Fighting for their lives

With the dawn of the 120-plus channel universe in Canada this fall, the very nature of TV is changing, and with it, the way TV is marketed. Dozens of new specialty channels are helping television morph from a mass to a niche medium, and as the channels go more niche, so does the marketing.

With the dawn of the 120-plus channel universe in Canada this fall, the very nature of TV is changing, and with it, the way TV is marketed. Dozens of new specialty channels are helping television morph from a mass to a niche medium, and as the channels go more niche, so does the marketing.

Who would have predicted the day when channels would hook up with local drag queens and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association to flog their offerings?

To make things even more interesting, while the channels hone in on select viewers, they’re also busy selling themselves to two other important groups: buyers and carriers. Each target demands different selling tactics, and each is equally crucial.

Here’s a look at the strategies being employed in the battle on each of these fronts.

Viewers: Free samples

and grassroots

‘Our job is not to stand out,’ says Michael Harris, VP and general manager of The Documentary Channel and Land & Sea (which may be renamed before launching). ‘It is just to let consumers know about our services.’

Given the niche nature of the digital channels, Harris says it’s not always necessary to outshout the other channels in the mass marketplace – instead he aims to talk directly to potential viewers. For instance, he plans to communicate rural-skewing Land & Sea’s schedule through such organizations as the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

Of course, ‘We are well placed because of our partnership with CBC and Corus Entertainment to do some awareness spots,’ adds Harris.

Beyond grassroots, the majors are turning to cross-promotion on sister stations to drive exposure. Scott MacLeod, director of promotions for Global Specialty Services, is planning a $21-million campaign on CanWest properties to promote both its category-ones – Men TV and Mystery – and its category-twos – Lonestar (Westerns), DejaView (oldies), Xtreme Sports and Fox Sports World Canada. Global also plans to spend another million on media outside its empire.

Besides cross-promoting on its well-established analogue specialty channels, Alliance Atlantis also plans to nest programming, giving analogue viewers an actual taste of the new digitals, says Janet Eastwood, executive VP of marketing, communications and creative services for Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting.

Nesting is a common strategy for large service providers, and Susan Schaefer, VP marketing for Corus’ YTV and Discovery Kids, already has a schedule. From July 8 to September 9, every Sunday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., YTV will host Discovery Kids, featuring such shows as Suzuki’s Nature Quest (no, not David Suzuki, but his daughter Severn) and Kids@Discovery. ‘The beauty of this is that over eight-million homes will be able to check it out,’ says Schaefer.

Not surprisingly, options for independents with smaller budgets are fewer. They can take advantage of the proposed barker channels and U.S. cable avails. However, PrideVision, with the luxury of a clearly defined, loyal target market, is concentrating on the direct route.

‘Our plan is to build relationships within the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] community,’ says Anna McCusker, VP marketing for PVTV. For instance, representatives of that community, including local drag queen extraordinaire Jackae, are featured on an outdoor wall mural in the downtown Toronto gay neighbourhood.

Event marketing will be the main avenue for this relationship-building. Just last month, the channel assumed a major presence at Toronto’s GBLT pride parade and street festival, entering a float in the parade, sponsoring the karaoke stage and participating in the marketplace. Staff passed out postcards advertising Rogers’ existing digital $29.99 sign-up offer. PrideVision also plans a raucous downtown block party to kick off the channel in September.

Media buyers: Wining, dining and packaging

On the media front, a big chunk of the battle will be spent convincing buyers to buy into TV as a niche medium.

‘When you talk about television, you just assume mass, but there’s a very small digital universe, just two-million subscribers,’ says Melanie Farrell, director of marketing at Rogers, the managing partner for The Biography Channel and Techtv, and owner of the cat-two, MSNBC.

Farrell says the first strategy is to change the perspective of agencies and media buyers in favour of extremely targeted channels. Techtv, for instance, hones in on the 25- to 49-year-old adult, skewing 75% male. ‘We’ll be explaining the digital environment and total audience available,’ says Farrell. This includes such happy stats from their research as the fact that 51% of digital cable homes earn over 60K, and 31% earn 80K or more. This compares with 41% and 24% respectively for analogue homes.

Bringing media buyers up to speed is why Global hosted a dinner for 60 of them on July 12. ‘It’s less about what we’re doing and more about what’s happening, what the benefits of digital are, how it’s going to be researched and packaged,’ says MacLeod.

Alliance Atlantis invited media reps to the June launch held at their Toronto studios, where buyers could trade recipes with Emeril Legassi, and info was passed on through mock interviews instead of speeches, just to kick it up a notch.

Similarly, Corus Television, which owns such strong children’s brands as YTV and Treehouse TV, schmoozed with the advertising industry at the Golden Marble Awards party, July 11 at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. The kid advertising awards, staged by Strategy publisher Brunico Communications, has been held in New York for years, and sponsor Corus used the Canadian soirée to unveil new category-two entry Discovery Kids.

To simplify the sales process, Suzanne Carpenter, Corus VP of sales, notes that whether they’re category one, category two or existing specialty channels, all services will be split into two demographic categories: youth and adult. The adult services include The Documentary Channel, Land & Sea, Edge TV, Scream (a horror film channel) and CMT, (Country Music Television).

Alliance Atlantis has a number of channels that it’s bundling by theme as well as demographics: Fact & Fiction (skews adult male), Lifestyle (skews female) and the French networks. For instance, Fact & Fiction includes History Channel, Showcase, The Independent Film Channel and new cat.-two entries National Geographic Channel, BBC Canada, Showcase Romance and Showcase Action.

‘This is quite new,’ says Brad Alles, AA’s senior VP broadcast sales. ‘No one has had the broad range of stations that we have, never on this scale.’

Alles says there are incentives to buy more than one channel and more than one group. With sales teams dedicated to each group to customize packages, the message to overwhelmed media planners is, ‘Don’t worry. It’s not going to take more time. We’ll package them for you.’

Making the buying process easier is also the reason behind MAST (Marketing and Advertising Specialty Television), an industry group chaired by Alles. The group launched a Web site, www.mastonline.ca, on July 6 featuring generic research, specific information about each member (including CHUM, Corus and AA, among others) and an All Call form. Buyers can fill out the form to request advertising submissions from all MAST members simultaneously, instead of contacting them individually.

While it’s a challenge to sell so many unproven new digital channels to buyers, a new trend may lend a hand. ‘Viewers are leaving conventional for specialty, which overall is up,’ claims Global’s MacLeod. But still he admits that while TV viewing may be up, ‘The pie isn’t increasing at the same rate as the number of channels.’

So, there have to be some losers, especially given all the spin-off channels and second-window programming that’s diluting traditional broadcast audiences. For instance, Citytv’s FashionTelevision, the show, will also air on FashionTelevision, the channel. Yes, Minister will continue to air on YTV, but it has also been acquired by BBC Canada. Showcase’s gay-friendly programming will see some serious competition in PrideVision. (For a more in-depth look at the impending programming battles see ‘Connect’ on page B6, ‘Overpopulation’ on page B11 and ‘Edge’ on page B15.)

WTN, The Women’s Television Network, is bombarded on many fronts. Women’s hockey has been snagged by WTSN; One: the Body, Mind & Spirit channel will pursue an area staked out by WTN’s popular Mind, Body & Spirit show, and both Mystery and Star TV are strong competitors for the female demographic.

Jan DiClemente, WTN’s VP sales, recognizes the newcomers are ‘cutting deals [and] will eat up some of the [advertising] money,’ but in no way is the station sounding a retreat. DiClemente says WTN will stay the course marketing specifically to women, ‘the all-powerful consumer.’ Besides, ‘We’re not like a specialty channel, we’re more like a network and look at a wide variety of programs, rather than one specific topic,’ she says.

Susan Wood, senior manager, WTN marketing, says one of their best defenses is exclusivity. Such shows as Debbie Travis’ Painted House and The Sunday Night Sex Show can only be seen on WTN – no second windows. This fall WTN also has the exclusive rights to deliver the number one and two-ranked U.S. cable television shows, The Division and Strong Medicine.

WTN is ceding no ground on the agency side either. A clever viral campaign, aimed specifically at media buyers, is underway to keep WTN top of mind. Conceived by the Winnipeg-based ad agency Taylor George Design, this unique 10-week Internet campaign invites media buyers to use their ‘spidey senses’ to pick the top shows of the network’s fall season. Every time an entrant passes the contest on to a colleague, he or she gets another chance to enter. The contest runs to the end of August, with the winner announced in October after the Nielsen ratings come out. Prizes include a $1,000 shopping spree and a trip for two to the Caribbean. The address is www.wtnmediachallenge.com.

Carriers: Free creative

and the 5-to-1 dance

During the last analogue tier of 1997, cablecos and service providers did a lot of co-op advertising, recalls Rogers’ Andrea Randolph, because there was no competition. ‘We even worked together as a committee as we were all launching the same channels,’ but all bets are off this time. There are more distributors – satellite and microwave – and definitely a lot more channels.

So carriers are mum about their plans, probably until August, while they furiously work on carriage agreements. They’re not just trying to divine the best bets of the discretionary cat-twos, or how to theme-pack them with the must-carry cat-ones. They’re also deciding how to competitively price their new offerings and, for some, how to navigate around the CRTC five-to-one rule.

This rule stipulates that for every launch of a cat-two owned by a distributor, that distrib must carry five other cat-two channels in which it does not have an ownership stake. This gives other cat-twos a fighting chance to get carried, but may compromise some smaller distributors’ ability to carry their own channels.

In the case of Rogers, this is not an issue, as they only own one cat-two (MSNBC), and they have the capacity to carry all of the digital channels. However, for carriers that are ‘band-width constrained,’ the rule may affect packaging and which cat-twos will be picked up. Limited capacity will also affect the number of cat-twos carried, inviting scrutiny on a channel’s viewer appeal and cost. Not surprisingly, behind-the-scenes negotiations by individual cat-two channel owners are intense.

As well, for smaller independent channel owners, there may be some downward pressure on the cost (many cat-one rates are in the 30- to 55-cent range), to help distribs lower consumer prices.

CHUM Specialty TV is offering to include creative in channel promos selling a particular cable or satellite service ‘to help them make the decision that that’s the channel to carry,’ says Marcia Martin, VP and general manager of Star TV, FashionTelevision and SexTV.

Look Communications, a fully digital microwave distributor serving Southern Ontario and Southern Quebec, is band-width challenged. Even still, Gord Corlett, Look VP sales and programming in Toronto, has trepidation about the 20 digitals they do plan to offer, which will include the 16 mandated English-language cat-one channels and just four yet-to-be negotiated cat-twos.

‘My only concern is the numbers we’re talking about. It’s asking a lot to ask [consumers to buy] 20. It’s almost like we’re offering too many.’ Still, it’s expected that the larger carriers will offer twice as many.

While negotiations continue, the major cablecos are prepping consumers for the digital and advertising avalanche. Rogers’ generic summer TV ad campaign is not specifically linked with the new services, it’s just meant to create awareness of the wider world opened up by digital, with the slogan, ‘Where will it take you?’

Of course, not even Rogers knows. ‘We’re writing the chapters as we go along,’ says Randolph.