For the past 25 years, John Cassaday has occupied a front-row seat for a media revolution—from the dominance of network TV and cable to the rise of Netflix and YouTube. In the 1990s, he ran CTV, and in 1999, he was named CEO of Corus Entertainment, which he has built into a force in radio and in children's and women's TV programming (Treehouse, Nelvana, W Networkand more). Now aged 61, Cassaday stepped down at the end of March, and he discussed growth and disruption in the broadcasting world that he may—or may not—be leaving behind.
So are you calling it quits?
I hope to have one more career. I don't need to, but I want to.
What about reports you will run Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment, which owns the Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC?
I really want to keep my options open, but not for too long. You read a lot of retirement advice—like "Don't do anything too soon." But we're a little bit like a head of lettuce: For the first day or two on the counter you look pretty good, but then you get a little brown and a little rusty-looking.
How do you feel about leaving Corus during such industry turmoil?
One of Warren Buffett's lessons is that you should invest in businesses with moats around them. Corus has been effective in doing that with our children's business. Our efforts in recent years have been to acquire more rights for more platforms. The difference between this company and every other broadcaster in Canada is we actually own something that is exportable.
And how do you keep that business strong?
We spend $50 million a year in producing more content in pursuit of the next big hit. In this golden age of TV, the hits matter more than ever. That applies to Breaking Bad or the next SpongeBob. If you hit the motherlode, you have a global property with line extensions. It doesn't matter how it is delivered. In the future, there may be a chip in this pen and you could listen to a podcast of Love It or List It.
What's the outlook for radio?
Radio is probably the most sustainable traditional medium. It's become the only truly local advertising opportunity. But we had some tough times recently because music is very cyclical. We ended up dominant in rock music, and it served us well—with the beer guys and auto guys wanting to own men as a market. Now, country music is huge, and women are CEOs of households. There aren't many rockers on The Voice or American Idol. The sound is pop. But the cycle will turn, and we have great franchises.
Ottawa is blowing up cable TV bundling and moving to a pick-and-pay model. Is that the apocalypse for Canadian producers and broadcasters?
That is not a term I would use, because we have the status quo as a default for households. Some families will start horse-trading on channels and find out that their cable bill has gone higher. And how much time do they really want to take on this decision? So they will eventually say: "Let's keep what we always had." And 66% of Canadians are pretty darn happy with that.
What will the TV future look like?
Shows will be bought like mobile phones today. There won't be just one package going in the home. A son who is intensely interested in extreme sports, for example, will have his own service. You will see much more non-linear consumption—people will watch what they want, when they want.
Do you have regrets?
Corus had the opportunity to buy Alliance Atlantis in 2006-2007, but we didn't pay whatever it took. We were concerned about their interest in the CSI franchise and their movie distribution business, which weren't core businesses for us. [CanWest Global bought Alliance Atlantis, which contributed to CanWest's own dissolution.] We should have got it done. Who knows what the media landscape would look like today? /Gordon Pitts
This interview has been condensed and edited.