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CBC broadcaster Kevin O'Leary. (Dustin Rabin Photography)
CBC broadcaster Kevin O'Leary. (Dustin Rabin Photography)

Television

Taming the dragon: Should the CBC muzzle Kevin O'Leary? Add to ...

From the beach at a posh Bahamas hotel, Kevin O'Leary is assuring Amanda Lang, via Skype, that the Japanese earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster - though horrific, he takes pains to point out - may be just what Japan needs for an economic turnaround. "I'm very bullish on nuclear right now," O'Leary pronounces in attire that is more beach than business. "It's a buying opportunity."

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This Lang & O'Leary Exchange moment last Monday is classic O'Leary: he's a dragon, he's a shark; breathing fire, gobbling up prey. Japan is in crisis, but he sees a business opportunity. Greed is good.

"When I'm discussing a decision around an investment, I'm not trying to make friends," O'Leary said during an interview this week (not specifically referencing Japan). "I don't care if people can't take the truth."

O'Leary, who also stars on CBC TV's popular Dragons' Den and its U.S. cousin Shark Tank on ABC, likes to describe himself as "slightly right of Attila the Hun." He's proud of his modus operandi: no holds barred, make no apologies.

Well, usually.

After O'Leary was called out by CBC ombudsman Kirk LaPointe for his now infamous use of the term "Indian giver" on The Lang & O'Leary Exchange, he did ultimately apologize. It was a rare exception for the loudmouthed entrepreneur who has become an important part of the CBC brand.

"I've never made a mistake like that before and because it was a mistake, I did apologize. But I believe what I say. I don't say things without thinking about them. You may not agree with me, but ... as far as I'm concerned we need a lot more Kevin O'Learys in Canada."

But what about on the CBC?

The once staid public broadcaster is putting a lot of eggs in this bombastic basket. Dragons' Den, with O'Leary as one of its star attractions, consistently draws around 1.5 million viewers (the week of Feb. 28, it was the 11th most watched show in Canada, just ahead of Two And A Half Men). Over on CBC News Network, The Lang & O'Leary Exchange takes up the prime 7 p.m. weeknight slot.

And this spring, CBC will announce a new O'Leary property coming to the network next season.

With his right-wing ruthlessness and refusal to toe the political correctness line (this season alone he's cracked one-liners referencing the beatings of baby seals and setting entrepreneurs who don't nail their elevator pitches on fire), is this CBC's answer to critics who claim a left-wing bias?

Sure, one commentator does not a Fox News Network make (okay, maybe two, if you want to count Don Cherry), but O'Leary sees his presence on the public broadcaster as essential.

"It's funded by everybody in Canada. They're the voice of Canada," said O'Leary. "I'm proud to work for them and I'm proud that they're willing to now, under new management, voice both sides of every situation."

O'Leary's infusion of capitalism-loving commentating at the CBC comes into the spotlight at a time of much discussion about political bias and the media. Next month, Sun News Network (often dubbed "Fox News North") will launch with what promises to be a more O'Leary-like take on things. Meanwhile, south of the border, the House of Representatives voted this week to cease funding National Public Radio, which, like the CBC, is perceived as being left-of-centre.

CBC spokesperson Jeff Keay says it's important for the CBC to present "a lot of different points of view," and O'Leary is part of that. "I think he says things that flirt with the outrageous. I think that tends to attract people to him - those who agree with him and those who disagree with him."

There's no shortage of people who believe O'Leary has no place on the public broadcaster, that he represents a movement to the right (not in a good way) or even the dumbing down of the CBC.

But University of British Columbia journalism ethics professor Candis Callison says in the current media landscape, O'Leary's presence on the CBC is neither surprising nor radical.

"It's within their purview ... to make a decision about how to move the network into this era," said Callison.

O'Leary is not a journalist, he stresses, and as such has more freedom to tell it like it is, even if the language feels decidedly un-CBC (of old, anyway). "Do you think I'm going to let a little cockroach like you tell me what to do?" is just one O'Leary-ism.

O'Leary, 56, was born in Montreal. After graduating from the Ivey School of Business, he started a software company, which grew through various acquisitions and was ultimately sold to Mattel in 1999 for $3.7-billion. O'Leary now has a mutual fund company, O'Leary Funds, and homes in Toronto, Muskoka, Boston and West Palm Beach.

O'Leary's TV career started with an appearance on BNN; the producer was so impressed, he asked him to be a regular. Now, his caustic one-liners have made him the guy many viewers love to hate.

"One of my favourite viewer e-mails of all time was, 'Do you just keep Kevin O'Leary around so you look smart and sane?'" said Lang, O'Leary's longtime co-host.

For all that mail, the recent complaint to the CBC ombudsman was the first the office has received about O'Leary.

It was lodged by Alex Jamieson, a 52-year-old who is Haudenosaunee. He was channel-surfing at his Mississauga, Ont., home last October when he heard O'Leary use the term "Indian giver" during a heated exchange with Lang. Weeks later, he complained to the show's producer and then the ombudsman.

This month, LaPointe issued a report calling O'Leary's remarks "unambiguously offensive."

O'Leary did not apologize immediately. He says he was unaware the term was a racial slur and when he did learn the ugly truth, he was so horrified, he not only apologized, but asked his producers to draw up a list of other offensive terms he should avoid.

"If you know him, you can believe that to be true," says Lang. "Not that that's an acceptable excuse. You can't say, 'Oh I didn't know what the n-word meant and therefore it's acceptable for me to say it,' but he didn't. He was just being a dufus."

Lang, the Ron MacLean to O'Leary's Cherry, was commended by LaPointe for voicing her disapproval immediately during the show, but the ombudsman expresses disappointment with both CBC management's and O'Leary's handling of the situation.

Jamieson isn't satisfied either.

"He should have been fired on the spot."

Over at Dragons' Den, Brett Wilson, O'Leary's departing co-star (his last show airs March 30), says their good-guy/bad-guy depiction is pumped up somewhat. "I get the sense that the editing makes Kevin nastier than he really is."

Wilson, who complained to CBC a few seasons back about show promotion that featured O'Leary more prominently than the others ("it looked like Kevin O'Leary and Friends") rejects any suggestion of ego-driven animosity between the two. "If we saw each other at a social event, we'd certainly take time to spend together."

And if you're O'Leary - chairman of a $1.5-billion fund, trying to find time for your kids (aged 14 and 18), why bother with television? With all that grief? He certainly doesn't need the money.

"I look at it as a yin and yang," says O'Leary about his dual career. "It's a left and right side of the brain. I need them both in my life; that's balance for me."

Plus, he says, the TV show makes him a better investor. "Can you imagine the information I get just sitting in that green room every single day? ... I'm never going to quit that show."

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