Connect aims to reclaim teens, young adults

All the digital newbies launching this fall have their work cut out for them, but for youth-targeting Connect, the battle promises to be especially bloody. Not only will it be fighting for viewer and buyer awareness among a sea of new channel launches, it will also face some very stiff competition for the youth demo from established specialties that have a head start measured in years.

All the digital newbies launching this fall have their work cut out for them, but for youth-targeting Connect, the battle promises to be especially bloody. Not only will it be fighting for viewer and buyer awareness among a sea of new channel launches, it will also face some very stiff competition for the youth demo from established specialties that have a head start measured in years.

But Connect’s real marketing edge could come from appropriating an A-list brand name with years of advertising under its belt. Channel operator Craig Broadcast Systems has confirmed that it is currently in negotiations with the owner of a U.S. channel brand, but couldn’t reveal the brand at press time. Industry speculation points to a joint venture with Viacom that would see the channel branded MTV.

‘The viewers, first and foremost, will be attracted by this brand,’ says Wayne Sterloff, VP of specialty television with Calgary-based Craig (which also operates A-Channel conventional TV stations in Alberta and Manitoba, FM radio stations and wireless cable systems). ‘If we can deliver a highly recognizable brand that is perceived very, very positively, that’s the greatest thing we can do from a marketing standpoint.’

Kicking off in September as a category-one – guaranteed carriage – channel, Connect was born out of consumer and advertiser research that pointed to an ‘extremely well-defined hole’ in the TV landscape, says Sterloff. More than half the young consumers polled said that once they stopped watching children’s programming, ‘there wasn’t a television channel they could relate to as kind of their baseline service,’ so they headed to the Internet.

Connect is looking to fill this hole by targeting an even male/female split aged 12 to 17, with a secondary audience of 18 to 24. Since youth aged 12 to 17 often tune out by 10 p.m., the schedule will skew to the older demo later in the evening. Programming will also be ‘broader in interest,’ including such diversions as extreme sports, to appeal to a wide age range, says Sterloff.

Connect will serve as the ‘tent pole’ anchoring up to three Craig-owned category-two digital services, all of which will focus on youth aged 12 to 24. ‘In the suite, there will always be something by gender or by age’ to appeal to a young viewer, says Sterloff. Some of these complementary channels may launch this fall. Craig is also aiming to launch a separate retro TV channel, branded TV Land through a joint venture with Viacom, on September 5.

Hosts will appear in hour-long original programming blocks three to four times daily. Connect’s sked will include at least 50% Canadian content (as per CRTC requirements), presenting a mix of dramatic series, animation, non-curriculum-based educational programming, talk shows, concerts and music videos, says Sterloff. The channel will also be ‘a safe haven, avoiding programming with excessive violence or sex.’

Young people across Canada will be invited to join a council to help style the channel, says Sterloff. Connect’s Web site will kick off by early August to recruit council participants.

The Web site will tie into programming through such features as chat rooms, and will feed original programming. For example, Connect plans to give away a free Webcam a day to a viewer, who could then visit the site via Webcam and potentially be switched on air.

Key in the consumer marketing will be ‘to get the channel concept in front of the demographic where the demo is apt to be going,’ says Sterloff. Connect is looking to bring on fewer than a dozen charter sponsors, possibly including a national electronics outlet or sandwich chain, that would provide billboard coverage and contest tie-ins. In turn, sponsors would benefit from the channel driving traffic to their outlets and from a ‘cross-platform promotion opportunity.’ Products may even be incorporated into original shows through placement deals.

Craig will market the channel through spots on its own TV channels, buys on other TV outlets, radio buys or contests and print efforts. Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell is the agency of record for promoting Craig’s specialty channels, handling media planning and buying for Connect, as well as providing consulting and research services.

In addition to introducing itself to viewers, Connect will be researching its programming and other concepts with media planners, buyers and advertisers, seeking feedback to ensure that it offers an attractive vehicle.

How carriers will package and promote Connect was still being determined at press time. Cable and satellite companies are looking for a ‘strong brand [that will] drive a tier or a theme pack,’ says Sterloff, and Craig is striving to deliver that. Potential marketing efforts with carriers include direct mail, a preliminary free viewing period and a cash contribution to co-op marketing.

Sterloff says he doesn’t think Connect has a big competitor on TV, because no other network is providing a 24-hour home for its target audience. According to Sterloff, YTV is ‘skewed too young for [Connect's] demo,’ Teletoon may attract some 12- to 17-year-old males, and MuchMusic ‘works well,’ but for only a small percentage of Connect’s key demo.

‘What we’re doing is reclaiming audience,’ says Sterloff. ‘These are the people [who] have stopped watching TV. It’s a huge number of people.’ Connect projects a penetration of up to 900,000 subscribers within its first year of operation, based on Craig’s internal research and a national survey of digital subscribers co-ordinated by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters.

Sterloff forecasts lots of demand from ‘advertisers who are spending inefficiently,’ trying to reach the demo with other buys. Ad dollars could migrate not only from the aforementioned specialties, he says, but from conventional outlets, such as Global and Citytv, and magazines. Possible categories include movies, food products, electronic games and clothing.

Bruce Claassen, president and CEO of Toronto-based Genesis Media agrees that teens tend to watch less TV than their 18+ counterparts, but they still watch TV. He sees Connect’s competition spanning from YTV, MuchMusic and Teletoon, to TSN and Sportsnet among males, to perhaps Outdoor Life Network or Space: The Imagination Station, to programming on conventional broadcasters, such as WWF shows and some syndicated fare among males and Dawson’s Creek among females.

Over at YTV, they’re not panicking. ‘We don’t expect an impact from Connect,’ says Susan Schaefer, VP of marketing for YTV and upcoming diginet Discovery Kids. That’s mainly because YTV’s core audience is ages six to 12, with teens as a secondary audience.

But while kids are key, YTV still has a lot at stake when it comes to teens. According to Nielsen Media Research (Canada), the eight million home-strong kidnet is currently the number-one specialty channel among teens aged 12 to 17, based on viewing Monday to Sunday, 6 a.m. to 6 a.m., September 2000 to May 2001. Cross-over programs with a wide audience appeal like Buffy The Vampire Slayer pull in teens, and Schaefer is confident fall additions like Dead Last and Vampire High: The Mansbridge Chronicles will also do so.

Although YTV pared back its teen-oriented ‘Limbo’ block launched last fall, teens remain a key part of its demo. For now, the channel is focusing on general programming, as opposed to a branded block, to engage teens.

In terms of marketing, ‘we’re not really reacting to [the arrival of] other services,’ says Schaefer, adding that YTV will be supported with a consistent level of marketing for the fall.

Corus Entertainment (owner of YTV and part owner of Teletoon) and MuchMusic have been actively selling against Connect’s target demographic for years, whereas Craig has not, giving them ‘an advantage in terms of their knowledge base’ and presenting a challenge for Craig, says Sherry O’Neil, VP/director of television buying with Toronto-based OMD Canada. To its benefit, Craig’s A-Channel has proven itself ‘a strong kids player out West,’ which lends some ‘crossover in terms of information,’ says O’Neil.

Craig may have a bit bigger challenge than some other newcomers because Connect and the company’s other digital startups will be its ‘first foray into a national opportunity,’ says O’Neil. Craig also is at ‘a slight disadvantage’ in that it lacks its own existing national specialties or conventional outlets to build pre-awareness of its new offerings. Still, to its benefit, Craig’s A-Channel has developed ‘a very strong relationship with the advertising agency group,’ says O’Neil. Craig is ‘a bit of a smaller player,’ says Genesis Media’s Claassen, but on the plus side, has ‘broadcast assets,’ including technical facilities and experience in the biz.

Because teens are ‘a fairly hard to reach’ audience, ‘any channel that finds a way to reach a reasonable-sized audience in that target group would be, for advertisers who want to go after that target group, embraced,’ says Claassen, citing categories such as soft drinks, candy bars, records and movies as some looking to hit the demo. A niche media outlet can be beneficial for targeting, says Claassen, but ‘harder to use in a more mass kind of way.’

Challenges of distribution, measurement and the proliferation of outlets beset diginets in general, says O’Neil. Connect will not have audience numbers to sell on this summer. That means media execs will have to approach the channel like other newcomers, as an environment buy, and negotiate on a cost per spot basis against comparable digitals.

The final prognosis? O’Neil says that given that the channel is unproven, Connect could potentially nab what would likely be ‘a small portion’ of the existing specialty ad spend.