When Ted Rogers was born in Toronto in 1933, entertainment was a scarce commodity. The movie theaters were darkened and locked each Sunday. Public playgrounds were closed on the Lord’s Day; the child’s place was presumed to be fidgeting in church. Daily newspapers came out either five or six days a week, never on Sunday. Rogers grew up during the Great Depression, a bleak time in a dour age in a cold city. Ted Rogers’ father invented an improved type of radio, which refined the possibilities for commercial broadcasters to offer up a dollop of programming to ease your mind from its many cares for a few hours each day. The airwaves delivered music, news and commentary (which were occasionally two different things back then), baseball games, merry comedies, dramas starring Lorne Greene, and long sermons from spirit-filled preachers, along with jauntily sung commercials for Presswood bacon and Presswood ham, Langley’s dry cleaners and the friendly man who delivered Milne’s heating oil. You could depend on the friendly man from Milne.
Ted Rogers’ father didn’t make much money from his invention. He wound up bamboozled by fourflushers. Papa died at an early age, just 38.
Today, 12/02/08, was Ted Rogers’ appointed time to croak, and the world he left was a very different place. Entertainment oozes from every crack in the landscape, falls from above, soaks through the skin. You could fulfill Marshall McLuhan’s prediction and offer to pay for a little silence, but it wouldn’t do you any good.
Theaters closed on the sabbath?
Today there’s a dozen Jumbotrons set up at the intersection of Yonge and Dundas, blaring video nonsense all day and all night. They’ll never leave you alone for a second now, these entertainment purveyors. I’d bet that Rogers died with the cable TV on. So will we all.
I was driving past a Rogers video-rental store this morning when the news came over the Rogers radio station that Rogers, “a pioneer, a visionary, a humanitarian,” has left this vale of tears, less than five days before his career-capping achievement was to have taken place: the first regular-season NFL game to be played outside the US, in Toronto at the Rogers Center. I might have called someone on my Rogers Wireless phone to pass the news along, but the laws governing such behavior on the highways have been changed recently in Ontario, and, besides, the Rogers-branded town formerly known as Toronto is constantly awash in information, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the late, great Ted and his flunkies. Rogers’ media consumers most likely heard about the great man’s demise a few precious moments before the memo was handed upstairs to the Great Scorer.
Conrad Black’s occupied whittling a gun from a soap-bar in his Florida jail cell, and now Ted Rogers is uncharacteristically quiet in the back of the limo, destined for his one last appearance before the investment analysts. You might conclude that they’re screening the final reel for the generation of Toronto’s media moguls that attended Upper Canada College.
As a fellow media baron, I offer the highest praise to Ted’s mogul-ness, which is that he never once forgot to ask for the money.
My friend Mary Layton recalls that when Rogers was beginning to build his media empire with his startup radio stations, CHFI-AM and FM, it was Ted hisself who’d call on the media buyers, sit in the cubicle with his alpine hat in his lap, and plead for some business. Later, when his larger dreams of creating a cable and wireless empire were realized, and he was in a position to scoop up the nickels and dimes, along with the quarters, he instituted some innovative business tactics, such as dropping the commercials the US networks sent out with their broadcasts and replacing them with ads he’d sell locally. The American broadcasters howled in outrage, but Ted kept the dough. He introduced so-called negative option billing for his cable TV customers, as a further means of not giving a sucker an even break. Similarly, when the use of wireless telephones expanded, he began charging something called “system access fees.” The amount of these fees began to escalate, which led to the reasonable assumption that it had to be the conniving federal government that was pocketing the $7-a-month charge. Nah. It was Ted.
During the last several years, you could always tell when you were watching a commercial for one of the dozens of services offered by Ted’s various companies. There was a striking meanness of spirit in each of the ads, a signature tone of snideness that left you wondering just exactly how the man whose name was on the firm’s door wanted to be seen by the world.
He was quite a card, they say. Just last year he was yukking it up at a press conference with Ralph Wilson, the nanogenerian owner of the Buffalo Bills, crowing over how he’d snapped up the Toronto football stadium, financed by taxpayers at around a half-billion bucks, for the paltry sum of $25 million. A rich guy I once knew told me about the time Ted ran into the moneybags’ mom at a party, just after Ted had come into a big pile of cash by finalizing one or other of his schemes. “So,” he greeted the rich guy’s ma, “Tell me something. How does it feel to be really wealthy?” Mm, I said to the guy telling the story, what did your mother say? He started to laugh. “Well,” he began, but then he cracked up and couldn’t continue. He laughed a little more, and then he was able to compose himself. “She said, ‘I wouldn’t know, Ted. I’ve never been poor.'” I felt, for the first and only time in my life, the slightest twinge of sympathy for Ted Rogers, the man who’d been skimming small amounts from my cable bill all those years. Imagine Ted forced to get through an entire evening surrounded by that particular class of Upper Canadian pinhead.
He’ll likely have more suitable company in the Afterlife, although other people’s idea of paradise might well be intolerable to Rogers, especially if it involves peace and quiet. I picture him shifting to-and-fro in a celestial wing chair, nervously thumbing through a tattered old copy of Maclean’s or Canadian Business, biding his time until Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone show up for lunch. When they finally wander in, blinking and disoriented, Rogers will tell them, “Boys, you know what this place could really use? Something to liven things up. I was thinking about a theme park, and a pay-per-view specialty channel, and a roller-derby league, and…”