Editorial People will watch

As we write, the story of Canada's changing television picture continues as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission hears licence applications from would-be providers of new specialty services. Proposals include an all-women's channel, more sports channels, headline news services, all-comedy networks,...

As we write, the story of Canada’s changing television picture continues as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission hears licence applications from would-be providers of new specialty services. Proposals include an all-women’s channel, more sports channels, headline news services, all-comedy networks, country music, and more.

Whatever new services emerge from these hearings will take Canadian television another step closer to the much-touted 500-channel tv universe that pundits continue to assure us is on its way to Canadians, probably via satellite to cable given the levels of co-axial penetration in this country.

The boosters of this vastly serviced world see nothing wrong with such a multiplicity of options, claiming as their main argument that viewers are demanding more and more choice in what they watch, and that advertisers would love the opportunity of reaching their consumer targets with greater precision.

Critics of the 500-channel world voice the contention that so many channels – or any similar number – will hopelessly fragment audiences; that channel-surfing will become a primetime sport; that no one, not even the most resolute tv watcher, can navigate his or her way through 500 channels and stay sane.

But there is an encompassing solution to the problems raised by the challenge of so many programming options.

And to find it one need look no farther than Lillehammer, Norway, where one of the most successful Winter Olympic Games in memory has just wrapped up.

The CTV Television Network, mindful of the mixed reviews of its coverage of the Summer Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, did not go so far as to reinvent its sports reporting department for the Games in Lillehammer. But it did heed the findings of Decima Research, which told the network Canadians wanted a Canadian perspective on the Olympics; plenty of hockey, skiing and figure skating; and as much live action as possible.

The results of ctv’s tv coverage are not all in yet, but the network’s director of marketing, Drew Williams, says audiences are 20% to 30% above estimates even without the final day heroics of the Canadian hockey team.

Of course, it must be noted that ctv had more than its fair share of good luck during these Games. The Norwegian organizers, by all accounts, were patient and obliging and the Games were conducted without any of the ugly incidents which sometimes mar the Summer Games; the Canadian athletes performed better than ever before and came in sixth in the medal standings. And, it has to be grudgingly admitted, the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan sideshow provided some tawdry interest for the non-fan.

But even if fortune had not been quite so kind to ctv, there seems little doubt the network would still have bettered its Barcelona showing, and then some.

Not every tv programmer has an Olympic Games at hand, and no one can expect to be able to deliver this kind of homerun every time. But the results from these recent Olympics do reaffirm one thing: give people good television and they will watch it.

Creating programming that really turns people on is the way to cope with the 500-channel universe.