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Canadians: Different, Yet Same As Us

It's oft been said that we Canucks suffer from a sort of inferiority complex when comparing ourselves to Americans. So, we've come up with weird platitudes like how we're nicer, neater or more friendly. (As Homer Simpson once called Canada: “Our goody-two-shoes brother.”)

People use these adjectives to describe us, but I'm not that sure about the descriptions because I know many very nice, neat, friendly Americans. When it comes to cities, I find Chicago to be neater than Toronto, for instance (both in tidiness and overall interesting-ness, actually).

'OSBOURNES' IN THE RAW

There are differences, however. While the Federal Communications Commission and the religious right down there seem (from here, anyway) to be on quite a roll in attempting to protect the public from “indecency,” whatever that is, Canadian broadcast network CTV shows The Osbournes, sans bleeps.

At the same time, there have never been talk shows made here comparable to the contemptible Jerry Springer or a made-in-Canada reality show where contestants have to eat pickled pig anus. But then, The Movie Network (our HBO, in eastern Canada, anyway) airs hard core porn late at night.

Boobs and bums and F-words are fair game on TV here after 9 p.m. — and on any channel, not just cable. And, while the climate only recently cleared enough Stateside for a new gay and lesbian TV channel, Canadians have had one for four years.

But we face our own regulatory challenges here. The Canadian system is rife with policy ensuring many different kinds of levels of Canadian programming. Radio has to be 35% Canadian content (Cancon), broadcast TV primetime for cable and broadcast TV must adhere to a certain Cancon level, and cable companies — when they add a new U.S. channel — must also add a Canadian one to their channel lineups.

Those rules ensure we have Teletoon and not The Cartoon Network, TSN and not ESPN (although ESPN owns a 30% chunk of TSN's parent), The Comedy Network and not Comedy Central (although our comedy channel carries The Daily Show, for example).

But back to the similarities: Take the cable industry, for instance. Entrepreneurialism, risk-taking, groundbreaking new technology, sky-high indebtedness — all are hallmarks of cable for at least the past 25 years, on both sides of the border. Just look at our biggest MSO.

Having spent eight years in the multichannel industry here in Canada, I know that when most Americans think of Canadian cable, two words spring to mind right away: Ted Rogers.

And for good reason. He owns the biggest Canadian cable company (2.2 million subscribers), including one of the most advanced 860-MHz North American systems in Toronto — and was once a serious player in the U.S. market. Rogers Cable launched the first North American cable-modem service, then called Rogers Wave, in 1995.

Ted's no stranger to risk. In the '80s, he cashed out of most of his U.S. cable holdings in order to launch Unitel, the first telephone competitor ever for Bell Canada. It was a $500 million failure which has since led Ted and his senior people to wonder “what if” when the company looks at the millions of U.S. cable subscribers it sold.

But also in the '80s, he launched Rogers Cantel, the country's first cellular phone operator. That worked out far better, since Rogers Wireless, with 5.7 million customers, is now the largest operator in the country. The wireless division now earns more than the company's cable business, actually, and if the company hadn't gotten out of U.S. cable, it's participation in wireless may have been delayed.

But Rogers isn't the only risk-taking entrepreneur. Shaw Communications, founded by JR Shaw and now run by his son Jim, is the largest TV distributor in Canada with about 2 million cable customers (in Western hubs such as Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton) to go along with its 825,000 satellite subscribers which its Star Choice DBS company serves.

In Quebec, Vidéotron's founding family — the Chagnons — were famous for many North American firsts when it came to interactive television. In the early 1990s, well before the Internet was anywhere approaching mainstream, some Vidéotron customers could shop on TV (and not the QVC way either, but actually pick through a few products with their TV remotes, sort of like how we shop online today), pay their hydro bills, order pizza and even print coupons.

It was all very cool and very promising — and then the Internet exploded.

Vidéotron, as is the trend North America-wide, is now owned by larger media conglomerate in Quebecor, which owns the top-rated broadcast network in Quebec, TVA, a large newspaper chain and magazine publishing house, a film distribution unit – and is one of the world's largest commercial printers (it prints Time, for example).

MEET JOHN BRAGG

Farther east, you'll find one of Canada's quietest cable entrepreneurs in John Bragg. Based in tiny Oxford, Nova Scotia, he is the antithesis of his last name, but his cable company, Halifax-based EastLink, has been one of the most successful MSOs in North America in signing up telephony customers. It has offered circuit-switched telephony and bundled packaging since 1999 and has gained over 30% market share from the incumbent telco.

The joke in Nova Scotia though, is that the 230,000-customer EastLink always spends better on technology whenever it's a bumper blueberry harvest. Confused? Don't be. Bragg's Oxford Foods supplies something like 40% of the globe's frozen blueberries. If you've ever had a blueberry pie or blueberry jam, you've likely had Oxford blueberries — grown in eastern Canada and Maine.

We've still got many even smaller cable companies here, too and while the NCTC represents those types of companies in the U.S., we have the Canadian Cable Systems Alliance, members of which act just like they're a big MSO.

Companies such as Mountain Cablevision in Hamilton (30,000 subs) and Source Cable (18,000) are launching VOIP. Many small systems even offer HDTV to go with their high speed Internet (like the 28,000-sub Westman Communications in Brandon, Man.). Aurora (Ont.) Cable Internet (18,000) is usually one of the top five fastest ISPs in North America, according to dslreports.com.

Differences? Yes. Similarities. For sure. Inferior? No way.