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Paul Robertson becomes head of Shaw Media (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Paul Robertson becomes head of Shaw Media (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Shaw takes reins as CanWest rides into sunset Add to ...

In the Toronto office that once housed much of the Asper family's broadcasting empire, there is a now a gaping hole in the wall. It's where the honeycomb-shaped CanWest logo used to be. And in the spacious quarters once occupied by CanWest scion Leonard Asper sits affable executive Paul Robertson, finally ready to begin his duties at the helm of Shaw Media.

It's the final culmination of a process that started just over a year ago, when CanWest's TV assets entered restructuring under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act, unable to overcome a crushing debt load. On Wednesday, the broadcasting business emerged from creditor protection under new owners Shaw Communications

As the Global television network and specialty channels such as HGTV Canada and Showcase move forward as part of Shaw, the CanWest name has officially been wiped from the Canadian media landscape.

"We're ready to move forward now," Mr. Robertson said on Wednesday. When Shaw announced the $2-billion deal in May, the company immediately hired the head of Corus Television - which the Shaw family controls but remains a separate entity - to run its new broadcasting arm.

But since then, as a Shaw employee, Mr. Robertson has been unable to direct the business. He has spent his time on the "breakfast, lunch and dinner circuit," wooing industry associations and others to support the deal before the federal broadcast regulator. The deal was approved last week and, with the closing Wednesday, Mr. Robertson's real work now begins.

Chief among his priorities is to determine how and when the company's TV content will be made available to consumers on more devices. Global already has episodes on its website and, in June, Shaw launched an Internet site where subscribers to its cable and satellite packages could access more videos online. Now it is working to expand to mobile phones and tablet devices such as the iPad - announcements are coming soon about those new offerings, Mr. Robertson said.

"No matter what device you have in your hands, you'll see Glee. You'll see House. You'll see our specialty content, HGTV, and so on," he said. "What we want to do is we want to keep [viewers]within the system. We don't want to lose audiences to … Hulu or Netflix."

So far, however, Canadian media companies have been slow to take advantage of the iPad platform, partly because they are waiting to see whether it will be possible to make money with tablets, but also because negotiations are still under way with the studios, which produce the content, to extend broadcast rights beyond the TV screen.

While rights agreements are still a "patchwork quilt," according to Mr. Robertson, negotiations are getting smoother, paving the way for shows to be available in more ways.

All of this, of course, could pay off for the parent company. The more access that Shaw subscribers have to video-on-demand, on phones and on iPads, the theory goes, the less likely they will be to ditch their cable or satellite subscription for alternative, "over the top" services. And as Shaw prepares to launch a wireless network next year, more video watched on mobile phones means higher data revenues, and customers paying more on cellphone bills.

Shaw has promised the regulator it will not use this content only to its own benefit, and will make it available to mobile competitors. It expects other companies to do the same.

"Why should anybody have to buy a cellphone of the competitor to see the Olympics?" Mr. Robertson said, taking a dig at rival Bell's exclusive deal for mobile rights in Vancouver. "It doesn't seem right."

This is not Shaw's first crack at the media business, of course. It spun off its media division in 1999 to form Corus, which owns specialty channels such as YTV and Treehouse, as well as radio operations across Canada. Mr. Robertson was head of Corus Television from 2002 until his move to Shaw this year.

Even though Shaw has pledged to keep Corus as a separate company, Mr. Robertson said that since they were split, it's become clearer to the industry just how valuable integrated companies can be for working more seamlessly with the content and delivering it to viewers. As part of its requirement to spend part of the value of the deal on improving the Canadian broadcast system, Shaw has set aside $18-million to create new media content.

"This was really at the core of the acquisition by Shaw of these assets, that we would be able to take a leadership position and get the content out there."

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ROBERTSON'S TO-DO LIST

In his new job as president of Shaw Media, Paul Robertson has an extensive list of priority tasks. Among them:

Keep subscribers happy

He intends to make TV available beyond the traditional screen, to keep viewers away from alternative services such as Apple TV or Netflix.

Provide morning news

As part of its promises to the CRTC, Shaw has pledged $45 million to launch local morning newscasts on its Global network. Toronto will be the first show on-air, likely within the year. Mr. Robertson expects the others - in Montreal, Halifax, Regina, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg - all to be up and running by mid-2012.

The network also plans more aggressive cross-promoting of its newscasts during other Global programs, with more frequent news updates during the day.

No more rabbit ears

The Global network is converting all its broadcast towers from over-the-air to digital transmission - including mandatory conversions required by the CRTC ahead of the Aug. 2011 transition deadline, and 67 transmitters outside required markets, at a cost of $23 million.

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