Could the little guys teach big broadcast a lesson?

One of the things that's always bothered me about this glut of new channels was wondering where the money was going to come from.

One of the things that’s always bothered me about this glut of new channels was wondering where the money was going to come from.

As we know, most of the money for producing TV shows ultimately comes from advertisers. Advertisers, as a whole, are not going to spend more on TV every year just because there are more channels. Yet, because there are more channels, there’s a need for more shows.

More shows, same budget. The solution? More low-budget shows. I didn’t like this idea at all: It seemed like we were just trading quality for quantity.

And to a certain degree that’s what did happen – but there was a factor that I didn’t take into account. A factor that Sherland Forde, president of MediaVest, points out on page 23 in this issue’s special report on TV branding: People don’t care if the production budgets are lower if they’re really interested in the subject matter.

Got the cravings for some critters? A fondness for financials? Tempted by technology? There are channels for all of those now, and if you’re really interested in animals, stock prices or computers, you’ll watch them, even if some of the shows look like they were made in someone’s basement (and actually, some of them were).

What we lose in production values, we gain in relevance. It’s not as bad a deal as I thought, and it’s not as bad a future for TV as some planners and buyers were predicting. It all comes down to the ‘added value’ a channel gains when it reaches that Zen-like state where channel and programming become one.

But what about Canada’s generalist nets? CBC, CTV and Global. Can they too gain added value through specialization?

Globe and Mail television critic John Doyle says that he’s already seeing all three broadcasters inching toward narrowcasting, and this will continue into the future.

Indeed Global admits that it is actively trying to limit its appeal to an 18-to-49 demo, CBC admits that it has stopped trying to compete when it comes to prime-time simulcast and lifestyle programming, and CTV, on purpose or not, is getting a reputation for being more of a thinking viewer’s station, with shows like The West Wing and The Sopranos attracting a 25-to-54 demo.

But shifting to a narrower focus, whether it’s a younger, fun-loving focus or a more upmarket image, means more than just changing your line-up. It means getting your staff to buy into the new vision. It means ensuring your on-air personalities embody the brand. It means fine tuning your on- and off-air communications to reflect the new you (see ‘The TV medium gets the message’ on page 17 for more on that). It means turning down programming that you’d otherwise jump at because it just doesn’t work for your brand.

And that’s the hard part of narrowing your focus: kissing viewers and programming goodbye. You just can’t position yourself as a youth network and not expect to lose older viewers, and vice versa. But the payoff is that once you’ve claimed your niche, it’s yours, and you at least have some clearly defined territory to defend from competitors that seem to be multiplying like tribbles.

Not just that, but with new, more clearly-defined brand characters, the majors could take a note from the specialties and start forming strategic alliances with like-minded marketers. They could start sponsoring events and organizations that make sense, that give back by re-enforcing the brand personality. They could form tie-ins with other entertainment products – be they movies, events, video games or Web sites – that offer new opportunities to reach a now clearly-defined target.

In short, they could start marketing themselves like McDonald’s, like Coke, like Nike. Like a real brand does.