TV heading in same direction as magazines

Column: The Arts Beat

By Spencer Ferron-Tripp

The television revolution is turning your TV set into a magazine shop. And the effect is sure to be dramatic.
Or perhaps comedic, if you tune in to the Comedy Channel, one of 16 new cable channels which debuted this past week.

No longer will networks such as the CBC and CTV share the bulk of Canadian viewership. Indeed, the stalwarts of Canadian television may find themselves searching for a niche in an increasingly splintered audience.

How long will these networks be able to offer comedies and hour-long dramas on one channel when the specialty channels claim to do the same in a more comprehensive way?

South of the border, ratings for the “Big Three” networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — have steadily fallen from a 90 per cent share to almost half the total television viewing audience.

The trend is the same in Canada where specialty cable channels have swelled to 20 per cent of the market.

This fragmentation should come as no surprise. After all, there is no such thing as an all-in-one magazine, so why should there be one in television?

Television appears to be heading in the same direction as the magazine: less is more. By appealing to a small, clearly-defined market, the specialty channels can better serve their audiences and advertisers with interest-specific programming. For instance, science-fiction buffs want the Space channel because other stations program science-fiction shows irregularly.

The new channels even sound like magazine titles: Home & Garden, Golf, Outdoor Life. It won’t be long before magazines cross-over to partner with the new stations, or face the possibility of being beaten at their own game.

But Canadian cablevision plays by its own rules. Cable companies have always had the attitude they know what’s best for their customers. You only have to look at their recent marketing blitz, featuring the “You don’t want to miss all of this, do you?” ads.

The commercial is flashy enough that we can all believe there is something worthwhile in this significant step towards a 500-channel universe.

But it’s a magician’s trick. Unlike the magazine store, this product has packaged the Golf Channel and Space: the Imagination Station together. You can buy both, or leave empty-handed.

Just remember, Rogers hasn’t put millions of dollars into fibre optic cable just to give you 16 new channels. We still have about 450 to go.

Smart consumers will wait, and stock up on magazines.