In the Trenches: Media tales about US writers’ strike, economic downturn

Valerie McMorran, SVP investment director, Starcom MediaVest Group, sees the strike as the tipping point that will hasten diversification of ad budgets; and the looming US recession as a threat to the size of those budgets on both sides of the border.

‘The emperor has no clothes’ is the phrase that comes to mind when today’s pundit – Valerie McMorran, SVP investment director for Toronto-based Starcom MediaVest Group – contemplates the effects of the US writers’ strike and the looming recession down south.

How is the strike affecting your activities?

‘The writers’ strike is certainly putting the spotlight on television these days. But it’s not the sort of spotlight one associates with fame, fortune and red carpet glamour – rather, it’s the bright bold light used in laboratories for heightened scrutiny and research purposes. At such times, everything, well almost everything, becomes exposed. Television is extremely vulnerable, and the strike is literally the tipping point for clients to further diversify their advertising budgets.’

What do you think is likely to happen with the upfronts and the supply of new shows?

‘Typically at this time of year, the US networks would have purchased a number of new shows for this September, preparing for yet another upfront launch in spring. Instead, with the Academy Awards in limbo, and very little product in the pipeline beyond March/April of this year, conventional broadcasters are just keeping pace in the short term, busily managing their program schedules on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

‘And while the longer-term programming prognosis is unknown, we are more fortunate than our US counterparts in this situation, with the most obvious element being the number of networks implicated. In addition to the launch of new US programs (Dance War, Cashmere Mafia) and the return of reality favourites (Big Brother, American Idol), Canadian broadcasters have a number of shelved US series that provide fresh viewing experiences (Medium, My Name is Earl). And let us not forget our Canadian content (Corner Gas, The Guard, The Border).

‘But however diligently the Canadian broadcasters work to fill the programming gaps, it doesn’t diminish the concern we have for the relative value of the program replacements, most of which are of the reality genre, and the decline in overall television viewing experienced this past fall in English Canada. Can Big Brother and Moment of Truth equally fill the void for Grey’s Anatomy and Heroes, and not merely on a ratings basis?’

What’s happening with viewership?

‘Conventional prime-time audiences declined approximately 7% this past fall among key adult demographics. These downward viewing levels occurred long before the strike. As we know, out of the new shows that premiered this past fall, nothing really popped or created the buzz of prior years, and even proven performers struggled to secure expected audiences.

‘Just look at the top 20 programs. Granted, most of the titles remain the same versus a year ago, but actual ratings in Toronto and Vancouver have decreased as high as 25% for longstanding favourites including Survivor and CSI Miami.’

Are you revising plans now?

‘In the short term, our position at Starcom MediaVest is to continue to scrutinize television audiences and assess viable programming options for our clients. Ongoing adjustments have been, and continue to be, made with television investments secured and/or diverted to areas of expected growth to ensure clients are well protected.

‘And while we maintain a balance of optimism and realism for the resurgence of television in English Canada, the frustration of eroding conventional audiences with ever-increasing US program costs, together with the issues surrounding commercial avoidance, remain a focus of our attention. On the heels of a looming US recession and potential decreased advertising budgets, this can only have further implications on television budgets north and south of the border. ‘