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!,
F/X, CBS, MSNBC, C-SPAN, CNN, TNN, TNT, TCM, HSN, HBO, VH1, UPN, Fox,
the Box ... and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. (Don’t forget the
named stations like the History Channel, Comedy Central, Discovery,
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
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.