The digital survivors

'No doubt the digital universe is unfolding as it should.'

‘No doubt the digital universe is unfolding as it should.’

That’s how Norm Bolen, programming VP for Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting, sums up the situation roughly 10 months after 50-some Canadian digital channels launched last September.

Bolen’s contentment is understandable. Alliance Atlantis has five of the top 15 diginets, as rated most recently by Nielsen Media Research. CanWest Global also has five. CHUM Television has two, while CTV, Craig Broadcast Systems, and Citytv have one channel each in the top 15 (see list below).

The names of the front-runners in Canada’s new digital universe are no surprise. That the winners, and long-run survivors, would turn out to be deep-pocketed, convergence-heavy corporations was predicted even before the diginets were born last fall.

However, it was a rough and rocky birth, preceded by a gestation period in which the four dozen mostly scrawny newcomers had to fight their way into the world by besting more than 400 other applicants. Then they had to compete for attention and financial sustenance not only with each other, but also with the scores of analogue channels simultaneously launching their new TV seasons.

All in all, says Sylvie Courtemanche, EVP of policy and regulatory affairs

at the Ottawa-based Canadian Association of Broadcasters, it’s actually a miracle that all of the diginets have survived so far.

‘But that’s not the only amazing aspect of the digital launch,’ she explains. ‘The part of the story that too many people missed is that it was the single most ambitious launch in the history of broadcasting anywhere in the world. So now, with more than 100 specialty services up and running, Canadians are renowned as the leading experts at launching [them].’

Courtemanche adamantly refutes the prevailing perception among TV critics and media buyers who feel that, because of their relatively – and permanently – smaller subscriber bases, the diginets are ho hum at best and doomed at worst.

‘There’s actually more good news than bad. At the time people filed license applications, it was estimated that digital penetration by the end of year one, in September 2002, would be 2.5 million. But just six months out, it was already at 2.8 million,’ says Courtemanche. ‘And now we’re expected to reach 3.7 million by the end of the year, which means that over the course of 2002, growth is projected at 800,000.’

But in other quarters, the buzz about the diginets isn’t so positive. Alliance Atlantis may have five channels in the top 15, but the company recently laid off 35 members of its television staff. Similar cutbacks at other diginet headquarters have occurred and rumours are flying about the imminent demise of, if not actual channels, significant programming blocks.

Rogers Cable experienced a decline of 11,700 digital customers when the free preview period ended. However, programming VP/GM Michael Allen says digital subscribers are still up by 35.7% over the previous year.

To boost that number, Allen says Rogers will spend ‘millions of dollars’ to promote digital programming across the board. The first evidence of this campaign rolled out earlier this month with print and broadcasting ads directing potential viewers to a snappy new Web site, www.newtvchannels.com. Rogers is also offering discounted digi-packs to new subscribers of its high-speed Internet service.

Might this effort be too little too late to persuade media buyers to enthusiastically support the diginets with their clients’ advertising dollars? Dennis Dinga, of Toronto’s M2 Universal, is inclined toward pessimism.

‘Even Lonestar, the top channel, is only drawing about 14,000 per average minute,’ he says. ‘Then the number-two channel is all the way down to 4,000, with all the others below that. There’s no way any channel can survive for long with that few subscribers.’

This is not to say that skeptics like Dinga aren’t buying time on the diginets, especially when, as he says, ‘the rates are about a dollar a holler’ and the affinity between product and audience niche is a good fit. ‘So far, we’ve put a little bit on TechTV and Discovery Health.’

TechTV also attracted Caroline Gianias, broadcast VP at Toronto’s Carat Canada, who ‘did a very tactical execution [on that channel] for Palm PDAs. We’ve also been looking for natural associations for other [marketers], such as buying on Animal Planet for a film release called Crocodile Hunter.

‘It all depends on the demo you’re looking for,’ continues Gianias. ‘I look at the diginets almost like a radio format in that both [media] are very niche. So where it makes sense in the environment, [ads on the diginets] can give that little extra push to a campaign.’

But the bottom line for media buyers, according to Gianias, is that ‘just looking for cheap efficiency builders won’t fly anymore because we’re being challenged more and more to prove that we’re buying the best we can buy in the marketplace. So the digital channels will have to show us how they fit in that equation.’

Ken Murphy, president and GM of several of CTV’s digital channels, agrees that focusing on quality and environment rather than quantity is the right way to view the diginets.

‘If your reference point is the kind of numbers conventional television generates, then one could scoff at the digital offerings. But I’ve heard it all before. I was there in 1984, when TSN launched and people just laughed at the thought of a 24-hour sports network. Now there are half a dozen of them thriving.

‘I heard the same kind of [skepticism] in 1995, when the Discovery Channel launched, and again in 1998, when other specialties launched,’ Murphy continues. ‘In the end, the marketplace will prevail, as it always does, and Canadians will watch and pay for the services they like. Those are the essential facts.’

The top 15 diginets

*Data supplied by Nielsen Media Research, based on

average numbers in weeks 19 (Jan. 7-13) and 31

(April 1-7), 2002.

Lonestar

(CanWest Global)

Average minute audience: 13,500 (25.4% share) *

Theme: Classic western fare

Target demo: Adults 25-54, skewing male

Returning: Bonanza; The Big Valley; Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman; The Virginian; etc.

New: Nothing announced

Comments: ‘Lonestar has been very popular ever since the free preview period,’ says Scott MacLeod, promotions director of Global Specialty Services. ‘There’s definitely a desire to go back in time [among viewers] and the western genre has been ignored for a long time.’

Showcase Action

(Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting)

Average minute audience: 4,300

(7.0% share) *

Theme: ‘Uncut, explosive and steamy action with spies, tough guys, adventurers and Kung Fu masters.’

Target demo: Males 18-49

Returning: Batman; Real Sex; etc.

New: Network movie premieres of 48 Hours, Black Rain, Beverly Hills Cop, Five Easy Pieces

Comments: ‘The Showcase channel has built a strong brand in the Canadian context in the nine years or so it’s been around,’ says Alliance Atlantis programming VP Norm Bolen. ‘So creating a couple of offshoots in Showcase Action and Showcase Diva was really logical.’

TV Land Canada

(Craig Broadcast Systems)

Average minute audience: 3,400

(5.6% share) *

Theme: ‘A celebration of those weird classics of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.’

Target demo: Adults 25-54

Major advertisers: Odeon Films, Sony Theatrical, BMG, Rogers Cable, Popular Records, IBM

Returning: New episodes of old series including Barney Miller, The Andy Griffith Show, I Love Lucy, etc.

New: More action series including Hawaii Five-0, Mission Impossible and The Twilight Zone; stunt weekends called ‘Fandemoniums’ featuring, for example, the entire oeuvre of actor-director Ron Howard; ‘retromercials,’ which are classic commercials from the earliest days of television

What else is new: Original programming is now in development, featuring the entire TV and movie career of Canadian actors, such as Gordon Pinsent

Comments: ‘TV Land came out of the gate very strong and has grown since then, probably because the bulk of our programming is exclusive cable rights to beloved shows,’ says Wayne Sterloff, VP of specialty networks at Craig Broadcast Systems. ‘Since then, we’ve gone out and licensed other shows that were highly requested by our subscribers. We’re very happy with the pick-up rate by affiliates all over the country and delighted that our ratings are splitting evenly among males and females.’

Court TV Canada

(CHUM and subsidiary Learning & Skills Television/Alberta)

Average minute audience: 2,900

(4.7% share) *

Theme: Live gavel-to-gavel coverage of current trials, plus law- and crime-oriented TV series

Target demo: Adults 18+

Returning: From Court TV U.S.: The System, Mugshots, Legal Brief; also: The Practice, Nash Bridges, Forensic Files, Fire Station (from Australia), Murder One, L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues and B.C.-produced To Serve and Protect

New: Homicide: Life on the Street

Comments: Peter Palframan, VP of finance and operations at Court TV Canada, says that, because advertisers ‘are skeptical about what kind of audiences the new digital channels would get, a lot of our advertising is per inquiry. But those [advertisers] are telling us they’re experiencing the highest returns they’ve ever experienced.’

Animal Planet

(CTV, a division of Bell Globemedia)

Average minute audience: 2,400

(3.9% share) *

Theme: ‘Life is better with animals.’

Target demo: Adults 18-49

Major advertisers: Pet Care Insurance Brokers, Maple Leaf Foods, McDonald’s, Ralston Purina, McCain Foods

Returning: Planet’s Funniest Animals; Pet Awards; etc.

New: Hollywood Unleashed, Celebrity Pets and Extreme Contact series; Amazing Animal Videos, one-hour specials such as Ultimate Rescues and Ultimate Stunts; three-part series called Ultimate Killers

Comments: ‘Animal Planet has exceeded our expectations, particularly on the subscriber front. We have strong advertiser interest and overall, we’re delighted,’ says Ken Murphy, president and GM of Animal Planet.

Deja View

(CanWest Global)

Average minute audience: 2,100

(3.4% share)*

Theme: Classic TV series from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

Target demo: Adults 18-49

Returning: Dragnet; Barney Miller; Adam-12; The Saint; Bewitched; etc.

New: Nothing announced

Comments: ‘Deja View’s popularity is another confirmation of viewers’ desire to enjoy today what they remember from when they were growing up,’ says Global’s Scott MacLeod.

Showcase Diva

(Alliance Atlantis)

Average minute audience: 2,000

(3.3% share) *

Theme: ‘Star-studded movies with a bold female attitude.’

Target demo: Females 25-49

Returning: Charlie’s Angels; Remington Steele; Bad Girls; etc.

New: Network movie premieres including An Officer and a Gentleman, The Big Chill, The Way We Were, A River Runs Through It, Barbarella.

Drive-In Classics

(CHUM Television)

Average minute audience: 1,900

(3.1% share) *

Theme: Recreation of the drive-in movie experience of yesteryear

Target demo: Adults 40-55

Returning: Thirty ‘new’ old movies per month; Friday’s dusk-to-dawn horror marathons and Saturday’s ‘Steamy Windshields Night’ with host Trish Delish.

New: North American TV premiere of Russ Myers catalogue (two-thirds of which is unavailable on video or DVD); package of obscure, low-budget ’50s flicks directed by Al Adamson

What else is new: Original drive-in ads featuring dancing hot dogs, etc.

Comments: ‘We’re pleased to be regularly scoring in the top 10 ratings, especially considering that we’re only carried in about 60% of the digital universe,’ says Drive-In Classics VP/GM Paul Gratton.

Men TV

(Groupe TVA, CanWest Global)

Average minute audience: 1,900

(3.1% share) *

Theme: Variety of subjects from the perspective of Canadian men

Target demo: Adults 25-54, male skew

Returning: Beer TV; Casino Life; Body & Health; Let’s Talk Sex

New: Men of Music (focusing on composers, managers, producers and other men impassioned by music); High Point: Casinos of the World (looks at international casinos and offers gaming tips); The John Oakley Show (working title for half-hour sports magazine with emphasis on extreme sports, football, soccer and cricket); Love Foods (working title of half-hour cooking show about foods associated with amour); Philip Marlowe: Private Eye (including six Canadian-produced episodes)

Comments: ‘There aren’t a lot of men-skewing Canadian programs out there,’ says Global’s Scott MacLeod. ‘So our new and original programs are striking a chord.’

BBC Canada

(Alliance Atlantis, BBC)

Average minute audience: 1,800

(2.9% share) *

Theme: ‘The best and boldest British programming from the world-renowned BBC.’

Target demo: Adults 25-54

Returning: Auf Wiedersehen Pet (hit ’80s drama about ‘an intrepid band of British builders.’)

New: Manchild (exclusive Canadian premiere of ‘politically incorrect comedy about four middle-aged men [trying] to prove they’re not yet past their prime’); Spooks (‘controversial spy thriller follows elite members of Britain’s clandestine security service’); What Not to Wear (North American premiere of ‘unconventional makeover show where unsuspecting women, secretly nominated by their friends or colleagues, are subjected to complete style makeovers’); The Office (‘satire about the worst of white-collar life,’ voted best new TV comedy at 2001 British Comedy Awards); Rescue Me (comedy drama set at a magazine called Eden); Babyfather (North American premiere of a drama about a disparate group of men).

Comments: ‘Our channel has benefited greatly from the BBC’s extraordinary library, a lot of which is fresh programming in Canada,’ says Alliance Atlantis’s Norm Bolen.

Scream

(Corus Entertainment, Alliance Atlantis)

Average minute audience: 1,800

(2.9% share) *

Theme: Horror and thriller movies

Target demo: Adults 18-49

Major advertisers: Sony Theatrical, Alliance Atlantis Releasing, Nintendo, Sony PlayStation, Wrigley’s, Coca-Cola’s Fruitopia, AOL, Pfizer

Returning: New eps of current series

New: Classic TV series Thriller; new interviews; new feature films

What else is new: In season two, Scream will shoot for up to 25% Canadian programming, says program director Darryl Wiggers, even though as a category two channel, only 15% Canadian content is mandatory. ‘But we’ve found quite a wealth of Canadian-made films and series that are just right for our format.’

Comments: Wiggers says the Scream team was ‘extremely happy’ with the popularity of their channel in season one, despite the fact that ‘a lot of people perceive our content as all horror. But the fact is, 25% of our programming is thriller [and] it’s been a lot of fun tracking down and acquiring films that actually stretch the boundaries of both those genres.’

Mystery

(CanWest Global, Groupe TVA, Rogers Broadcasting)

Average minute audience: 1,500

(2.5% share) *

Theme: Mystery and suspense

Target demo: Adults 35-54, slight female skew

Returning: Murder She Wrote, Picket Fences, Against the Law, etc.

New: Four movies of the week based on the novels of Mary Higgins Clark

Comments: ‘The mystery genre continues to be immensely popular, especially with older viewers,’ says Global’s Scott MacLeod.

Discovery Health

(Alliance Atlantis, Discovery Communications)

Average minute audience: 1,400

(2.3% share) *

Theme: ‘Leading-edge programming about the wonders of medical science and the human body.’

Target demo: Adults 25-54, skewing female

Returning: Health on the Line, The Surgeons, etc.

New: Cutting Edge (working title of new four-part documentary series about innovative Canadian scientists); Animals for Health (new series about ‘how special animals help treat human health conditions’); The Natural History of the Human Baby (new series about infant development); Outbreak (new series explores the nature and causes of the rising number of infectious disease outbreaks worldwide); specials including Adventures in Breathing and Trouble with Boys.

Comments: Alliance Atlantis’s Norm Bolen says Discovery Health is another example of a new digital channel benefiting from an established brand.

SexTV: The Channel

(CHUM Television)

Average minute audience: 1,400

(2.3% share) *

Theme: All-original programming ‘approaches sexuality in a respectful, clever, provocative and entertaining way.’

Target demo: Adults 25-54

Returning: SexTV; Sex Confessions; Sex Roundtable: The Producers; Forbidden Films: Sex, Censorship & Sensationalism in Hollywood; and, as host of about half of the channel’s shows, former MuchMusic star Jana Lynne White, ‘the face and voice of the channel.’

New: The Great Canadian Sex Survey; Lotion, Potions, Pills…And Thrills; Sex Tourism: Exotic Brothels; Carnal Knowledge: Sex, Speed and the Love of Cars.

Comments: Creative director/senior producer Brad Brough says his channel’s ‘unique take on talking about sex’ has consistently been among the top-rated diginets since it debuted. ‘Our only advantage is that sex sells.’

Fox Sports World

(CanWest Global)

Average minute audience: 1,300 (2.1% share) *

Theme: Sports – and plenty of it

Target demo: Adults 18-49, male skew

Returning: Same roster of shows and events as are currently appearing

New: Nothing announced

Comments: Global’s Scott MacLeod says the presence of Fox Sports World on Nielsen’s 15 top-rated shows ‘is no surprise and, in fact, the newest BBM numbers from this spring put it at the top.’