As Playback counts down to the end of the year, we’re rolling out our Best Of stories from our Winter 2012 issue. Here, Bell Media topper Kevin Crull talks about broadcast challenges, the company’s upcoming Cancon productions and its “TV everywhere” strategy.
Person of the Year: Kevin Crull
This fall marks year two of Kevin Crull helming Bell Media, following BCE’s acquisition of CTVglobemedia in 2010.
And despite the derailing by the CRTC of BCE’s plans to acquire Astral Media, as the calendar turns a new page Crull’s eyes remain firmly on the prize – that is, maintaining Bell Media’s status as the top national broadcaster.
“I would say that it is often harder to stay on top than it is to get on top,” says Crull.
He adds that the CRTC’s decision hasn’t affected the company’s independent production plans – the proposed tangible benefits package from the Astral takeover would have meant $96 million in additional indie production dollars – and they also still have benefits money to spend from the CTVglobemedia purchase in 2011.
And they are spending: Bell Media owns 28 conventional stations, including CTV, and owns and operates 30 specialty channels, including TSN, The Comedy Network, Bravo, MuchMusic, MTV and Space.
The company greenlit 11 new productions (including pilots) this year alone, including new series Motive, Orphan Black and Satisfaction, in addition to okaying seasons of returning series, ramping up its original Canadian content offerings as it bids farewell to Flashpoint, arguably one of the most successful Canadian scripted shows six years in the running.
CTV had banked on this summer’s Saving Hope as its next Flashpoint, and, while it didn’t take in the U.S., Crull says Bell Media ponied up more equity to keep the show alive in Canada, ordering a second season.
“There’re a number of examples where we run a new Canadian drama, it has a successful first season in Canada, then it loses its foreign funding and dies. That’s an awful cycle to be in,” he says. “Canadian production is one thing. Successful hits that are also Canadian are another thing.”
As the head of a private broadcaster, Crull is frank about the challenges before him, particularly with regards to growing competition from foreign entertainment providers, over the top services and rights.
“I believe there’s a great opportunity for the Canadian industry from non-simultaneous substitution. That would give us a lot more ability to nurture a Canadian show in a great spot on our schedule,” Crull argues.
He notes The Big Bang Theory as an example of the rights integrity challenges the broadcaster faces due to rebroadcast, namely that while CTV is the exclusive broadcaster for the show in Canada, the show airs 50 times a week on stations Canadians can access, only five actually being CTV transmissions.
Crull agrees that Canadian linear providers and traditional media companies are having to play catch up when it comes to OTT technology, namely in enhancing delivery technology and consumer experience.
“There’s no question that the presence of foreign OTT in Canada is siphoning off viewing from traditional providers. Whether it’s cannibalizing [the market] or taking the opportunities for new viewing…that is a big opportunity cost to the system. We have seen our rights costs go up as we’re bidding against OTT providers, so while I would say this industry has never been dull, it’s maybe never been less dull than it is today,” he says.
Just the same, Crull sticks to the goal of producing great content for linear TV viewing first, arguing that linear viewing is resilient, even as he sees a need for the TV everywhere strategy due to media fragmentation.
“We like the power of the ‘megaphone’ – when you have a strong linear asset and strong linear programming, you have that promotional ability, so the audience finds the online co-viewing content on their own. And, with other demographics, you can promote it linearly to get them exposed to it,” he says.
Meanwhile, with TV everywhere model, “instead of just pockets of content available on your mobile phone or wirelessly on your tablet, you really have the full breadth of what’s available on your cable and satellite system,” says Crull.
The company in 2012 ramped up its digital-specific strategy as well, via social media integration (like the MuchCloser viewer engagement loyalty program), spinning off successful linear properties into mini-series online (one example being Switch, spun off from The Listener), and this year greenlighting its first completely non-linear program, Backpackers, from Shaftesbury’s Smokebomb Entertainment, for pure web delivery and digital viewing.
He credits the company’s further success in the year to leveraging the opportunities to turn Canadian events into iconic programming, like the MuchMusic Video Awards, the World Junior Hockey Championship on TSN and promoting the 100th Grey Cup with the Engraved on a Nation doc series.
Crull says 2013 will also be a big year for Bell Media’s specialty channels, with many indie productions for the channels hitting the airwaves, the follow through of Bravo’s 2012 makeover, and a potential reinvigoration of MuchMusic and MTV.