Sean Cohan Outlines Bell Media Strategy


A veteran of A+E Networks and Nielsen, Sean Cohan is using his considerable international television experience to build on Bell Media’s strengths, spotlight its content creation and co-production prowess and meet audiences and clients wherever they are.

Bell Media notched up a record 249 nominations for this year’s Canadian Screen Awards, spread across the breadth of its assets, from market-leading broadcast outlet CTV and streamer Crave to specialty networks such as CTV Life Channel and CTV Sci-Fi Channel, sports network TSN, CTV News and Bell Media Studios. The quality and range of Bell Media’s original content investments were among the factors that enticed Sean Cohan to join the Canadian media company as president last November. A veteran of A+E Networks and Nielsen, Cohan is using his considerable international television experience to build on Bell Media’s strengths, spotlight its content creation and co-production prowess and meet audiences and clients wherever they are.

WS: When you joined Bell Media last year, what were the company’s strengths you wanted to build on? What can you tell us about the overarching strategy you’re implementing?
COHAN: I recognized globally unique assets, brands, content and people at the outset. It’s pretty rare when you get the opportunity to run a platinum set of platforms in a big market—Canada is 40 million-plus people, with 16 million TV households—with the leading broadcast network, CTV; the leading sports network, TSN [RDS in Québec]; the number one local streamer, fourth overall, in Crave; one of the biggest outdoor advertising players in Canada; one of the largest radio players; and then a range of valued specialty and pay-TV channels. We have strong knowledge of the audience, beloved brands, great content, partnerships with some of the best producers globally and a strong team. I’ve always thought Canada is underrated as a home and source of great content. That’s part of what I see as the opportunity.

We are leaning on our superior knowledge of the audience, growing that audience and monetizing that audience. There are a lot of challenges in global media. But we have an opportunity.

There are different ways to lean into these world-class assets and content-making abilities. Crave is big but should be bigger. We’re making great, global and profitable content; we can lean in and be more aggressive. We can have more digital ubiquity with our content. And we’re utilizing that audience knowledge and the fact that we offer advertisers almost anything they want. We’re omnichannel—outdoor, digital, video, audio; we do all of it. We know the audience, not just because of Bell Media but because Bell Canada is their cell phone or internet provider. We can anonymously target the right audience an advertiser wants and then measure and report how successful it was.

WS: Let’s talk more about the advertising piece. It is a soft market. What are your projections for this year, and how do you see Bell navigating the downturn?
COHAN: The ad market everywhere is experiencing some challenges. I would call it uneven. Some of the biggest global digital players are growing. Some legacy folks are shrinking. Some are flat. Some say flat is the new up!

I expect a marginal recovery in legacy, but fragmentation is happening. Ad dollars are moving to the digital side at times. Some of the broad-reach vehicles are having a tougher time. We’re omnichannel, we’re digital and legacy. I think we’re positioned better than most. We’re certainly positioned better than legacy players. We’re the best of all worlds. I have seen some encouraging signs. We had great viewership for the Super Bowl. We averaged 10 million viewers out of a market of only 40 million-plus people. About 19 million people tuned in for some part of the Super Bowl. We sold out. Spot rates were higher than ever. It’s a show of the momentum.

We have invested in strong, future-facing capabilities that allow targetability and measurability. We can deliver linear addressable TV. That’s targetability. We have our own DSP, so we can sell programmatically across our platform and other people’s. We built an optimizer that allows us to apply our first-party data to people’s buys.

WS: Tell us about the importance of your local content investments, and if you’re looking to pursue other alliances like the one you signed with FOX Entertainment Global late last year to fund Canadian content and monetize it globally.
COHAN: Canadian content is important to us. As you’d expect, it’s a big part of the mix of entertaining Canadians. We also have a big opportunity to entertain citizens of the world. We have a big original content slate; not including news, sports and daily live series, it’s more than 1,000 hours annually. We’re commissioning series with the intent for them to be renewed. More of our series are being sold to the U.S. Look at our partners’ [shows on] The CW schedule! A lot of it shares with Bell Media. We have a deal with FOX. We have a deal with Lionsgate. I’m bullish on our slate.

We must make [content that is] great, global and profitable. In service of great, we have to be creative, aggressive, flexible, open and experimental. We see our partners as being similarly oriented—flexible and practical. We also have to make sure we get our fair share. Sometimes, our contribution, creatively and financially, gets short shrift. We need ownership in the outcome. It’s not just about the success of Canadian content in Canada or the U.S. We have an expectation and right to be competitive in quality global content production.

WS: As you know, the sports sector is undergoing much change. Rights are moving from free-to-air to streaming, and the FOX-Disney-Warner Bros. Discovery joint venture has raised some eyebrows. How are you approaching that landscape?
COHAN: Sports is still appointment TV viewing. TSN, our number one sports property, is very important to what we do. We have platinum—F1, NFL, NBA, regional NHL, the Masters and tons more key properties. Sports rights costs have spiraled. We are fortunate enough to have cultivated these long-term partnerships. We’ve been leading for 40 years. We’re a broad-reach vehicle. For example, we simulcast the Super Bowl on CTV, TSN and various digital platforms. We had a record number of viewers for the Super Bowl and two weeks before in the penultimate playoff game because of the high drama of the contests and because we have this built-in reach. And we have the financial wherewithal to get these rights.

Sometimes, somebody else with smaller reach can show up with a bigger check, but they may not partner to cultivate a league’s emerging fan base or reach close to as many people. With smaller reach vehicles, in the short run, the sports rightsholder wins because they have the big check, but in the long run, both the rights­holder and the fan lose due to exposure.

We have a great mix of rights and a competitive ability to keep and grow that great portfolio of rights, regardless of how big the storm is out there and what the other platforms are doing. It is a complicated market. There are plenty of interesting ways for “coopetition.” You see it with the three-headed U.S. monster. Broadcasters are getting together, and different platforms are getting together to deliver customers the best experience.

WS: Let’s shift gears to Crave. How are you positioning it, and how are you looking to scale it?
COHAN: It’s a broad offering, with the best of HBO, STARZ, legacy Showtime and other big global franchise offerings; great Canadian productions; mass appeal library hits like Friends and The Office; Hollywood blockbusters; unscripted and comedies. It is the largest Canadian-owned streamer.

It’s number four behind three of the usual suspects that you would imagine. We think there’s tremendous upside. Given the quality of the offering and the ubiquity of Bell servicing the Canadian consumer, it can and should be bigger. Bell Media’s monthly reach of 31 million doesn’t even include everyone BCE [Bell Canada Enterprises] reaches through all of its assets. We have great content people want to watch, an important role in daily Canadian life and the ability to market that platform.

WS: What’s the approach to pricing?
COHAN: There’s no free option today, but there is a lower-cost ad-supported option. We introduced that in July 2023. We’ve learned lessons from some of the players in the U.S. to be successful. We also have the premium, ad-free tier. Both have a robust future.

WS: What message are you instilling in your teams about surviving what looks like a challenging year?
COHAN: Organizations will continue to evolve, and that’s painful. We’re going to come out the other side stronger, leaner and more focused. Along the way, we will produce compelling experiences and interact with the consumer in a way that hopefully delights them. There is no silver bullet.

As a leader, it’s important that there continues to be empathy, passion and stamina. It’s going to be a grind—it’s tough. But we’re doing what we love. And it’s servant leadership—reminding folks that they don’t work for me, I work for them; running interference, trying to get things done, unlocking people’s potential. And sometimes, it’s making tough decisions that people don’t like.

WS: I’m curious about your thoughts on the FAST space and what role Bell has to play there.
COHAN: FAST looks like what industry veterans are used to, but if you look closer, it’s actually back to the future. It has the advantage of a linear, lean-back curated experience and the targetability of the digital end of the video spectrum. It’s a part of the mix—we have to deliver content where consumers want it. You could expect us to be very active in FAST soon. Canada isn’t yet in the same place as the U.S. But it’s not far behind. We will be pretty active.