Gambler with the vision thing

profile; David Asper; The ex-legal eagle behind the massive Canadian-led bid for Channel 5 has drawn a lot of flak. He tells Paul Rodgers why winning the franchise matters so much
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ASK David Asper what television programmes he watches and Britain's newest media baron talks about Cracker, Don't Forget Your Toothbrush and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. "When I'm home, most of my TV time is with my children. I have to be the Green Ranger and my daughter Kimberly is the Pink Ranger," he says, a boyish grin hinting that it is not an onerous duty.

The Green Ranger is playing for more than cartoon stakes these days. His family's company, CanWest Global Communications, wants to build an international television network based in the Commonwealth countries of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain. UK Television, a consortium it leads, last week submitted the highest bid - £36m a year - to run the new Channel 5. If it wins the licence, the CanWest affiliates will form the largest non-US network in the English- speaking world.

Some critics argue that the offer - £14m more than CanWest's nearest rivals - is too high when added to the cost of retuning millions of video recorders. The channel will have a limited audience, reaching only 70 per cent of UK residents. Other critics note that the largely foreign- owned group is almost as politically unpalatable as the one led by Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB. Although it is ahead in the bidding war, UKTV could still be knocked out if the Independent Television Commission rules its business plan is not viable or its proposed programming is not up to scratch.

Asper remains confident, however. "I assume the ITC isn't going to change the rules in the middle of the game," he said. "We meet or exceed the quality threshold in every case, and we've given the commission a financial commitment beyond what is needed in our business plan."

The sealed-bid auction used by the ITC encourages players to make offers based on second-guessing their opponents, and press forecasts had anticipated a knock-out bid, possibly £25m to £35m, from the BSkyB group - far above its actual offer of £2m a year. "We bid to win," Asper said in response to the sniping. "No one wanted this as much as CanWest. This is our core business, but for some of the other bidders it's a strategic investment or a diversification. Television is a risky proposition, but we're used to managing that risk."

Leaning back, hands clasped behind head, in his muggy Covent Garden office, the 36-year-old looks tired from months of negotiations. Pushed to squeeze in yet another interview with a sceptical reporter, he frowns, then sighs with irritation and resignation. CanWest has been through this before.

The Aspers are a respected legal family in Winnipeg, a sleepy city of 600,000 on the eastern edge of the Canadian prairies. David was a prominent criminal lawyer and his father, Izzy, is a QC; both his sister and brother have studied law. The shift into broadcasting began just 20 years ago and was only completed in 1992.

After Izzy stepped down as leader of the provincial Liberal Party, he applied to launch a new television station. Critics in those days said Winnipeg could not support an extra channel and - contradicting themselves - complained that the licence was a political reward from the federal Liberals who then ruled in Ottawa under Pierre Trudeau.

The critics were wrong on at least one point - CKND, the new station, was a huge success. David's father bought a rival in North Dakota that had been broadcasting across the border and selling ads in Winnipeg. "He put the transmitter on a flat-bed truck and drove it north," Asper said.

Over the next few years, a network of independent operators, similar to Britain's ITV federation, evolved, with CanWest at its core.

The company's interests now stretch from Chile's La Red to New Zealand's TV3. It owns 15 per cent of Australia's Network Ten and 25 per cent of Britain's Talk Radio. Its operating profit margin last year was 26 per cent, and its market capitalisation of C$800m (£380m) values the Aspers' 65 per cent at nearly C$520m. Other investments, including stakes in US financial institutions, probably take the family fortune closer to C$1bn.

People who knew Asper in the 1970s remember him as a cheerful idealist, though possibly a little over-confident. Even in those days, his twin interests - television and the law - were already evident. In his late teens, he practised debate as a cabinet minister in the Youth Parliament of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, a week-long session in the provincial legislature designed to get young people interested in politics. And in his spare time, he worked at his father's first TV station.

"I grew up in television," said Asper. "When I was in high school, I started hauling cables for a local programme and worked my way up. It was great fun. By the time I left, I was part-time director of outdoor broadcast sports events." But gaining expertise on the corporate side of the business had to wait while he pursued his legal ambitions.

After studying at California Western University in San Diego, Asper returned to Winnipeg to article with one of Canada's top criminal firms. "As I was driving to work on my first day, I heard on the radio about a mountie being shot," he recalls. "By 9:15, all the other lawyers had gone to court. So when the guy charged with the killing called, I got the case." Other high-profile clients followed, many dangerous offenders who faced indefinite jail terms if convicted.

He also did legal aid work for the poor, many of them Canadian Indians. "When the state came down on people who were powerless and genuinely needed help, I liked standing between them," he said. In 1986, he took on his most famous case - a battle to overturn the murder conviction against David Milgaard for the sex slaying of a nurse's aide 17 years earlier. "We went to war against justice minister (later prime minister) Kim Campbell and won," he said. Because he believed in Milgaard's innocence, he did not charge for any of the work on the six-year case. By then, Asper and his siblings faced a choice. If they stayed in law, CanWest would end up being run by hired managers after their father's retirement. Instead they decided to learn the ropes of the family business while Izzy, now 62, was still tugging them.

Last November, he came to London to set up the office on Henrietta Street, spending two weeks here and two weeks in Canada with his wife and three children. In February, he moved into a local flat while the deal was finalised.

Security around the UKTV team was tight. The premises were swept for bugs once a week. Although Asper and his colleagues were in constant touch with other bidders, production companies and industry associations, even the fact that they would tender did not leak out.

The financial details are still secret, but Asper has revealed much of the programming strategy. "Used properly, television is an important and powerful medium - but it's also entertaining and what's wrong with that?" The consortium hopes to use its international network to support co-production of UKTV projects and provide markets for programmes made exclusively in Britain. And instead of buying US shows, it will pick up less expensive, but good-quality programmes from its affiliates to show in Britain. This makes sense, he argues, because Canada, Australia and New Zealand have more in common culturally with Britain than with other countries, including the US.

The channel's style will be more relaxed and populist than its rivals. "We won't preach the news to people," said Asper. Its plans include a team of five crews wandering the country doing brief live broadcasts on local events and issues. It will be aimed at bringing regional news from one area to viewers elsewhere.

For the company, "the critical issue is to get a sizeable enough market to support high programme budgets," he said. "We're not sure where the line is, but we are totally confident we cross the threshold if UKTV is licensed." Despite his enthusiasm and confidence, that 'if' continues to loom large as Asper flies home this weekend to his family. Some things even the Green Ranger cannot guarantee.