Flop fear hanging over cable rollout

Poll indicates only 10% of Canucks to subscribe to digital channels

TORONTO — Fifty specialty channels are set to make their debut on Canadian digital cable TV in less than a week, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s ready.

While some broadcasters scramble for programming and others hammer out last-minute carriage deals, pundits wonder how many viewers are going to be watching.

There are fewer than 2.5 million digital cable subs in Canada, and a poll released in June indicated that just 10% of Canadians intend to subscribe to the digital channels.

“Some will go under, there’s no doubt about that,” says Peter Bissonnette, prexy of Shaw Communications. “Their exposure is limited to a segment of the market, and with the narrow niches of some of these, it comes down to how much advertising they can attract.”

“Business models are lean,” agrees Chum Television prexy Jay Switzer. “Viewership will be low at the beginning. It’s going to be tough.”

With thrift the central tenet of their business plan, broadcasters are stretching the programming and infrastructure of their pre-existing conventional and specialty channels, teaming up with existing franchises, and buying up and commissioning programming as cheaply as possible.

All carriers are giving current customers a free preview period, (with the exception, in Shaw’s case, of the Gay-Lesbian-Bi channel PrideVision, for fear of offending some citizens.) PrideVision has also been the center of some controversy over bundling, with carriers such as Shaw offering it a la carte instead.

In November the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) awarded more than 250 digital specialty licenses to encourage the digital roll-out in Canada. Digital cablers and satellite carriers are choosing their offerings with a particularly Darwinian eye. “We made our decisions based on brands, our own insight and feedback from our customers,” Bissonnette says. “The services we’ve picked have a high propensity for success.”

Many are brands that Canucks covet, but didn’t have access to. In the case of Bell ExpressVu, for example, that includes Fox Sports World, ESPN Classic Sports, BBC Canada, National Geo, CourtTV Canada and Discovery Civilization — all partnerships between Canadian companies and a popular “foreign” TV brand.

These partnerships are also a back door into what had been a closed shop due to Canadian regulatory restrictions — MTV inked a deal in late August to partner with Craig Broadcast Systems in the launch of MTV Canada, the “re-branded” version of Craig’s “youth-oriented music and lifestyle” channel Connect.

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