Information explosion

Not so long ago, it might have looked like a scene out of The Jetsons. Not any more. You punch a ticker symbol into your palm pilot and it spits out the latest stock price and trading volumes. Fast-forward a nano-second later: You've logged onto Globeinvestor.com for an update on your mutual funds. On the way home you read a free transit tab. After dinner, it's a quick stopover on ROBTV for a roundup of the day's market action. Then on to Sportsnet for the scores and CP24 to check tomorrow's weather.

Not so long ago, it might have looked like a scene out of The Jetsons. Not any more. You punch a ticker symbol into your palm pilot and it spits out the latest stock price and trading volumes. Fast-forward a nano-second later: You’ve logged onto Globeinvestor.com for an update on your mutual funds. On the way home you read a free transit tab. After dinner, it’s a quick stopover on ROBTV for a roundup of the day’s market action. Then on to Sportsnet for the scores and CP24 to check tomorrow’s weather.

The media kingpins don’t like your behavior one bit. They hurl invectives behind your back; you’re fickle, unpredictable and jaded. You’ve got the attention span of a gnat. And you’re the master of the information media universe: you don’t wait for news, weather or sports information any more – you get it when you want it.

‘These days it’s all about taking little nibbles and bites,’ says Phil King, SVP of programming for Bell Globemedia-owned TSN. ‘The consumer no longer has to wait until we serve it up to them. They go out and get what they want, when they want it. It’s survival of the fittest in this new, democratic world of the consumer.’

It’s the technology that’s to blame. TV, once a mass medium, is fragmenting into hundreds of channels serving niche audiences. This fall will see the launch of some 40 new digital television channels, slicing audiences into even skimpier numbers.

At the same time, whole new information-on-demand services, such as the Internet, personal data assistants and digital phones, are gathering steam. It’s largely the same news, weather and sports information out there – but these days, there are more ways to get at it.

And the technology wheel keeps on turning: while advertisers are still tinkering and strategizing on how to cull money from the Web, the Web itself is morphing into an entirely new identity – one that includes television, cell phones and even newspapers. Consider the recent bundling of services offered up at National Post Online. It has aligned itself with Workdaytv.com, and will begin providing live financial news online at www.nationalpost.com. It also partnered with Clearnet to use wireless application protocol (WAP) to distribute content.

As the information media world becomes more and more complex, instead of shouting, broadcasters, media companies and advertisers are being forced to listen like never before.

‘We have found, in terms of news and information programming, there’s no such thing as a typical consumer any more,’ confesses Jay Switzer, president of Toronto-based CHUM Television. ‘It seems there’s no end to the choices that consumers demand. They always want more. It’s not easy. We can no longer afford to take them for granted.’

But along with the angst, the new information media order brings with it new opportunities. While Switzer may feel overwhelmed, with several new specialties in the works, he’s also relishing what the future will bring. ‘No one is shedding any tears around here,’ he quips.

He may have reason to gloat. Specialty channels are eating away at the revenue of traditional media outlets, as are new papers.

According to statistics compiled by the Television Bureau of Canada, TV and daily newspapers each attracted about $2.4 billion worth of advertising in 1999 – about 24% each of the total $9.7 billion spent on advertising that year. That has remained roughly constant since 1995.

But while the total spend has remained constant, a national newspaper, several transit tabs and scores of new specialty channels have joined the fray. The top four specialty channels alone raked in about $304 million in 1999, up from $122 million in 1995, and the specialties as a whole now account for upwards of 25% of the TV viewing audience.

For media planners and buyers, the plethora of fresh news, weather and sports outlets has them burning the midnight oil as they scramble to create the most effective and efficient buys.

‘In terms of the sheer volume of alternatives and options that are available, and the shortened lead times, the pressures are enormous,’ says Hugh Dow, president of M2 Universal Media. ‘Often you’re selling plans to clients that don’t have a precedent. The tried and true plans of yesterday are no longer.’

But that suits Dow just fine. The current climate has fueled a creative boom, he says, the likes of which the industry has never witnessed.

On one level, it means that media buyers who once toiled in the backroom have moved to the forefront, putting a premium on their skills and talents. They are no longer simply buyers, but communications specialists who are involved in the planning process from its most rudimentary stages, Dow says.

Brian Fitzpatrick, director of Toronto-based MindShare Canada’s direct and digital arm, says that many companies have responded to fragmentation in information programming by recruiting workers with different skills, as well as training existing employees to think differently.

‘These days, our people all take a multi-disciplined approach. They are no longer responsible for one small area – they have to be able to think across all media,’ Fitzpatrick says.

Ten years ago, it was all about 30-second spots and newspaper pages. Now, media buyers are executing mutli-platformed approaches that are catered specifically to overall brand messages, as well as more strategic approaches.

Increasing fragmentation has also put a premium on research. Planners and buyers not only scour research offered up by individual broadcasters and other content producers, but also the all-important figures from independent number crunchers such as ACNielsen, BBM and NADbank.

However, many buyers and planners agree that measurement tools haven’t kept pace with the changes embracing the industry.

It’s a situation that frustrates relative upstarts like ROBTV. Andrew Saunders, the channel’s VP of sales, says that the current data doesn’t accurately measure its audience, particularly because many within ROBTV’s audience are watching from the office – outside the purview of Nielsen’s meter-based research. He believes that media buyers need much richer information with an emphasis on the relationship between information content and audience.

Even researchers like BBM’s Ron Bremner agree that new tools are needed in the face of increasing fragmentation in the news, weather and sports field.

‘In the old days, the TV industry relied on counting eyeballs to make decisions – buyers looked at audience numbers and demographics. Today, the TV industry is interested in finding out other information, such as product usage,’ Bremner explains. ‘More and more, you’re going to see buyers and sellers triangulating and using two and three different sources of information to get a better sense of how to manipulate their media buys.’

But the media buyers and planners aren’t sitting on the sidelines. Most agencies are funneling huge piles of cash into their own research and developing new analytical tools.

‘There is so much data out there, what we need more than anything is a better way of analyzing it,’ says Theresa Treutler, SVP of broadcast investment at Starcom Worldwide.

That means tools like optimizers – sophisticated computer programs that crunch the data and spit out a spate of possible media buys.

Still, many buyers believe that such optimizers can only provide part of the solution.

‘Good research can only ever do so much,’ warns Mark Sherman, president and chief executive of Media Experts. ‘Buying is much like cooking. It’s an art, not a science.’

Most buyers still believe that the three main TV networks (CTV, Global and CBC) will continue to account for a hefty percentage of their news media buys this fall, but more cash will undoubtedly be parceled out to the specialty channels as their audience numbers continue to swell.

The percentage of ad dollars going specialty is also likely to grow, according to some media buyers, simply because the cost of doing business with the new digital and specialty channels is lower.

‘Some of these channels make effective advertising affordable,’ says Sherman. ‘Now we can go into a corner of the stadium and be heard.’

Sunni Boot, president of Optimedia Canada, says that while she too is pumping more money into a growing number of media venues, it’s too early to sound a death knell for the mass media news, weather and sports outlets.

‘Are we getting into the minutiae? Certainly not to the degree that the proliferation exists. At this point, we’re going after the mass audiences where you can find them. We’re still not spending much on cell phones and other digital technologies.’

Still, Boot admits that will likely change in the future as new technologies develop and continue to cut a swath through the revenues of traditional media outlets.

‘We’re just seeing the beginning of the digital universe,’ agrees Sherman. ‘Soon, there will be many, many more choices and more options. What we’ve seen in the past few years is just a warm-up to what’s coming down the pipeline.’