Is Michael MacMillan a modern-day Don Quixote?
Cast a glance at his résumé these days and all you see is a man tilting at windmills.
Exhibit 1: He is CEO of Blue Ant Media, a privately held company in the business of TV production, which everybody knows is an industry going off a cliff.
Exhibit 2: He is a partner in Closson Chase, a 15-year-old winery based in Ontario’s Prince Edward County that believes it can beat the terrible odds and actually make a buck from what even Mr. MacMillan calls “a fool’s pursuit.”
Exhibit 3: He is the co-founder and chair of Samara, a charity dedicated to increasing the engagement of enervated Canadians with the democratic process.
But Mr. MacMillan is more calculating than he seems. Listen, for example, to why he chose the name Blue Ant: “William Gibson is a British Columbia writer. He invented the term ‘cyberspace’, and in some of his books, the new media company of the future is called Blue Ant. It’s a nod and a wink of appreciation,” says Mr. MacMillan, leaning back in his chair amid the noisy midtown Toronto restaurant Bar Mercurio. “But also I like the name because it’s short and it sounds appropriately off-kilter, and not very corporate.”
Parse that phrase for a moment: the rules-oriented “appropriately” fused to the manic “off-kilter.”
Then think about that kicker of “not very corporate” and mull its implications: the faux-rebelliousness, the David versus Goliath pose of a man who was once chairman and CEO of Alliance Atlantis, the Canadian media company that sold for $2.3-billion in the heady days of early 2007.
Still, to say that Michael MacMillan plans everything in advance would also be incorrect. When he handed off Alliance in August, 2007, he genuinely believed that he would devote the rest of his life to philanthropy and gentlemanly pursuits. “I thought that I wouldn’t be back,” he says. “But after three or four years, I began to admit to myself that I missed the cut and thrust of business. And the testosterone of business. The fun.”
And so, enacting a twist on Freedom 55, Mr. MacMillan formed Blue Ant in 2011, at age 54, to take another run at being a media mogul. Backed by a small group of investors including Fairfax Financial, Slaight Communications, Providence Equity Capital Markets, Torstar Corp. and the digital media investment fund Relay Ventures, Blue Ant has grown fast from a standing start. It now comprises eight niche TV channels, including four premium channels that are supported entirely by subscriber revenue, as well as a clutch of digital and print magazines. Odds are that you haven’t heard of them: the largest channel, Travel + Escape, which brings exotic locations into Canadian living rooms in luscious high-definition, is in 4.7 million homes.
Others include the comedy channel Bite, which is in 2.6 million homes, and the outdoor lifestyle-oriented Cottage Life, with about 2 million subscribers. “It’s a vastly smaller enterprise than the big channels,” he admits, pegging annual revenues for the entire company at about $50-million. But then, he’s playing a different game.
Most broadcasters in Canada still do business the same way they have for decades. “The simple way to get the most interesting movies and TV dramas is going to Hollywood and paying more than anybody else,” he notes. “More than Netflix, more than Hulu, more than Amazon, more than Wal-Mart, more than the Canadian players. Why do we think that would be a good business? We run away from that.”
In a world of endless shelf space afforded by new technology, he says, “The business of renting content from somebody else, and just being the shelf provider, is a bad business.”
With technology enabling Canadians to access content from anywhere around the world (albeit sometimes through unauthorized methods), Canadian programmers need to recognize both the threat and the opportunity of the new ecosystem. “If we can make interesting material that we can distribute in Canada and outside as well – we own it, we control it, in niche areas – that seems interesting,” he says, noting that Blue Ant Media probably creates between 15 and 20 per cent of the content on its channels right now, and is projecting that it will create about 30 per cent by the end of this year.
The niche channels are designed to appeal to small but passionate communities. “If you believe in the digital world, as I do, then you can have a much narrower audience, driven farther and wider, instead of trying to appeal to everybody in one place.”
The incumbent Canadian broadcasters, he says, are less likely to follow the same path, in part because they are owned by the major TV distribution entities (primarily Bell, Rogers, and Shaw) – at least until their core businesses have been disrupted.
Many people involved in digital media are evangelists for their cause who never tire of mocking the entrenched, out-of-step powers. But while Mr. MacMillan is enthusiastic about Blue Ant, his real passion seems to be wrestling with the thorny issue of how to get more Canadians to be a part of the political process. He will go on at length – in what he calls “a rant” – about the role of a strong government in creating a fair society, the fallacy of public-private partnerships, and the cynicism behind calling citizens “taxpayers.”
Some years ago he and Alison Loat, the other co-founder of Samara, conducted dozens of exit interviews with federal politicians. The resulting book, Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy, will be out in April.
“I use the metaphor of ‘body politic,’” he says. “Canada’s a great country. We have so much to be happy for and feel lucky about. It’s not like the country is collapsing around us.
“But a healthy body is one that is exercised regularly, has a proper diet, continuously goes for checkups. Just because you’re in shape, you don’t say, ‘Great, I’m going to eat chocolate cake three times a day.’ No! You go back to the gym. Democracy takes constant attention.”
And though Canadians have been preoccupied over the past year with political news (Rob Ford, the Montreal mayoralty, the Senate scandal), Mr. MacMillan says that hasn’t helped his cause.
“Sadly, it’s reinforced the view held by many: ‘Don’t vote, it only encourages them.’ So that’s not a good thing.” Samara’s work, he admits, “is Sisyphean, and it is slow. It’s much harder to explain.
“The media world is a lot more fun. The political world?” he pauses, then there’s a slightly weary uptick in his voice. “I wouldn’t call it fun.”