Bell Media’s Randy Lennox


Randy Lennox, the president of Bell Media, tells World Screen that he is optimistic about the future of the television business, including linear channels, as he crafts a strategy for the company that emphasizes content creation, technological innovation, programming partnerships and live events.

WS: Markets across the globe are experiencing different levels of disruption as viewing habits change. What is the Canadian media landscape facing today?
LENNOX: The thing that comes to my mind first and foremost is trying to stay a progressive thinker in linear television—which is CTV, and 30 specialty [services]—while running CraveTV, our SVOD. In a way, it’s fun and stimulating, but also very challenging to keep those three very different plates spinning. It’s exacerbated by the fact that there’s a lot of incoming traffic with many SVODs already in the market and many to come. So the great news is that every day around here is like a year! [Laughs]

WS: Let’s start with CTV, which I understand is the number one network for the 16th consecutive year. What programming strategies, and specific shows, are driving that success?
LENNOX: We’ve focused on CTV as a trusted, “heart” brand. We’ve been fortunate to get shows like This Is Us and Designated Survivor, but as you may know we’ve repositioned Bell Media here in Canada as a content company. The number one original show in the country is Cardinal, which is a made-at-home Canadian series that we produced. The number one show, and this includes international content, on CraveTV is also a made-in-Canada show, Letterkenny. I’m very proud of some of the early milestones we’ve achieved in terms of the content we are creating. The first one I mentioned, Cardinal, where our international partnership is with eOne, we’re in 100 countries now. Canal+ has picked it up in France, BBC has picked it up in the U.K., and Hulu in the U.S. So the content we’re creating is starting to do well not only here in Canada but is also traveling internationally.

WS: Tell us about the commitment Bell Media has made to the Canadian production industry.
LENNOX: We established the Harold Greenberg Fund some years ago, and we have invested over C$85 million in the Canadian film and television industry to date. That’s financial support for Canadian producers through aid programs for more than 4,000 projects. We’re also committed to several key organizations that are essential to growing and nurturing Canadian productions and talent. These include the Banff World Media Festival, where we are a grand patron sponsor; the Canadian Screen Awards, where we are a principal partner and participate in a range of events and marketing initiatives that we help organize and execute to promote and celebrate Canadian Screen Week; Telefilm Canada’s Talent Fund; and we’re a Patron Sponsor of the CMPA’s Prime Time in Ottawa initiative. Also, we’re passionate about creating and supporting Canadian content that airs across our platforms. In 2017-18 alone, we’ll introduce 32 new English-language Canadian programs. This represents 237 hours of original programming commissioned from independent producers across the country.

WS: You mentioned Cardinal as having been a big success. What other original-programming initiatives are you excited about?
LENNOX: The Russell Peters comedy The Indian Detective is coming out on CTV this fall. That’s in partnership with Netflix. Canada has been great at running imported formats like MasterChef and The Amazing Race, which we’ve had a lot of success with, but we haven’t taken brands and extrapolated those outside of our country. So now we’ve done a music show called The Launch. I was involved with The Voice and American Idol in a prior career at Universal. The Launch is a very interesting concept where we own the brand and we’ve had a ton of international interest. This is also a CTV show and our mentors/judges are world-class with a mix of Canadian and international stars. I’m very excited about the fact that we’re going to travel our content outside of our borders.

Another example of us trying to do things somewhat differently is our joint venture with Iconic Entertainment Studios and Michael Cohl. We have a musical theater production [Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell The Musical] that ran in Manchester and London and it’s opening in Toronto in October. We’ve had a number of other countries put their hand up. So similar to The Launch, it’s funny that the lion’s share of the revenue will not come from our own geo [geography], it will actually come from international. We think that not only is Bat Out of Hell the first of many in terms of [live stage performances], we’re also looking at filming it, whether that’s for a television broadcast or some form of film. There’s been a great deal of tire-kicking from several producers, well-known ones I might add, who want to do something with this in the visual arts.

WS: And you have the brilliant Orphan Black!
LENNOX: Is it not genius? It breaks my heart [that this was its] final season. Tatiana [Maslany, the star of the show] is incredibly gifted and has very generously given us all of her energy in creating such an incredible success story for our company. We’re very, very proud of that. We’re actually in talks to try and figure out the next steps with that entire production camp, of whom we’re very big fans.

WS: Orphan Black aired on SPACE, one of your specialty channels. Tell us about the strengths of that 30-service portfolio.
LENNOX: On Bravo, we were fortunate enough to get The Handmaid’s Tale, which became Bravo’s most-watched series ever with 1 million viewers. Now we’re moving it over to CraveTV. We’re spending a lot of time on windowing. And speaking of that, another thing we’ve invented here is Snackable TV. It’s a mobile app with content of between 30 seconds and 4 minutes. It’s an incredibly well-received and well-reviewed app. Why do I mention that? Because with Bell being the parent company, there’s a vertical there that we get to take advantage of. Because I come from another world, I’m not looking at Bell as owning a television company. We’re a properly vertically integrated company. So when you buy a new phone, for example, Snackable TV will already be on there. That’s an exciting thing we’re undertaking as well.

WS: Given that we are all accessing content in so many different ways, what do linear channels have to do to remain relevant?
LENNOX: It’s interesting. As you know, no one is watching television without having a second screen in their hands. Recently with The Amazing Race Canada, I made a deal with a company to run mobile real-time responses back onto linear TV. Let me explain what I mean. If The Amazing Race has four sets of two people competing in that particular episode, and they’re climbing a mountain in Vancouver, British Columbia, you can, in real time, at home through your mobile, vote on who you think is going to win. At any given time it’s like looking at an election, where 56 percent are going for this person, and 42 percent are going for this person. It’s adding a very nonlinear element to a traditional medium. And we’re getting brilliant reviews on it. People are already excited about The Amazing Race Canada, which is stimulating content on linear. Even going into commercials, we might ask a question, for example, What did you think of that mountain in Vancouver? Have you been there? So there’s stuff to keep you active even during commercial breaks on linear. This is how I look at it—when you go to a basketball game, the most stimulating part of the game is often when there’s no basketball on the court. And if you look at linear television that way, by stimulating other ancillary things around it, then I think it’s a sustainable asset.

WS: Let’s talk about the CRTC mandates on basic-cable packages and skinny bundles. What impact has that had on Bell Media?
LENNOX: I don’t want to be either under- or over-dramatic. So I’ll say this: the anticipation of the event was far more gargantuan than the event itself. [Laughs] I’m being gentle here. We all said, “This is going to be this complex nightmare for us!” In fact, it’s not been. Adaptive behavior is the cure to any challenge. So that would be my answer. We are, by nature, being adaptive in our business, as we should be, and we’re also realizing that it wasn’t the tsunami that it was professed to be coming in. That is of less concern to me than what I would call the ubiquitous challenge. What I mean by that is, as I look out at the horizon of Hulu, Amazon, Apple Music, Google/YouTube, Netflix and many, many others, I’m more concerned about the crowded-space issue than I am about the pick-and-pay issue.

WS: What have you learned about how your viewers are engaging with your nonlinear assets? Are you investing in different kinds of content for CraveTV?
LENNOX: What we’re trying to do is not make CraveTV feel like it’s an also-ran. Let me give you an example. The show I mentioned that we’re very proud of, Canada’s number one original drama, Cardinal, we ran it on CraveTV the night before we ran it on CTV linear. We were strategically rewarding those that were interested in it, and then after the six episodes ran on CTV linear, the in-season stack was already resident on CraveTV. Letterkenny was designed for CraveTV. It’s a big hit here. We resisted the notion of putting it on TV because we told CraveTV we wanted it to be authentic and we wanted the CraveTV loyalists to be rewarded. We said it’s a CraveTV original, exclusively on that service. We would never betray [CraveTV subscribers’] trust. It would be analogous to you [subscribing to] Netflix for House of Cards and then the next day it’s on NBC. The other thing we’ve done that is appropriate is there was a time when a season would finish on CTV and it would hit CraveTV ten months later. We’re much closer to day and date. The Handmaid’s Tale is a great example. It comes full circle to my earlier comment about adaptive behavior—every rule that I make on Tuesday, I break and change on Wednesday [laughs]. That’s the way I like it!

WS: Your background is in the music industry. What lessons do you think the content business has learned from how the music industry handled the move to streaming and downloads?
LENNOX: I think the television business vastly underestimated how expeditious the digital move would be. I don’t think anyone would argue against the point that they thought it would be much more gradual than it was. It’s a perfect example of what happened in music. When that tidal wave started and the physical deterioration began with the Tower Records and the HMVs and Virgins closing in the mid-2000s, even then there was some form of denial in the music business. As a result, it extrapolated over to film—people said, that’s just going to incrementally adjust in three and four percentiles every year. I was saying, When this thing starts, it’s like a choo-choo train—when it begins to pick up momentum, it is the dissolution of traditional mediums. That has proven itself to be true in music. I don’t think it’s the case [in television]. I think the scale of linear is such that the advertisers are still very, very healthy. The rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated. I qualify myself as the new guy looking with a fresh pair of eyes. I can tell you very objectively that linear is a phenomenal part of our overall business. I’m looking at PwC-based trajectories, I’m looking at my own realistic trajectories to 2021, and I don’t see it deteriorating with the rapidity that the music business did, because it’s so robust. You don’t have to get in your car to watch your TV because it’s in your house. You did have to get in your car and go to HMV. I just think that’s going to slow that process down. I also think that using second screens for real-time information and doing as much live linear television as possible is salient to it staying buoyant.

WS: We discussed Snackable TV. Are there other ways in which CTV or your other channels are collaborating with Bell’s mobile business?
LENNOX: Very much so. CTV Go, for example, we have several hundred thousand [users] on there. We are getting content, particularly short-form content, out through mobile every day. TSN, our partnership with ESPN, is so reliant on statistics and highlights that it’s perfect for mobile in terms of its attention span. Obviously you’re not going to watch an entire football game on mobile, or rarely would you, but certainly, with the highlights, we’re getting a ton of action through mobile.

WS: As you look ahead to the next one to two years, in what areas are you planning to up your investment?
LENNOX: Because Bell is such a vertically integrated company, we’re spending a lot of energy around live. We’ll probably run 8 to 12 events this year. Many are iHeart events, awards, concerts and things of that nature. We’re growing that part of the company. There’s nothing cookie cutter about running events and monetizing them and figuring out new ways to get them seen. I’m pumped about that. I’m very excited about some of the strategic alliances on the film and television content side that we’re building. We’re in several NDAs [non disclosure agreements] as we speak in terms of what I call getting rich creative uncles in the room. As you know, to compete in content you can’t feel municipal. The caliber of content out there in the world doesn’t know a geo, it doesn’t care what the geo is. So you can’t go, aw shucks, I’m just Canadian and that’s why it’s not so hot. [Laughs] Right? I just landed from L.A.—my sole purpose for being out there was to find rich uncles and big brothers and sisters to help us calibrate our content upwards. We made a show called Frontier, which was a massive hit on Discovery in Canada. It’s a 50-50 deal between us and Netflix. Had we not positioned that deal, the caliber of the show would not have been the same. Jason Momoa from Game of Thrones agreed to come up and star. Let’s be honest; you need money for these things. You don’t want to scale like you’re a population of 36 million, even though you are. So I spend a great deal of my time on airplanes, trying to say, just because we’re small doesn’t mean we’re dumb. We’re out there creatively, with the best of them. The Canadian music business has proven that all day long and the Canadian television business, I think, is very much poised to do the same. But we do need big brothers to help us.

WS: Are there other areas of Bell’s business you’re excited about?
LENNOX: To give some context that I think is statistically interesting, we make 45,000 hours per year of Canadian English television. We have 2,700 people who are involved in production. That production is news, sports, television shows, morning talk shows. That’s an exciting number. At the Canadian Screen Awards, which is our Emmys meets the Oscars, we won 53 out of the 100 awards last year. We’re very proud of those things. If you said to me, Randy, what is your message? My message is, good energy. This company is going to be energized; it’s going to be lateral in its thinking. Like all new relationships, and my relationship with this company is new, there’s a certain energy and momentum that we’re trying to build foundationally to [develop] a really interesting business here. I don’t want to be looked at as traditional in any sense of the word. I know everybody says that, but I think we’re walking the walk so far.