André Bureau, Part 1: CRTC and the startup of Pay TV

Interviewed by Fil Fraser on March, 2012

My name is André Bureau. I’m currently Chairman of the Board of Astral; I’m responsible for regulatory affairs, government affairs, and industry relationships. I’m on the board of another company called Terrestar Canada. It’s a company that owns some spectrum on a satellite to install a new mobile service across Canada for people living in rural areas or for people in the army, because it’s a direct connection with satellite from the phone. So, it’s good for people who need secure connections like people in the army or the CIA. It’s a small Telecom. I’m on other boards but not related to the communication work.

Fraser. You’ve been in the communication business for a good long while… you’ve been at the CRTC….

Bureau. Yes, I was at Montréal’s daily newspaper La Presse as Executive Vice-President; then I went as President to Télémédia, which owned television and radio stations; and then I went as President to Cancom, which delivered satellite television and radio services to remote areas. From there I was appointed to the CRTC, where I had a fantastic experience for five years, three months and two weeks [chuckle] and I had to go after that. I was appointed for seven years, but I had spent all the severance pay that I had collected over the years and could not afford to stay in Ottawa at the time.

I returned to Montreal and joined Heenan Blaikie as Counsel – I’m still there – and a year later, I became President of the Astral broadcasting group, which at the time had four television stations – two Pay and two family type stations. Now we have 24 television stations, French and English (in a few weeks or months we may not have them any more [Bell was in the process of buying Astral at the time of the interview]); we have 84 radio stations in 52 markets across Canada; and we have an out-of-door series of 10,000 “faces,” as we call them, for advertising on auto routes across Canada, especially in BC, Ontario, and Québec.

F. So, you’re competing with Jim Pattison.

B. We are.

F. You’ve had a profound influence on the development of both television and film in the country.

B. Before I joined the Commission, it had initiated Pay TV services in 1981, I believe. They gave seven licenses at the time. We had applied for a license but we had said to them that if they gave more than one in English and one in French, people would compete in the United States to get the movies there and they would pay all their money there and there’d be nothing left to support the Canadian film industry. The Commission, in its wisdom, gave the licenses, and you may remember that they all went bankrupt within a year; that’s when Harold Greenburg and Dr. Allard bought the existing services and re-started that. At the time, the distributors of Canadian films were almost in bankruptcy because of the non-payment of their fees by the first licensees. Harold paid all the debts they had – the Canadian ones first and then the American services. So he paid all the debts of all the Pay-TV operators in eastern Canada, both French and English. When I joined the company, we started to ask for new, special pay services and they’re doing well, both in French and English, and we’re very proud of them.

F. Do you remember the big recommendation of the Broadcasting Task Force that J. Conrad Lavigne, Finlay MacDonald and I and others were part of? We recommended the separation of content and carriage… cable was just starting… I think you were at the CRTC at the time and you turned it down. Do you ever have second thoughts about that?

B. Yes, sometimes late at night [laughing]. If you remember at the time, Fil, the cable industry, the CAB [Canadian Association of Broadcasters]… everybody… was against launching specialty services. They all intervened saying, it would kill the industry, and that it would kill conventional television. Cable didn’t want to carry Canadian services; they thought they would never be able to sell them to Canadians. They thought Canadians preferred having American services. So, we were trying to establish a new type of system in Canada, with specialty and pay services. We thought that we should allow whoever wanted to take the risk, to go ahead and do it. That’s why we thought that it was preferable to allow people who were already distributors, for example, to be licensees for a specialty service; we needed to launch it somewhere. And that’s how the thing happened at the time. It was a difficult decision because we could also see the long-term risks that could exist. On the other hand, we felt that we needed people who were prepared to support these services and that, by having distributors involved, it would probably help to launch those services.

F. Ted Rogers was very involved at the time, and a passionate proponent of being in both sides of the business. And some of us thought that it shouldn’t be that way.

B. Yeah, I know. I remember that.

F. Do you remember the application for TV Canada that Conrad Lavigne and I put forward?

B. No, I don’t.

F. We wanted to develop a non-commercial channel for $1/month, which would be universally available, and you turned us down!

B. Why? Did we say why?

F. Because Mr. Rogers and the cable guys didn’t like it so much that they said they would sue if you authorized it.

B. I don’t remember that.

F. Well, he was a very powerful guy in the industry and managed to have his way.