Strike could put media plans in jeopardy

Media strategists tell MiC that replacing prime-time programming with reruns, movies and reality just isn't good enough for buyers who've paid for specific audiences.

If the Hollywood writers’ strike continues to the point that prime time starts to look like nap time in Canada, viewers will get fed up. Some may drift to cable, online, DVDs or other entertainment platforms and possibly never return, further eroding network television as a viable marketing venue.

‘It’s already a supremely fragmented marketplace, with so much specialty and out-of-market tuning. This is just going to further mess it up,’ says Helena Shelton, SVP broadcast operations at MBS/The Media Company.

‘And I don’t see anything on the horizon indicating that the very complicated issues that prompted the strike are going to be resolved quickly,’ Shelton adds, voicing an opinion other media strategists also expressed to MiC. Based on this assumption, she says her agency is estimating ‘about a 20% loss in overall ratings.’

‘If the strike goes to the end of January or the middle of February,’ adds Dennis Dinga, VP/director broadcast buying at M2 Universal, ‘I think it will reduce Canadian audiences in the 10-15% range.’

ZenithOptimedia president/CEO Sunni Boot is equally pessimistic. Boot believes that things are about to get ugly, with the strike extending into January or February, through the cold weeks when Canadians are ‘in the mood to view’ and the first eight weeks of the spring season.

The reality is that there’s only so much replacement programming – and that inventory might not cut it for media planners and buyers in Canada who are now questioning the plans they’ve drawn up for clients. But it’s tough to chart a long-term strategy when there’s no foundation on which to base it.

Boot’s company has issued a bulletin outlining concerns and areas likely to be affected. No formal discussions with clients have been held regarding the potential effects of the strike on advertisers in Canada, but those may soon be necessary.

‘We made the deals we made because they were going to have the shows we thought they were going to have,’ she says. ‘Replacement shows may not have the same audience composition or characteristics as the originals that I bought. This means we have to re-forecast our conventional buys, and that’s a big job. We haven’t done that yet because we don’t know what the replacement is.’

Uncertainty is a planning dilemma. ‘This is going to be week by week,’ says Boot. ‘So each week, as a show comes up, we may find ourselves in the horrific situation of re-evaluating and making week-by-week decisions. This is not necessarily in anybody’s best interests, because you need to plan out.’ And should the strike be prolonged, there will be serious resource implications. ‘It’s going to take tremendous manpower to steward and babysit this. Admittedly, we’re talking mostly about prime time,’ she adds, ‘but there’s a lot of investment in prime time.’

As to Plan Bs, again, there’s a Catch-22 element in terms of when and what to prep for. ‘The fall buys aren’t a concern to us,’ says Josie Bumbaca, group director broadcast for PHD Canada, ‘but once January hits schedules, we’ll be monitoring closely and requesting upgrading.’ Adds Shelton: ‘We’re going in to renegotiate our campaigns for the winter-spring period.’

ZenithOptimedia will be ‘looking at what we can do and what mediums we can use where we can plan out a little bit further with some certainty,’ says Boot. ‘Even that, though, is easier said than done, because there are commitments we’ve made to the networks. We want to work with them as well, and we don’t want to be slapping them around for no reason.’

Boot says it’s not a question of talent on the part of Canadian nets. She has a lot of faith in programmers in Canada and their efforts to match replacement programming. But, she says, ‘My fear is that there’s not enough available. New shows take time to build. Audiences get used to seeing certain programs. It’s really the content that’s at issue.

‘We want Desperate Housewives or House. That’s the audience we’re buying, and not just in terms of ratings or audience. It’s the composition of that audience, the psychographics, and the engagement of that audience with that content. To replace that with a movie that may get similar ratings is simply not good enough.’

How do Canadian media strategists feel about demanding refunds on their clients’ investments, as their American counterparts are reportedly threatening to do? ‘If our clients aren’t getting the value they deserve, compensation will be sought through pre-comp, bonus and credits, as needed,’ says Bumbaca. ‘Our concerns have been voiced to the stations, and we expect to get proper return for our clients’ investment.’