Canadian upfronts: Shrewd, understated, moxie…

Media buyers weigh in on rival nets' strategies

With the world going to hell in an economic handbasket, it was a given that this year’s upfronts were going to be more homey affairs. Under the circumstances, less pomp was certainly in order. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t any surprises. Quite the opposite, in fact, as each broadcaster responded to the downturn by rolling out their fall skeds in their own singular style.

While most media buyers say there’s no sure breakout hits in the few acquisitions that cracked the fall lineups, no one is complaining about the status quo. Stability is never a bad thing, after all, especially when you’re talking about advertisers and their money. Fewer launches mean fewer risks.

‘With no changes,’ observes Florence Ng, VP broadcast investments at ZenithOptimedia, ‘it becomes: how does your schedule compare to the competition? Are you still maintaining that dominant role? Basically, it gives the buying community a comfort zone. All the good shows, all the shows that we are familiar with, are going to be coming back.

‘This year, there is a lot more selection, a better variety, and hopefully some [shows] will actually survive to the end of the year.’

So, once you’ve ruled out revolution, all that’s left is evolution. Here’s the buyers’ take on the four networks’ approaches to the upfronts and the broadcasters’ scheduling strategies.

CTV

Upfront review:

CTV’s upfront was a more personal affair this time around. Dubbed the ‘Up Close’ to better reflect the warm, fuzzy feeling it hoped to create, CTV chose to do small group presentations and allow buyers a chance to ask questions and create a dialogue. The broadcaster followed that with a celebrity-filled affair at the old CHUM-City building on Queen Street in Toronto. (Call it what you like, it will always be the old CHUM-City building.)

That approach was favoured by most buyers. ‘I enjoyed listening to Ivan Fecan speak casually and answer questions,’ says Anne Muscat-Erskine, investment director at Starcom Worldwide. ‘CTV – and Rogers [for that matter] – did a good job of changing the way it has always been done, and showing their true colours; showing what their hopes are.’

Hits and misses:

Never in the history of television have buyers used the phrase ‘tried and true and safe’ so often. With CTV only adding one new show to the prime-time lineup, that’s what got most of the attention.

The Vampire Diaries has been slotted in at 7 p.m., but buyers expect it could move if it breaks. Put to a panel at Gaggi Media in Toronto – consisting of VP Kelly Dutton, media supervisor Susan Robb and senior media buyer/planner Sarah Bergamo – the show brims with potential: ‘The station has chosen to stretch the ‘twilight’ hours and jump on the popular vampire bandwagon. It is in a timeslot where big competition is scarce and vampire magnetism could persist.’

While the CTV sked saw no significant changes that would affect viewership, over on the A channels it’s a slightly different story. Flash Forward is the buzz show, even though the network was not allowed to screen the pilot for buyers. That didn’t dampen enthusiasm, however. ‘I think that is a show that is going to come out of the gate well, like Fringe did,’ predicts

Muscat-Erskine, ‘and they’ve paired it with Fringe.’ She believes it may make an appearance on CTV if viewers show up – but that would mean taking it out of simulcast, as CTV already has CSI and Grey’s Anatomy in simulcast on Thursdays.

Wednesday night is the big question for the As. With four new shows back to back, buyers are a little worried about the lineup, labelling it a ‘wait and see’ – many buyers, that is, but not all. The Gaggi team labels the new Wednesday shows all ‘misses’ – mostly thanks to the competition they’re up against: Hank takes on America’s Next Top Model (CTV) and Parenthood (City); The Beautiful Life against Glee (Global) and Criminal Minds (CTV), etc. Time will tell.

Media buyers’ take:

The CTV strategy won the award for ‘the shrewdest’ from the Gaggi Media panel. ‘The station is playing it very safe,’ they note, ‘with their dependable, tried and true schedule of proven hits such as Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance Canada, Law & Order: SVU, Criminal Minds and CSI: New York.’

Inese Korbs, director of media investments at M2 Universal, makes this observation, however: ‘The way we see it is that they have three distinct schedules. They have the fall schedule, which is dancing and drama. And then there is the Olympic schedule. And then there is post-Olympic, where it sounds like there is going to be a fair bit of Canadian.’ (At least the first two-thirds of that equation should be dependable.)

When it comes to the As, Gaggi expects the stations to ‘have some difficult struggles with more of the new shows on their schedule.’ That, combined with the significant changes on Global and Citytv (CTV is anchored with Criminal Minds and CSI: NY), likely means Wednesday night is the only night in the schedule that could be up for grabs. Advertisers take note.

CANWEST

Upfront review:

Although it was expected, Canwest’s low-key approach to the upfronts wasn’t appreciated by all buyers. An understated affair, the network chose a morning presentation in Toronto’s Distillery District, followed by sizzle reel screenings in rooms dedicated to each night of the week.

While some buyers praised the net for the opportunity to interact one-on-one with execs and the chance to move through the screenings at their own pace, some found it lacking. One buyer called it ‘interesting but not informative.’ Another found it ‘unstructured’ and wanting for detailed information.

That aside, what caused the biggest buzz from the Canwest upfront may have been something that wasn’t even there – the E! channels.

Hits and misses:

Of the half-dozen or so new shows added to the Canwest lineup, two were singled out for praise among buyers – Glee and The Good Wife. Glee, the first episode of which screened on Fox last season, has a High School Musical feel (‘Disney-like’ as one described it), which could find a family audience. Or, as Gaggi puts it: ‘This new contender could be Wednesday night’s answer for the younger 12-to-24 and 12-to-34 target looking for an exercise in procrastination, layered with a tiny bit of cheese.’

The Good Wife has strong casting in Julianna Margulies and will benefit from a late Tuesday night simulcast. Although likely a survivor, it faces tough competition from CTV’s Law & Order: SVU. The same can be said of NCIS: Los Angeles (really, people, now we’re starting with NCIS?), which has the star power of LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell, but is up against CTV’s Dancing with the Stars.

Buyers note that The Cleveland Show is safe and secure in its Sunday slot, and further serves to lock the young male demo for Canwest. Also in a new Sunday home is Heroes, which many think will thrive in pre-release.

Less certain is Melrose Place, which media buyers say is handicapped by post-release and slightly lower production value compared to its kitschy kin, 90210. Although paired on the CW, in Canada, Melrose leads out Wednesday night prime time, while 90210 does the same Thursday – splitting the audience of 30-somethings dying to relive the ’90s (for reasons unfathomable).

Media buyers’ take:

Buyers think that dropping the E! burden was a winning move. The Gaggi panel says Canwest is ‘being shrewd and hanging onto proven hits like House, Survivor, Bones and The Simpsons, while also investing in strong new contenders.’

‘I think Canwest’s schedule looks stronger,’ agrees M2′s Korbs. ‘Now that they don’t have E! to fill, they have more for their Global stations.’

While offloading E! may have freed up Canwest to concentrate on Global, that doesn’t mean it should expect the E! audience to do the same. Buyers believe E! viewers will spread out to find other light fare (such as comedy), and will jump to the As or City – something Rogers is undoubtedly hoping for, given the way it’s positioning itself this year.

ROGERS

Upfront review:

If, despite the economy, you found yourself yearning for a traditional upfront, the Canon Theatre was the place to be in June. Rogers came out of its shell this year, doing its best to position Citytv as Canada’s second network. The media giant put on a true upfront presentation, complete with a full screening of Modern Family and lots of promos for their new building in the heart of Toronto’s core. That was followed by a somewhat reserved party at the Hard Rock Café. Even emerging networks have to watch the expense account these days.

In the face of restraint elsewhere, Rogers scored points for its moxie. ‘Personally,’ observes ZenithOptimedia’s Ng, ‘I liked the Rogers one the best because it got the information across. The fall launch is still a big event, and having it at the Canon Theatre gave us that sense.’

Hits and misses:

City offered the most fodder for speculation thanks to the volume of new and new-to-the-network programming. On the winning side is the aforementioned Modern Family, part of an all-new Wednesday lineup. Although the entire night is unproven, the prime-time night leads with Parenthood (from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer), jumps to Modern Family, hands off to Courteney Cox vehicle Cougar Town (which Ng believes is the night’s weak link), and closes with The Jay Leno Show. This ain’t exactly the A channel’s Wednesday night experiment.

As was hammered home during the upfront, Leno squares off against murder and mayhem on other stations, so buyers think it has a good chance with viewers looking for escape. And at five hours a week in simulcast, it’s a strong closer. Best of all, Rogers is being realistic in its pricing. ‘I didn’t want to see it being priced or estimated from a ratings or audience perspective as a full prime-time show,’ says Muscat-Erskine, ‘and it wasn’t. We’re going to have to see how that does at 10 o’clock… But it’s an interesting notion – it will be new programming all year round, when the prime shows go into repeats.’

Community is a question mark since it’s up against tough Thursday night competition – CSI (CTV) and Survivor: Samoa (Global).

The Gaggi team spots two misses in the City lineup: Accidentally on Purpose and Trauma. Accidentally, where the unfunny Jenna Elfman stars as a film critic who gets pregnant after a one-night stand (ya, I thought Knocked Up was pretty funny too, guys), is up against House (Global) and Dancing with the Stars (CTV). Trauma is also up against stiff competition (like Lie to Me and Dancing with the Stars)…and might just suck.

City also picked up Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, programming audiences are already comfortable with. Muscat-Erskine adds a note of caution – viewers will just have to know where to find them: ‘City has to get out there and say: ‘hey, we have these shows now,’ and I’m sure that they will.’

Media buyers’ take:

Gaggi gives Rogers an A+ for getting strong new contenders while maintaining existing favorites like 30 Rock and gly Betty, as well as extra credit for having so much of the lineup in simulcast. And while the new network isn’t in Global’s league yet, it might not be far off if the new shows click.

Ng says Rogers is ‘going in the right direction,’ and welcomes the added competition City represents. She strikes a cautious note when it comes to Rogers’ intention to sell the channels as a network for the first time. ‘I think selling as a network – one invoice – is definitely going to reduce paperwork on the agency side,’ she says. ‘But what we also look at when we buy the network is an advantage in terms of cost. What is it that we’re getting in return? I think that is probably the number one question that we’ll ask: is there any benefit to buying the network?’

CBC

Upfront review:

The CBC decided to forego the ceremony in favour of in-agency presentations. And with little in the way of new programming, buyers believe it was the best approach, praising the pubcaster’s sales team for making the effort to get out and press the flesh.

Media buyers’ take:

The main addition to the CBC lineup is a seven-week run of Battle of the Blades, which buyers are split over. Blades has the hockey and freak-show factors working for it, but Gaggi notes ‘the concept is just a wee bit silly. Plus, it is up against The Simpsons/The Cleveland Show on Sundays and House/Dancing with the Stars on Mondays.’

Where CBC is likely to maintain its edge is in (obviously) hockey and Canadian reality like Dragon’s Den. With so much home-grown programming, advertisers have a greater chance for product integration and other meaningful conversations.

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Intro

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New York upfronts

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Handicapping the shows

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