A launch like no other

For half a century, advertisers have seen television as a pie to be sliced into logical wedges. Today, with convergence busting out all over - and with the launch last month of almost 50 new digital specialty channels - the pie has morphed into a kaleidoscope with a bewildering array of facets.

For half a century, advertisers have seen television as a pie to be sliced into logical wedges. Today, with convergence busting out all over – and with the launch last month of almost 50 new digital specialty channels – the pie has morphed into a kaleidoscope with a bewildering array of facets.

‘It’s just so much more complicated now,’ says Caroline Gianias, VP and director of broadcast for Toronto-based media company Carat Canada.

‘You’ve got specialty channels that are owned by conventional channels who then have relationships with cable providers. Then you have cable providers that also own channels. And then you’ve got the CRTC ruling that if you take one of your own [channels], you’ve got to take five of your competition’s,’ Gianias explains.

Into this complicated blur, and amid the usual fall clutter, the new ‘diginets’ flickered onto an unknown number of Canadian screens on Sept. 7. Their aim was ambitious: to lure droves of subscribers during a free, three-month preview splash and to entice the kind of lucrative ad revenue now enjoyed by the pioneer specialty channels.

Just four days later, the launch stalled when terrorists attacked the U.S. Virtually everyone with a TV set switched to all-news channels and remained glued to the unfolding horror story, which soon included massive economic collateral damage with grim implications for marketers.

Some media buys already in the works were abruptly put on hold and a significant amount of creative was sent back for reworking to reflect new realities, says Darryl Nicholson, VP and media director of Ammirati Puris’s Toronto office.

A blizzard of unknowns began blowing, adds Scott MacLeod, director of promotions for Toronto-based Global Specialty Services.

‘Marketers were saying: ‘Wait a minute, how is my stuff going to be affected by this? Maybe people will stay home and watch more TV, drink and eat more [products] but buy fewer automobiles. Maybe more babies will be born nine months from now. People will probably buy more of some things and less of others. But which ones?”

Then, just as viewers and potential advertisers had drifted back to sampling the new digital shows, retaliatory air strikes began in Afghanistan on Oct. 7. The sound of remote controls clicking back to news shows – and more media deals being reconsidered – was practically audible.

All in all, it’s been a launch like no other. And what the eventual shakeouts will be, in any facet of the new kaleidoscopic TV universe, is anybody’s guess.

That said, Strategy did manage to wheedle some early returns out of a cluster of media planners, channel spokespeople and digital providers.

There are no hard numbers to count yet. The first ACNielsen ratings won’t be released publicly until the end of November and the consensus is that they’ll be meaningless anyway in the short run, given the start-stop nature of the launch, plus comparatively tiny audience bases and existing digital penetration at just 20% nationally.

Additionally, the size of the first batch of subscribers won’t be known until the satellite services’ free preview period ends in late October and subscribers sign on for the various packages that interest them. The wait to see how many digital cable subscribers sign on will be even longer: according to Rogers, the free cable preview has just been extended from Dec. 7 to Jan. 7, thanks in part to all the confusion surrounding the launch.

But anecdotal data is trickling in. Michael Allen, VP of programming for Toronto-headquartered Rogers Communications, says that some 20,000 digital boxes (necessary to view the new channels) were bought or rented in September, a huge increase over the company’s average of 5,000 to 6,000 per month.

How is the marketing community assessing the situation thus far? Basically, some diginets are seen as a collective pig in a poke, scrawny and probably destined for early slaughter. But with others, it’s more like a rush on pork belly futures.

The latter view applies especially to channels whose brand equity is already solid elsewhere, according to a number of media buyers. ‘With programming that already has legs in the U.S. and some awareness here,’ says Carat’s Gianias, ‘there are natural marketing affinities.

‘I can think of a lot of clients that would be attracted to something like National Geographic or Discovery Health or MTV or BBC Canada,’ she adds. ‘And where there’s backing from [companies] like CanWest, CTV, Rogers or some of the other heavy hitters in joint partnerships, there’s serious money invested in making [the channels] work over the long haul which, of course, is what major advertisers look at.’

Hitters don’t get much heavier than humongous Viacom International, which teamed with Calgary-headquartered Craig Broadcast Systems. Says Wayne Sterloff, VP of specialty television, ‘with Viacom, we are presenting both our MTV suite of shows and TV Land, which is a ‘best of the classics’ channel and encompasses everything from Happy Days and Andy Griffith to Laverne & Shirley, The Odd Couple and I Love Lucy.

‘They are all powerful brands that have earned in excess of 100 Emmy Awards. So we’re not surprised that a lot of people are interested in negotiating 52-week buys and even becoming charter advertisers to own a piece of our shows.’ (See ‘What’s the deal?’ on page B2 for more on which channels are offering ownership positioning and other special deals.)

When it comes to having pre-proven legs, Julie Osborne, marketing chief for several of Rogers’ diginets, says what she’s hearing – from call centres as well as early advertisers including Levi Strauss, Warner Bros. Records, IBM, 3Com, Warner-Lambert and Hewlett-Packard – is that among the frontrunners so far are the Biography Channel, TechTV and MSNBC (all of which Rogers has a stake in), because they are already well-known around the world. The number-one champ so far, according to ACNielsen ratings sneak-previewed by CTV, is Animal Planet.

As positive as all that sounds, however, other media planners polled by Strategy chose to accentuate the negative.

They say that in the mad scramble to hit on-air deadlines with decent programming and lucid branding I.D.s, some marketing basics either fell by the wayside or were unascertainable until too late in the game. These include such vital data as potential audience demographics, measurement methodology, distributor lineups, pricing, packaging and even detailed program schedules.

Worse still, there were precious few media pitches before the launch, according to some buyers. ‘By the time some of them got to us in August, we’d already done our fall buying,’ said Sherry O’Neil, director of broadcast buying for Toronto-based OMD Canada. Grumbled a Vancouver buyer who insisted on anonymity, ‘I still don’t know what’s happening because they haven’t worked that hard to inform me.’

Ammirati’s Nicholson is even more scathing when he describes what he says are ‘desperate’ calls offering commercial spots ‘for $6 or $10 or even for free. It’s almost like the old dollar-a-holler days.’

He says audience size and measurement are so problematic with the new digitals that many in the industry have decided ‘to go to day part measurement, buying whole blocks of prime time on some of the channels instead of individual programs.’

Some of Ammirati’s clients are being advised to take a ‘threshold strategy,’ with buys not even being considered ‘until reliable measurement confirms they have reached a certain size,’ says Nicholson. Exceptions to this rule ‘are only where there’s a viable connection between a channel and one our clients, such as President’s Choice’s new Organics line, which is obviously right for a channel like Discovery Health.’

Another complaint voiced by media buyers is that programming on some of the new channels duplicates what’s already available elsewhere. ‘If my clients are already on Showcase,’ Nicholson asks, ‘why would they need to buy on something like the Independent Film Channel?’

Actually, there’s an answer of sorts for that, at least one that’s applicable to a similar new channel called Movieola, says Todd Goldsbie, VP of marketing at Toronto-based Stornoway Communications Group, which owns Movieola.

‘It is the world’s first short film channel, offering a range of films from 40 seconds to 40 minutes long – which means we’re filling a niche that nobody’s ever touched before because [such films] don’t fit into conventional time slots.’ For Movieola, Stornoway is ‘working with a variety of film festivals, the student film movement, the studios, the Canadian Film Centre and the repertory cinemas.

Similarly, other diginets claim their uniqueness should excite both audiences and advertisers in that they offer a wealth of either one-of-a-kind or first-time-in-Canada programming.

Discovery Kids is a new offering for Canadian audiences from Toronto-headquartered Corus Entertainment. Says Jerry Mackrell, director of national sales for youth, ‘We launched Discovery Kids because consumers had told us there was a void in the kid entertainment spectrum at the point where entertainment meets education.’

Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting has three channels which are already popular elsewhere but which are new to Canada. Janet Eastwood, EVP of marketing, communications and creative services, points out that ‘National Geographic is seen in over 100 million homes around the world, BBC in 50 million and Discovery Health in 49 million.’

There are many similar examples, either on the air now or coming soon. And it’s partly the potential draw of that uniqueness that explains why some representatives of the diginets say they’re not discouraged by their bumpy start-up. In fact, they believe that buying what they’re selling will soon be seen as one of the biggest no-brainers in advertising history.

‘Digital TV audiences may be small now, but they aren’t exactly undesirable households demographically if they’re spending $60 or $70 a month on TV,’ says David Kirkwood, VP of sales and marketing at Toronto’s CHUM Specialty TV. ‘Digital is one more step towards an ultra-niche, surgical way of reaching people who actually have the money to buy the things you sell.’

Beyond that, Kirkwood contends, at this stage of the digital game, advertisers can easily afford trying what they may not want to risk elsewhere. ‘For maybe a few thousand dollars a week, they can take on sponsorship positions, have signature programs, or even co-operate in the production of programs. This is a time when they can experiment and treat the digitals as a lab in which to test things for relatively low costs. Then, if they’re working, take them over to big TV.’

In short, concludes Global’s MacLeod, the free preview period should really be looked at by marketers as a bonanza: ‘because everybody who’s sampling the digitals is seeing everything for a generous amount of time and it’s going to be a while before we’re in this many homes again. It’s the early adopters, who take their chances now, who will be rewarded in the long run.’