Loren Mawhinney Part 3: Vertical Integration

Interviewed by Fil Fraser at Banff World Media Festival on June, 2011

Mawhinney. When I was a chooser… you know the term beggars and choosers?… Global was making money and management wanted to contribute to the Canadian industry. So, there was a lot of support. Traders, Outer Limits, and Ready or Not were huge successes for us. And we will also did the first music show: Popstars. If there's a will, you can actually make wonderful programs happen.

Now that I'm on the other side and we do history, science and lifestyle programs, we've run Mega Builders for many years on Discovery; we do a series on bikers for History. We have a very broad portfolio of things that we do now.

F. Does the fact that you now have fewer doors to knock on have an effect on your business? We have only three entities that are in the business of running networks and running distribution systems: they are vertically integrated.

M. Yes. It's definitely affected us. There's much less leverage. You cannot say, "If you don't like it, we'll just go over there.” In the Specialty world, everybody is quite distinct. So, what will work for W will not work for Slice. OLN [Outdoor Life Network] is very different from Discovery; politically, we’re in a much less advantaged position.

F. Are you surprised that Specialty channels are doing well?

M. If you have fee-for-carriage, that gives you a dream of revenue to build on. The migration of the advertisers to the Specialties has made them far more lucrative.

F. How do you confront the technologies when you're essentially making content? All the new technologies are expanding and going in different directions that we have no clue about. How do you prepare for that and how do you deal with it?

M. First of all, we prioritize. You don't spend the same amount of money on everything that is Internet-related. We did a big special for History called Storming Juno. It was about the Canadian landing in Normandy on D-Day. That had a very dynamic and rich website. For that, we partnered with someone who knows what they're doing online because it's not something that's part of our expertise. Viewers could go anywhere on that beach and get a 360° view of what was going on, clicking on various points on the screen, and that would tell the story of a soldier, or the location. If viewers were interested in that story, they could have a rich experience that was different from, yet added to, the television experience. We don't do it for every project; but, for the bigger budget, prestigious stuff, we do.

We have a series for Slice called Rebound, about women getting their mojo back. We developed some information on their website on the history of burlesque, the history of the costumes, and about the music that was used... that's a far more modest and straightforward approach to the digital world.

F. Do you wish that you could bring that in-house?

M. Oh, that we can do for sure. Our production team did that one because it did not require extensive knowledge in another medium.

F. How does the Banff television Festival figure into all of this?

M. To have a place where people can get together and exchange ideas is always magical. So, there will always be a place for this conference. They had wonderful speakers this morning at the keynote. The chairman of 20th Century Fox was terrific. That helps Banff stay relevant. And, so long as key buyers are here, the producers will come because they want to pitch the key buyers.

F. Where do you think you and your organization will be five years out?

M. I would never have predicted that our organization would be as big as it is now. It's such a new company: only two years old. But it's the biggest production-distribution company in Canada. We've got something like eight large drama series shooting simultaneously, a show on HBO called Hung, one on ABC called Rookie Blue, and we’re just launching The Firm. It's a very dynamic organization. So, for our department, we expect to have double the volume we have now.

F. Gross revenues?

M. I'm going to say $40 million a year.

F. How many people?

M. About 300 and growing. It's big, isn't it? It's like the old Alliance Atlantis days before they became broadcasters.

F. So you don't want to become a broadcaster... you should stick to your knitting.

M. That's right. I saw Michael MacMillan at the festival. Did you see him? He looks 10 years younger now that he's retired and back into the fray. So I think not doing those big broadcasting jobs and taking risks is good for the health.

F. Years ago, when we were all part of SPTV, we were a small group of Specialty channels fighting for our very existence. And look at it now!