Gary Maavara, Part 1: Beginnings

Interviewed by Fil Fraser on June, 2011

My name is Gary Maavara.  I'm Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Corus Entertainment.  Corus is a multimedia company that has 37 radio stations across Canada; we are a leader in news/ talk radio across the country. We have about two dozen television channels focused on kids’ space, channels like YTV, Treehouse, Teletoon and Nickelodeon. In the women’s audience space, we have Cosmopolitan Television, Women’s Network, and have just launched the Oprah Winfrey Network in Canada. On the movie side, we have Movie Central and Encore in Western Canada.

We are the largest producer of kids’ animated programming in the world. We compete with people like Disney, selling in 160 countries in 40 languages. We're also the largest kids’ book publisher in Canada, with Kids Can Press.

Fraser.  That's a very eclectic combination of assets. Who started this and how did it come together?

Maavara. It's not as eclectic as it sounds because our focus is kids and their parents, the primary parent being women.  The company is about 11 years old; basically the Shaw family had it as part of their other acquisitions and they decided to spin it out into a publicly traded company. The company has grown as a mix of new acquisitions and product launches. We are roughly an $800 million company in revenue and we are worth about 1.5 billion in terms of market cap.

F. It started with radio, didn't it?

M. I wasn't there right at the beginning; but I think it started with YTV and radio concurrently.

F.  Radio stations right across the country were part of the Corus radio network.

M.  Yeah. Those were WIC stations; Corus also bought the radio stations from Power Corporation and some other odds and ends. That all happened about 11 years ago; they picked up YTV around that time, I believe.

F.  How did you get into the entertainment business?

M. I've been in the entertainment business since I was fourteen. I grew up in a poor household; all us kids were always looking for ways to add value to the household. At the local Y. the ladies used to do afternoon teas and they used to spend a lot of time fussing with how to organize it. So I said that, for four dollars a week, I would organize all their teas after school.  I would buy the cookies, the tea.  I would wash the dishes. I would set up a podium. That's how I got into the business. A year later, I was running dances that were the most popular in Montréal and dealing with pretty good artists. I started in television doing concert work in the 70s. Then, I got a degree in Boston in communications research, with a minor in public policy and went back to work for CFCF in Montréal.  It was a CTV affiliate and did a lot of local, in-house production. We were doing about three shows for CTV at that time.  In 1979, I left to go to law school because I wanted to learn what I called the “mumbo-jumbo”; there were always these things around the production that I did not understand. So I went to Osgood in Toronto and worked at an ad agency for David Harrison who was at Harrison, Young, Pesanon, and Newell, which is now part of PHD, which is now one of the largest ad agencies in the world. They had me around just to read stuff and tell them what was new, which was great. After law school, I practised on Bay Street for five years and then went to CTV. I had a bunch of jobs there ranging from General Counsel, to Head of Engineering, to Head of Programming.

F.  With that diverse background, you have a better chance than most to see how the regulatory environment has affected film and broadcast over the past 30 years. I wonder what your views are of how we've done.

M.  These days there's a lot of griping about it, but when you look back, there were some great visionaries (including yourself as part of the work that you did in a variety of areas, including the Caplan-Sauvageau Report). You are part of that, going back to people like Pierre Juneau, who has been given a lot of credit on the music side. There have been visionaries going back to the 1920s. This building here, the Banff Springs Hotel, sort of resonates with that because the Canadian communications system was centred on the railroad system, which was the only place where there was radio.

But the regulatory system evolved. The first issue was getting a signal out to Canadians and solving the technical issues around that. The next issue was finding a place in Canadian minds, so we had the creation of the CBC, the private stations, and networks like CTV in the early 60s. The third element was creating the content and some form of infrastructure. And a generally, especially when you look at how dynamic the Banff Festival is, those regulatory tools have worked quite well. Was there some tinkering over the years? Yes. Could some things have been done better than others? Was some milk spilt?  Sure.  But, generally, we have a pretty dynamic system in Canada.

The problem that we've always had is one of scale; we've always lived next door to that huge place that not only gets the attention of our audiences, but also swipes a talented person or two, or 300. For example, there's a big hockey game tonight and I'm sure a lot of people in the entertainment business in Los Angeles will watch the game: they're all Canadians! So, generally, I think the regime we have of awarding licenses, and asking those licenses to contribute in some way with public spending, is good. The important thing about public spending is that it has important residual cultural benefits that don't often come into the conversation. One of my favourite examples is Stratford, which doesn't relate to the electronic media at all, but is an example of vision that has had an astounding cultural and financial benefit. Here we had this town that was losing its railway repair facility, and a wacky guy named Patterson who went to city Council and said, “I'm going to start this high-end Shakespeare-based Theatre Company.” City Council looked at him and thought he was crazy; this was in 1951. But they said, “What do you need?” And he said, “I need some money to get to New York City to talk to Tyrone Guthrie to see if he would come here.” They gave him 150 bucks; it was a big investment. The first year they used a big tent; he convinced Guthrie to come, and now Stratford is one of the world's best and continues to be the largest theatre on earth with a thrust stage. The city of Stratford is dynamic. I find that interesting.

We have a high-end intellectual property firm on Wall Street. I was having dinner with one of the senior partners there and I asked him, “What do you do for fun?” He said, “My family and I have just spent a week in Stratford.” And I was ashamed to say that he knew Stratford better than I did.