war in Iraq by superstar producer Steven Bochco. And, sending a chill down broadcasters’ spines everywhere, the Internet is fast encroaching on TV’s precious space. A poll released in

August shows that young Canadians now spend more time on the Internet than they do watching television. All of this makes the behind-the-screen ratings race as heated as the best TV shows. If not more.

As solid as CTV’s standing is right now, it was only a few years ago that Global was on top. In the mid-’90s, with programs like Friends, Frasier and Seinfeld, Global had 15 of the top 20 shows, and prime-time supremacy. But there’s a lifespan to sitcoms and dramas, and as those water-cooler conversation pieces slowly died off, Global failed to replace them with equally hot shows. For the past four years, Global has seemingly sat back as CTV scampered up the ratings ramp.

Fecan, who declined to speak to Maclean’s for this article, made an early move when he transformed a disparate collection of stations into a coordinated national network. But his real ace is Susanne Boyce, regarded as a demigod for her uncanny ability to pick winners out of the U.S. lineups. Boyce nabbed such hits as CSI, Law & Order, ER and later The Sopranos and Desperate Housewives— shows that have driven CTV’s phenomenal performance. Not just smart, Boyce, whom admirers describe as a “mumbling former CBC type,” has also been lucky.

For example, Lost, last year’s new show about plane-crash survivors stranded on a tropical island, was widely expected to bomb, recalls Ellen Baine, who is Boyce’s counterpart at CHUM TV, owner of CITY stations. “Everybody was saying, ‘This is the stupidest thing we’ve ever seen,’ ” Baine says. “I don’t know one programmer—if om around the world—who liked it. People hated it.” But CTV picked it up as part of a package deal with ABC. Lo and behold, Lost became a smash hit, and an Emmy award winner.

The network has amassed such a stockpile of TV hits that there’s barely time to air them all. But rather than see a potential winner fall into the hands of the enemy, Fecan will bump popular shows into dead time slots— often sacrificing major ad revenues in the process—or even put promising shows on the shelf. In 1997, Fecan bought the rights to

Ally McBeal, only to park it. “We bought the show because we didn’t want anyone else to have it,” Fecan told the Financial Post in 1998. It looked like Fecan had similar plans for Commander in Chief until CTV dropped it into its line-up late last week.

While Fecan’s scorched-earth strategy helped push up CTV’s ratings, he was also handed a couple of plums by Global. In 2003, it lured away from CTV the host of the homegrown late-night talk show, Open Mike With Mike Bullard, a show Fecan had been eager to drop but couldn’t just cancel because CTV had promoted it with such fanfare. Once Global got it, Fecan quickly programmed Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, a hugely popular satiric news show from Comedy Central, opposite Bullard, at a fraction

of the cost. Bullard’s show on Global lasted only seven months. Around the same time, Global’s best hits—like Frasier and Friends— were wrapping up. And it missed the trend back to drama, relying for much of last season on return reality shows. Last fall, Douglas Hoover, the guy who’d picked Global’s earlier hits, and a handful of other VPs, took the fall and were replaced by executives from U.S. networks. The corporate disarray meant no one was focused on programming until February, when Barbara Williams was hired.

Even if CTV is winning the war, Fecan’s and Boyce’s drive is stronger than ever, observes Stephen Stöhn, an entertainment lawyer and executive producer of CTV’s Dégrossi: The Next Generation. “There is absolutely no resting on their laurels,” Stohn says. “They

see this year as a take-no-prisoners year. They are buying shows as if they are No. 2.” And with good reason. It seems Global may be slowly pulling its act together. In spite of falling television revenues, CanWest upped the network’s programming budget by more than 10 per cent this year, risking the ire of investors. The increased programming budget was “higher than we had expected,” writes analyst Katharine Dalton of Merrill Lynch. The extra money gives Williams something to work with, and the results are starting to show. Global recently struck a deal with Entertainment Tonight to produce a Canadian version of the celebrity newsmagazine. Not only will the new program rival CTV’s highly profitable eTalk Daily, it will piggyback on EVs marquee name value and huge marketing machinery.

Williams also is betting on new shows such as Prison Break, a drama about two brothers who bust out of jail. And Global’s hoping America’s most famous homemaking diva, Martha Stewart, will be “a good thing” for ratings and ad dollars as host of her own new Apprentice. But Williams admits there’s a lot of luck in picking winning TV programs. “You don’t really know what’s going to break through. It’s a crapshoot.” Fecan’s also got to keep an eye on CHUM TV. Late last year, CHUM scooped up Craig Media, giving it stations in Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg and bringing it closer to being a national broadcaster. That may be why Fecan is rumoured to be kicking the tires of MTV Canada. For CTV, such a move would bring in a slew of younger viewers and new advertisers, and would create stiff competition for CHUM’s lucrative MuchMusic channel. Still, to launch a new MTV Canada would require a new CRTC-issued licence, which is no slam dunk.

But that’s the kind of risk that has put Fecan where he is today. A year and a half ago he promised he would widen his lead over his rivals, and he delivered. In the past three years, CTV has seen its prime-time audience grow to 1.4 million viewers, up 50 per cent from 931,000 in 2001-2002. With success like that, it’s hardly a surprise that no one in the TV business is inclined to bet against him. But it’s worth noting that last May, as Fecan presented CTV’s good news results and introduced its hopefuls for this season, he made no such promise again. M