Online Extra: Q&A with Vivendi Universal's Pierre Lescure

The head of the media giant's TV and film division says: It's a merger between complementary cultures

Pierre Lescure has come a long way since his days as a TV newsman in Paris. The longtime chief of European pay-television operator Canal+, Lescure now heads the TV and film division of Vivendi Universal, the global media giant created last year by the merger of Vivendi, Seagram, and Canal+.

It's a dream job for Lescure, a film fanatic whose Paris office is packed with movie posters and related paraphernalia. Under his leadership, Canal+ amassed a huge film library and backed film productions in Europe and in Hollywood.

But Lescure also answers to a demanding boss: Vivendi Universal CEO Jean-Marie Messier, who is looking for nearly $400 million in cost savings companywide by next year. A prime target could be Canal+, which has run in the red for the past three years and is expected to post losses again this year -- largely because of heavy spending to expand outside France and switch from analog to digital technology. Vivendi Universal's Hollywood operations, by contrast, are on a roll: Universal Pictures topped $1 billion in U.S. box-office receipts last year. Lescure also oversees the Universal Studios theme-park division, which opened its newest site in Osaka, Japan, in March.

BusinessWeek Paris Correspondent Carol Matlack and Los Angeles Bureau Manager Ron Grover talked to Lescure about his plans for Canal+. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: What's it like for a Frenchman to run a Hollywood studio?

A: It made me smile when I read that this cohabitation would be difficult. It's a merger between complementary cultures and medias. Each can keep its own identity. I don't know any American filmmakers who aren't influenced by Europeans, and even if the French wrap themselves in the flag of their culture, they are all influenced by the Americans, too.

If there's one thing we can really learn from the Americans, it's the marketing. I was amazed when I walked into a meeting at Universal [to plan the marketing of a film]. There were 40 people around the table -- an army -- and each one had a particular area of expertise.

Q: Are you a hands-on manager at Universal?

A: I don't sit in on every meeting. They have just had a fabulous year. My role is to make their good health continue. There are budgets and business plans that we have all agreed upon before, but it is their responsibility to make the pictures.

Q: Is Jean-Marie Messier getting impatient with the losses at Canal+?

A: I've watched Jean-Marie Messier since 1996 [when Vivendi, then a major Canal+ shareholder, encouraged the company to expand across Europe by acquiring another pay-TV operator, NetHold]. It took Messier's youth and direction to get that deal done in 15 days. He looked at the map [of NetHold's holdings] and said, "It's great." He knew that the accounts would be negatively impacted for four years.

He was right to make that bet. Canal+ has always been a pioneer, and today it's at the heart of the world's second largest communications group. In the months and years to come, you'll see, we'll be viewed as having been ahead of our time.

Q: But you are cutting costs.

A: Yes. Content is king, but the price of liberty to create content is financial rigor. For Canal+, this is an infinite opportunity to expand its programming. It's also a magnificent opportunity to take things in hand, to develop better habits. The level of spending doesn't always correspond to the level of creativity. Canal+ will still be the biggest by far in Europe, after these economies.

Q: How are the new interactive technologies going to change the experience of TV viewing?

A: The percentage of consumption à la carte will increase, but the majority will still be from the menu [with viewers sitting back and watching, rather than interacting]. The pleasure of TV is like the pleasure of the cinema: You sit in your armchair and you don't move. It's imbecilic to think people will want to do something like choose how a movie is going to end.

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