The good news/bad news season

This past fall season may go down in history as the most chaotic ever, and broadcasters and buyers are still trying to figure out exactly what happened. For news nets, it was the best of times, for many others, it was the worst.

This past fall season may go down in history as the most chaotic ever, and broadcasters and buyers are still trying to figure out exactly what happened. For news nets, it was the best of times, for many others, it was the worst.

In Canada, the most dramatic effect of 9/11 was an 8% overall increase in TV viewing this past fall. People flocked to their sets to watch the news of the tragedy and that meant handsome returns for the news departments: CBC News is up 21% (versus the 52-week average for the last broadcast season), CTV News is up 11%, and CBC Newsworld and CTV Newsnet both almost doubled their audiences, according to OMD Canada. However, at best, these increases offset losses in the rest of schedule.

The problem is that the lion’s share of increased viewing went to U.S. specialty nets, primarily CNN. As a result, the overall share of tuning commanded by all Canadian conventional networks fell from 49% in the fall of 2000, to 43% in the fall of 2001, reports Doug Scott, OMD’s VP, broadcast manager.

A closer look at the share of tuning for conventionals in Ontario reveals who took the biggest hit: Overall, CBC is down a staggering 24%, CTV is down 6% and Global is down 3%.

However, network execs are quick to point out that these drops in overall share of tuning do not necessarily translate into ratings drops, given the increase in overall viewership: It’s just a smaller percentage of a bigger pie. Both CTV and Global claim that despite 9/11, and the advent of more specialties, they have managed to hold onto to last fall’s audience.

CBC can’t say the same, and Slawko Klymkiw, executive director for network programming, English television, admits the public broadcaster lost about 10% of its audience, despite (or perhaps in part due to) a recent scheduling overhaul. He does, however, point out that this is in comparison to last year, when the numbers were unusually high due to the Olympics.

Many attribute the overall lackluster performance of the big three Canadian nets to programming grid chaos caused by 9/11. Shows were cancelled, pre-empted, delayed, aired out of sequence, and even re-edited.

Viewers never knew, for instance, that the original pilot of the CIA-themed show The Agency (CTV prime time Thursdays), actually featured bad guy Osama bin Laden. Because of the sensitive content, the pilot was shelved and the delayed launch started with a re-edited episode two, says Sherry O’Neil, VP, director of broadcast buying at OMD.

‘It was kind of a funny edit. It didn’t explain the [lead] girl’s background, which was established in the pilot.’ The Agency never made the top 25, she notes, but ‘hasn’t been cancelled yet.’

Possibly getting short shrift because viewers couldn’t find it (or were more interested in the news), Bob Patterson, starring Jason Alexander, enjoyed a very brief life, even for a U.S. network show. OMD credits its demise to the ‘Seinfeld curse’ as it was the second series by one of Jerry’s sidekicks to be cancelled. However, most damning was its time slot on Thursday nights, up against Frasier.

‘It’s a challenge for any new show to go head-to-head,’ says O’Neil. ‘Only Survivor and Millionaire managed to prosper against well-established shows.’

In fact, many of the debuts cancelled this past fall were laid to rest for reasons that had nothing to do with 9/11. Emeril, a sitcom exploiting the popularity of the ‘happy, happy’ cook, was just plain bad, and Pasadena, a new prime-time soap starring Dana Delaney, was stuck in a genre past its prime, say buyers.

Reality shows have been on their way out for a year now, so it didn’t shock many when Running Man and The Mole were shelved. The Amazing Race only did half of what it was expected to do, but is coming back. The champion of the genre, Survivor III, is still the number one show in Canada, but its ratings are 25% lower than those of Survivor II.

This hasn’t deterred Global, which still seems to be embracing reality take-offs this season. For instance, Fear Factor, which originally ran this past summer, has already reappeared as a mid-season replacement (Mondays at 8 p.m.).

‘It did amazingly well up against The Amazing Race on CTV, but it’s a disgusting, National Enquirer version of a reality program,’ says O’Neil.

Filling out Global’s reality stable is Top Guns, about recruits in fighter pilot school (see ‘Rating the replacements’ on page 18), and a new season (with boys!) of teen rock star exploitumentary Popstars. A new Canadian entry called No Boundaries, produced by Lion’s Gate and backed by the Ford Motor Company, premieres this spring.

‘I’m not convinced that it’s the end of a genre,’ says Doug Hoover, SVP programming and promotions at Global. ‘There are contributing factors for each program’s circumstance.’ O’Neil counters that ‘No Boundaries and Popstars II were long in the works before proof of performance.’

Really, none of this year’s mid-season replacements seem to be grabbing buyers’ attention. To take people’s minds off Sept. 11, ‘I was really looking forward to some clever, witty, urban comedies,’ says Theresa Treutler, SVP, broadcast investment director at Starcom Worldwide, but that didn’t materialize.

In fact, of the replacements, only two are comedies at all – Hank Azaria’s Imagine That, and That ’80s Show (both on CTV) – and Imagine That has already been dumped after a paltry two weeks on the air. Buyers are still watching That ’80s Show, Popstars II and The Associates II ( CTV) to gauge their appeal to younger demos.

The second instalment of The Associates is actually off to quite a good start, with better reviews and a bigger marketing push behind it than the original. Its producers have re-tooled the show to give it more of a sexy, urban feel, and it’s being supported by an unprecedented 10-week billboard campaign in downtown Toronto.

That campaign marks the very first promotion to be bankrolled by the Canadian Television Fund’s (CTF) new Promotion and Publicity (POP) fund, which was introduced to boost the Canadian star system.

‘We don’t normally get the opportunity to present high concepts,’ says Gail Rivett, VP marketing, television, at show producer Alliance Atlantis Communications. ‘It’s usually too expensive.’

The upscale creative features the work of Canadian fashion designers and Canadian photographer George Whiteside, and there is a billboard for each star. One of the more striking images features actor Jennie Raymond in a long shimmering red gown amid a cluster of stern black-robed judges, on location at Osgoode Hall.

Looking forward, CTV and Global execs say they will simply focus on stabilizing their schedules and guiding viewers back to their favourite shows. The CBC, however, will continue to stir things up with a schedule full of appointment viewing, original mini-series and special events, matched by big promotion budgets.

The public broadcaster has already started with MOW Jinna on Crime, and a much-publicized chance for viewers to vote on pilots for two new comedies. An original four-night prime-time mini-series, Random Passage, set in 19th century Newfoundland, has also just debuted in an attempt to breathe new life into CBC Sundays.

That leads into the Winter Olympics ratings juggernaut, followed by Tom Stone, a prime-time comedy drama series about an ex-cop, and two other mini-series: Last Chapter, a violent biker drama which also runs two Sundays in March; and the ambitious mini-series Trudeau, starring Colm Feore as the philosopher-king (see ‘Rating the replacements’ above for details).

While the CBC’s themed nights have not yet lifted the public broadcaster up ratings-wise, Klymkiw says it’s still early days: the schedule re-tooling was just the first step in a long-term plan to focus on high-impact Canadiana.

‘Every over-the-air broadcaster cannot stand the sheer weight of fragmentation,’ he says, defending the ongoing changes. ‘It just eats away at your base, so the challenge is to become much more defined and targeted.’