Competition heats up for Tier Three

With a rates agreement firmly in place for the seven analog services, the digital-tier licensees are at the plate vying for a coveted spot on September’s third tier of specialty channels.

The equilibrium has recalibrated since rumors last month that Rogers Communications and Shaw Communications would pick up two each from the b-team. Word on the street now is that the largest cablecos will take two of the same, perhaps three each in total, although which ones is a work in progress.

Amongst the front-runners are Life Network’s Home & Garden Television Canada (HGTV Canada) and chum’s Space the Imagination Station, although price may hold the latter back and push MuchMoreMusic to the forefront. Another of chum’s five incarnations, Pulse 24, a regional Ontario news service, is a third likely suspect for Rogers. Shaw, with lighter Ontario penetration, is thought to be going with the ytv-owned kids’ service Treehousetv.

A decision from vision.com, the cable negotiating body, is expected within the next two weeks. Within a month, a decision from the crtc on additions to the Eligible Services Lists is also anticipated, leaving six weeks to get a comprehensive marketing effort off the ground before the three-month free trial period.

While the digital crew increases pressure on the cablecos to trash some of their less-than-lucrative pay-per-view offerings to clear capacity, both sides of the analog/vision.com negotiating teams are t’eing the ‘satisfied’ line post a closed book on rates.

Still in play is the launch date and the price of the tier. ctv is touting Sept. 8 for CTV News 1, but Rogers vp regulatory affairs Michael Allen will say only that ‘It’s premature to talk about the specialties’ to questions on both price of the new tier and the timing of its incarnation. ctv president John Cassaday says ctv will hold tight to a Sept. 8 dateline and fight the remaining ‘war games’ through the summer.

‘We’ve resolved the rate. We’re ecstatic about being on basic. But there are a few details yet to be resolved.’

ctv’s slot on basic could potentially pull its profit point projection in tighter, although ctv’s Henry Kowalski, vp and gm, news, says black ink is still at minimum two years out. News 1′s position on the dial is up in the air, with Cassaday quipping at the net’s fall launch party, ‘We’re thinking Newsworld will be good on 78 and we’ll take their spot.’

- TELETOON lineup

In the meantime, some of the analog schedules are going public.

The teletoon prospectus is about 80% solid, with the remainder contingent on closing discussions with distributors and on filing holes in the English- and French-language lineups.

The slate – a bit of a dream for Canadian animation producers who will see their product at the core of the schedule – is divided into four blocks to reflect teletoon’s core demographics. Preschool programming is running 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. A kids’ block takes over from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., switching to family programming at 7 p.m. and skewing adult from 9 p.m. on.

Giving each block an identity is really just for simplicity in the schedule, providing viewers ease of access and facilitating ties between programming and promotions activities, says Kevin Wright, vp programming for teletoon.

In weekday early primetime, Nelvana’s Jim Henson’s Dog City will open at 7 p.m. Monday and Thursday. Cinar Films’ Animal Crackers follows on Monday, with Alliance Communications’ Captain Star at 8 p.m. Tuesday primetime starts with Nelvana’s Blazing Dragons, followed by Pippi Longstocking (Nelvana), Night Hood (Cinar), and Nelvana’s Ned’s Newt.

Wednesday nights, Animal Crackers and Nelvana’s Tales From the Cryptkeeper make up the 7-8 p.m. block. Thursdays see Dog City open at 7 p.m., followed by Pippi, then Newton in the 8:30 slot. Captain Star runs again at 8:30 Friday night.

Later evening primetime and the after-school block from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. are flush with American and foreign series, including the promising u.k. series Pond Life. Should teletoon scoop rights to National Film Board-produced animation, the offering has a primetime showcase at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday nights. Lacewood Animation Production’s Savage Dragon runs Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 10 p.m.

Weekend early evenings are pure Cancon from 6 p.m. through 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, 5 p.m. through 8:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Program buying antics have been an interesting mix, says Wright. Some broadcasters are stepping back from animation; others are taking the opposite approach. ‘There’s been battles we’ve won and battles we’ve lost. But in terms of price we’ve pretty well paid what we expected. The value is what the market will bear and there’ve been many options, particularly with the Canadian programs because much of it hasn’t had the platform we offer – a long run, national exposure, good placement, entry into the French-language and English-language market. It’s a good thing for Canadian producers.’

Shelf programs are being acquired for 12 months to two years. In this startup phase, Wright says the ideal is to amortize programming costs over three or four years.

Programs that launch on teletoon and contribute to network branding are being inked for the full licence term, which means three to four years.

On weekend mornings, the strategy is to offer alternative fare through long-form animation from the likes of Disney, Warner Bros., and some non-North American-produced animation. Wright says teletoon d’esn’t intend to go head-to-head with existing ghettos of animation. ‘We’ll co-exist, but that’s not where we’re going to make our beachhead. Our strengths are our Canadian programming and our foreign content, most of which is first-run in Canada.’

teletoon will be utilizing the vastly underused animated shorts available on the market. Guided hosts along the lines of ytv’s popular Program Jockeys aren’t part of the launch package, ‘although along the line you might see something appropriate to the network like animated hosts,’ says Wright.

At the Canadian programming end, seven series have first window on teletoon including Cinar’s Caillou. Not all of them will begin at the same point in the season, with Madleine Levesque, director of original production and French-language programming, saying the staggered launches will contribute to the original feel of the network as it evolves through its first season. ‘We’re going to keep surprising them with a lot of new material.’

Two or three more Canadian series have the commissioning potential before the beginning of the season. Proposals are incoming on a daily basis, says Levesque.

‘The Canadian producers are quite prolific. There are pitches coming in even from the Maritimes, including one from p. e. i. and a few [from] Nova Scotia.’

- The Comedy Network

Like teletoon, The Comedy Network is keeping it simple.

The schedule is running 12 hours of programming a day, split into a six-hour daytime wheel and a six-hour primetime wheel which repeat back-to-back each day, allowing Ed Robinson, director of programming, to cater to two markedly different audiences.

Monday to Friday is stacked horizontally and uniformly stripped. The idea is to get a pattern established for the viewers off the top, says Robinson.

‘There’s a simplicity to it that people will respond to. If you’re a comedy fan, there are certain shows you consider appointment television. I’m convinced that the Canadian audience will learn quickly where programs are if they’re placed properly and consistently.’

Primetime content will take greater risks than the daypart, which includes Saturday Night Live, Smith & Smith and Whose Line is it Anyway?

The Larry Sanders Show, all 78 episodes of it in syndication, will run at 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. Like Sanders, hbo comedy Dream On is intended for a more adult audience and will back-end the hour. ‘We’re consciously trying to be a little more daring in where we place programming,’ says Robinson.

‘You don’t see Larry Sanders at 9 o’clock anywhere else in this country, and the irreverence that underscores the program is something we want to build into our brand identity. A service that’s a little wackier, a little quirkier.’

(The Comedy Network has just wrapped the hardware agreement necessary to facilitate a dual-feed, freeing Robinson from worrying that blue dialogue will air before the watershed hour in parts of the country.)

Kids in the Hall finds a permanent home in the 7 p.m. slot, while repeats of Air Farce and Red Green offer up an alternative to the supper-hour newscasts from 6-7 p.m. Canadian comedy shorts open the 10 p.m. slot.

The weekend agenda is adult-centric, opening early morning with Abbott & Costello, The Honeymooners, Steve Allen and some British comedy.

Primetime weekends are mainly stripped, with only the 8 p.m. hour and the 9:30-10 p.m. slot different each night. Saturdays will air hbo specials at 8 p.m. The Comedy Network’s flagship program, The Comedy Network Presents, will launch at 8 p.m. Sunday nights. Repeats of codco and Four on the Floor will take a shot at 10:30, with foreign stand-up comedy and Comedy Club 54 tackling late night at 11 p.m.

Taking some questions on the repeat-heavy feel of the schedule, Robinson says The Comedy Network will go to air with two hours of original Canadian programming, an hour less than anticipated after slow cable negotiations inhibited their commissioning ability. ‘We didn’t want to run away with our spending before we knew where we’d be. People will find newer stuff as the year unfolds, but at the beginning we’re mainly looking to acquire.’

Amongst the acquisitions will be shorts material which will act as interstitials and fill unsold airtime. At the top of Robinson’s wish list for a series is the quintessential Canadian soap opera: ‘Something so cliched and camp – stuff you’re not going to get from the u.s. or on the private networks. I think we have to go to the edge of the road, not the middle. I really believe the Canadian audience is looking for that cynical sense of humor.’

Promotions material is running a little left of mainstream, with an infomercial in the works and ready to play before September on bbs.

- History Television

Although slots for most of its Canadian productions are still being hammered out, the shape of History Television’s schedule gives feature films an 8 p.m. window Wednesday through Saturday. On Wednesdays and Thursdays at 10:30 p.m., the films will back-end with The Way We Were, a half-hour series being prepared and formatted by the National Film Board to maximize its short film library. The Saturday night film will include discussion and fill a three-hour block

Tuesdays and Sundays are stacked horizontally. Timelines, the best of Michael Maclear’s war documentaries, opens primetime at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, followed by War Stories, a mix of Canadian and international shelf product, from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. The 10 p.m. slot will debut the Barna-Alper-produced 24 Hours in History, a series re-creating historical events. Both Timelines and 24 Hours in History will be part of the Sunday night lineup.

Bravo! and Showcase will have some competition in the late-night slots. Movies are running every night except Tuesdays beginning at midnight. Sunday afternoons from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. consist of two back-to-back features. Strip programming running at 7 a.m., 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. daily are Wish Me Luck, Colditz, The Untouchables, Secret Army and Combat.

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