Kings of Convergence

By Gordon Pitts

The “Kings” of Kings of Convergence are the heads of Canada’s five major media networks: Ted Rogers, Izzy Asper, JR Shaw, Jean Monty and Pierre Karl Peladeau. Of this Royal Family, Jean Monty, former head of BCE, is the only one no longer on his throne, but the kingdom of BCE – which owns CTV and the Globe and Mail, among other properties – is still the largest and strongest entity on the Canadian media stage.

“Convergence” is harder to pin down. In business terms it has to do with the theory behind the wave of recent media takeovers that this book takes as its subject: BCE’s purchase of CTV, the bidding war between Rogers and Peladeau for Quebec cable company Videotron, and CanWest’s purchase of Conrad Black’s newspaper empire. The theory is that industry consolidation works through finding new efficiencies in economies of scale, cross-branding, and other ways of bringing different organizations together so that the whole will be more than the sum of its parts. But to some extent convergence was only a buzzword. Izzy Asper admits to not knowing what it meant. Others have questioned whether it ever made sense. Rumors of de-consolidation are now coming hard on the heels of the fall-out from those wildly overpriced shopping sprees of a few years ago. The Kings gambled on convergence and it is still too early to tell what, if anything, they have won.

Drawing on interviews with all of the key players – which in most cases means the Kings and their heirs, since giant media corporations in Canada are very much a family affair – Globe and Mail business columnist Gordon Pitts does an effective job reporting on the mix of money, ambition and uncertainty in the convergence tale. Like a lot of business reporting, however, the tone is too deferential.

There are obvious reasons for this. In the first place, deference does provide access. And it is usually taken as a given that the rich and powerful are superior in some way, a higher order of being. This involves a lot of business journalism clichés. JR Shaw is a “charming man” who “can be hard as nails when it counts.” Alliance Atlantis head Michael MacMillan is “intensely ambitious and has a strong inner core that doesn’t shrink from the task at hand.” And here is executive Ivan Fecan appearing with his wife at a CRTC hearing: “The couple together were a compelling sight, flawless in their tailoring, two beautiful fair-haired people amid a sea of shabbily dressed bureaucrats and journalists.” One of those journalists, the reader assumes, is Pitts himself. This is called knowing your place.

These beautiful people are smarter than the rest of us, work harder, and have something called “vision.” We know this because of the fact of their success and the way their peers talk about them. Unfortunately, appraisals from the rest of the business community are usually the products of a lifetime of corporate psychology, where being team players is an attitude that crosses competitive front lines and criticism isn’t just unmerited but downright rude. Sure their personalities may seem a little abrasive, but just think of who these guys are!

None of this is very convincing. Brains and hard work is only part of a story that is equally made up of dumb mistakes, inherited wealth, and just being in the right place at the right time (also known as “vision”). As business leaders, the Kings of Convergence are no different than the rest of that class. But in the case of the media there are other considerations.

The media – books, television, movies, newspapers and magazines, the Internet – are our culture. And yet it’s clear from this book that the people who run the media don’t care about the product any more than they would if they were selling hamburgers or kitchen tiling. It’s a way to make money and provide something for their kids to do. Whether this is a good thing involves more than an evaluation of the bottom line. When Pitts comes to consider the fierce controversy that arose when the Aspers began mandating editorials for their newspapers in the Southam chain, culminating in the firing of the publisher of the Ottawa Citizen, he only refers to it as a botched business strategy that “allowed their media rivals to seize the high ground on the censorship issue.” There is no discussion of whether, aside from being a bad business move, such behaviour was in any other way improper. One is left to assume it was just another exercise of the divine right of kings.

Review first published February 8, 2003.

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