Skip to main content

Remember when MuchMusic was every teenager's BFF? As recently as 2011, the channel's owner Bell Media issued a triumphant press release on the day after its annual MuchMusic Video Awards to announce that the spectacle (which that year featured Drake, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga) had pulled in more than one million viewers. But Much's audience has Snapchatted and Instagrammed and just plain wandered away lately, so this year its anxious corporate parent tried to win the channel some new friends by placing last Sunday night's MMVAs on a cross-generational clutch of Bell's TV properties: Not just Much, but also the main CTV network as well as CTV Two, MTV, MTV2 and M3.

It wasn't the first time last weekend that CTV had opened its doors to the sort of programs it doesn't much see any more. A few hours before Ed Sheeran did his winsome crooning thing on the MMVAs, CTV had teamed up with Bell Media's sports specialty channels TSN and RDS to simultaneously air the FIFA Women's World Cup Round of 16 match featuring Canada against Switzerland.

All across the dial, broadcasters are suddenly sharing programs with their corporate cousins. Once upon a time, visionaries imagined a future in which each programming genre would have its own niche channel: music on one, sports on another, fashion on a third etc. But a funny thing happened on the way to the future: The 500-channel universe began to look a lot like the old-fashioned five-channel universe.

Broadcasters are taking a page from Internet strategy and becoming their own aggregators, hoping to give a bigger audience to content they believe has wide appeal.

Earlier this month, NBCUniversal Inc. aired a special sneak preview of the feature film Jurassic World (a Universal Pictures release) on the broadcast network NBC as well as its sister stations Bravo, USA Network, E! and Syfy. In April, AMC Networks aired the season-three premiere of Orphan Black simultaneously across all five of its channels: AMC, SundanceTV, IFC and WE tv, as well as its usual home of BBC America.

Here in Canada, where industry consolidation has left a few large media companies owning a wide swath of channels, the trend of simultaneous airing, known as roadblocking, is more intensified: After airing the Fox-TV breakout hit Empire on its niche OMNI network for most of last season, to relatively low viewership compared with the United States, Rogers Media ran a day-long marathon of the show on its FX Canada channel and then aired the season finale on both its OMNI and City networks.

And, for a brief period last fall, viewers could be forgiven for thinking the only thing on TV was the Corner Gas feature film: It played dozens of times on Bell's CTV and CTV Two networks as well as the Comedy Network and the Movie Network. (Full disclosure: The parent company of Bell Media, BCE, owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail. Fuller disclosure: I still haven't watched Corner Gas: The Movie.)

In Canada, Orphan Black is normally accessible in about only 60 per cent of Canadian homes, because it airs on the sci-fi channel Space. So, like AMC Networks in the United States, Bell Media broadcast the show's season-three premiere on CTV, Bravo and MTV, where it ran with numerous ads advising viewers that the show airs on Space. In doing so, the critically acclaimed, Canadian-made program roughly doubled its audience, from approximately 350,000 an episode to about 700,000 for the premiere. And while not all of those new viewers stuck around in subsequent weeks, when the show moved back to Space, a Bell executive said overall viewership was up "10-20 per cent" over last year.

"It's all about sampling, it's about 'discoverability' – that's a new buzzword out there," said Phil King, the president of CTV, sports and entertainment programming, in an interview. With a surfeit of high-quality content, even very large media companies such as Bell, whose assets include 106 local radio stations and a cross-country network of outdoor billboards, can find it challenging to break through in a cost-effective manner.

"We think we market very well, and we have a great publicity team, but you need more than that nowadays," King said. "There's so much content at people's fingertips now, it's overwhelming."

While roadblocking has proved effective, he prefers to use it sparingly: for special events such as high-profile sports matches or season premieres of acclaimed shows. "We can't do it for all of them," King acknowledged, or viewers might wonder, "Why do you need all those networks?"

That question may intensify over the next couple of years, as cable-TV subscriptions move from bundles to a model of so-called pick-and-pay, in which individual cable channels will have to work much harder to be heard.

"I think you might see more [roadblocking] in a pick-and-pay world," King suggested. "Today, when most channels are fairly widely distributed, it's just about reminding people it's on channel, you know, 106 at 9 o'clock Thursdays. In the future, it's going to be, 'Hey, there's a great channel called Space; you might want to subscribe to this, and we're going to give you a little sampling of one episode, and the other nine are on that other channel exclusively.'"

At the moment, it is only single programs that are at risk of dying if they don't break through to large enough audiences. Soon enough, it will be entire channels.