Adalberto Thomaz sits on the edge of his chair in a downtown Toronto television studio, anxiously waiting for a soccer match to begin thousands of kilometres away so he can provide play-by-play commentary to viewers across Canada.
While most English-speaking sports fans would be unfamiliar with his work, anyone who has watched a game in Portuguese would recognize the broad smile and enthusiastic play-calling of Mr. Thomaz, who brings Olympic soccer to viewers in their own language for OMNI, the multicultural broadcaster owned by Rogers Communications Inc.
Mr. Thomaz may not be a household name, but he is very much the face of an increasingly crucial challenge for OMNI. While countries fight for the podium in more than 300 events, the station is in its own race against a growing number of language-specific channels that are commanding more and more attention from advertisers looking to market directly to specific communities.
The station will call soccer games in Portuguese and Italian throughout the duration of the London Games from its headquarters in Toronto. OMNI’s Vancouver studios, meanwhile, will have people calling badminton and table tennis in Mandarin and Cantonese.
The Olympics provide a solid boost in prestige for OMNI, but they are not likely to be a big money maker in the short term. The network partially depends on advertising from popular prime-time programming for its survival, and will need to move hit shows off its airwaves to make room for the Games.
And while being a member of Canada’s Olympic Consortium is a high-profile boost, the network only receives a small percentage of the ad revenue the Canadian Olympic Consortium and its members generate. But OMNI has a longer-term goal in mind.
“As a station this is more of a prestige play,” said Madeline Ziniak, OMNI’s national vice-president. “We’re not garnering any revenue. In fact, you could say we are going the other way.”
While the consortium doesn’t break out viewership numbers by channel, Ms. Ziniak said the broadcasts pull in respectable numbers.
There does seem to be an opportunity to capture viewers – the only data released so far show that 16.6 million Canadians tuned in for a portion of the opening ceremonies.
“We live and die by what we broadcast and we can use this to showcase our talent and capabilities,” Ms. Ziniak said. “But it’s a challenging environment in television advertising right now.”
Part of the problem is self-inflicted: As one of the country’s largest cable networks, Rogers is responsible for delivering specialty channels into the homes of its subscribers. OMNI’s challenge is to remain relevant while still meeting its mandate to provide content on its main network in 15 languages for 60 per cent of the day (the requirements are even higher for its secondary network).
One of its main challengers is the specialty television provider Asian Television Network, which is also a member of the Olympic consortium and will offer offer boxing and gymnastics in Bengali, badminton in Hindi, field hockey and weight lifting in Punjabi, athletics and shooting in Tamil and archery and gymnastics in Urdu.
The two networks will provide 223 hours of non-English programming between them during the Games. They have decided to focus on events that are not heavily covered by the mainstream media and are of interest to their viewers.
“For us it is less about getting new subscribers and more about adding to the content we already have,” said Pramod Israni. “We haven’t seen a bump in subscriptions, but we are getting absolutely great feedback from those who are enjoying watching events in their own language.”
While the two ethnic broadcasters are delivering audiences, other specialty providers suggest it’s still a tough sell to get advertisers to invest heavily in their properties. Having prominent broadcasters such as OMNI and ATN broadcast high-profile events help smaller providers because it shows the model can work.
“There’s a real education process that has to happen yet,” says Hari Srinvas, president of specialty channel operator Ethnic Channels Group. “We have made inroads, but this is not a market that is mature yet. Mainstream advertisers are still trying to figure us out.”