Mr. Rogers’ country

He faces many challenges, but nobody is in more Canadian media than Ted Rogers.

Marketing Magazine, November 4, 1997   

“It must be a list of people who’ve got problems,” is Ted Rogers’ wry response when he’s told that Marketing is ranking him at the top of a list of Canadian media executives. “But if you haven’t got problems, you haven’t lived right; you haven’t tried enough.”


Toronto-based RCI owns at least a piece of just about every means of transferring information in this country. Its Rogers Multi-Media division includes CFMT, a multilingual TV station in Toronto; the Canadian Home Shopping Club; National Cable Network, a cable ad-sales division; a major radio chain that includes stations in Toronto, London, Ont. and Vancouver; and dozens of consumer and trade magazines that came with Maclean Hunter Ltd., which Rogers bought two years ago and is still paying for (Maclean’s, L’actualité, Chatelaine, Châtelaine and, well, this one).


As well, there’s Rogers Cable, whose 2.2 million subscribers make it by far Canada’s largest cable operator. It also runs a nationwide chain of video stores and The Wave, an embryonic high-speed cable modem service currently running in Newmarket, Ont. that’s slated for a wide rollout this month.


Besides this, RCI has a 30% stake in Canoe, an online information service launched jointly with Sun Media Corp. (called Toronto Sun Publishing Corp. before Rogers sold it to a management-led group). And it’s a national cell-phone operator through Rogers Cantel.


“He’s Ted Turner of the north,” says David Cairns, president of David Cairns Media Management of Toronto. “He’s taken what was a broadcast company and turned into a multimedia company.” More important than the company’s reach and ambition is its owner’s track record of being first out of the blocks to turn new communications technology into major businesses.


Pundits squinting at the world of tomorrow proclaim that “content is king,” but that’s been a relatively recent initiative for RCI’s 63-year-old president with his Maclean Hunter purchase. Ted Rogers’ principal aim seems always to have been pioneering a new medium, delegating decisions about what it will carry and trusting in technical superiority to draw consumers.


“We’ve tried to put together a group that would reinforce and help each other so that in this relatively tiny country we have a chance to hear our own voice,” says Rogers. “The dream that I have is that we build up the Rogers group as a co-operative where the different components are working together increasingly with convergence. You need to have at least one or two companies that are of a sufficient size to provide meaningful competition.”


And you need a company with deep enough pockets to get huge numbers of consumers to adopt a new technology. That’s what Rogers did in 1960 when he made Toronto’s CHFI Canada’s first successful FM station. At the time, hardly anyone knew what FM was. And if they did know, they didn’t see why it should supplant AM.


Rogers recalls going to ad agencies in his native Toronto where people would ask him where the station was based. He found a manufacturer to build FM radios, sold them to consumers at cost and gave them to agencies to place in their reception areas.


In 1966, he entered the then-fledgling cable TV industry, using his technical knowledge, faith in the medium and sheer force of will. Canada is now the most cabled nation on the planet.


He got into cell-phone technology in 1984, when pagers were still a novelty. And two years ago he set up the prototype for The Wave, the high-speed cable modem that now serves 5% of Rogers subscribers in its Newmarket cablesystem.


Not that that’s daunting: “We think that the high-speed computer service is going to be of the same magnitude (as cable TV or cell phones). Rogers in the future will have as much business from computers in the home as it does from TV sets today.”


“I have tremendous faith in Ted Rogers and his view of the future,” says Janet Callaghan, national media director at J. Walter Thompson in Toronto. “Many of us look to Ted Rogers—where is he going, where is he taking the company? Much is expected. He’s done much. I would like to see a multimedia company become fully integrated.”


Other companies have been content to let others take the risks and the heavy upfront investments, then come in after all the mistakes have been made, when there’s less risk and more profit. What’s made Ted Rogers such an inveterate early adopter?


“My dad was an inventor,” he says. “He invented the AC tube, which meant that radios could work on electric light current. That hadn’t been possible before. My mom used to say he wasn’t a genius, he just worked very, very hard. He died at 38, when I was five. And I always had a dream of, putting it simply, making him proud of me.”