Showdown at the digital corral

Rolling tumbleweeds, trusty steeds and six-shooters rule the digital television dial. That's right, partner - at least if you go by Lonestar's hands-down lead in the diginet wars.

Rolling tumbleweeds, trusty steeds and six-shooters rule the digital television dial. That’s right, partner – at least if you go by Lonestar’s hands-down lead in the diginet wars.

Many in the industry predicted sports channels or movie networks would take a firm lead when this year’s crop of diginets hit the airwaves, but it seems that what Canadians were really hankering for were spaghetti westerns and Clint Eastwood.

According to Nielsen Media Research’s latest figures, Lonestar has almost four times the audience of the number-two diginet, Showcase Action. John Wayne reruns and Bonanza bonanzas are garnering an average-minute audience of about 13,000 viewers, while Die Hard trilogy nights on Action are only pulling in an average minute audience of 3,400.

But it looks like CanWest’s Lonestar won’t have all those western fans to itself for much longer. In a few months Calgary-based Craig Broadcast Systems is launching Stampede, a second entry that will take the western shtick a step further with extreme rodeo sports and music videos.

Honestly though, did anyone expect this?

‘We actually did expect it,’ says Scott MacLeod, promotions director, Global Specialty Services. ‘Well, we actually expected Fox Sports to be number one – Lonestar is a pleasant surprise. There’s a thirst for nostalgia, and there were no westerns really running in Canada until now. We hit that genre and serviced it very well.’

MacLeod believes there are plenty of reasons the channel fared so well, particularly a shift in viewer attitudes since the World Trade Center terrorist attacks last year.

‘Sept. 11 has changed the way older audiences want their television programming to be structured,’ he explains. ‘They want it to be a little more wholesome and conservative. Truthfully, they want TV to be more like the way it was when they were kids.’

While its initial target was the 25- to-54-year-old family man, Lonestar’s largest audience now comes from the 35- to-54-year-old boomer generation that grew up with John Wayne. Such viewers apparently enjoy shows such as The Virginian and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, along with western movies from a variety of sources. MacLeod says that most of the programming comes from independent rights owners who picked up the shows long before they went to syndication.

But perhaps the largest archive of western oldies comes from the Paramount Republic library (which includes the John Wayne Collection, along with other dramas like Dallas and Bonanza), and Lonestar’s new rival has just bought up the rights.

Still, MacLeod says he’s not worried about Stampede stealing market share – even though, theoretically, the new channel could split the market in half.

‘There’s room for a couple of players. After all, there’s six sports channels all competing against each other, so two of us isn’t a problem,’ he says. ‘We will be able to hold on to our viewers. They’re tuning in to other channels as it is, but they always come back to Lonestar. If Stampede launches in September, we will have one year on them anyway.’

Wayne Sterloff, VP, specialty networks at Craig, says Stampede isn’t launching just to elbow in on Lonestar’s success, but rather because the company’s research indicated there was a strong demand for more action-oriented family programming.

‘Our research is telling us that for adults, there is a real interest in programming that’s neutral,’ he says. ‘Adult audiences tend to gravitate to action programs, but many people want less sex and violence, that’s why classic western programming works so well. The niche is right, but it just needs to be expanded.’

And although quite similar, the two channels won’t be exact clones: Lonestar relies more on dramas like Dr. Quinn and the occasional special, such as highlights from the Calgary Stampede, while the Stampede channel will run extreme western sports and country music videos along with its Paramount programming.

‘I don’t think there will be an audience split,’ Sterloff says. ‘Stampede’s programming is diversified enough to ensure there won’t be any heavy repeats. The channel will be quite distinct on the dial.’

Meanwhile, most media buyers are downright baffled by Lonestar’s success. David Stanger, managing partner at Vancouver-based media buying firm DSA Baron Communications, goes as far as questioning the ratings numbers.

‘Have you heard the urban myth?’ he asks, laughing. ‘Rumour has it that half of the metered homes were disproportionately die-hard Lonestar fans. Why Lonestar? I have no idea. If it were because of the nostalgia factor, why did Lonestar take the lead versus DejaView?’

For Stanger, the western shoot-out is a bit of a tempest in a teapot, because the whole digital universe is still so small. ‘The least-watched newscast in Vancouver has a bigger viewership than those channels,’ he says.

He adds that the success of one station will help the channel owner’s overall diginet package when pitching clients, but one channel alone isn’t enough to get buyers excited.

‘You can call it a competitive veto. They look down the street and see what other people have and upgrade their product offering to match that of the competition,’ Stanger says. ‘Stations like Lonestar are taking a tiny bite out of a very small pie and any media planner who buys Lonestar just because it’s number one isn’t buying right. Winners are chosen by their portfolio – not the individual stations.’

The top 10 diginets

Station Average minute

audience

(persons 2+)

Lonestar 13,000

Showcase Action 3,400

Court TV Canada 3,300

BBC Canada 2,900

TV Land 2,800

DejaView 2,700

Animal Planet 2,500

Men TV 2,400

SexTV: The Channel 2,000

Drive-In Classics 1,500

Source: Nielsen Media Research Canada

Universe: Total Canada/Total Homes, Persons 2+

Period: 13 Weeks Selected; Mar 11 – Mar 17, 02 (Week 28) to Jun 3 – Jun 9, 02 (Week 40)