Business

Asper's media empire 30 years in the making

Izzy Asper's CanWest Global media empire actually has its roots in North Dakota in 1973, when the outspoken businessman picked up a local TV station for a song and moved it to an old Safeway store in Winnipeg. It signed on the air as CKND-TV in 1975 and Izzy never looked back.

Shortly after that, he rescued the floundering Global TV network in Ontario, forming CanWest Global in 1977 and began the long process of acquiring stations across the country, in the United States and around the world.

In the early 1990s, Asper engineered the purchase of TV networks in New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland.

It was after the 1991 purchase of a New Zealand TV station when Asper gave perhaps his most often-quoted comment. He reminded a group of journalists that they were not really in the news business, but "in the business of selling soap."

By 1998, CanWest Global could truly be called Canada's third national TV network. Asper won a long-running battle for the assets of WIC (Western International Communication) by picking up almost a dozen television stations from Montreal to Vancouver.

Those stations included ITV in Edmonton, CHCH in Hamilton and BCTV, the most powerful station in British Columbia.

"We're competing for your eyeballs for audience with I don't know for 50, 60 or 70 channels. We have to be bigger and we have to have a lot more resources," Asper said at the time.

Asper was 66 when his wheeling and dealing finally gave CanWest Global a national reach. He was a wealthy man. But he was not about to stop.

Even though he formally handed over control of the company to his son Leonard in 1999, he remained a powerful force.

In July 2000, CanWest Global stunned the media world with the $3.5 billion purchase of the Canadian newspaper and Internet assets of Hollinger International, the company headed by Canadian media baron Conrad Black.

That newspaper purchase remains the biggest deal in Canadian media history. CanWest Global acquired 136 daily and weekly newspapers, including half of The National Post, 13 large big-city dailies, 85 trade publications and directories in the Southam Magazine and Information Group.

CanWest subsequently bought the other half of the National Post. The Hollinger deal made Asper's CanWest a multi-media content giant. "We don't intend to be one of the corpses lying beside the information highway," Asper said.

Izzy Asper was a long time critic of CBC Television, complaining that private networks should not have to compete against a publicly-subsidized broadcaster. In an interview done in July with the CBC's Evan Solomon, he said CBC-TV should be funded directly by people and organizations who want to contribute to it, much like PBS in the United States.

Critics have long accused Asper and CanWest of spending as little on Canadian programming as they could get away with. But Asper made no apologies for giving Canadian viewers what he felt they wanted.

Asper was the biggest shareholder in CanWest Global and remained its executive chairman until January this year, when he stepped down to devote more time to his philanthropic interests, primarily through the Asper Foundation.

But the expansion of CanWest Global continued. The most recent addition to the Asper empire was a jazz radio station in Winnipeg, which opened this spring. Izzy was a huge jazz fan.

Izzy Asper built CanWest Global into a profitable media powerhouse with annual revenues in excess of $2 billion and net earnings of $90 million.

Even his critics would acknowledge Izzy had come a long way from his first job acting as an usher at his father's movie theatre in rural Manitoba.

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