Specialty is still special: BRC

Webb, Herlihey, Ellis and Shipton headline the Broadcast Research Council's second event of 2011.

Given specialty has been around now for over 20 years, it is still special?

That was the question that opening speaker Mediabrands’ Chris Herlihey posed to the audience at the Broadcast Research Council’s second event of the year on Thursday.

Herlihey was part of a panel of A-list broadcast execs from each of the major broadcasters, including Joanna Webb, SVP programming, CTV; Christine Shipton, VP original content, Shaw Media; and Ted Ellis, VP, kids and family programming at Corus Entertainment.

The goal of the event was to provide a broad look at specialty channels in Canada today, just ahead of the upfronts season in May. Kicking off the discussion with a data-rich overview of the category was Herlihey, who early on noted that assessing the health of TV viewership is problematic right now, given the growth in cross-platform viewing (never mind the blip in measurement figures created by PPM’s entrance into the market in ’09).

‘The trick will be to capture all the sources and measure them going forward. I know BBM is working hard to find ways of doing that,’ he said.

The digital market, he noted, is an especially ripe area for growth in the specialty arena, giving the high engagement of specialty audience and their brand loyalty. Citing research that indicates 12% of TV households have at least one TV set connected to a computer, he noted it’s an area everyone should be paying attention to. Still, he said, TV remains king and as sports and event programming become ever more important for driving appointment viewership, specialty is well-poised.

‘Canadian advertisers are changing the mix of their ad placement but TV has maintained its share,’ he said. ‘It still remains the number one choice for advertisers and one-third of total ad dollars get placed in TV.’

‘Viewing habits are shifting to Canadian pay and specialty but ad revenue continues to grow,’ he continued.

Following sizzle-reel presentations from each of the network executives on the fall/winter season’s most successful shows, host Christopher Loudon of Capital C led the panel through an engaging discussion across some of the issues and opportunities facing specialty TV today.

When asked about the rating trends and programming driving the category’s success, Shaw’s Christine Shipton said the trend is really unprecedented viewership.

‘Some of the numbers that we’re all throwing around are numbers that none of us would have dreamed about two to three years ago,’ she says, citing the success of shows such as Pawn Stars in the US, which is achieving competitive numbers to conventional in the summer season. Genre-expanding shows and original programming are key to the growth of specialty’s popularity, she says.

‘We know there’s a broad audience there if you bring in new product. It’s not just about the strip programming that still drives a lot of our schedules. If you can bring them new cable shows from the US or the UK or new original produced, we find it’s an opportunity to go right for an audience because audiences don’t go by numbers on their flickers anymore…it’s just, where’s my show?’

It’s a response the other panellists echoed, including Ellis, who noted that the rising popularity of speciality has directly coincided with a spike in the quality of programming in recent years. ‘It’s all about the shows. It’s transparent. It’s not a channel, it’s just a good or bad show,’ he added.

Shipton and Ellis also went head to head on the notion of specialty channels becoming less reliant on their brands and more reliant on their programming. Shipton emphasized that much of the recent success of channels such as History has come from expanding the brand to include new takes on the idea of ‘history,’ such as The Kennedys or Ice Road Truckers.

‘You can get too comfortable relying on your brand,’ she said. ‘We never take the brand for granted as being the thing that’s going to deliver the audience.’

Ellis noted, however, that brands are still a powerful sales tool: ‘[Brands help] you create a shorthand for your advertisers. It’s important to sales.’

Webb noted they really do go hand in hand: ‘I think they work together. You’re looking at your brands and your content and how they can work for the advertiser and how they work for the audience. [For example] E! is a strong pop culture brand and the programs really exemplify the brand. I think when you have really strong programs they help define your brand.’