Leonard Asper’s presence in Manitoba was felt once again recently with a $5-million gift to the University of Manitoba from the Asper Foundation that will give 200 students with financial needs the chance to start their post-secondary education.
They will be $1,000 bursaries to get students started on their university path. It’s a leg-up but not a full ride.
There will be bumps along the way for those students. While Asper may have had financial resources to fall back on after Canwest Global Communications fell into the hands of its creditors 10 years ago, just like those students will have to do, Asper had to figure out how to bounce back from what had to be a humbling defeat in the business arena.
He dusted himself off fairly quickly by buying a stake in the Fight Network, a combat sports specialty network.
Over the better part of the last 10 years his Toronto company, now called Anthem Sports & Entertainment, is turning into a substantial second act.
"I don’t use the word empire, because we all know empires don’t survive," he said recently.
That said, Anthem recently acquired a majority interest in HDNet LLC, the parent company of U.S. television networks AXS TV and HDNet Movies with carriage in 50 million homes in the U.S. to go along with a growing portfolio of combat sports, outdoors, eSports and other niche networks that Anthem owns.
"I thought about doing other business (after the collapse of Canwest)," he said. "But I know this one (the television broadcasting business). And what we were doing at Canwest, newspapers aside, was very successful. Home and Garden TV, the Food Network and all those specialty channels (that Canwest owned) were doing very well, and frankly, still are."
That’s not to say he’s trying to replicate the same recipe. Just as those specialty channels appealed to a dedicated audience, Asper believes targeted content aimed at specific communities is the right approach.
And just like during the early days of the Internet when media companies were merging and declaring "content is king," in the television world of today Asper is leading his new company towards platform agnostic content ownership.
Instead of the Food Network or Home and Garden TV, he started with the Fight Network.
"The idea was always to build a suite of content vehicles that served communities globally with the idea to not be beholden to the Canadian market or the U.S. market," he said.
"People like fighting, I’ve got fighting. People like hunting and fishing, I’ve got that. Little by little, brick by brick it has turned out… You can’t build a company overnight."
With the imminent launch of a number of new television streaming services, Asper is building Anthem to become a company that has content to sell to all of them, while at the same time operating networks upon which he can sell ads, as well as producing and owning content that can be and is broadcast on all sort of digital platforms.
"When you own the content, you can package it on your own channel or if people don’t watch the channel they can watch on whatever digital platform they watch," he said.
For instance, the company’s Impact Wrestling division does regular live shows, including live events that have been held in India and the U.K. and there are plans for a show in the Middle East.
Fight Network programming is seen by millions in India on the Sony channel and the $8 digital app contains the entire 1,000 hours of owned content.
Anthem sells some content to Netflix and will talk to Crave soon. It has a channel on Twitch, the eSports platform.
"The additional streaming services will create demand and that is driving up prices for content," he said.
Its newly acquired AXS-TV owns about 1,000 hours of its own mostly music-related content and now that Anthem owns a controlling stake Asper said the network will ease up on licensing content and start making more of its own.
Among other things that are different this go around for Asper is that Anthem is not a public company, and he is not forced to spend countless hours on conference calls with analysts, preparing detailed financial reporting every quarter and then suffering the whims of the market to get to the next quarter.
"Being a public company is a pain," he said. "Now we can be very measured. We are not pushed or pressured to do anything. Everything I am doing is sort of planned, it’s very manageable."
While Anthem still needs to appeal to cable and satellite TV companies around the world for carriage, that is becoming a less urgent matter. His channels are carried in Canada and the U.S. and as far afield as Africa and India.
But just as companies such as Bell, Telus and Rogers are decreasing reliance on cable TV revenue while beefing up their high speed Internet networks to allow for more streaming services, that’s where Anthem’s future lies as well.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
Updated on Monday, January 20, 2020 at 7:47 PM CST: Adds photo
January 21, 2020 at 10:40 AM: corrects name of Anthem Sports & Entertainment,