A channel for everyone

Canada will get a step closer to the proverbial 500-channel universe on September 7 with the rollout of up to 40 new digital channels, but forget 500 - many say just getting this batch up and running will take a miracle....

Canada will get a step closer to the proverbial 500-channel universe on September 7 with the rollout of up to 40 new digital channels, but forget 500 – many say just getting this batch up and running will take a miracle.

Digital television execs attending the CCTA (Canadian Cable Television Association) convention at the end of May did a lot of talking but finalized no deals with distributors on how these specialty channels will be packaged.

Uncertain marketing plans and a tight deadline plague owners of the 21 category-one channels – which have guaranteed carriage by CRTC mandate – but that’s nothing compared to the jitters felt by category-two owners. These channels don’t have guaranteed distribution, and their execs must negotiate with BDUs (broadcast distribution undertakings – cable and satellite companies) for air space.

While 262 category-twos were licensed by the CRTC last November, only 20 to 30 are expected to launch this fall. And for many of those, it’s important the launches coincide with category-ones on September 7, so cross-category combos can be packaged together.

At the convention, people representing channels from both categories showed their wares and negotiated with satellite and digitally ready cable companies, but they were still waiting for decisions at press time. In the meantime, with less than three months to blast off, the category twos must risk tentative plans, program buys and talent negotiations.

Adding to the uncertainty are rumours that the French-language channels (five category-ones are French, 16 are English-language licenses) may not launch at all, or at least any time soon. ‘We’re trying to make our business plan work, but the subscriber base is so small,’ says Pierre Marchand, VP and GM of MusiquePlus and Musimax, which is operating the new category-one channel Perfecto. In English Canada, potential digital subscribers number more than two million, but in Quebec he says, there are only half a million, tops.

Still, it’s not that much easier in English Canada. There are approximately 1.5-million digital households via satellite companies such as Bell ExpressVu and Star Choice, and another million via cable companies such as Rogers and Shaw. But that’s the potential audience: there’s no way each subscriber is going to sign up for every channel.

‘It makes us all nervous if we’re dealing with only 200,000 households,’ says Marcia Martin, VP and GM of Star, category two-channel SexTV, category one-channel FashionTelevision, and VP of production for Citytv.

‘Programming is not coming down in price,’ she says. Low subscriber counts will not justify big production budgets, which may hurt the digital cause. ‘It’s a problem competing in a medium that is used to huge production dollars. With a click of the dial, you can see analogue then digital, and you can tell the [digital channels] don’t have the dollars behind them.’

Then there’s the question of how to market the combined 40 or 50 new channels. The major theme that emerged from the CCTA conference was to market ‘choice’ itself, in order to gain public support for so many new channels and a brand-new platform.

The ultimate choice is to offer channels à la carte, something digital technology can offer that analogue can’t. But consumers would pay a premium.

Another way to go would be pick and pay, which allows consumers to pick 10 of their favourite channels and build their own packages.

Theme packs are another option, bundling all lifestyle or music channels together. Packages may also be formed on the basis of demographics, for instance, all channels that appeal to women.

Finally there’s the all-in-one pack, where all broadcasters and cable companies agree to low-ball their channels in order to motivate consumers to buy the necessary set-top box – say $16 for all 40 channels. This is a key stratagem to grow the subscriber base and take advantage of a new cable infrastructure that will offer 7.5-million digital-ready homes.

Whether the BDUs offer all packaging options, how well subscribers accept this new tier, and at what crucial price threshold they accept it are all questions that will be answered soon. However, it may take three to five years to find out which channels survive.

In the meantime, if you were building a package, which ones would you choose?

New category

one channels

13ième Rue *

(out of five)

Ownership: Groupe TVA and Global each hold 45% with Rogers holding the balance.

Theme: Mystery and suspense. French-language version of the Mystery channel (see below).

Target demo: Not available

Shows: Crime and spy dramas. Writers’ Circle: presents conversations with mystery authors. Murder Mystery: guests try to solve mysterious occurrences.

Verdict: Popular genre, but French audiences are not expected to take to it as well as English audiences. Possible launch delays are a further complication (see intro).

The Biography

Channel ****

Ownership: A&E Canada (a subsidiary of AETN in the U.S.), Rogers Broadcasting and Shaw Communications are all equal shareholders.

Theme: Bios of leading personalities from Canada and around the world.

Target demo: Broad age group, slight female skew,

Shows: Prime time is themed: Monday nights feature great women in sport, Tuesday nights feature great entertainers, etc. Biographical movies and docs in the daytime, each accompanied by a bio. Second window for CBC’s Life and Times.

Verdict: Megabrand!

BookTelevision:

The Channel *

Ownership: Learning and Skills Television of Alberta Limited, controlled by CHUM.

Theme: Literature-based programming with an educational orientation.

Target demo: Adult readers primarily, but also children

Shows: Magazines, talk shows, dramas and documentaries that have the printed word as their base. Also: programs on kidlit and literacy for adults.

Verdict: Hard to get away from talking heads when talking about books. However, if anybody can turn books into good television, it’s supervising producer Daniel Richler. The pop raconteur who kickstarted TVO’s book show, Imprint, has some innovative plans, but are there enough Canadian book-related businesses to keep this station afloat? There will always be advertisers interested in a better-educated, higher-income demographic, but will enough of them subscribe?

The Canadian

Documentary Channel ***

Ownership: Corus Entertainment (53%), CBC (29%), NFB (14%), and four production companies.

Theme: Feature-length documentaries from Canada and around the world.

Target demo: 25 to 54, typical news/current affairs viewers (educated, high income),

Shows: CBC and NFB catalogue as well as foreign docs. A catalogue of Gemini-, Genie-, Academy- and Emmy-winning docs going back 10 to 15 years. CanCon: 66%.

Verdict: Perhaps it’s because of Canada’s deep doc roots, but the doc channel tested near the top as a popular genre, according to Michael Harris, VP of the doc channel and the Land & Sea channel. And it doesn’t have to break the bank for content.

Connect ***

(name change expected by launch)

Ownership: Craig Broadcast Systems and TD Capital Group.

Theme: Somewhat surprisingly, this youth-focused channel is not music driven. Instead, it features diversified drama, sports and informal educational programs. The broadcaster has also developed a comprehensive companion Web site.

Target demo: Primary: 12 to 17; secondary: 18 to 24,

Shows: iConnect is an interactive, virtual green room that allows viewers to be opinionated with host and guests, and content is streamed on the Internet. Fusion 2001: an original series about Canadian extreme sports that features skateboarding contests, glacier skiing events and rock climbing.

Verdict: Advertisers are frustrated because kids are the hardest demo to reach. They tried the Net but, ‘It’s too fragmented. Also, agencies couldn’t prove placing banners on Web sites were effective,’ says Wayne Sterloff, Craig’s VP of specialty television. Craig research revealed that after young people hit age 10 or 11, they don’t find much on TV to interest them, so 54% of those interviewed left TV for the Internet. Bringing the Internet to television seems to be a natural fit, but this concept needs some serious cool-hunting.

FashionTelevision:

The Channel ****

Ownership: CHUM

Theme: This spin-off of the FT program features 60% fashion-driven content. The rest of the schedule deals with beauty, art, architecture, photography and design.

Target demo: Young female

Shows: Programs like Britain’s A La Mode, which showcases fashion and pop culture. Of course, it’s also a second window for FT. Movies and dramas that would feature characters from the world of fashion and design. CanCon: 40% in the first year, including flow programming featuring Canadian designers.

Verdict: Builds on brand and 16 years’ experience with FT. ‘If you know how to do it as a half hour and build a network of important people, you can pretty much jump off from there,’ says CHUM’s Marcia Martin.

Health Network

Canada ***

Ownership: Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting, minority interest held by WebMD International LLC (IJV).

Theme: The wonders of Canadian science and the human body. Aims to be entertaining as well as becoming a trusted source.

Target demo: Adults ages 25 to 54

Shows: 60% Canadian, ranging from news on medical issues to personal stories, from the ‘wow’ of medical science to national debates on health care.

Verdict: Health is the number-one concern of most Canadians, claims Walter Levitt, VP marketing at Alliance Atlantis. And don’t forget that this company has a very successful specialty television track record: History, Life, HGTV and the Food Network. However, will this be the station people think they should buy, but don’t watch?

Independent Film

Channel Canada ***

Ownership: Halifax-based Salter Street Films (Salter is owned by Alliance Atlantis, but all programming, marketing and in-house production is done in Halifax).

Theme: A place for independent films, as opposed to Hollywood blockbuster movies.

Target demo: 18 to 35 core, skewing older

Shows: Mix of popular titles and the avant-garde, including films that never had a theatrical release. Feature films make up 60% of the programming, with docs, short films and in-house programming filling out the sked. The original programs include two magazine shows: one built around film reviews, the second featuring a round-up of festivals and other industry events. CanCon: 40%.

Verdict: Bound to be some obscure content, but movie channels usually do well.

Issues **

Ownership: Stornoway Communications (controlled by Kitson Vincent and G. Mark Curry) has a 51% stake, and Cogeco Radio-Television has a minority interest.

Theme: Explores a range of personal and political issues such as raising children, drug use and capital punishment, while being ‘serious, funny and real.’

Target demo: Adults 25 to 54, educated decision makers, equal mix of men and women

Shows: The Cost of Living: a documentary series of intimate stories. Human Traffic: interviews and documentaries dealing with conflicts and life-altering events. Show me the Funny: takes a satirical look at diverse personal issues. On the Edge: documentary series highlighting quirky issues. Issue-related feature-length films.

Verdict: As the slogan goes, ‘Issues…we all have them.’ However it’s one of those wishy-washy themes that is difficult to clearly communicate to potential viewers. On the other hand, if content hits people where they live and the channel is artfully packaged, it stands a good chance.

Land & Sea ***

Ownership: Corus Entertainment (70%), CBC.

Theme: Focusing on rural Canada and resource issues. Run more like a network with a strong news backbone and variety of programming.

Target demo: Canadians living outside urban areas. Wide range of age, income and education.

Shows: Four hours of news: morning, supper hour and late night. Second window for such shows as Canadian Gardener, Country Canada, On the Road Again and Harrowsmith. Themed drama and movies.

Verdict: Clearly targets an underserved audience. Tested high in communities with populations under 100,000, and even higher in communities under 10,000. And that’s where most of the satellite dishes are.

LCN Affaires *

Ownership: TVA (50.1%), Publications Transcontinental (30%) and BCE (19 %).

Theme: Business and personal finance

Target demo: Not available

Shows: Weekday news features reporting on stock market and business affairs. The weekend will feature more entertaining programming, such as biographies, documentaries, mini-series and feature films.

Verdict: Underserved niche in French Canada, but see launch delay complications in intro.

Men TV **

Ownership: Groupe TVA (51%), Global Television Network

Theme: A variety of subjects from the perspective of Canadian men.

Target demo: Males ages 25 to 49, skewing as young as 18. Urban professionals

Shows: Real Men: a half hour male-bonding series about men’s issues, health and lifestyle. Tinker Toys: showcases motor boats, skidoos et al. Inside Men: edgy, sexy magazine show. King of the Grill.

Verdict: It’s hard to imagine men going to the doctor, let alone talking about their health. Hard to fathom a channel devoted to men that isn’t charged with T&A. Anne-Marie Varner, director of Canadian production, specialty and daytime programming, admits they’ll be ‘testing the waters’ at first in trying to provide interesting, provocative programming.

Mystery ****

Ownership: Global Television Network and Groupe TVA have equal stakes. Rogers Broadcasting is a minority shareholder.

Theme: Mystery and suspense

Target demo: Females ages 25 to 54

Shows: The Equalizer, Magnum P.I., It Takes a Thief, Alfred Hitchcock and Global’s commissioned series Blue Murder. Looking at a strand of MOWs, some by Canadian producers. Program wheel in eight-hour blocks.

Verdict: Very popular genre.

One: the Body, Mind & Spirit channel ***

Ownership: Vision TV is managing partner, minority partners are Alliance Atlantis (29.9%), Montreal’s Radio Nord, and Vancouver’s Renewal Partners.

Theme: The inner connectedness of body, mind and spirit. Three major themes are health and wellness (yoga, chiropractic, tai chi), personal growth (Oprah) and making a difference (living harmoniously with the environment and other people).

Target demo: Core: female 18 to 49. Secondary: 50+, mid 20s to late 30s. 60/40 female/male,

Shows: Ten Canadian documentaries (which aired previously on PBS) highlight personal journeys through different disciplines. A half-hour series on spiritual retreats (which aired previously on Vision).

Verdict: Another abstract television concept, but riding the wave of a huge megatrend – the search for meaning and spirituality. ‘Clearly the Vision team on the front line have seen changes attitudinally towards traditional religion, which have not held sway for a long time,’ says Mark Prasuhn, the channel’s GM.

Perfecto, La Chaîne **

Ownership: MusiquePlus (owned by Group Radio Astral) and CHUM Limited, 50/50.

Theme: Spin-off of well known brand in Quebec. French-language version of FashionTelevision covering fashion and design.

Target demo: 18 to 49 female, however more men are expected to be interested in Quebec.

Shows: Docs and magazines on fashion, beauty, luxury, photography and design.

Verdict: Pierre Marchand, VP and GM of MusiquePlus and Musimax, says the Perfecto brand ‘is the most important player in the world of fashion design in Quebec.’ He adds there will be a strong emphasis on the local scene because the French ‘are very familiar with fashion culture.’ So there will be a strong built-in audience and the producers have 10 years’ experience producing Perfecto, the program. However, the launch date is uncertain and the Quebec digital universe is small.

PrideVision ***

Ownership: Headline Media Group, a publicly traded company with the Levy family of Hamilton, Ont., and Alliance Atlantis are the major shareholders (41% each).

Theme: Alternative.

Target demo: The entire adult GLBT community (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender).

Shows: Reruns of Codco and Britcoms, plus movies four nights of the week and lifestyle documentaries. A signature current affairs magazine for the gay and lesbian community. Two compilation series: one featuring Canadian shorts and the second featuring the gems from gay and lesbian film festivals.

Verdict: With 10% of the population estimated to be gay, this channel potentially has a subscriber base, but does it have the advertising support? Should be strong in urban areas, but likely to be theme-packed out of existence in rural areas. Channel execs are counting on ‘community support’ but it will probably have to be via the more expensive à la carte route in many areas.

Le Réseau Info Sport **

Ownership: Le Réseau des sports (RDS), which is controlled by NetStar.

Theme: French-language in-depth, up-to-minute sports highlights and scores. Also amateur sport.

Target demo: Men 18+, and a younger age segment due to amateur sport coverage.

Shows: The dominant portion of schedule is the 15-minute regularly updated news wheel. Also various live events on weekend. Drive-home show featuring resident experts and invited guests to comment. Developing weekend magazine shows, giving amateur sport federations a mass media outlet.

Verdict: Sports usually do well and RDS has a lot of experience. Gerry Frappier, president and GM of Le Réseau des sport (the French TSN), says with or without the other French-language digital channels, his will launch in October. Still, they could make more noise if they launched together.

TechTV Canada ***

Ownership: San Francisco-based TechTV (owned by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft), Rogers Media (managing shareholder) and Shaw Communications each own a third.

Theme: Computers and technology for the e-generation. Highly interactive.

Target demo: Core: men ages 35 to 44, skews younger

Shows: TechTV News: a daily half-hour of techno news. Audiophile: covers the changing world of music (Internet concerts and Napster). Big Thinkers: half-hour weekly series where the audience can talk to influential people in technology. Silicon Spin: tech headlines. Product reviews, investment advice, computer tips and how-to programming.

Verdict: How many people do you know who are living the ‘dot.com life lifestyle’? Still, Julie Osborne, director of marketing for TechTV and Biography says this channel is ‘not just for geeks’ and is surprised at how many people watch in the U.S. just because of the business angle. TechTV programs are now available in 55 million homes in 64 countries. The channel does not have the deep pockets of Microsoft, as some have presumed, but it does have a clearly identifiable concept. Don’t forget, says Osborne, that consumers who subscribe to digital are technologically advanced families.

Télé Ha! Ha! **

Ownership: Groupe TVA (majority owner and managing partner). Les Films Rozon and BCE Media are minority partners.

Theme: French-language humour

Target demo: Not available

Shows: Quebec comedy hits, American comedy and comedy from around the world, personalized by star hosts. Original skits too.

Verdict: Who doesn’t like to laugh? However the French-language digital rollout is problematic (see intro).

Travel ****

Ownership: Licensed to BCE, managed by CTV subsidiary NetStar Communications.

Theme: The fantasy and reality of travel.

Target demo: 25 to 54, male and female, skewing to backpackers at one end and seniors at the other.

Shows: Travel Now (working title): a half-hour magazine aimed at the business traveller. 24-Hour Travel (working title): a daily show that selects the must-see sights of a North American city in one day. A weekly series aimed at seniors. Also short travel documentaries.

Verdict: Canadians are avid world travellers and seniors have both the time and money, so a strong audience is expected. There are also natural advertising tie-ins. This channel has ambitious interactivity plans, inviting viewers to surf for destination information and eventually book a trip pertaining to a show they are watching. However e-commerce has not proven to be a gold mine in the past, so counting on it as a solid revenue source is dicey. Nonetheless, with a clear concept and a proven auxiliary revenue centre, Travel should fly.

WTSN ****

Ownership: Operated by NetStar, owned by CTV, Bell Globemedia, BCE.

Theme: Women’s sports and healthy lifestyle

Target demo: 18 to 49, both sexes

Shows: WTSN Connects (Saturdays and Sundays at 5:30 p.m.): hour-long flagship show delivers a mix of news, interactivity and entertainment. Benchmarks: features weekly documentaries focusing on women who’ve made an impact on the Canadian sporting scene. Lots of live sports programming. On the day after the launch, WTSN will air the U.S. Tennis Open women’s singles final.

Verdict: Strong brand, piggybacking on highly successful TSN franchise. Cross-promotional opportunities on sister channels. Underserved demographic. Televised women’s hockey gets increasingly high ratings. However, lots of women don’t watch sports at all, whether it features women or not. Nonetheless, an idea whose time has come.