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May 24, 2016

Playback’s 2016 Canadian Film & TV Hall of Fame: Ivan Fecan


Mark Dillon / Playback

After succeeding at so much, Ivan Fecan finally found something to fail at: retirement.

Fecan surprised everyone in 2010 when he announced his resignation as president and CEO of CTVglobemedia upon BCE’s $1.3 billion purchase of CTV Inc. Playback immediately anointed him our Person of the Decade, which was a no-brainer. Starting with his 1993 hire at Baton Broadcasting – CTV owners-to-be – he built the empire now known as Bell Media and oversaw the ascendency of crown jewel CTV to top spot in the network wars.

After all that, R and R sounded good.

“I’d been working since high school. It had just been work, work, work,” recalls Fecan over an omelette lunch at a restaurant in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood. “I needed to get my body back, because when you’re a suit, you sit in far too many meetings and eat far too many sandwiches. So I swam laps for an hour everyday and walked on the beach. That was part of the journey back.”

Fecan had a reputation for being pretty Zen for a guy who wheeled and dealed and pulled off industry-rocking transactions. But in his estimation he’s more mellow now. But by no means is he out of the game.

Several companies tried to lure him out of retirement, but he declined. He did some free consulting for friends and remained philanthropically active, participating on the boards of the Art Gallery of Ontario and the University Health Network, and working with the Royal Conservatory of Music.

His biggest challenge was watching TV as a civilian again from the comfy sidelines of his couch. It made him itchy.

Then one day, Fecan, who owns a house in Montecito, CA, was taken to lunch in Los Angeles by Lionsgate Entertainment founder Frank Giustra and Peace Arch Entertainment founder Tim Gamble to talk up their latest venture, Vancouver’s Thunderbird Films, of which Giustra is director and largest investor and Gamble president and CEO. Fecan joined them as chair in April 2013.

“They started reeling me in, step-by-step. Now I’m pretty much in with both feet. I put in money, became executive chair, and got more interested. You put money in and all of a sudden you start paying real attention,” he says with a laugh.

Thunderbird already had Sea to Sky Entertainment, a content partnership with Lionsgate, and as Fecan joined it bought BC prodco Reunion Pictures (Continuum). After he came on board as an investor, the company went on a buying spree that included U.K. film distributor Soda Pictures (High-Rise), factual arm Great Pacific Media (Highway Thru Hell) and Atomic Cartoons (Atomic Betty).

Thunderbird also owns 50% of the rights to the Blade Runner property, and Giustra and Gamble are exec-producing a sequel to the 1982 cult sci-fi original. Harrison Ford reprises his role, playing alongside London, ON’s Ryan Gosling, with Quebec’s Denis Villeneuve in the director’s chair.

Fecan says Thunderbird’s goals are to be “a very creative-friendly content company and to bank big on people and brands. We’re quite agnostic about platform. It’s fun. I started my career as a producer, so I’m back to my roots.”

That’s what made him unique for the head of a billion-dollar-plus media giant: he was always part artist at heart. He studied film at York University – although by skipping ahead he didn’t collect enough credits to graduate – and cites Korean video-art pioneer Nam June Paik as an early influence. He even had an art installation at Greenwich Village’s Mercer Arts Center in the early 1970s.

He tried to sell his thesis film about a prisoner in the Saskatchewan Federal Penitentiary but says he “couldn’t get arrested to save my life,” and shrewdly packaged the soundtrack as a documentary for CBC Radio, which subsequently engaged him as a freelancer. It then brought him aboard to produce the first year of science show Quirks & Quarks, hosted by David Suzuki.

He transitioned to TV, working for Moses Znaimer at Citytv, where he co-created CityPulse News. His next guru was Brandon Tartikoff, wunderkind president of NBC Entertainment, whom Fecan was trying to sell a coproduction. They got to talking, and Tartikoff solicited his opinion on a new show he had commissioned.

“I told him what a piece of shit it was,” Fecan recalls. That ended their conversation. But Fecan’s assessment was borne out when the show bombed. Three months later, Tartikoff called him back and offered him a VP job. “He taught me that if you think somebody can help you, swallow your pride, hire them and work with them. Do whatever it takes to win.”

In 1987, after a couple of years at NBC during which Fecan feels he earned his “PhD in Television,” CBC came calling with an offer to be its director of TV programming. He jumped at it, in part to be closer to his wife, TV producer Sandra Faire. At the time, CBC’s slate was somewhat at the mercy of its area heads and their in-house producers, and Fecan controversially moved toward a system that emphasized development and the best idea winning, whether it came from inside or outside the pubcaster.

This opened the door wider to indie producers, and Fecan greenlit iconic hit series including The Kids in the Hall (Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video), Degrassi Junior High (Playing with Time) and This Hour Has 22 Minutes (Salter Street Films). “That was difficult, but the shows we put on the air have stood the test of time and were worth the aggravation and turmoil of getting them there,” he reflects.

He was promoted to VP English television, but greater glories lay ahead. In late 1993, Baton Broadcasting, owners of Toronto’s CFTO and other CTV affiliates, hired him away in its quest to take over network ownership by buying out the remaining affiliate partners and their network shares. Fecan became Baton president and CEO in 1996, and by the next year the company had its network. Fecan supplanted John Cassaday as president and CEO of CTV and Baton changed its name to CTV Inc.

The network, which previously had a primary purpose of supplying 40 hours of weekly programming to affiliate stations, could finally move forward.

“It hadn’t been a real company,” Fecan notes. “It was a co-op, and that meant pretty much everybody had to agree before we could do anything. Everything was a big discussion with all kinds of layers of politics. Somebody had to be able to make decisions, and once I got it all together we could do that.”

One of CTV Inc.’s first and biggest moves was to establish a bigger footprint in the burgeoning world of specialty, which it did in 2000 by acquiring an 80% voting interest in NetStar Communications, owners of sports channels TSN and RDS, Viewer’s Choice Canada and Discovery Channel Canada – a deal Fecan pegs at $800 million.

Sports has always been a big part of CTV’s strategy. One-time parent Bell Globemedia (BGM) and successor CTVglobemedia even held a minority stake in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment from 2003 to 2009. Fecan acknowledges he was laying the groundwork to scoop NHL broadcast rights after CBC’s deal expired, but those ended up going to Rogers in 2013 for $5.2 billion.

“The plan was to get the Olympics, the NFL, the CFL and as much NHL as possible,” he says. “I had been working very hard over the years towards getting the whole thing. I kept in touch with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. I would have put [regular-season and playoff] games on TSN and had the Stanley Cup Final on CTV, which we would have done just to make noise. CTV was always the instrument we used to create noise.”

That’s one that got away. Another was City – Fecan’s old place of employ – which BGM acquired in its $1.7 billion takeover of CHUM in 2006. But the CRTC then required CTV Inc. to sell off City for the deal to pass, so it sold those stations to Rogers.

“I wanted what City stood for in the day, not where they got to eventually,” Fecan says. “If we had gotten City, I would’ve tried to move it back to a news and movies formula and not just be buying American shows.”

But the approved CHUM deal came with plenty more, including a roster of specialties such as MuchMusic, Bravo!, Space and CP24, coast-to-coast radio stations and the A-Channels (which CTV originally planned to re-sell as part of the deal) which Bell Media rebranded as CTV Two.

“It’s better you hand it over to the next team, and if they need something they call,” he says. “But the last thing they need is a backseat driver. At times, as much as I’ve wanted to, I’ve been very disciplined in not picking up that phone, because the new team has to find their way. Hopefully I’ve given them a platform they can do better with than the platform I had when I started.”

Playback’s Canadian Film & Television Hall of Fame was founded in 2007 to recognize extraordinary achievements in the Canadian entertainment industry. Inductees are selected by a jury of their peers. Stay tuned for a brand new Hall of Fame website celebrating all our inductees, launching at the start of summer 2016.