Is television becoming more like the magazine market? Success for a
TV station means a combination of the right image, appealing programmes
and appropriate scheduling. The same applies to magazines, where image,
content and layout are vital. The forgiving consumer may tolerate a bad
image if the other two are in place, but style and scheduling alone will
When it comes to media choice, many consumers are prepared to experiment
- they will give new products a window to prove themselves, but will
drop them fairly swiftly if they don’t meet the required standard. First
impressions count a lot in this context. W. H. Smith customers perusing
the shelves for the magazine that will deliver a satisfying read have a
lot in common with viewers poring over the television listings page.
With the exception of some programmes, most viewers make a decision to
watch TV for a session and then pick out what they are going to watch
during that time. In the multi-channel environment, viewers will have a
hierarchy of channels and genres for the first choice, which will
usually include the offerings of the four big terrestrials, but also
some of their new favourites.
In the TV landscape, as in the print market, there are many new launches
with almost the same number of relaunches and facelifts at any one
Channel 4 recently changed its look before the Channel 5 launch, BBC1
now comes with added balloons and, no doubt, there is much agonising
over the next ITV makeover.
However, the big four terrestrials have some loyalty in the bank and are
never going to completely blow their chances with the viewers unless
they get either their programmes or their scheduling drastically
A slow erosion of their overall viewing share is inevitable, but
individual fortunes can vary. For all channels, a tried and tested
approach one year can be a recipe for failure the next. Successful
approaches are inevitably copied and neutralised, and talent is
The new channels need to constantly refresh their programmes and
schedules in the face of increasing competition in the same genres at
the same time. Multi-channel viewers are more fair-weather friends to
the new channels, which quickly learn when they are losing the affection
of their audience.
For subscription channels that have the hook of two or three must-watch
events (Premiership football, for example), whatever else they put out
is largely irrelevant to the punter as they are going to pay just for
those properties. It is a different story for entertainment
In the early days of UK multi-channel entertainment, and with TV
nostalgia still in its infancy, UK Gold was the sole provider of
second-hand broadcasts. Now Granada Plus, Carlton Select, Paramount and
Sci-Fi all offer a selection of repeats.
The new BBC deal has not come too soon for UK Gold, now repositioned as
part of UK TV with its offering of quality repeats and the BBC
back-catalogue wide open.
Sky One is slowly repositioning itself as the channel with the best US
product as it snaps up essential viewing for many of the multi-channel
viewers. Witness current Thursday nights from 9pm featuring Seinfeld,
Mad About You and Chicago Hope and compare to next year’s Friends and
ER. However, viewers are very much biased towards domestic productions
and Sky One has moved into this area with young and cheeky home-grown
programmes that are finally giving the channel a personality.
Granada Plus has rapidly changed its proposition and moved away from its
reliance on Coronation Street and other Granada programmes, in a bid to
live up to its name.
Discovery felt the need to extend its broadcast hours to respond to Men
and Motors and now faces fresh challenges from National Geographic and
its partner channels, Animal Plant and UK Horizons. How long before the
Bravo has rebranded from Weird TV to Wild TV as it chases the lad market
and has reduced its hours to allow Trouble TV to run US teen soaps.
Paramount shifted from a messy block of US programming to a comedy
channel featuring the highest quality UK and US offerings.
VH-1 initially attracted viewers with its 80s playlist, but has recently
added more contemporary music to its offering, as the channel knows all
too well that nostalgia alone isn’t enough to keep the viewers.
Similarly, MTV has revamped its offering in the UK to reflect the faster
moving chart and broader taste of the UK viewers who were switching over
to terrestrial channels for more happening sounds.
Just as much of the magazine market burned out with ’sex specials’, how
long will it be before UK Living will have to find some other hook for
its late-night viewing? Unfortunately, constant change and rejuvenation
of channels is a reflection of their infancy and dearth of any
deep-seated loyalty from the viewer.
Despite the increasing choices for the consumer, old habits die
In the print market, most impacts are still delivered with the same
mainstream content and genres as before the explosion of choice. In the
US (perhaps the best example of a post-fragmented TV market), impacts
are dominated by mainstream content.
The dominance of certain genres for delivering most impacts is leading
not to more niche channels, but to more opportunities to watch your
favourite type of programmes again and again. The initial impact of more
than 200 digital satellite and cable stations for the TV viewer will not
be in the number of channels, but the increased opportunities to see the
same programmes and films from once or twice a week to once or twice a
There is a clear message for the terrestrials - show the best product
first and don’t stint on the budget. Non-terrestrial channels that
secure the quality first-runs will become far more important and will
earn a place at the top of viewers’ popularity lists. For the new
channels competing for audience share, only a policy of constant
refreshment and improvement will attract loyal viewers.
David Cuff is broadcast director at Initiative Media.