She's a former NDP finance minister, a blue-collar kid from Hamilton who worked her way through the London School of Economics all the way to the B.C. legislature. You might remember Joy MacPhail, a fast-talking redhead who kept the NDP in the game with only two seats, thanks to her street smarts and her knack for landing memorable headlines: She once sent a dancing mechanical penis across another politician's desk, and mused about having "platonic mind sex" with federal Liberal cabinet minister Pierre Pettigrew.
He's the quiet, smooth-as-silk scion of Montreal's Shavick family that built the Holt Renfrew empire. James Shavick chose to leave behind the family clothing business to be a film and TV producer, creating fare such as Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation, The New Addams Family and low-budget movies with forgotten stars.
Two eclectic backstories, to be sure, but hardly pedigrees that make you think of network executives shaking up TV land. Or global advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender—or LGBT—community.
Yet as the owners of OUTtv, this husband-and-wife duo has turned Canada's near-dead gay-and-lesbian TV channel into a cultural force and cable success story. It has gone from a few hundred thousand subscribers to 1.2 million, making it competitive with a mainstream specialty channel such as Fashion TV.
"Who would have thought," deadpans MacPhail, nursing a glass of wine on the couple's oceanfront deck on Vancouver's Point Grey Road. Shavick leans back easily in his chair, tanned and unflappable, Cuban cigar at the ready, awaiting his wife's inevitable punch line. "Two straights running a network for the LGBT community."
In May, OUTtv began the next stage in its evolution when it joined the launch of YouTube's subscription channel service. The video service, owned by Google, is the search-engine giant's challenge to
Netflix. OUTtv will deliver its content on the GayDirect channel for $2.99 a month, giving the niche player a slice of the billion-plus audience in countries such as the United States, Brazil, France, Japan and beyond.
OUTtv fits in with Google's strategy to connect with LGBTs around the world. For MacPhail and Shavick, the partnership fits in with a key brand objective. They believe their personal credibility as OUTtv's owners, and the channel's viewer loyalty, stems from their mission to both entertain, support and spread mainstream tolerance for the LGBT community as far afield as possible.
Teaming up with Google is also good business. While OUTtv generates millions of dollars in revenue for Shavick and MacPhail—who took 95% control of the network in 2012—they now have a chance to extend their brand and further monetize their content. "We believe there is a worldwide audience for our unique programming," says Shavick. "We are exporting Canada's diversity."
The couple won't discuss the profits of their privately held company in any detail. But it's safe to say they now run one of Canada's most successful specialty channels. Every cable subscriber sends a monthly fee to OUTtv, about 45 cents, meaning millions of dollars of near-guaranteed revenue a year. More than $3 million a year of that amount gets invested back into Canadian content, allowing OUTtv to create or license content it can now put on YouTube.
Seems like a no-lose model. But it didn't always look like that. When the couple invested a good chunk of their personal savings into the network seven years ago, OUTtv had few viewers and fewer advertisers. It was languishing in the cable-dial's ghetto, home to soft porn and stations destined for the CRTC's specialty-channel graveyard.
Shavick and MacPhail turned OUTtv upside down. They killed the soft-porn offerings. Shavick oversaw content revitalization, commissioning original programming or licensing crossover hits that he couldn't afford to make. Meanwhile, MacPhail used her political savvy to force some reluctant cable companies, such as Shaw, to give OUTtv a better spot on the dial and advertise it to subscribers. An official complaint from OUTtv to the CRTC helped too. "We just want fair treatment," says MacPhail, "like any other channel."
OUTtv doesn't have the trappings of a major network: Its head office remains in a one-storey industrial building in Vancouver, without even a sign; its staff of about a dozen still cut promos on desktop Apple computers.
At OUTtv HQ, Shavick leads visitors by walls full of fading movie posters of what he's produced. His days of being a Hollywood director and TV mogul are over, he says. "Joy and I are running a network now."