DIGITAL TV: THE TRUTH ABOUT USTV - Paul Woolmington, a media expert and New York television junkie, reveals the choices he and other US viewers make when faced with over 50 channels

Re-runs of Dallas on the Nashville Network, Cooking with Emeril on the Food Network, Behind the Velvet Rope on Manhattan Cable - just three of 300 programmes on offer in a four-hour stretch on a typical evening.

Re-runs of Dallas on the Nashville Network, Cooking with Emeril on

the Food Network, Behind the Velvet Rope on Manhattan Cable - just three

of 300 programmes on offer in a four-hour stretch on a typical


The world of television in New York never ceases to amaze me. In the

two-and-a-half years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen every type of show


US TV doesn’t just provide niche channels - it provides genre channels

within those niches to create a world of hyper-specialisation where

every taste, hobby and lifestyle is served in the televisual realm.

Inexpensive multichannel TV (cable) has been a part of New Yorkers’

lives for almost two decades. Today, the average number of channels per

household is 49 and for those with basic cable, it’s 65. This

overwhelming luxury means our viewing habits are lean and well-honed.

More important, New Yorkers’ cynical viewing habits mean TV channels

must become well-differentiated brands if they are to survive.

The litany of channel names is a tongue-twister: ABC, A&E, ESPN, E!,


the Box ... and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. (Don’t forget the

named stations like the History Channel, Comedy Central, Discovery,

Stars ...).

So many channels, so little time. You’d think finding a show that’s

brilliant would not be too difficult.

There’s the rub: having all these choices makes it harder to find

something to watch. In this multichannel world where more than half of

us receive in excess of 54 channels, there are multimillions of minutes

of airtime available - and a sizeable chunk of them is filled with

re-purposed dribble.

This forces New Yorkers to seek guidance from strange places.

When I signed up for my cable service, I accidentally ticked a box to

receive TV Guide, which guides you through a week’s worth of


Only instead of helping, its 150-plus pages intimidate me so much I have

never opened the magazine in the time I’ve lived here. It sits atop the

TV, gathering dust, until it’s replaced by next week’s issue.

So instead I, along with most other New Yorkers, rely on the Preview

Channel, an automated station on channel 40. Preview has a split screen

with the top half showing ads. The lower half has a scrolling list of 79

channels, pay-per-view and some other channels no-one recognises.

The problem is the list scrolls at a snail’s pace. If you flip to

Preview when it’s showing what’s on 24 (E!), you have to wait an

interminable amount of time for channel seven (NBC) to reappear. By that

point, you’re so frustrated, you’ve started surfing again, finding

nothing but commercials and cheap Cubic Zirconia jewellery for sale on

QVC (one of the ubiquitous home shopping channels.)

What’s so mind-boggling is that the rest of America has even more

channels than we do in New York. And there are more than a dozen new

networks estimated to launch during the 1998/9 season, with another 44

on the drawing board.

Here’s a scary thought: with digital satellite making inroads, we’re

heading towards infinity.

This overwhelming choice means channels must become more differentiated

if they are to survive. Even in Manhattan, where we are limited (!) to

less than 100 channels, consumers gravitate to media brands they


Young & Rubicam has a proprietary research study, Brand Asset Valuator,

that is able to measure the brand strength of television channels. BAV

is a giant research tool where we interviewed more than 90,000 consumers

in 32 countries about 13,000 brands. It reveals, among other things, the

emotional connection different people make with media brands. A channel

that elicits strong positive response is a boon to our product.

So how does a channel build brand strength? Through differentiation and

relevance. And a channel accomplishes that through focus. Fox is


CNN is news. Discovery is adventure and wildlife. The Weather Channel is

- you guessed it. This strong focus is what makes these channels among

the most successful in our cable environment and what makes them stand

out from the pack in our BAV study.

America’s big traditional networks - CBS, NBC and ABC - are getting


They are losing valuable audience share to cable every day. People with

cable spend close to 50 per cent of their viewing time watching the

broad choice of cable programming. This summer, basic cable hit an

all-time high of 24.5 million homes in primetime in the first week of

August. The networks (including Fox), delivered 23.2 million homes for

the same period.

One reason for this drain is that, historically, the networks have

always tried to reach a catholic audience. They’ve created generalist

fare for the masses. Meanwhile, cable channels have stepped in and

focused on distinct audiences, building targeted content and enormous

relevance to consumers’ lives.

As the UK moves into a multichannel realm, its new stations should

consider these characteristics: tone, editorial slant, targeted content.

These traits manifest as a brand and will build a channel’s strength.

PBS, Disney and Fox are America’s success stories.

And as the UK gets all those new channels, hooray for the consumer. I’m

a TV junkie. I can’t imagine life without my fat, unused TV Guide, the

crazy list of stations that rolls by on Preview,

the off-colour Manhattan-only Robyn Byrd (channel 35), the strangely

hypnotic ’In the Papers’ segment on New York 1 (channel 1).

Best of all, I love the ads for all those channels. The incredible

challenge to build relevance and differentiation amid all these stations

means the best, most creative ads in the US are done with television

channels as clients. Sportschannel, ABC, HBO, Fox Sports, the Weather

Channel. The ads for these brands are better than anything else on

air.Paul Woolmington is president of media operations at Young & Rubicam

and president of the Media Edge.


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