Wandering eyes

With content freely available online, how is TV tackling viewer fragmentation and fighting to maintain its place as the king of mass media?

Twelve hours prior to the writing of this article, two million viewers across Canada gathered in front of their TV sets, popcorn in hand, to say goodbye to one of the last cliffhanger-driven, “event” dramas in prime time. The day was May 23, and CTV was airing the series finale of Lost, a cinematic ender to six years of brow-furrowing plot turns and existential online debates. 
As the show proceeded to its heavenly ending, the question arose: how many offbeat shows like Lost will continue to earn such loyal viewership in today’s fractured media landscape?
Not so long ago, the 500-channel universe was TV’s biggest threat. Today, that universe is the size of Pluto when compared with the galaxy of content offered online. Take YouTube: Lost was in its second season when YouTube launched, morphing from a simple video website to a content behemoth in which 24 hours of video are uploaded every minute. It’s no longer just eyeballs stretched across too many channels that TV needs to worry about – it’s the army of unlimited, on-demand entertainment options lined up outside its gate.
How does conventional TV compete in such a world? We’re not at a tipping point yet, Canada’s big four networks say. Joe and Jill Public still like to come home from work, flip on their 56-inch plasma, and watch Two and a Half Men. (Or the Leafs. Er, Canadiens). “Must-see TV” is still here; it’s just more about sports and event-based reality TV than it is about whether or not Ross and Rachel will get back together. And although 2009 was defined by economic turmoil, the 2010 upfront sales have seen healthy demand by clients and aggressive pricing by networks, with anticipated increases in the range of 4 to 6% as of press time, Canadian media buyers say.
During the Lost finale, many of the weapons that TV has up its sleeve were in evidence: behind-the-scenes interstitials featured show insiders telling stories from a big green TD Canada Trust chair, Hyundai’s closed-captioning sponsorship came alive with in-the-know Lost jokes – “Make [the Elantra] one of your potential candidates” or “Fast enough to outrun a polar bear” – and the online world was watching and buzzing with official live chats and unofficial banter (e.g. Twitter: “The final message of Lost: dogs are awesome. #lostfinale”).
It united all things important to media and TV execs: engaged fans, big-brand integrations, online extensions and most importantly, millions of eyeballs glued to the tube. But shows like Lost don’t come along every day and they are an increasingly rare species. So how are the major networks tackling this new war for viewers?
Cultivating content and the cross-platform experience is a trend that’s speedily underway in Canada. The recent purchase of Canwest’s TV assets by Shaw is a good example. It was a move the company says was made, in part, to own the content it will distribute across its platforms, including a newly beefed-up mobile division.
Another BDU/network, Rogers, has been making similar bold moves in the media world, launching a subscriber-only VOD service including seven former Canwest channels and three Corus channels. It also invested in American Michael Eisner’s new media studio Vuguru last fall, with a minority stake in exchange for controlling the Canadian rights to the studio’s web-based content, which it is currently putting to use with a cross-platform (Citytv.com, mobile) video initiative called Shorts in the City.
CTV, on the other hand, put it all on the line for the media extravaganza that was the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. There were more than a few doubters prior to the Games who thought the network overpaid for the rights, but execs and media buyers were all smiles afterward, impressed by how the network nimbly stickhandled record audiences across its channels and platforms.
It’s an experience that CTV will carry forward into regular prime time this fall, seeking to engage viewers across platforms through “additive content,” explains Alon Marcovici, CTV’s new VP of digital media, and former VP of digital media at the Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium. 
“At its centre there’s the show, but in various layers around it are the additional content, the live chats and the tweets, etc,” he says. “As the two-screen experience becomes more ubiquitous, I think you’ll see that notion of additive content be something that grows.”
The two-screen experience raises an obvious question: is an eyeball an eyeball, wherever it comes from?  And if that’s the new math, then how does TV generating so much more revenue than digital and online platforms still compute? It’s a question of redefining audience share, says Leslie Sole, CEO, Rogers Media Television.
“Our view of [cross-platform entertainment] is that the number-one viewing opportunity is congregation, which means the night it runs on network TV in real time. Then for 21 days or so, you have a period of immediate aggregation. Congregation is the hot play, and aggregation is the catch-up play. The source of viewers is not as important as the total number of viewers we have in that 21-day window. That is what I believe the future marketing opportunities will look like. That’s how I measure success.”
Redefining how eyeballs are evaluated in the eyes of the advertiser is going to be key to that process, says Barb Williams, EVP content, Canwest, because right now, the television viewer is still king.
“The challenge we’re having at the moment is the monetization of that viewer, the ability to successfully sell advertising is still very much focused on the main platform. Now that’s changing, slowly, but it is changing, so I think we’re all watching the evolution of that model. At the moment, we would probably prefer to have all of our viewers on television – that’s where we make the most money. But that’s not a realistic point of view – we have to be continuing to share our content around the other platforms, so it’s a matter of educating advertisers as to the value of the viewer in other places. ”
The CBC is in a slightly different boat due to its status as a public broadcaster, says Kirstine Stewart, general manager, CBC Television. Due to its mandate to be accessible to all Canadians, they have to make sure all of the content they create is “platform agnostic.”
“Even from the very beginning when a show or idea comes in the door, we’re always asking – and we have for three or four years now – how will this play out? It’s not just an 8 p.m.-on-Wednesday show – how is this going to reach people? How can we attract them across different platforms?
“Visual content has so many interesting applications, on any kind of screen possible. So you have to figure out what is the best use for that particular type of screen and what kind of content is best enjoyed on that type of screen.”
Stewart cites the launch of Being Erica in 2008 as an example. The network wanted to appeal to young, working females, so they pre-launched Erica as an original web series (without the show’s stars) to start building an audience for it before it even began. In that sense, Stewart says, cross-platform and viewer fragmentation can be a blessing to TV programming, giving it a leg-up it might not have otherwise had.
Complementary content can’t just be a straightforward extension of a broadcast property, says Joshua Dorsey, executive producer, Bitchin’ Kitchen, which started as a web series and now airs on the Food Network.
“I think where people often go wrong with multi-platform rollouts is there’s no personality attached to it and no voice, people don’t get that feeling that they’re getting true access,” Dorsey says. “With Bitchin’ Kitchen, people know they can go online and ask Nadia questions and interact with her. That way, they’re enjoying the show with everyone else and feel connected in a certain way.”

Food Network was interested in Bitchin’ Kitchen thanks to its young target demo, and part of the reason young people like it is that access, and the sense of community its online roots bred.
If TV is going to continue to thrive in a multi-platform world, Dorsey says, that will be a key aspect to it. (It would appear the Canadian Television Fund agrees: this year, it merged with the Canada New Media Fund, which mandates that interactive elements be a part of funded programming.)
There’s no doubt there’s a generational shift ahead. A recent ComScore survey of 1,800 American internet users found that 55% of 50- to 64-year-olds prefer to watch their  programming live, as do 57% of over-64 year olds. However, when you look at the 18-to-24 and 25-to-34 demos, that number dips to 35%. The survey – which analyzed differences in viewing for originally scripted TV programming – found that of those who defined themselves as cross-platform viewers, 75% said they did so in order to watch TV “whenever they wanted.” Sixty-seven percent (fourth-highest on the list) said they did so for “less interference from commercials.” (With that said, the study’s authors stated that “in many cases, online TV viewers actually have a higher tolerance for advertising messages than they are currently receiving.”)
For TV to thrive in such a world, says Rogers’ Sole, nets need to focus more closely on key demos.
“Television has to be very good at what it does, and not do too much, and to concentrate on the key viewers that we choose. We have a generational transformation right now, Xers are still hot, and the Y and Millennials are not going to drive their daddy’s Oldsmobile. They want a different kind of comedy, they want a different social slant on it.”
That tech-savvy generation’s tendency to also watch this content when and where they want – some bypassing networks entirely – is a looming threat.
“Younger viewers would have no problem at all pulling the plug,” says Max Berdowski, VP, business development, Interactive Ontario, adding that networks will have to find the “magic bullet” to monetize web content as the shift occurs.
In an interview with Media in Canada earlier this year, Cossette Media’s VP of digital solutions, Nick Barbuto, said he got the sense that young people will soon view conventional television subscription the way they view landlines: unnecessary.
“I was talking with some young people recently about viewing television, and a lot of them who are getting their own places are not even subscribing to traditional cable anymore,” he said. “It definitely feels like that transition point for people that grew up with cell phones and said ‘Why do I need a landline anymore?’ It feels like we’re right at that crux again.”
Curiously, the additive digital iterations the nets are now embracing may well be the piece that insulates their business model from the fate that befell record labels when young consumers migrated online – and the weight of that shift eventually tipped an industry when they chose to ignore it.