Unions Occupy Canal Plus in On-Air Protest at Boss’s Sacking

17 April 2002

Pierre Lescure, founder and chairman of Europe’s largest pay-TV broadcaster, loss-making Canal Plus, yesterday wept on live television following his abrupt sacking by Vivendi Universal group chairman and chief executive Jean-Paul Messier. In a live interview, emotion overcame Lescure as he spoke of his ejection by Messier in favour of Xavier Couture, imported from rival broadcaster TV1.

Lescure did not weep alone. In a wave of anger at mogul Messier, unions and presenters took over the station to protest the firing, for which Messier interrupted his Bahamas vacation. Viewers were urged by top presenter Antoine de Caunes to cancel their subscriptions to Canal Plus.

In addition to his Canal Plus duties, Lescure was also co-chief operating officer at Vivendi Universal and chaired its Executive Board. Canal Plus ranks number one in European digital television, boasting nearly six million subscribers as at the end of September 2001.

Also lending his voice to the growing furore was French prime minister Lionel Jospin, who took time out from his presidential campaigning to order the nation’s broadcast regulator, the CSA, to ensure that Vivendi is held to the commitments it gave when acquiring Canal Plus from Seagram in December 2000.

The political penumbra surrounding Canal Plus is one of extreme sensitivity given the increasing wave of criticism over the alleged Americanization of Vivendi and the substantial funding the broadcaster provides to the French film industry.

Messier appeared on state TV channel, France 2, to justify his decision to fire Lescure. “There was a management crisis and it was necessary to fix it,” he said, while denying that editorial changes are also in the pipeline. The decision to sack Lescure, he claimed, was motivated by a desire to make the channel profitable. Couture would restore the financial “and above all creative” fortunes of Canal Plus.

Lescure’s removal follows hard on the heels of Canal’s chief operating officer Denis Olivennes, who quit last Friday fingering a “series of disagreements” with Vivendi. Meantime, Vivendi’s board convened Tuesday evening for an unscheduled meeting to discuss the captaincy of its controversial chairman and ceo. Messier will also be held to account by shareholders at the group’s annual meeting next week.

Data sourced from: Vivendi-Universal website and The Times (London); additional content by WARC staff