Media buyers press broadcasters for strike info

CTV, Global and CBC execs agreed to sit on a panel in front of a crowd of media buyers and planners in Toronto yesterday. On the agenda: What the future looks like if the writers' strike continues.

Canadian media buyers gathered in Toronto yesterday for a mid-season review, hosted by the Broadcast Research Council, and tried to get answers about the ongoing US writers’ strike from CTV, Global and CBC broadcasting reps.

In a panel discussion led by M2 Universal group manager of broadcast Kevin Brault (also a BRC director), the broadcast reps reflected on a fall season that saw both CTV and Global suffer some audience decline while CBC shows gained viewers.

Few of the Top 20 shows grew audiences in fall 2007 compared to fall 2006, said Brault, but heading into what would normally be the February sweeps, the situation isn’t all bad. Conventional and specialty audiences combined in the first four weeks of January – compared to the same period last year – are up from 4-10%.

Brault reviewed each broadcaster’s fall 2007 strategy, looking at which programs performed and which ones didn’t, and named a lot of new shows that both Global and CTV have planned for the coming weeks (announcements which MiC has covered on an ongoing basis). Overall, said Brault, the Canadian nets are keeping fresh fare in prime time, with programming set to fill the hours through February and March.

The big question, though, is what will happen if the strike continues beyond that – and specifically how will Canadian broadcasters manage? ‘Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone can answer that question,’ said CTV’s SVP revenue management Brian McClusky. ‘You would see a slate of heavy reality programming. You would see some CTV/US co-productions.

‘But the real impact would be in the fall season, which may not happen the way we typically see the fall season happen,’ he added. ‘The tragedy of it is that reality shows are great, but scripted fare is where it’s at. However, people will always continue to watch programming. When the strike is over, and we get the programs back, the audiences will come back. We might go through a rough patch – worst-case scenario – but we will be back.’

Brault also pressed McClusky with a question that he ‘just had to ask’ on behalf of media buyers who’ve been frustrated by the Canadian nets’ last-minute programming announcements, when information was actually available much earlier. ‘I’m just thinking back to December 21 when I had all this money to purchase in Lost, yet you guys couldn’t sell it to the advertising community, even though ABC and you knew when it was starting,’ he told McClusky – a comment that sparked laughter from the media buying crowd.

‘Programming is always a compromise,’ said McClusky. ‘We’re trying to achieve the highest possible audience we can and get information to you. But there’s a third goal, which is to make sure your existing clients get the highest delivery they possibly can. Even though a show may be released or scheduled in the States, it does not follow that we will release a show. We may have other plans for it.

‘Typically,’ McClusky continued, ‘what we like to do is collect the dominoes and send them to you once they are all in place – as opposed to sending you 10 notifications that may well change in the process of us sending them. It’s a difficult act to juggle. Even though on the surface things appear to be a no-brainer, we could be doing back-room negotiating with distributors to get alternate time periods or alternate versioning, and until that’s done we basically can’t say anything because we don’t know what the results will be. It takes time to process the programming change. Conventional broadcast was never, ever set up to process this level of change.’

Brault then asked Michael Serafini, Canwest’s director of strategic scheduling for Global and E!, whether the trade press has been ‘over-exaggerating’ the effects of the writers’ strike in Canada.

‘I think what we’re seeing is a lot of speculation being recorded on a regular basis,’ said Serafini. ‘There doesn’t seem to be a lot of facts coming out. The writers and producers are behind closed doors. So you see these quotes and comments based on speculation or off-the-cuff remarks by a higher-up executive who hasn’t necessarily spoken to the rest of his team. [NBC/Universal's] Jeff Zucker comes to mind. He’s always in the press saying the upfronts are over. But we’d like to stick to the facts. That’s what we present on a regular basis.’

Aside from grilling the broadcast execs for answers, there was a light-hearted mood at yesterday’s gathering – and some hope. One of Brault’s final questions to the panel was: who is really going to gain from the strike? With the growing threat to the television business of illegal downloading, along with what McClusky called a ‘very disappointing’ lack of creativity coming from Hollywood in recent months, the US nets may end up changing the model for how things are done – a change that will essentially benefit everybody in the business. CBS’ recent pick-up of CTV’s new show, Flashpoint, he said, is only a first step and marks a turning point. He also promised that deal is not a one-off, and that the biz can expect to see more of such programs in the future.

‘Ultimately, anybody in the business should gain if we get a better methodology for getting better creative content out there,’ McClusky added. ‘There should be gains for everyone except the producers in Hollywood who used to get seven or eight million for a pilot that never saw the light of day. . . There are some problems in Hollywood. They do need to change the way they develop programs.

‘The days of stations ordering 50 pilots at seven or eight million a pop, and picking but a few, are basically coming to an end. We just can’t afford that,’ said McClusky. ‘The major networks have been losing more and more money basically because of inefficient practices in program selection and development. They’re just not getting the creativity that they really need in the marketplace.’

CBC senior marketing manager of media sales and marketing Derek Myers, commenting on the increases in the pubcaster’s viewership numbers, noted that the change is attributable more to programming strategy and, for the most part, strong shows, than to what’s happening in the US. ‘I don’t think there’s a feeling at the CBC that this is directly because of the strike,’ Myers said of the audience gains.

At the start of yesterday’s review, Brault was careful to note that the statements about audience levels were in reference to conventional nets – not including cable television viewing numbers.

Despite the strike, the Television Bureau of Canada publicly stated this week that the medium remains unbeatable – with or without the WGA disruption. The organization issued a release declaring that the medium continues to outperform all other media. Data from BBM/NMR, RTS fall studies and BBM Analytics omniVU surveys were compared, lining up the fall 2007 stats with those from fall 2006.

‘Overall, television’s numbers have remained stable across key adult demographic categories, compared to a year ago,’ said TVB president and CEO Theresa Treutler. ‘More important is the fact that television has a staggering five-to-one or larger lead on all other media in terms of consumer perception of advertising effectiveness, influence and engagement. Be it in comparison to radio, newspapers, magazines or the Internet, television continues to be the overwhelmingly dominant medium.’