Rogers executives on ‘PVR-proof’ content strategy

City’s new schedule reflects more diverse programming and a lot of live content. Rogers Media executives shared how the programming strategy has changed and how the NHL deal has helped make it possible.

If the Butterfly Effect is when one small change in one place causes big changes later, what is the NHL Effect for Rogers?

Not to say the NHL agreement was a small change for the company. The $5.2-billion deal for national NHL broadcast rights caused huge waves in Canada’s media industry and rocketed Rogers Media (including Sportsnet and City) to the top sports brand in the country.

But how has the deal helped Rogers beyond the obvious benefit of magnetizing hockey fans to its various properties and platforms?

Before the Rogers Upfront on Tuesday afternoon, Rogers Media held a small media breakfast in Toronto with its executives to talk about its upcoming schedule—a mix of new shows and a large number of returning series. Marketing spoke with Rogers Media president Keith Pelley, vice-president of television programming and content Hayden Mindell and chief sales officer Jack Tomik in separate conversations about the “halo effect” of the NHL rights deal, how City’s fall and mid-season lineup is different from last year’s and what makes it largely “PVR-proof.”

The cast of City's new comedy for fall, Black-ish

Diversifying City’s lineup
At the executive breakfast Rogers held this time last year, Pelley said, “We want to be known as the place people come to laugh.” This year, Rogers only picked up one new comedy for the 2014/15 season—a series called Black-ish, which follows a suburban family looking to reconnect with their cultural roots.

Asked about the broader range of genres reflected in Rogers’ upcoming schedule, Pelley said that while there are still a “plethora of great comedies” returning in the lineup, including New Girl, The Mindy Project and 2 Broke Girls, the NHL deal had an impact on programming decisions. “Once hockey came, it kind of changed our strategy and we wanted a strong program for Monday night,” he said. To that end, Rogers acquired the scripted series Scorpion, which is about a quirky group of masterminds that works in Homeland Security to protect the public against various threats. It was important to secure a solid program for Monday night, said Pelley, because NHL hockey will be used as a promotional vehicle, and Sunday nights will promote heavily to Scorpion.

Mindell also spoke of how he wanted to ensure City was picking up the kind of programming that can be promoted during hockey. The nights of hockey on City’s schedule—which Mindell described as “any programmer’s dream on a conventional network”—will bring new audiences.

The company is hoping its new programming will encourage full family viewing or co-viewing. While City has acquired a lot of female comedies over the past couple of years and Mindell said his team has had a great run with comedies on City, the goal was to grow and diversify the programming for the upcoming season. “Hockey really helped to prompt that broadening of the schedule,” said Mindell.

Tomik also spoke of the how the changes to City’s schedule will impact its audience. “It’s much more family, much more male to balance out what was predominantly a female schedule,” he said. The way advertisers are looking at adult segments is different than in the past, with more males now buying cleaning products and groceries for the household, he added. He believes the type of broader programming City now has is going to be attractive to advertisers.

Creating a “PVR-proof” schedule
There are at least 10 hours of what Mindell calls “PVR-proof” TV in the 2014/15 schedule. This live and event programming includes NHL games, The Bachelor Canada, Hell’s Kitchen and Utopia, a reality series that sees 15 people construct a new society over the course of a year.

Tomik referenced other live and event programming in the schedule, from the new musical event special Peter Pan Live! to The Grammy Awards to The Country Music Awards. “The industry has been singing the doom of conventional TV for about a decade now, and I think what we forgot is what this platform can do – and what has performed – best. And it performs the best with live and event programming… the [2014/15 season] schedule really reflects that.”

For viewers who do lean towards VOD binge viewing, though, Pelley said he’s excited about Rogers specialty channels FX Canada and FXX. (The former will debut Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s new series, The Strain, on July 13.) “The [TV] business is changing,” he said. “The FX content is phenomenal and certainly conducive to catch-up [viewing]. It’s very edgy and targeted towards millennials… This is where content is moving towards.”

Consistency is key
Tomik is confident advertisers will be happy with the consistent delivery of City’s new schedule. “We looked at the schedule in a very unique way this year on what works on this platform and what doesn’t,” he said. “We’ve come up with something we think will be hugely powerful and certainly a great improvement over performance last year.” He admits that one of the reasons City isn’t doing drama at 10 p.m. Monday through Friday is because it didn’t perform well before.

That said, it will be doing two weekday comedy strips: a 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Modern Family strip and 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. strip featuring 2 Broke Girls and Two and a Half Men. Pelley believes strip programming has another two- or three-year shelf life, and can work providing the shows are hits. “If we hadn’t had [Modern Family and 2 Broke Girls] we probably wouldn’t have been able to do strip programming,” he said.

“Advertisers love strips because they perform consistently,” noted Tomik.

But shifting away from that type of programming has been easier thanks to the NHL deal, said Tomik. “The wean away is pretty clear for the industry, but when can you make the leap? And what do you leap to? [Having the NHL rights] allowed us to make that decision because with Saturday and Sunday hockey you can start making more decisions because you have comfort. There’s a great security blanket that allowed us to make the right decisions [in television] that we couldn’t have otherwise – that’s another great halo effect of the NHL [deal].”

Or, if you will, the NHL Effect.

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