Izzy Asper (Profile) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Izzy Asper (Profile)

Izzy Asper, who describes himself as a former intravenous martini taker, is enjoying the curious gastronomic convergence of a glass of red wine and a sorbet of some indescribable flavor, the origins of which are made more difficult to discern by the Craven A that Asper is concurrently smoking.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 19, 1996

Asper, Izzy (Profile)

Izzy Asper, who describes himself as a former intravenous martini taker, is enjoying the curious gastronomic convergence of a glass of red wine and a sorbet of some indescribable flavor, the origins of which are made more difficult to discern by the Craven A that Asper is concurrently smoking. The setting is the Velvet Glove in Winnipeg, an establishment dining-room of the red-meat-and-lobster-bisque variety, accessible via the underground labyrinth at Portage and Main that not only binds the corporate core of the city, but keeps its participants out of the lung-sucking -40° C weather outside. Pre-windchill. There is a fire in the hearth. At the far end of the room, a corner banquette sits empty, as visually telling a metaphor as Tiny Tim's crutch. It was in this upholstered settee that Jack Fraser, once head of the once-mighty Federal Industries Ltd., used to hold court. After the metals-to-stationery-to-transportation conglomerate stumbled, rationalized and moved out of its grand corporate palace atop Winnipeg's TD Centre, Fraser offered Asper his unofficial Velvet Glove office for conducting after-five affairs. The gesture, says Asper, was supposed to make him feel "all warm and fuzzy." Asper declined.

He did, however, take over Fraser's corporate headquarters, three swish floors that from the 33rd-storey penthouse offers the highest view of the city. At first, Asper worried that the offices were too luxe. "Then we thought, 'Screw it,' " and moved in anyway. It is from here that Asper rules CanWest Global Communications Corp., by far the country's most profitable broadcaster. During this rudely cold week in January, Global has broadcast, according to the A. C. Nielsen "People Meters," a top 10 ratings shutout in the critical Toronto-Hamilton market, from Friends to Seinfeld to The Super Bowl. "Izzy is brilliantly successful in this country," says communications analyst Murray Grossner of CIBC Wood Gundy. "He's got 16 per cent of the viewing audience but more than 30 per cent of the profits."

Asper's lock on the company's multiple voting shares - he holds all 26 million - has also made him one of the country's richest corporate players. Last Nov. 23 was what Asper calls "B Day," when the market capitalization of CanWest stock passed $1 billion. He was miffed that nobody took any notice, so he scanned a list of shareholders and sent faxes to 20 or 30 or so, pointing out the news. Some of the recipients had long since sold their stock and were therefore not amused. No matter. Asper himself is worth at least $600 million, which means that the Aspers now vie with the Richardsons for the title of wealthiest clan in Winnipeg. The Richardsons have been building their family fortune since the First World War. Izzy Asper did not get started in the broadcasting business until 1974, when he bought KCND in Pembina, N.D., hauled it north to Winnipeg, and flipped the call letters to CKND. There followed a couple of corporate setbacks - "deferring events," Asper calls them - and courtroom brawls that make all the more surprising his progress since then. To Australia. To New Zealand. To Chile. Asper is now 63. By the time he is through, he wants to have carved a global broadcasting force. He does not say that he will have built a dynasty, but his three offspring have taken on key corporate roles, and they will accede to ownership, so there is that, too.

The current focus of Izzy Asper's entrepreneurial thoughts is the building of Canada's third national network. To that end, CanWest has filed applications with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for stations in Victoria, and Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Red Deer in Alberta. The company is still awaiting a hearing on its proposed acquisition, through a joint venture with TéléMetropole, of Quebec City's CKMI, which would, through signal extension, give it Montreal. With its existing MITV in Dartmouth, N.S., and U.TV in Vancouver, licensing approval would give Asper his national dream, a sea-to-sea spread of English-language airwaves.

Perhaps in part to convince observers of the contributions it would make as a network - or "system," as Asper prefers to call it - CanWest has invested in new all-Canadian programming efforts. On Feb.1, CanWest Global started airing Traders, a sleek series of one-hour shows produced by Atlantis Films Ltd. of Toronto. Traders aims to provide an inside look at the omniverous equities, bonds and commodities set, capitalism in prime time. On launch night, the show drew 450,000 viewers in Ontario, an extremely strong showing against the phenomenally popular er.

Traders costs $800,000 an episode, which is not nearly, as many reports have claimed, the most expensive Canadian-made series. Atlantis president Michael MacMillan says one-hour series typically cost between $700,000 and $1.1 million an episode - the early episodes of Due South cost more than $1 million, as did Atlantis's own Tek Wars. What is different about Traders is that the show was fully financed in Canada. CanWest is not the largest investor. Crown-owned Telefilm Canada can claim that, having anted up $4 million, covering 38 per cent of the show's budget. CanWest's investment was $3.5 million. Says MacMillan: "Without them, the show wouldn't have happened. Period." The backing brought CanWest wonderful press. Why, Asper himself even appears in a cameo as Izzy the Jazz Pianist. For this, Asper had to sign a union contract. In exchange, he wanted to know where the ashtray was going to be, where the drinks were going to be.

Asper knows how to play to a crowd. Such programming does not, however, define his network intentions. When he says he wants to create a "competitive third option" to CTV and CBC, he is speaking as a die-hard news junkie. There is, he says, a CBC view of the world. And sometimes a CTV view. He believes Canadian viewers need a third optic. "My thing from television is, I wanna know. I'm not going to go out and phone Bosnia, ask how things are. I'm curious. I want to know, What the hell are we doing there? I want people to question that. Whaddaya mean British Columbia got a veto in order to give Quebec a veto? Isn't that illegal?"

Asper never lets his friends, or anyone for that matter, forget that he was one of the first to come out against the Meech Lake accord. It was during Meech that Asper's distaste for the CBC in editorial terms became fully formed. He sucks in a Craven A, then blows out a low, nicotine-infused growl: "The CBC, instead of expressing a view that was reasoned, objective, considered and responsible, became a promoter of hysteria and presented an inaccurate and dishonest view of Canada as espoused by the hysterical Mulroney crowd, that what was at stake was Canada. In my opinion, all the public affairs broadcasting the CBC did was, if you want to be cynical, call it rigged. It certainly had a slant. At the very least, it had a bias." And so, Asper's dreamed-of network, which he suggests could have been called ABC were the name not already taken, will offer something new. "The more broadcasting points of view there are," he says, "the more informed the public will be, and the more balanced the points of view will be." It is an obvious question, but it needs, for the record, to be asked nonetheless: will the CanWest national system have a point of view? Says Asper: "You're damn right it will." And how will that point of view be formed? There are, says Asper, a number of options. An editorial board is one. "Nobody has to agree with me," he adds, "provided their disagreements are well formed." But didn't Jim Sward, president of the CanWest Global System, which operates the company's nine Canadian stations, say to the media just last month that the CanWest network would not try to "out-Peter Mansbridge Peter Mansbridge"? To Asper, that merely means that he will not run a competing national news show at 10 o'clock. And what will he call this network? Someone at CanWest of a much younger vintage than the boss has suggested it simply be called Fred.

The television community is small, incestuous and inward-looking. As such, it is difficult to wrest commentary as to just why Izzy Asper would want to do this, particularly given the rather perverse economics of networks. "I think there's only one reason why he wants to do this," says one network player. "Ego. There certainly isn't a business reason for doing it. He wants to be seen as the father, or grandfather, of the next national network." Phil Fraser, president of Toronto-based specialty channel Vision TV, says he would never discount Asper's cleverness. "There's a method in whatever madness he seems to be embracing," he says.

As Fraser says, the game for all broadcasters, and particularly general interest broadcasters, is to get what he calls "eyeballs," which, of course, draw advertisers. Asper has no eyeballs in Alberta. He applied for licences there two years ago and was rejected. At the time, the CRTC noted Alberta's strained economic state, and said that CanWest's proposal failed to offer anything by way of program quality or distinctiveness to offset the negative impact on the existing three licencees. But now, Alberta is back in the economic saddle, as it were. And CanWest has trumped its application for licence there with promises of national benefits. Glen Campbell, an analyst at Bunting Warburg Inc. in Toronto, foresees no difficulties for CanWest going into markets that already have three players: Western International Communications Inc. (WIC) of Vancouver, CTV and CBC. He believes CanWest would grab the No. 1 or No. 2 spot. "Clearly, the implications for WIC would be negative," says Campbell. CanWest currently sublicenses all that popular prime-time programming to WIC in the Alberta markets. If its applications are successful, it would broadcast that programming itself. Last month, WIC filed suit against CanWest alleging that the companies agreed orally last summer to extend the sublicensing agreement for another 10 years.

Izzy Asper lives his life by axioms: keep your options open - but don't commit until you have to; don't bet the shop. His children had a short list of 35 framed for his office wall. Another could well be: another day, another lawsuit. Asper started his professional career as a lawyer, and aside from his five years as the leader of the Manitoba Liberals - an anemic three-man party in the 1970s - his career has been marked by corporate courtroom fights, which he usually wins. There was the 1988 battle with the Allard clan over control of CKVU in Vancouver, now called U.TV. He won that. There was the tortuous fight for control of Global TV. He won that, too. The company's move into Network Ten in Australia took it into regulatory battles there, combating allegations that it illegally controlled the network in contravention of that country's foreign investment laws. CanWest won. In fact, about the only time Asper did not end up in court was during the infamous bust-up with Gerry Schwartz, with whom he had attempted to build a Winnipeg-based conglomerate. Then again, Asper's ideas about corporate direction were voted down by the board by a margin of nine to one, which did not give him much room to manoeuvre.

When Asper and Schwartz fell out in 1983, 90 per cent of the then-shareholders followed Schwartz to Toronto to invest in his leveraged buy-out shop, Onex Corp. Asper retained control of the broadcasting assets, including 45 per cent of Global, and a couple of shareholders. It was not, emotionally, the best of times. The following year, he had a triple bypass, during which time cigarettes were smuggled into the hospital by co-conspirators.

Without Global, the company's central Ontario power, all Asper had was a string of fair to middling television stations. To look at CanWest today without Global is to see money-losing stations in Saskatchewan and Atlantic Canada and a barely profitable CKND. The Global win in 1988 allowed Asper to aspire to "greater pretensions." He handed programming responsibility to David Mintz. "Mintz made it happen," says Ray Heard, former news director at Global. "Izzy was the strategist. Mintz got the Super Bowl, The Young and the Restless, 60 Minutes." In the early CKND days, it was programming of cheap reruns, The Honeymooners - "We ran that for, God, I don't know how many years," says Asper - I Love Lucy, Gilligan's Island - "We lived off that for a few bloody years, too" - that made money for CanWest. Photographic mementoes are kept on office walls of these business builders, though the one of Charlie's Angels in their surfed hair and body-hugging togs was ordered removed after a 6 to 5 vote. No one imagined then that such beginnings would take Asper within spitting distance of Canada's billionaires' club.

Asper eases his black Mercedes 500 SL onto the ice-rutted roads of downtown Winnipeg. He turns up the jazz vocals and relates how he favors this model Mercedes over the old one, because the old one required a degree in engineering from MIT to get the top up, which meant that the day Asper drove then-Finance Minister John Turner to the airport and it poured ... well, Asper says Turner was the consummate gentleman and never said a word.

Asper swings from story to story as he steers the Mercedes with the push-button convertible roof along Wellington Crescent, past the fine homes of what was once a strong corporate establishment, the nice ones, on the riverside. As he turns into the driveway leading to his thoroughly modern bungalow, he points to a bronze girl, sitting on a park bench in his front yard. The girl is wearing a Grey Cup tuque. "Nobody's ever stolen that," says Asper of the hat. "That's one of the remarkable things about living in Winnipeg."

For the past 50 years, Asper has never lived more than a couple of city blocks from this spot. He moved to River Heights with his parents just after the Second World War. He and his wife, Babs, raised their three children here, all of whom, David, 37, Gail, 35, and Leonard, 31, became lawyers like their father. It has always seemed curious that Asper would stay bound by Winnipeg, particularly after winning the fight for the Toronto-based Global, and particularly considering the focus of operations there. One day, Asper phoned Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and asked him how he managed to run the retail giant from the unlikely locale of Bentonville, Ark. Why not, said Sam. If you are going to sell sweaters and hardware in New York City, where the rent is sky high, why not run the selling out of Bentonville, where the rent is $2 a square foot? Asper pays $7 in Winnipeg, compared with Toronto's $25.

As Asper enters his home, he is met by Babs and by Bernie the Barrister, the Lhasa apso who, says Asper, would be a great dog if he were not so dumb. (Bernie piddles where he should not.) Asper walks through his study, over the zebra rug and past the elephant-foot occasional table, into what is commonly referred to in the family as "the Gershwin room." He sits on a faux zebra couch, the fauxness of which can be explained by the pressure brought to bear by his offspring, and their distaste for their father's affinity for decorative dead animal parts. They went so far as to smear "Manny Toba," the bison head that hangs on a wall at the family cottage, with fake blood, a sort of Godfatheresque warning.

The Gershwin room is not exactly a shrine, but it certainly is thematic. And it represents Izzy Asper's intellectual beat, which is very hard to get at. Asper has always loved jazz, ever since the day his brother bought him a bar mitzvah present of Oscar Levant playing Rhapsody in Blue. It had to be smuggled into the house. It was jazz, and jazz was vulgar, or so Izzy's father felt. "He really believed that after Beethoven died they closed the shop," he says.

In the 1920s, Leon Asper was a conductor with the state opera company in Belgium. Izzy's mother, Cecilia, was a pianist. By the Depression, they were working as pit musicians in Canadian movie theatres. When the talkies came, and their jobs went, they bought the Lyric theatre in Minnedosa, Man., where Izzy was born. After the Winnipeg move, Leon Asper bought two local movie houses there, the Deluxe and the Valour, where Izzy would take tickets and watch Casablanca for the 100th time until he had all the words memorized.

By his university years, Asper was paying his way to New York, to see George Shearing at the celebrated Birdland nightclub, and write reviews for the University of Manitoba student newspaper. But it was not until the fugue state of Izzy Asper, when he was "stashed" at home recovering from his heart surgery, that he started his quest for Gershwin memorabilia. Why? "Just because I wanted them," says Asper. "It was a wonderful time in New York - the '20s and '30s. Irving Berlin. Monty Woolley. Party till 5 a.m."

On one Gershwin room wall hangs the original contract in which George, in the spring of 1927, sold all rights to Rhapsody in Blue to the RCA Victor company for $300. Asper has 17 pages of the libretto to Porgy and Bess, written by George and Ira Gershwin on brown paper bags. There is small stuff: a 1930 receipt from Abercrombie and Fitch (George bought a suit for $45). And big stuff: a floor to ceiling glass sliding wall, etched with Gershwin's New York house, and Gershwin performing in New York, and Gershwin pals Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. "And there," says Asper, pointing to five etched likenesses, "is me and Babs and the kids."

There is a synchronicity between Izzy Asper's jazz thinking and his corporate thinking. This could sound scary to shareholders. His syncopated rhythm makes him erratic. Even friends say that, especially those who have found themselves cut off for months at a time. Asper is a man who has lived large - drinking hard, pulling filibustering all-nighters over politics. Then, the man who is oftentimes a loner will "disappear." Jazz is a crutch, a stabilizer, a sanity-preserving exercise. In the old days, when Lenny Breau was playing at the Ting on Winnipeg's Broadway Avenue, Asper would hang out there. Or in New York. His days in politics constrained such adventures, kept him out of the spots where "a lot of dope was being smoked."

Asper stayed an unelected Liberal, close to Turner as a sometimes ruthless strategist and admiring of Pierre Trudeau, straining, when he could, to raise the voice of the West in whatever configuration of Confederation was being plotted. But business was much more suited to Asper's unvarnished style. He is egotistical but unpretentious, and often unguarded. He likes to amuse and to stir the pot, and so when he gives a speech in Australia he might say, as he did last May, that titans like Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch "don't grow on trees, they swing from them." Now, says Asper, Packer is mad at him.

Jazz, he says, helps him keep his sense of humor. It also, he says, "allows you to approach anything on the basis of nothing is too ridiculous, nothing is too outrageous to consider." The beginnings are coherent statements. "The fundamental premise is you have no idea of where it's going to go except you know that you never lose track of what you're doing. You may go down a blind alley with a thought. Jazz musicians do that all the time. Take off on a lick, and push it to the absolute limits." In the jazz fraternity, Asper admires Dave Brubeck as a master, who takes the piano keys to the edge, then somehow, somehow, brings the piece full circle.

The circle for CanWest will not be made whole in Asper's time. He says so himself. And so he is grooming his children to be "qualified" owners. That, he says, talking of families that have foundered over french fry, Canadian Tire and jewelry fortunes, is how you beat "the McCain, Billes, Birks syndrome, if you beat it." Gail was the first to step in, in 1988, and sits on the board and is the company's general counsel. Leonard - who, says Gail, was reading The Wall Street Journal and carrying around the Canadian securities handbook in pre-adolescence - was next, moving into Global's Toronto operations right out of law school. David spent early years at CKND, filming such forgettable local programming as Polka Warehouse, before he stepped out of the broadcasting life for a time, most prominently as defence counsel for David Milgaard.

None of the three is in line for the CanWest presidency, a current corporate vacancy. Asper says they are not ready. Nevertheless, to the scions he has handed off enormous tasks. It was Leonard who led a takeover charge against WIC last fall. "We had been eyeing WIC for years," he says. When CFCN, the Calgary CTV affiliate, was put into play, and when WIC failed to bid for it, "we said, 'They're paralyzed. They're not protecting their core asset.' " CanWest piggybacked on a shareholders' suit against WIC, which, had it been successful, would have put WIC itself into play. The suit failed, and is now under appeal. "Our view," says Leonard, "is punch here, punch there, and one of them will land."

CanWest has punched successfully into New Zealand, with a 20-per-cent stake in TV3. ("I can't remember what we're doing extraordinarily well with in New Zealand at 6 o'clock," says Asper. "I think it's Hogan's Heroes.") In 1992, the company bought its 15 per cent of Network Ten. In 1994, the company bought a half interest in the La Red network in Chile, which has been a bust. They looked at Spain. And Germany. Leonard spent months studying Romania. The company recently took a pass on Argentina. "There are 60 million Filipinos who speak English," says Leonard. "We should be there."

Last May, David led CanWest's bid for the Channel 5 licence in the United Kingdom. Calling itself UKTV, the CanWest group tabled a $75-million plan with 880 hours of original British programming in its first year, from children's to entertainment to a proposed Sir Richard Attenborough series, Churchill, based on the William Manchester books. David Asper, who gave 18 months of his life to the project, thought he had it in the bag. Conquering England would have been a huge win. The biggest. But the Independent Television Commission disliked the high percentage of UKTV's proposed repeat broadcasts, the low percentage of what it called "factual programming" and what it found to be a disproportionate amount of repeat children's entertainment programming. On Oct. 27, the ITC announced that it had awarded the licence to Pearson PLC, the London-based conglomerate that owns The Economist and Thames Television - and which had bid $30 million less than CanWest. David Asper says he will again try to gain entry to the U.K. market as soon as the opportunity arises. In the meantime, says Asper senior, "when England turned us down we said screw it. It's full blast on the Canadian end." Three weeks later, CanWest made its Canadian application filings to the CRTC. As Jack Larkin on Traders says: "This isn't poker. This is chess. It's not about the bluff. It's about knowing where you're going to be 10 moves in advance."

Even with the problems in Chile, CanWest's international push has won it plaudits. "If you look at the strategy of broadcasters in Canada, Izzy is the only one to have seriously tapped into international opportunities," says CIBC Wood Gundy's Grossner. Certainly David and Leonard see their future in international markets, or "global domination," as Leonard puts it. Concurrently, the children are developing, outside CanWest, an expansion into real estate. Leonard talks about diversification, and how that "needs to be done. We want to be in the major industries of the country. That's generations and generations away, but we should start the process now."

Should they be successful, their father will not be around to witness it. "It'll never be done in my lifetime. It'll never be done in my kids' lifetime," he says. Asper has regrets about time - not enough of it. "The only sadness is I'm not 35," he says. He is sitting on his zebra couch, the sky black over the Assiniboine River out back, the smoke rings circling above his head, the jazz making the Gershwin room all warm and fuzzy. He becomes reflective. For a minute. Then he goes for an old joke, the one about the Catholic view of life beginning at conception, and the Protestant view of life beginning at birth and the Jewish view of life beginning when the kids leave home and the dog dies. The children have long since left home, started their own families, and await Asper's next moves. For his part, Bernie the Barrister has been banished to the basement.

Maclean's February 19, 1996