The Fall TV fixer-upper

Specialties are prettied up and given more star power; new DIY and thrill networks are replacing old DIY and thrill networks, while news is becoming more sponsor-friendly than ever.

‘Prudence’ is a word that Barbara Williams, EVP content, Canwest Broadcasting, says fittingly describes the network’s program purchasing in Los Angeles, as dictated by this year’s economy. ‘This wasn’t the year to go crazy and bring some sort of bidding war or buy more than you needed, which have been successful strategies in the past,’ says Williams. And while calculated caution was the overall theme, a thread of recession-coping similarities runs (or re-runs) through all the networks’ latest rebranding strategies.

Tighter ad budgets are moving media spend to cost-effective mediums with highly targeted demos, so specialty channels are being remodelled and prettied up to attract new viewers and buyers. Much like in the U.S., spend in Canada has gone down by about 10 to 20% for conventional channels, but this impact is not as pronounced on specialty channels, says Rick Brace, CTV president, revenue, business planning and sports.

‘I think that we’re seeing growth on specialty,’ he says. ‘We’re not seeing the growth that we want to see in a normalized environment, but it’s not nearly as impacted as conventional has been.’

Some of that is due to audience migration. Total TV viewing in Canada from September 2008 to May 2009 was 37% to specialty stations and 55% to conventional (BBM Canada), and the money follows the audience, says Sara Hill, president M2 Universal. ‘Absolutely it’s more cost-effective and cost-efficient. It’s one of the reasons more advertisers have been migrating and spending a larger portion of their dollars with specialty versus conventional stations.’

And of course, specialties come with a fee-for-carriage revenue stream unlike conventionals. But while those numbers are strong, most specialty channels still don’t come close to the mass audience that conventional does. To compensate for low numbers, many of the specialty sked retools include pop-cult programming that casts a wider net for new audiences. But is getting rid of niche the antithesis to the specialty genre?

‘I don’t see it as becoming more generalized,’ says Alain Strati, VP specialty TV and development for Rogers Media, which is adding several new shows to specialties OLN and G4 that are both niche (Ghost Hunters) and mainstream (The Office). ‘I think you have to branch out and try to give them other things. If it works, then maybe it’s something that becomes, quite frankly, a new part of your core.’

Canwest is getting aggressive with rebuilding its current specialty offerings – it’s even cooking up new ones. The network will launch DIY Network to replace Fine Living Canada, with an out-of-the-gate reach of two million homes. ‘From an advertising point of view, this is a network with a proven genre, with proven success,’ says Walter Levitt, CMO, Canwest Broadcasting. ‘Some of the most successful programming of HGTV is in the DIY category.’

Canwest prides itself on specialty channels like Showcase Diva, which increased its audience (A25-54) by 113% this year, and History, which rose by 53% (BBM). In late August, both Showcase and its Diva sister will debut their ‘refreshes.’ Showcase is getting rid of the Fridays Without Borders block, focusing less on boundary-pushing television to move towards more proven hits like House and Weeds.

‘I think there’s a huge opportunity for continued audience growth to keep the Showcase brand relevant to consumers, but to make sure that it is as broad as possible in terms of the genre of dramatic specialty channels,’ says Levitt.

In order to appeal to a broader demographic, Corus Entertainment’s digital specialty Scream is getting rid of the guts ‘n’ gore, and relaunching on Sept. 9 as Dusk with more suspense than horror. Last year, Scream saw a 100% increase in its W18-to-49 audience with the addition of Supernatural to its schedule, so they wanted a new channel that would become even more female- and advertiser-friendly, according to Jim Johnson, VP marketing at Dusk. The new Dusk, which will be available in 1.6 million homes, will feature bigger Hollywood premieres and greater star power.

But specialty isn’t the only alternative to conventional TV viewing; audiences and ad spend are both also shifting to online. Network execs, however, say that investing online, although essential, is not as profitable as other mediums.

CTV, which has spent the last few years developing its video player, is seeing a higher demand for video advertising, which also drives display advertising, explains Brace. But while ‘it’s working,’ he stops short of calling it a lucrative platform. ‘The problem is that it’s a very low-margin business,’ he says. Unlike television, the more viewers watch video online, the more broadband and bandwidth has to be purchased, he explains, ‘so there’s a cost of retaining and having viewers on your site.’

It’s also much easier to engage an online audience around sports or news channels, says Rogers’s Strati, because there’s more of an opportunity for interaction. Rogers is experimenting with different online elements, having recently launched an interactive website for Citytv’s The Bachelorette. ‘We’re not there yet in terms of it being a full-fledged profitable enterprise,’ he says. ‘It’s still currently a challenge because it’s an opportunity going forward which means it’s an investment.’

Unlike in the past, when it comes to specialty channels and the digital space, people graze more than they grab onto one thing, says Jennifer McGuire, GM and EIC of CBC News, which will undergo a rebranding this fall that includes 24-hour coverage. ‘The biggest growth in news consumption is in the digital space – not just online; it’s on mobile digital devices. But the bulk of the audience remains in television. It’s sort of living it today but being aware of tomorrow,’ she says.

CBC News, one of the most trafficked web properties in Canada, has become quite active in terms of syndicating material to different outlets and extending advertising opportunities to different platforms, says Heaton Dyer, senior director, strategy and innovation at CBC News.

Because CBC doesn’t allow sponsorship of editorial content but does allow sponsorship of delivery, this is an important venture. ‘The service of actually making The National available on a different platform is something that we do allow to be sponsored,’ says Dyer. A translated version of The National is slated to launch in Punjabi and Mandarin this fall. ‘That’s an example of something that’s very much going to be an audience service, but we want to have it as a sponsored service.’

While audience migrations to new platforms have networks seeking new revenue streams, conventional channels are also getting creative in advertiser baiting. CBC didn’t have a formal upfront this year, but it announced its new and returning shows this past spring. Instead, the network wanted to highlight recent changes to its sales and marketing department in a more intimate setting. ‘We’ve thrown out our fax machine,’ jokes Scott Moore, general manager, media sales and marketing.

CBC is now also accepting a wider variety of sponsorship packages and advertising, adds Moore, allowing advocacy advertising for the first time, for instance.

‘Because we produce 80 to 90% of our own content, we’re able to integrate sponsor messages and sponsorship into our programming. Battle of the Blades will be a natural in that,’ he says, of the reality series that pairs up hockey players and figure skaters. TD Bank will also be incorporated into the scripts of dramas like Being Erica and The Border, he adds. But while Moore boasts that CBC is ‘no longer apologizing for our content,’ it’s got a new major player to compete with.

This year’s loudest upfronts buzz was around Rogers’ debut as a key contender. It will air more than 16 hours of simulcast programming with the U.S. in prime time; it bought The Jay Leno Show for the 10 p.m. time slot as well as several new female-skewing shows.

‘We wanted Citytv to be a little bit lighter, a little bit more about comedy, a little bit more about women,’ says Strati.

Global is also going after the ladies with shows like Melrose Place and The Good Wife. ‘We’ve traditionally been a tad more male than our competition,’ says Williams. ‘We’re watching all the time to be sure that the female demo is strong on the schedule, and I think we’ve grown that a little bit with our acquisitions this year, which is a good thing.’

Meanwhile, CTV boosted A channel with dramas like CW’s The Beautiful Life and ABC’s Eastwick, but had few holes to fill with its own sked. ‘It’s almost like this is kind of a status-quo schedule,’ says Inese Korbs, VP director media investments at M2 Universal. ‘I think what they’re planning on doing is totally revamping their schedule after the Olympics. That’s when they’re going to be introducing their Canadian productions and other shows.’

So while this is not a year for lavish spending, it is a year of careful sifting of investment options. There’s the added pressure of building at a time when budgets are shrinking and hundreds of workers are being laid off, but it is not a time to duck and hide. ‘We’re doing this big rethink at a time when we’re downsizing,’ says CBC News’ McGuire. ‘The truth of the matter is we started before the economy tanked. But it’s really, really important to maintain it for a couple of reasons: be prepared, as we crawl out of this thing. And also to make sure that the decisions you’re making in terms of what you’re getting out of it and what you’re cutting are strategic, based on future success.’

Beyond the 30: brands’ new role

By Carey Toane

While the 30-second spot still reigns, more and more brands are getting in on the content development process at early stages. Witness the success of Canwest venture Project Runway Canada, which started life on Slice and shifted over to Global for a second season this winter, bringing with it major sponsors L’Oréal and Winners. Meanwhile, CTV picked up Canada’s Next Top Model from Citytv for the second season, and brands Cashmere and H&M have joined returning sponsors LG and Procter & Gamble. While Canwest EVP sales Errol Da-Re says straight-up 30-second spots remain the most important part of the company’s upfront business, he adds that, ‘The integration side of our business with the leveraged assets of Canwest is really a growth area for us.’

The success of licenced formats like PRC and CNTM has inspired other Canadian retailers to take brand involvement to the next level. The prime-time English-language reality series My Rona Home is coming to Citytv this fall after seven seasons on Quebecor’s TVA as Ma Maison Rona. The producer, Zone 3, approached Rogers with the idea, says Alain Strati, VP specialty TV and development, Rogers Media Television. ‘They recognized the ability for Citytv to not only promote and carry the show in key markets, but also to integrate the concept with other Citytv shows like BT and CityLine, as well as other Rogers Media properties,’ he says, adding that Rogers worked with Rona and media agency Carat to adapt the program to the English market, mapping out the direction for the show concept and promotional initiatives throughout the contestant search, construction and broadcast phases of the show. The DIY home-improvement retailer also had a hand in selecting the two Alberta families who will design and build new homes using materials and products supplied by Rona. Rogers is currently open to other supplementary marketer partners.

As Canadian media companies consolidate conventional and specialty assets, as well as online and print properties, they are hoping to sell themselves as a one-stop-shop for marketers. Example: HGTV star Mike Holmes is now branching out with a special series on Global, a column in Canwest dailies including the National Post and an online presence on digital assets. These kinds of packages were dangled in front of advertisers and media buyers alike at Canwest’s first Client Partnership Symposium event – which brought together internal sales, marketing and content departments across media – in early May. ‘The main goal was to [show] our customers and agencies that we are basically seamless inside our company,’ says Da-Re. ‘That allows our clients to be more comfortable in coming to the table with ideas that we can brainstorm, leveraging all our internal assets from digital media and even the print component, VOD and product and script integration.’

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Canadian upfronts

New York upfronts

Cross-country checkup

Specialty hot list

Handicapping the shows

The grid