TV network toppers wrestle with industry quandaries

"It's a strange world to have come off our most popular season," Kirstine Stewart, executive VP of English Services at the CBC, told Playback Summit delegates of the recent government cuts at the pubcaster.

It was an illustration of the change ripping through the Canadian TV business.

An industry accustomed to Kirstine Stewart as an enthusiastic CBC cheerleader, forever trumpeting via Twitter the pubcaster’s latest primetime performers, saw an embattled, and yet unbowed head of English services at the Playback Summit in Toronto on Wednesday.

In her continuing quest to assure the CBC a future in the digital age, Stewart was a study in courage, under pressure, as she shared the stage with rival private broadcasters less beholden to Ottawa to secure their fortunes through primetime victory and market supremacy.

Asked if she felt the rug pulled out from under her by recent government cuts after the past year’s primetime successes, Stewart responded: “Yes, but at the same time we’re as strong as ever as we are going into (the cuts).

“It’s a strange world to have come off our most popular season,” Stewart continued, recalling the 1980′s when the CBC’s top performers included American shows like Mork and Mindy, Mash or WKRP.

She added the CBC hadn’t had a virtually all-Canadian primetime schedule for long.

“It’s quite a feat, because these are Canadian shows setting the records, and they haven’t in the past,” Stewart told a morning Network SuperPanel on the current digital makeover of Canadian broadcasters.

For rival broadcasters on the stage at the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon, a posh reception hall at the Toronto Reference Library, it was the thorny challenges of navigating web TV, social TV and addressable TV in today’s digital landscape that were the dominant industry quandaries.

Malcolm Dunlop, executive VP of TV programming and operations at Rogers Media, said the biggest challenge thrown up by an evolving multi-platform strategy is uncounted digital viewership.

“When we go in and talk to an advertiser. . . we have to sell that spot on every platform that there possibly is,” he told the Summit audience.

Dunlop urged the industry to find a way to measure digital viewership so Rogers Media, for example, can get a lift when audiences watch Canada’s Got Talent or Modern Family via PVR playback or online channels.

And Phil King, president of CTV programming and sports, said his network faced a “balancing act” in protecting its expensive primetime broadcasts, while also streaming content online and on other digital platforms – especially when parent Bell Canada has made premium mobile content a priority.

“If we allow someone to watch Grey’s Anatomy on an iPad, we get less advertising dollars,” he told Summit delegates.

At the same time, Bell Media felt compelled to pursue a multi-platform strategy, not least to stay in step with competitors.

In addition, King said CTV’s digital team was working closely with indie producers to use social media to drive online viewers, especially young eyeballs, back to the broadcast TV channels.

“We see digital media and social networking really as a means to drive the audience back to TV,” King said.

Photo: L-R Phil King, Kirstine Stewart, Malcolm Dunlop