Engaging Television

Homeowners are home-improvement obsessed. Yet, truth be told, a lot of people suck at it. Walk down any street and you'll see evidence of poor carpentry, roofing or painting.

Homeowners are home-improvement obsessed. Yet, truth be told, a lot of people suck at it. Walk down any street and you’ll see evidence of poor carpentry, roofing or painting.

Desperate homeowners are one reason why home and décor programming continues to remain strong. Alliance Atlantis zoomed in on this insight thanks to feedback from its new panel of 6,000 viewers. And while feedback will have a greater impact on its programming selections next year, this fall the net will still roll out more property shows on HGTV.

Across the country, broadcasters are mining the ‘communities of interest’ that have sprung up around their specialty channels through viewer panels. They are using the panels, which are facilitated by websites and e-mail, to draw up detailed audience profiles and more deftly engage their viewers, as well as provide positioning opportunities to advertisers. CHUM recently used online panels during its MuchMusic VJ Search and Discovery used feedback to create new program Star Racer. Both are examples of an effort to create engaging programming and equally engaging advertiser opportunities.

At Alliance Atlantis, panel feedback has allowed it to ask questions directly of viewers, says Sarah Moore, the company’s SVP of marketing and publicity. She rattles off several examples: ‘Is it because someone is thinking of buying a house? Is it because people are already involved with buying houses and they want practicality in terms of what they are watching? Or is it pure entertainment?’

The broadcaster has also been able to glean demographic info about its panel, viewers’ other areas of interest, what their purchasing power is and whether a viewer owns her own home. ‘All of that is phenomenal information for our sales teams to present [to marketers] – a much more robust profile of who is watching our shows,’ she says.

The feedback not only helps the company better engage core viewers but also enlist new ones. Says Moore: ‘[It] gives us an opportunity to take advantage of that community aspect online and to seed information to [viewers].’

In addition, the panel enables Alliance Atlantis to extend its relationship with viewers, by offering opportunities to direct members to various websites, e-newsletters and other marketing vehicles, as well as by providing an avenue to test and create more engaging and targeted marketing campaigns. The broadcaster is also relying on the panel to track ad awareness and usage of new media, among other things. Along with the 6,000-member main panel, which represents the general viewing public, three others specifically involve viewers of HGTV, Food Network and Life Network respectively. All four were launched in February, and the broadcaster uses them every three or four weeks.

Meanwhile, over at CHUM, SVP of content Roma Khanna says her company’s foray into online panels has helped it better customize its programming and advertising to the desires of the viewers who flock to its specialty channels. She says panel members contributed to the look and feel of last winter’s MuchMusic VJ Search. For that talent-search program, the online panel provided feedback as the series was in progress, such as what celebrity they would like to see make a guest appearance, and how they felt about different products that could be integrated into the show.

For MuchMusic programming more generally, a panel of approximately 2,200 viewers respond to a myriad of queries as part of its TouchMuch newsletter campaign. (On the Much website, a recruiting pitch craftily spurs a viewer’s desire to participate by describing panel membership as ‘the ultimate power trip.’)

The TouchMuch panel ‘represents a pretty balanced group that matches our audience makeup,’ says Khanna, adding that it is used to gauge consumer interest level on many points. ‘So it could be anything from programming initiatives to the likability of celebrity guests or hosts or market initiatives but also programming content [and] promotional concepts.’ She adds: ‘That is something that we look forward to doing more and more.’

Although the use of panels is still new to CHUM – they only became a part of their engagement toolkit earlier this year – the company plans to expand the panels beyond the realm of MuchMusic to better engage viewers of its other specialty properties, including Space, Bravo! and Star.

‘You will see us taking more advantage of the web in that way, and more shows like VJ Search that brings the advertising into this dialogue with the audience.’

While CHUM benefits from the marketing information provided by the panel, the panel also likes gaining a closer relationship with the brand, observes Khanna. ‘With specialty channels, the real advantage as the [broadcast] world fragments is they are fragmenting into communities of interest, and that is what a specialty channel is,’ she says. CHUM, with the panels, is able to harness that fragmentation for the benefit of marketers, she adds.

Like CHUM, Discovery Channel Canada has tapped into a viewer panel with Canada’s Worst Handyman, a seven-part reality series that featured five hapless do-it-yourselfers from across the country vying for the inglorious title.

The program, launched in March, is one of Discovery’s most successful applications of research developed with panel feedback, and helped propel the specialty’s prime-time 25- to-54-year-old audience this year up to approximately 82,000 from 77,000 last year, notes Sally Basmajian, its VP of sales and marketing.

Paul Lewis, the company president/GM, says the feedback from their 50-person viewer panel, coupled with Discovery’s other audience research data, ‘doesn’t just tell us who is watching the channel, but it also allows us to see who is not watching the channel but could be potentially turned on to specific programs.’

The panel also allows them to figure out ‘the kinds of things [viewers] like to do in their leisure time so we have put together some really detailed profiles, and this has really driven the programming decisions that we have made.’ Basmajian adds they have queried their panel members on a variety of issues, ranging from their perceptions of Internet advertising to their peer-to-peer networking, such as how often they might forward ‘funny or amusing stories’ to a friend.

Discovery’s marketing and programming departments are using the segmentation research to work ‘closely together to create concepts that are not only audience builders, but are also reasonably maleable in terms of product integration for advertisers,’ according to Basmajian.

‘For example, Star Racer, which airs this fall, is a reality-based program that takes 16 of Canada’s most talented, aspiring amateur drivers and pits them against each other for a spot on the professional racing circuit.  We know from our research that our viewers are interested in the science behind the racing as well as the sport itself, and the program will be carefully constructed with this in mind. We also want the program to be advertiser-friendly, so [Discovery] sales is working with customers to create moments within the show that showcase the client’s brand, while being seamless and integral to the story line – something that we also know will be acceptable to viewers.’

Although Discovery was still in the process of lining up its sponsors for the program, including an automotive client, Basmajian says: ‘We are working closely with several clients…in order to find ways of embedding their products into the series in an organic and believable way.’ Ken MacDonald, the company’s VP of programming, says some panelists identify so strongly with the channel’s programming they feel they have ‘a sense of ownership’ or investment in the brand. ‘We get a lot of viewer feedback, good and bad – mostly good,’ he says. ‘There is a connection there.’