Debuts in review

How's the new television season looking so far from a media buyers' point of view? Basically, they're partying like it's not 2001.

How’s the new television season looking so far from a media buyers’ point of view? Basically, they’re partying like it’s not 2001.

And that isn’t only because everyone’s glad it’s not last year, when the fall TV launch was interrupted by the Sept. 11 tragedy and complicated by the simultaneous debut of nearly 50 new digital channels. That double whammy hit hard, but produced only a short-lived advertising downturn domestically says, among others, Jim Patterson, president and CEO of the Television Bureau of Canada.

‘Last September, October and November were down a bit versus the same period in 2000 and December and January were flat. But ever since February, when the Olympics hit, every month has been stronger than the corresponding month a year earlier.’ Patterson adds that sales numbers ‘are now running about $100 million over August 2001, which brings us to about $2.66 billion.’

And now, just a few weeks into the debut of the new TV season, the consensus is that this is the hottest buying year in recent memory. In fact, so many time slots sold out that Carol Cummings, manager of broadcast negotiations at Montreal’s Media Experts, says she’s ‘never ever seen such a demand for air time in all my years of buying, and that’s quite a few.

‘It was already tight when I started my buying in July [for Telus Mobility and Fidelity Investments]. I think that’s because a lot of the big buying shops came in and negotiated huge volumes of block time. So by the time the rest of us got in, there was very little left.’ Indeed, as Strategy reported in June, at least 40% of network upfront inventory moved within the first few days after the U.S networks unveiled their fall lineups.

What Vancouver-based Carrie Barlow, president of Carrie Barlow Media, says she’s seeing is a situation ‘that’s so tight that if you get bumped out of a show due to a pre-emption, you simply can’t find the programming to equate the ratings or the psychographic group of people that watch it. Hopefully, all this is a sign that the retail sector is being a little aggressive.’

Florence George, VP/media director at Toronto’s HYPN, (whose clients include Unilever, Honda and Home Hardware) agrees with Cummings’ and Barlow’s assessments. ‘It’s just wacky. Usually, with this being the year-end for some [marketers], we see a tendency to call back advertising dollars about now. But we’re not seeing any of that so far. And people are spending more money than we expected.’

However, given the current economic climate, there are some categories that are cutting TV spend, such as mutual funds.

Some of the big bucks being tossed around are less a sign of wild enthusiasm than the reality that, with demand for inventory outstripping supply, prices are soaring by between 25% and 40% for American shows, according to The Wall Street Journal. Overall, the U.S. TV spend is forecast to grow 1% this year, according to the Jack Myers Report, and in May the big six saw a 17% spike in commitments over last season. In Canada, buyers estimate that spending has climbed more than 10% over the previous year.

For the record, the major U.S. networks have produced 39 new shows this year, including 13 dramas and 16 comedies, about 30 of which have been bought for Canadian viewing.

What trends are being seen?

Thursday seems to be reclaiming its traditional status as what Dennis Dinga, VP/director of broadcast buying at Toronto’s M2 Universal, calls ‘the appointment night of the week, with enough stuff for everybody.’ Among the high-ranking Thursday shows are Global’s Friends, Survivor, Will & Grace, and the new Good Morning Miami and Without a Trace. Meanwhile, CTV has Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Scrubs, CSI and ER.

As for genres, ‘This year, we all see the big trend [among new shows] as cops, crime and investigations,’ says Florence Ng, VP/director of broadcast at Toronto’s Optimedia Canada, whose clients include General Mills, Wal-Mart, CIBC, Nestlé and Hewlett-Packard.

Which of these newcomers has Ng put her clients into? While saying that ‘nothing jumps out as a surefire ratings winner at this point,’ like many other media buyers, her top pick is CSI: Miami. ‘It comes from a very successful franchise and viewers are already familiar with the fairly different way they tell their stories. It’s holding up very well so far on Monday night against [the returning] Crossing Jordan.’ According to Nielsen Media Research, CSI: Miami ranked fourth in the second week of the new season (Sept. 23 to 29) with an average national audience of 525,000 viewers ages 18 to 34.

Other new dramas that interest Ng are Without a Trace, ‘because it’s also from the CSI people and expectations for it are high in the States,’ and Boomtown, which she says ‘is up against The Practice, but the flow is there for viewers who will start with Alias, then watch Law & Order: CI and then go right to Boomtown.’

Cummings says she has a feeling that both Fast Lane and Boomtown ‘might turn out to be sleeper hits this year.’

Other front runners

Dinga also sees CSI: Miami as a potential hit. In fact, his agency, which buys time for such clients as GM, RBC Financial Group, Labatt and Sony, put that show on its official hit list along with the brand-new Good Morning Miami, the recently-premiered The Osbournes and the consistently high-rating Survivor.

Cummings agrees that, at least this early in the game, CSI: Miami looks as if it may turn out to be the season’s breakout drama. She and others also see good potential in the new comedy 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.

Both Ng and Dinga say they like Everwood, but question whether its story line will maintain the strength to retain audiences after its expository first two episodes.

Oldies but goodies

For obvious reasons, many media buyers prefer putting their clients into tried-and-true series. Cummings says the majority of her buys are for such proven shows as Friends, Frasier and Law & Order, although the latter show’s SVU extension ‘is the wrong environment for a company like Fidelity Investments.’

Other frequently-mentioned old favourites include Survivor, which, along with the original CSI, tops most lists, plus Everybody Loves Raymond (which continues doing good numbers in both its new season and in strip), Alias, The Practice, Dawson’s Creek, Touched By An Angel, The District and, at least among what Dinga calls ‘a selective following,’ The West Wing.

As for the venerable Friends and Frasier, Barlow says that although current demand for both is so high that their rates are almost prohibitively expensive, and ‘they’re obviously embellishing their plot lines to try to hold viewers, we may see a bit of a slide this year anyway, with both ending the season with a whimper instead of a bang.’

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a strong difference of opinion among buyers about ER’s probable performance this season. ‘A lot of people thought it might not survive the departure of Anthony Edwards as Dr. Green,’ says Dinga, ‘but the premiere episode was just out of this world and the second week kept up the pace as well.’ But Optimedia’s Ng believes that ‘audiences are losing interest because [the show] has been on so long and so many original cast members have left.’

Potential duds

Despite the fact that its star, Michael Chiklis, just won a best actor Emmy, The Shield is a dog in Ng’s opinion. ‘I think it’s almost a Sopranos wannabe, which might appeal to a certain type of advertiser, but others would steer clear because of all the violence. I was surprised that Global picked it up and I think it really sticks out like a sore thumb among their programming.’ Ng is also dubious about Firefly’s chances and surprised that Fox decided ‘at the last minute’ to substitute it for Dark Angel.

Although other buyers report ‘good buzz’ about 8 Simple Rules and Life With Bonnie, Dinga says M2 Universal has officially listed both as misses. The Grubbs is getting, at worst, a thumbs-down and, at best, a wait-and-see response among several buyers.

Time slot skirmishes

Dinga and others predict that at least one of the two medical shows that are battling each other on Wednesday night will bite the bullet ‘because both are basically weak ER knockoffs.’ Amusingly, USA Today concurs with this prediction, calling the toe-to-toe scheduling of two such similar programs ‘irritable new-show syndrome.’

Everyone’s predicting that the existing Monday-night shows, which include CSI: Miami and Crossing Jordan, will have a big fight on their hands when Girls’ Club arrives as a mid-season replacement. Touted as a cross between Sex and the City and Ally McBeal, this is yet another series from the fertile brain of writer/producer David E. Kelley. It’s such a safe bet that buyers are eager to snap it up despite the absence of a pilot episode.

Launching later

The Fox network shows, which include such audience-pleasers as Malcolm in the Middle and The Simpsons, won’t premier until baseball’s World Series concludes later this month. But George says she and other buyers continue to be enthusiastic about these shows because ‘they perform well in that hard-to-get 18-to-34 demographic.’

Cummings says Quebec buyers are eagerly awaiting the debut of a French-language show that will begin airing on TVA in February. ‘It’s called Star Academy and will be a lot like American Idol, with a series of 10 Sunday nights in a row. I think it’s going to be really hot.’

How are the Canadian nets doing?

It isn’t only big American comedies and dramas that are selling out fast. CBC’s flagship news show, The National, is booked solid throughout the fall, according to Doug Brooks, chief marketing and sales officer for CBC Television. ‘We had a very good upfront season with strong demand, especially for our key properties, like Hockey Night in Canada, with advertisers jumping on board right through March.’

While that’s good news for the CBC, as usual, none of its shows have hit the top-20 list.

As of the end of September, almost all of the top shows were airing on CTV and Global, with CSI, ER, The Osbournes, CSI Miami, Fast Lane and Boomtown topping the list on CTV, and Survivor V, Friends, Will & Grace, Everybody Loves Raymond and Good Morning Miami at the top on Global. Full national show rankings for all nets except Global can be seen on page 15, and Ontario show rankings for Global can be seen on page 16. (Separate rankings were necessary since Global no longer subscribes to Nielsen.)

Crystal ball predictions

Gazing at the big picture for the 2002-2003 TV season, the Television Bureau’s Patterson says that ‘things are generally looking extremely good, but we’re not isolated north of the 49th. The only real concern on anyone’s mind is the U.S. economy. If it goes south again, that could be a problem for us because so many companies that advertise in Canada are subsidiaries of U.S. companies.’

What Ng is hoping is that, this year, ‘the American networks will have a little more patience and give new shows time to develop audiences instead of yanking them too soon.’

Top 20 Shows

Week one of the new season
National market – Global not included
Rank Criteria: Total – P 18-34 – (000) (Descending) (AA) Sept.16 – Sept.22, 2002

Rank Network Program P 18-34
1 CTV The Osbournes 698
2 CTV The Osbournes 670
3 CTV Emmy Awards 548
4 CTV 8 Simple Rules 466
5 CTV Life With Bonnie 444
6 CTV Fastlane 388
7 CTV C.S.I. 372
8 TSN WWE Raw 329
9 CTV C.S.I. 306
10 CTV C.S.I. 286
11 CTV The West Wing 280
12 CTV CTV Pre-Emmy Preview 273
13 CTV Law & Order 270
14 CTV Dr. Phil 254
15 CTV Dr. Phil 204
16 CTV Everwood 201
16 CTV Law & Order: SVU 201
18 CTV Drew Carey 190
19 CTV Fall Preview 182
20 CTV Whose Line/Anyway 179
Source: Nielsen Media Research

Top 20 Shows

Week two of the new season
National market – Global not included
Rank Criteria: Total – P 18-34 – (000) (Descending) (AA) Sept.23 – Sept.29, 2002

Rank Network Program P 18-34
1 CTV C.S.I. 801
2 CTV E.R. 688
3 CTV The Osbournes 591
4 CTV C.S.I. Miami 525
5 CTV Fastlane 372
6 CTV Boomtown 371
7 CTV Law & Order: SVU 351
8 TSN Law & Order: CI 331
8 CTV Scrubs 331
10 CTV Charmed 320
11 CTV Life With Bonnie 317
12 CTV My Wife and Kids 315
13 CTV American Idol/Vegas 301
14 CTV The West Wing 298
15 CTV Alias 276
16 CTV 8 Simple Rules 256
17 CTV The Holmes Show 224
18 TSN WWE Raw 217
19 CTV Seventh Heaven 196
20 YTV Buffy the Vampire Slayer 183
Source: Nielsen Media Research

Top 20 Shows

Week one of the new season
Ontario market – Global only
Rank Criteria: Total – P 18-34 – (000) (Descending) (AA) Sept.16 – Sept.22, 2002

Rank Channel Program P 18-34
1 CIII Survivor V 481
2 CIII That ’70s Show 311
3 CIII Will & Grace 154
4 CIII Simpsons 153
5 CIII Frasier 138
6 CIII Just Shoot Me 121
7 CIII Entertainment Tonight 120
8 CIII Simpsons 117
9 CIII Simpsons 115
10 CIII Simpsons 113
11 CIII King of the Hill 108
12 CIII Reba 106
13 CIII Everybody Loves Raymond 105
14 CIII That ’70s Show 101
15 CIII Futurama 99
16 CIII Friends 97
17 CIII Malcolm in the Middle 89
18 CIII Days of Our Lives 88
19 CIII Simpsons 88
20 CIII Firefly 87
Source: BBM (Courtesy of Global Television Sales)

Top 20 Shows

Week two of the new season
Ontario market – Global only
Rank Criteria: Total – P 18-34 – (000) (Descending) (AA) Sept.23 – Sept.29, 2002

Rank Channel Program P 18-34
1 CIII Survivor V 508
2 CIII Friends 398
3 CIII Will & Grace 387
4 CIII Everybody Loves Raymond 299
5 CIII Good Morning Miami 251
6 CIII Frasier 239
7 CIII Hidden Hills 215
8 CIII That ’70s Show 195
9 CIII Simpsons 153
10 CIII Simpsons 141
11 CIII Gilmore Girls 140
12 CIII Crossing Jordan 133
13 CIII Simpsons 129
14 CIII That ’70s Show 121
15 CIII Simpsons 106
16 CIII Simpsons 104
17 CIII Days of Our Lives 102
18 CIII Entertainment Tonight 101
19 CIII Malcolm in the Middle 98
20 CIII Without a Trace 98
Source: BBM (Courtesy of Global Television Sales)