Peter Jennings. Paul Shaffer. Robert MacNeil. Dan Aykroyd. The
Kids in the Hall.
Time and again, Canadians have shown that they have what it
takes to win over American television audiences. But can a Canadian network without
the presence of an MSO or some other major U.S. player as an investor to provide cash,
cross-promotion and leverage carve out a niche in this incredibly tight television
market? How about two Canadian networks?
"Absolutely," said Patrick Vien, president and
chief operating officer of North American Television (NATV), a joint venture between the
Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and Power Broadcasting, a Canadian-based company that owns TV
and radio stations.
NATV has been patiently trying to secure a foothold for two
networks: Newsworld International (NWI), a 24-hour international-news channel that uses
the CBC's experience and personnel; and Trio, a 24-hour network devoted to dramas,
documentaries and films.
Not surprisingly, it has been exceedingly slow going for
the two newcomers. Both Trio and NWI launched on DirecTv Inc. in 3 million homes in 1994,
yet four years later, each is in only a little more than 4 million homes. (They're on the
Galaxy 1-R satellite and on Channel 260 on DirecTv.)
However, while critics have said that NATV wasn't
aggressive enough in its early years, Trio and NWI are still plugging away.
The reason why the networks are still around is the reason
why Vien believes that they'll succeed in the long run. Unlike most newcomers, which start
with a concept, then scramble for investors often roping in venture capitalists and
other non-TV folk then seek to build libraries, NATV is "content-rich."
It has the CBC's vast news-gathering resources and its
library of fiction and documentaries. Plus its two parent companies have a sophisticated
understanding of the TV environment and deep pockets that enable it to compete with Bravo
and other networks when bidding on dramas and films like Kenneth Branagh's memorable Henry
V, which will be shown on Trio.
While other new networks often reach "a liquidity
crunch" as they wait to gain access to viewers, Vien said, "Our assets are very
The backing and the extensive library are big advantages as
these networks endure the long road to complete their digital rollouts. And Trio "has
some unique programming," said Larry Gerbrandt, senior analyst and vice president at
Paul Kagan Associates Inc. "It has some interesting British programs that you don't
Rich Goldberg, vice president of programming for DirecTv,
said that while he was initially concerned that Trio's programming might be too narrow, it
has expanded its reach nicely, and it would be a good fit for most systems serving upscale
Gerbrandt does think, however, that a new name is in order,
since Trio gives the viewers no concrete information on what the network is about.
"It might be an opera channel starring 'The Three Tenors,'" he said. Goldberg
said the name is "a challenge, but it's not insurmountable."
Goldberg also praised NWI as being "really
high-quality stuff." However, other cable operators and analysts said NWI has much
less appeal than Trio even in the digital world because, Gerbrandt said,
there's no need at this point for another news channel, and particularly for one offering
"That doesn't ring a chord with U.S. viewers,"
Vien wouldn't disclose the network's distribution goals,
but he said, "We have to be able to live in a world that is somewhat uncertain. Those
new networks that say that they'll be in 20 million homes in two or three years [through
digital], well, I think that they're making it up. That may take six years."
"We've been quite conservative in our plans,"
Vien said, "and our expectations about digital rollout are quite realistic."
Either way, the networks have a better chance of survival
now than they did at this time last year, simply because many industry observers
"were not sure about [the networks], in terms of their commitment," Goldberg
Vien readily admitted that there was too much of a
wait-and-see attitude. And while there are still plenty of operators that aren't familiar
with the two networks, NATV has become much more aggressive. Last year, NATV executives
installed Vien in the top spot, giving him a mandate to bring in a new staff and to
essentially relaunch Trio and NWI.
"There was a need to relaunch and to establish a
strong new management team," Vien said. His key personnel now include Louis Cooper,
vice president of programming for NWI; Kirstine Layfield, general manager and vice
president of programming for Trio; and Catherine Rasenberger, whose consulting company,
Rasenberger Media, is overseeing affiliate sales and relations for Trio and NWI within the
"The real obstacle now is a lack of awareness,"
Rasenberger said. "There was no sales presence in the U.S. to date." The
relaunch served to "capture some attention and to create a sense of urgency,"
Because its affiliate-marketing efforts had been unfocused,
the company brought in Rasenberger in August to "develop a distribution and
affiliate-marketing strategy," and to hire five new sales and marketing staffers for
its U.S. offices.
"We need a stronger presence here," she said.
Vien added, "It's a crucial part of our immediate
future." To boost awareness in the cable industry, "we have to step up in
marketing and sales," Vien said.
In April, the networks began a push to gain cable
distribution through other digital platforms, and on analog in some "key urban
Rasenberger believes that offering "brand-new and
unduplicated programming," compared with repeats on the brand extensions of existing
networks, could ultimately make Trio and NWI drivers for digital tiers.
NATV is offering a combination of financial incentives,
Rasenberger said, adding that the networks will have some deals to announce by this week's
The networks will be on Time Warner Cable's and Comcast
Corp.'s digital tiers, and Rasenberger was in the process at deadline of concluding
negotiations with Tele-Communications Inc.'s Headend in the Sky, which is
"critical" to any success.
She added that NATV's timing is good: With the limited
awareness of Trio and NWI, being on a transponder pod with bigger names is a boon. But a
couple of years from now, when the technology is available for operators to select certain
networks from each pod, Trio and NWI will have the cachet needed to win over operators.
In the meantime, other adjustments have been going on, as
well. Trio has "redirected" its schedule, Layfield said. The network had been
very heavy on Canadian material, and she has worked to broaden its lineup, bringing in
acclaimed and popular works from England, Scotland, Ireland and Australia.
But unlike, say, PBS, Trio's emphasis is not on costume
dramas, but on contemporary programs with universal themes that will feel both
cutting-edge and relevant to Americans.
For instance, McCallum stars John Hannah of Sliding
Doors as a forensic pathologist (think Quincy) who finds himself both in danger
and in charged love scenes (think NYPD Blue). "It really pushes the
envelope," Layfield said. And one of the actors from Traders, a show about
stockbrokers, has moved on to a role on CBS' L.A. Doctors.
Additionally, Layfield has tried to make the network feel
as American as possible. This means kids' programming in the morning, followed by
"thinking people's" soapy dramas, then afternoon programs for teen-agers, then
documentaries where most American networks would have news programs, then, finally, dramas
and films in primetime.
And she has followed the successful pattern taken by
A&E Network and other channels of programming the lineup in themed blocks, so that
there's one night of "hometown" dramas and one of "undercover."
"This will create appointment viewing," she said.
As for NWI, Cooper described the network as a headline
service telling the news from a global perspective without the focus on why a story
matters to Americans, no matter where it's taking place.
The network can draw on CBC's reputation and vast
resources. CBC has international bureaus everywhere from Cape Town, South Africa,
to Mexico City as well as newscasts from German, Japanese and Chinese news outlets.
These will be translated, but, perhaps of equal importance, there will also be feeds
available in the original language, which may attract immigrants, expats and overseas
But while Cooper was quick to cite survey figures showing
positive responses about the clarity and credibility of NWI's newscast, this did little in
terms of providing assurances that the network could have a broad enough reach.
Considering the fact that most Americans remain uninformed
on many domestic matters and seemingly willfully oblivious about most international
issues it remains to be seen whether there's any audience for NWI.
One thing that would provide more leverage would be giving
some kind of equity stake to a significant U.S. player, whether it's a program provider,
an MSO, or both. And while Vien said NATV is naturally resistant to that idea, "at
the same time, you have to consider all of your options on an ongoing basis."
No matter what, in this era of easy-come, easy-go cable
start-ups, NATV is an exception, having already proven its ability to stick it out.
"We're not going away," Vien said. MCN