Overpopulation of species?

Among the 40-odd new digital channels debuting in Canada this fall, Alliance Atlantis' National Geographic has a real edge, thanks to its household name. But it'll need that edge and more, given that the channel is facing off against the established seven-million-subscriber Discovery Channel and its new animal-happy brethren.

Among the 40-odd new digital channels debuting in Canada this fall, Alliance Atlantis’ National Geographic has a real edge, thanks to its household name. But it’ll need that edge and more, given that the channel is facing off against the established seven-million-subscriber Discovery Channel and its new animal-happy brethren.

Set to launch in Canadian homes this September, the National Geographic channel has already seen success in the U.S. since launching in 10-million households this past January. Worldwide, the channel services more than 100-million households in 129 countries.

Alliance Atlantis will kick off the Canadian marketing campaign by offering a free trial period to digital and satellite owners, giving Discovery’s fee-paying subscribers a taste of the competition.

‘As people come on board during the trial and realize what they are missing, we anticipate an increase in our subscriber numbers,’ says Walter Levitt, VP of marketing at Alliance Atlantis. ‘It is also a huge opportunity for advertisers to hit audiences during the free period.’

With half a million Canadians currently subscribing to National Geographic’s long-running magazine, Levitt hopes that the channel will quickly attract a sizable audience base.

Programs including Living Wild, which explores the animal kingdom, and Historylands, which looks at Canada’s heritage sites, will also inevitably go up against programming on two of Discovery’s new channels, Animal Planet and Discovery Civilization.

O’Shea’s Big Adventure, which will strike a familiar chord with lovers of Discovery’s Crocodile Hunter, will air on National Geographic as well as on Discovery’s new Animal Planet channel.

Other programs in National Geographic’s lineup include Earth Pulse, which takes a look at the heroes of the planet, and National Geographic Today, which covers global events.

Although Levitt is reluctant to admit the new channel will aim to steal advertising dollars and subscribers away from Discovery, both channels have similar programming and both are targeting audiences in the 25 to 54 age range with a higher than average income. So if they aren’t coming from Discovery, where all the new nature buffs will come from is a mystery.

Still, according to Alliance Atlantis senior VP of sales Brad Alles, there are plenty of media dollars to go around. ‘If we take a little bit away from [Discovery] it’s not going to impact on them enormously because a little bit to them is a lot to us,’ he says. But it won’t help that the same advertisers – automotive, financial companies and computer sellers – top the list for both National Geographic and Discovery.

Alliance Atlantis has yet to start marketing its new channel to media buyers or announce packages, but Alles says that advertising rates will be lower than Discovery’s to match the substantial difference in initial household penetration.

Sherry O’Neil, VP, director of television buying at OMD Canada, says that while the immediate impact may be slight, National Geographic may hinder growth for Discovery in the long term.

‘There will certainly be interest from an advertiser’s perspective and it will be the same advertisers looking at both channels,’ she says. ‘But I don’t see a significant number of dollars being lost to National Geographic, because there are too many unknown factors in a category-two channel.’

Meanwhile, Discovery execs are preparing to launch three new channels in time to keep newcomers from challenging their reign. To make an impression on buyers and planners, they have toured more than 30 media operations with a baby tiger and Madagascan lemur in tow. The presentation incorporates information about the Discovery Channel and the new channels, Travel, Animal Planet, and Discovery Civilization.

Discovery’s VP of sales and marketing, Sally Basmajian is philosophical about National Geographic’s entry to the market, although she admits there could be a lull during the free sample period when curious subscribers check out the opposition. ‘It is competition but it isn’t a threat to us,’ she says.

Theresa Treutler, SVP and broadcast investment director for Starcom Worldwide, in Toronto, agrees that National Geographic will have its work cut out to steal media dollars from such a tight marketplace. ‘It is going to be a while before digital penetration is at a level equal to Discovery,’ she says.

Still, Discovery execs are already fighting back with a series of theme weeks – such as Extreme Weather Week, Shark Week and Creepy Crawlie Week – in the fall to introduce the new channels.