On the nature of network…

When I read about the new fall TV crop, I thought I'd have to reset my 'can't wait till September' countdown to 2003. And with the rerun count over 70% some nights, I began to consider signing up for remedial origami (we all Love Raymond, but not that much).
So, when I finally got around to actually watching a slew of new show screeners in a break from the Everything Old is On Again syndrome, I was surprised by the quality of some of the pilots. They may have less inventive premises but the execution is good.

When I read about the new fall TV crop, I thought I’d have to reset my ‘can’t wait till September’ countdown to 2003. And with the rerun count over 70% some nights, I began to consider signing up for remedial origami (we all Love Raymond, but not that much).

So, when I finally got around to actually watching a slew of new show screeners in a break from the Everything Old is On Again syndrome, I was surprised by the quality of some of the pilots. They may have less inventive premises but the execution is good.

Boomtown. By blending the perspectives of cops, detectives, perps, politicians, victims and medical emergency crew, Boomtown manages to nail a very elusive slight ‘new twist’ on the 911 genre to give it greater depth of story.

CSI: Miami. It seems to be on everyone’s pick list. Unlike a few too many of the new show entries, the main character’s presence (David Caruso) carries this one past the fact that the premise is not new.

Sick of quirky and edgy? The wholesome humour of life-was-simpler-in-the-’60s entry Oliver Beene and the traditional approach of John Ritter’s 8 Simple Rules (right down to the stock sitcom set) will do well with all those folks who never got Greg the Bunny. Less Than Perfect is also quite funny, but without a hook like Beene’s kid P.O.V. sepia-toned nostalgia, it might get lost in the shuffle.

And for a visual treat for the younger set, YTV has Cartoon Network series Samurai Jack, with the Yank anime stylings of Genndy Tartakovsky (The Powerpuff Girls). Samurai Jack is an ancient warrior displaced to the distant future by a shape-shifting evil warlord named Aku. Kay, but it’s still funny. Another show that will likely draw kid eyeballs is WB’s Birds of Prey, as the comic book premised series is about the crimefighting antics of Batman and Catwoman’s daughter, who was raised by Batgirl. (For a full list of picks and pans and forensic slot analysis see ‘Upfront in New York,’ p. TV22 and ‘The Shows,’ p. TV37.)

Perhaps what’s new under the sun this year is the continuing evolution of the broadcast firmament; the position of the majors – the generalist national networks – and all the other guys.

Birds of Prey is one of three new U.S. net prime series Chum picked up for both Space and its regionals. The others are UPN’s Haunted and the latest Twilight Zone. As specialties and regionals pick up new U.S. network fare to bolster their skeds, they become even more of a contender this fall.

Communities of interest: why media buying is tougher

Consider this scenario. The new network competitor is a patchwork of analogue and digital specialties and regional channels that vie for shows and viewers with the national traditional networks. As the ‘New’ impact of the U.S. network-dependent primetime fall launch shrinks in terms of pre-empting, available eps, show duplication on other channels, etc., specialties and regionals have an increasing shot at shifting share from the generalist nets. This upfront saw the demand for Canada’s regional casters result in a faster-moving market, tight inventory and escalating rates.

A programming exec at a large media conglom views orchestrating a portfolio of specialty channels as similar to a broad appeal traditional network, but rather than a time slot for jocks or kids, you have a whole grid for each. Thus, the increased respect for the analogues among buyers (see p.TV24). The ease of promoting specific shows on a 24/7 grid of sports or toons is obvious, but, more thought is required if you want to make sure you’re reaching the widest audience possible – by letting kids know about an extreme sports magazine, or guys know about a rude cartoon.

By finding the crossover points for like-minded viewers within a total broadcast offering reach, traffic can be more effectively directed back and forth between channels, even among different media platforms. The hard part is connecting the dots – pulling the patchwork network’s diverse offerings into focus as a single picture, creating a map of viewer interests.

But, the more specific the niche, the more accuracy is possible. Given the frequency of MenTV ads I’ve seen, which did not appeal to me, there’s certainly room for improved targetting.

The ability to cross-pollinate more efficiently gets really interesting when you consider the viewer profiling possible with such diverse niche reach.

This is not lost on marketers trying to get more intimate with consumers who aren’t – despite Turner CEO Jamie Kellner’s urging (and ‘tolerance’ for bathroom breaks) – glued to the commercials. As people tend to be less neatly segregated into demo boxes defined by age and sex, the extra legwork inherent in trying to reach various groups across platforms based on their interests, becomes less daunting, and – with TiVo type ad-obliterating PVRs – arguably more neccessary for marketers. It becomes less of a frill, or a secondary effort, and a tad more essential. As the traditional network business model is chipped away on many fronts, is this the New Network model?

It’s unlikely that the broad-appeal mass-audience net model will go away (given the particularly hot U.S. upfront), but the momentum of their competitors shows no sign of slowing, as the media congloms that aren’t footing the bill for a generalist national network fabricate their own quasi-networks across their holdings. The new nets are based on very desireable local communities (Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, Vancouver) and also identify communities of interest.

While this can be lumped under various ‘convergence strategies,’ it’s actually just starting to gel in a way that makes sense for reaching consumers – not by lumping them all together and trying to reach them in ever widening nets of mass media vehicles, but by expanding reach to specific groups by harnessing a network of niche vehicles.

Already, the days of just picking which alpha-net shows to bet mass market ad dollars on seems nostalgic, right up there with vanilla coke floats.

cheers,mm, Mary Maddever, editor, mmaddever@brunico.com