Television in Canada is about to go back to the future.
For the past few years, the industry has been roiled by furious chatter about radical changes in the way people are watching TV: tiny cable channels are cool, bloated broadcast networks are boring; everyone is binge-viewing; tablets are better than TVs; nobody watches shows when they're on; the business model is imploding.
This week, when the country's three private broadcast networks announced their fall programming slates, they unveiled sharply different approaches to dealing with that upheaval. The most radical strategy charts a path forward that dips into TV's early days more than 60 years ago, when every show was live.
The stage was set last November, when Rogers Media dropped $5.2-billion for the national rights to every NHL game for the next 12 years. In doing so, it didn't just bet (the farm) that Canadians would like to see a lot more hockey; it was signalling that live television is the key to the company's survival.
While U.S. networks have embraced high-profile live events such as the Super Bowl and NBC's holiday-season broadcast of The Sound of Music as so-called "PVR-proof programming," no conventional North America broadcaster has admitted until now that the decades-old approach to filling prime time with a mix of expensive dramas and comedies is flawed. (Five years ago, NBC briefly put Jay Leno on at 10 p.m. but quickly went back to high-priced dramas in that hour.)
The prime-time schedule Rogers unveiled for its City network includes eight new hours of live hockey-related programming each weekend. It also takes the unprecedented step of bowing out of the fight for primacy in the weekday 10 p.m. hour: Instead of a high-priced drama – the genre of choice for its two competitors in that time slot – City will air reruns of the comedies 2 Broke Girls and Two and a Half Men. And four of its remaining 10 hours of original prime-time programming will consist of reality shows, including The Bachelor Canada and Hell's Kitchen.
City had to do something drastic. With a smaller national footprint, it is beaten every week by its rivals. The CTV network regularly has more than 15 of the top 30 shows, as measured by the ratings agency BBM Canada. (Bell, the parent company of CTV, owns a 15 per cent share of The Globe and Mail.) Global also lands about a half-dozen shows on the list, while City rarely scores more than two slots.
During a license-renewal hearing in April, Rogers Media president Keith Pelley told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that City lost $38-million in 2012 and $42-million in 2013.
Thus: hockey. "Live is better, from a marketing standpoint. It immediately becomes somebody's first choice," said Hayden Mindell, Rogers's vice-president of television programming and content, in an interview. "If it doesn't matter when they watch it, you're no longer necessarily their first choice."
Still, executives at Shaw Media, which owns the Global television network as well as 18 specialty channels such as History and Showcase, would beg to differ. On Wednesday, 1,500 ad industry folk filled the Elgin Theatre in downtown Toronto to watch Barb Williams, Shaw's senior vice-president of content, unveil a prime-time lineup that includes the second season of The Blacklist, which regularly pulled about two million viewers in Canada this year, and three editions of NCIS (the original, plus NCIS L.A. and the new NCIS New Orleans).
Williams believes programmers don't need live shows to snare viewers and make money. Rather, she says, it is the technology to measure audiences on the newer platforms – and sell advertising against those eyeballs – that has made the economics difficult. (The conventional TV business in Canada is suffering: according to CRTC data, private local television stations last year reported an aggregated loss before interest and taxation of $2.3-million, down from a profit of $22.9-million in 2012. Meanwhile, profits in the specialty segment of the business soared, from $913-million in 2012 to $1.08-billion last year.)
"From my point of view, our gap at the moment is about measuring and monetizing," said Williams in an interview before the Elgin presentation. "We know the audience is there. And when that day comes, and it's coming soon, that we can truly measure them – whether it's online, on the app, whether it's an illegal download – when we can truly measure that audience, and then monetize it, I don't think it'll matter one hoot whether they all came at once or came over a period of time."
She added: "I think there's a way to think about that, that suggests the power of live is more of an intermediate thing."
Still, Shaw recognizes the power of hockey in Canada, and is smartly counterprogramming against it. Global TV's Sunday night will begin with a one-hour comedy block at 7 p.m. (Mulaney and Bob's Burgers) that targets men who might be lingering before they switch to football or hockey. Then it rolls out a two-hour ladies night, with Madam Secretary, a drama about a female U.S. Secretary of State starring Tea Leoni, and the critical and popular hit The Good Wife.
"With a lot of sports now on Sunday night, between both football and hockey, it gave a big opportunity to us, to step into a more female lineup and be a strong alternative," said Williams. Global will end the night with another one-hour animation block at 10 p.m. that includes The Simpsons.
CTV, meanwhile, will carry on with its top 10 American programming, which includes the No.1-rated show in Canada, The Big Bang Theory (three weeks ago, it pulled an eye-popping 4.3 million viewers), Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Grey's Anatomy. On Thursday, as Bell Media president Kevin Crull opened the CTV Upfront presentation, he appeared as a hologram on the stage of the Sony Centre in downtown Toronto, then joked that the network could afford such special effects because it hadn't spent $5.2-billion on, er, something else.
In fact, Rogers' massive purchase of hockey helped save money for CTV and Global in unexpected places: With one of three networks out of the bidding, prices for U.S. programming dropped this year for the first time in recent memory. In an interview on Thursday morning, Crull noted: "We were able to pick up some things that even surprised us – at prices that, on some individual shows, were 50, 60, 70 per cent lower."
This time next year, we'll know whose strategy was right.
With files from James Bradshaw