Patrick Vien knows it's not easy for a French-Canadian to break into the American television business. And it's even harder to crack the New York media circle. But as president of USA Cable's emerging networks, Vien is carving out a successful niche as he builds Barry Diller's portfolio of digital networks.
"Starting as an unknown outside the American border forced me to learn everything very quickly," says Vien, who was born and educated in Quebec.
Vien arrived in New York last year after USA Cable purchased arts channel Trio and global news net News World International from the Canadian Broadcasting Co. (CBC) and Power Broadcasting. He had been president of the nets since 1997, laboring over their programming and growth since joining the company in 1994. After the USA acquisition, Vien stayed on as president of Trio and NWI and developed future digital networks for USA, including Crime network, which should debut next year.
Since Trio and NWI launched in 1994, Vien's company eagerly sought to export them, particularly to the U.S. But Vien found it tough to make inroads across the border.
"We were Canadian, and, when you're not an insider in the U.S. media business, it's tougher," Vien notes. "We had no tentacles into major cable operators and no leverage for getting distribution."
As the media industry consolidated in the late 1990s, Vien became increasingly eager to partner with a larger firm. He knew he needed the help of an American company to grow his channels. "I could see the day coming where our indie status was going to get dangerous. But I knew we had built a good acquirable asset."
The networks were financially sound; Trio and NWI were part of a healthy $100 million company.
Vien still manages the networks' operations and says he hasn't been constrained by his new corporate surroundings. "I'm not asked to be a divisional manager at USA. I am asked to be an entrepreneur," he explains. "I'm in the business of building assets for USA, not just managing them."
USA's media muscle has helped Trio and NWI increase their distribution. Trio and NWI now reach about 13 million subs each on several MSOs' digital tiers and DirecTV.
Vien has been given more resources and more capital to grow his networks. The fruits are showing up on-air. Last summer, Trio unveiled an expansive slate of acquired programming and original documentaries and specials, including the acclaimed musical series Sessions at West 54th
and a 10-hour special on the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
To celebrate the premiere of the Jazz Festival special last summer, Trio held a screening in New York's Bryant Park. The network expected a few thousand people; 10,000 came.
"That was the demarcation for me of leaving the independent sphere and joining USA," Vien remarks.
Vien learned the television business at a young age from his parents, who owned Pathonic Network, a group of Canadian TV stations.
After graduating in 1989 from Montreal's McGill University, he headed south to Atlanta to take part in Turner Broadcasting's global internship program. On one of his rotations, he worked with CNN veteran Ed Turner on the domestic news desk.
A year later, Vien returned to Canada with new experience, only to learn that his parents had sold their TV stations. So he went back to school, earning a masters in communications business from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism.
He landed his first position with Canada-based Power Broadcasting, which sent him to France to help launch that country's first local TV stations.