In the Trenches: Random rants, musings and media tales about the US writers’ strike

Today's pundit is Josie Bumbaca, PHD Canada's group director for broadcast. While coping with uncertainties and stop-gap programming options, she's wishing the networks would 'share their longer-term plans and strategies with us.'

Yesterday, the Writers Guild of America sparked a degree of cautious optimism about the probability of a full-scale Academy Awards broadcast – and perhaps even an end to its strike. The union decided to not just free the Grammy Awards of picketing, as previously announced, but to give the Feb. 10 ceremony a full waiver, allowing writers to write and stars to attend.

Today, Josie Bumbaca, group director of broadcast at Toronto-based PHD Canada, weighs in with her own positive note. She suggests that marketing professionals make the most of this period of shifting television sands by rethinking some basic tenets.

How is the strike affecting your activities?

‘We’re not burning the midnight oil, but the strike has affected our day-to-day routine. We’re checking schedules booked for the upcoming period to ensure that replacements provided by the stations not only deliver the original audiences, but also provide the proper environment based on our buying strategy. The frustration is managing changes only a few weeks out. We need the stations to be able to share their longer-term plans and strategies with us.’

Are you revising plans now?

‘We haven’t made any drastic changes to current plans, but we’re considering media alternatives for the summer and even into the fall. Online opportunities are always being considered, and even more so as a result of the current situation.’

Are you shifting investments?

‘Yes, we are shifting dollars. Obviously, we want our ads to air in first-run programming, so the buying community will all be fishing in the ever-shrinking pond of dramas and comedies. There are still some new episodes of our favorites to air, but unscripted programming will provide us with the freshness needed to engage viewers. However, buyers beware – not all reality is created equal.’

What will happen if there are very few pilots coming out of Hollywood?

‘Fewer pilots mean higher ticket prices for broadcasters. The plus side is that it might give new shows from this season the opportunity to stay alive, grow and find their place. The upfront hype that would traditionally happen in the fall may very well be pushed to early 2009.’

Should Canadian networks look elsewhere in the world for new programming?

‘Why does Hugh Laurie drive on the right side of the road? Let’s face it, Hollywood is our Mecca, and as much as I’d love to see Canadian broadcasters less reliant on the US for programming, it shouldn’t come at the risk of alienating core audiences. However, depending on the length of the writers’ strike, no stone should be left unturned.’

Do you see any other impact beyond prime-time TV?

‘Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen conventional viewing in prime time drop almost 10% versus a year ago. Daytime audiences have also dropped, albeit not as significantly (2.5%). There is more at play here. Fringe programming on conventional TV has been declining over the past few years. Viewers are turning to specialty for programming alternatives, and online for broadband viewing. Specialty channels can offer viewers more choice in the off-prime periods.’

Bottom line?

‘Let’s ask what the real issue is from our industry’s point of view. Is it whether or not the WGA doubles its residuals (as the DGA did) on TV downloads? Perhaps the focus should be on how the TV viewing masses are changing their ways of accessing content.

‘Certainly our industry is on to something: video buying across many platforms. Moving beyond traditional broadcasting to keep pace with how our changing society feels about TV viewing is imperative. Let’s face it, the kids are leading us. When was the last time you heard a 20-something say, ‘I can’t go out tonight, my favourite show is on’? No, they just download it and view it at their convenience, by whatever platform they choose, wherever they choose.

‘Television shouldn’t be a fixed or finite medium. After all, a television set is just a box to convey audiovisual forms of content. Who says it has to sit in the corner collecting dust? Let’s separate the thinking here. Actually, let’s change the static word of ‘television’ to VideoVision. That way, we can get our heads around watching programming as an art form at our convenience – not dictated by a piece of furniture we paid too much for.

‘As for the writers, I’m not minimizing what they stand for. Far from it! The issue must and will be settled. We need their creative talents desperately. How many more reality-based shows are we to endure? What is important, from an industry perspective, is how we keep pace with the changing market – not just television programming, but consumers’ access to content in all the ways they choose: online, offline, mobile, on demand.

‘While the WGA and the AMPTP play their little high-stakes poker match, we should be focusing on the shift of momentum, not just the rules of the game.’