Reaching U.K. eyeballs: the strategies, the demos

For much of the 1990s, factual on U.K. cable and satellite was synonymous with Discovery Channel Europe and its sister Home & Leisure - the local alternative to The Learning Channel. But in the last two years, there has been an...
July 1, 1999

For much of the 1990s, factual on U.K. cable and satellite was synonymous with Discovery Channel Europe and its sister Home & Leisure – the local alternative to The Learning Channel. But in the last two years, there has been an explosion of choice.

On analog, which still accounts for most pay-tv subscribers, the market has witnessed the launch of National Geographic Channel (7:00 p.m.-12:30 a.m.), The History Channel (12:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m.), BBC/Flextech joint-venture UK Horizons (24 hours a day) and Discovery’s Animal Planet (12: 00 p.m.-12:00 a.m.).

On the U.K.’s two digital platforms, both launched last fall, new and imminent factual-based arrivals include Carlton World, Channel Earth, UK Style and BBC Knowledge.

Not to be outdone, Discovery has unveiled three networks to supplement its core service on digital. These are Discovery Travel & Adventure, Discovery Sci-Trek and Discovery Civilisations. For good measure, it also has a time-shifted network known as Discovery + 1 hour.

ngc managing director for Europe and Australia, Jerry Glover, whose own network has digital distribution in the u.k., claims some credit for the boom in factual viewing.

‘When we launched two years ago, there was initial skepticism about our chances, because most people thought Discovery had the market sewn up. But we have established ourselves without denting Discovery’s audience – which shows a latent demand in the market.’

That latent demand was seized upon by multichannels broadcaster Sky which promoted the factual channels heavily during the launch of its digital platform. ‘They saw the opportunity to use documentaries to woo those upmarket audiences which had resisted subscribing to Sky on analog,’ says Glover. ‘They have spent a lot more on marketing the genre in the last year than they ever used to.’

For all the bullishness in the sector, however, the analog and digital pay-tv market in the U.K. is still just 4 million homes out of a possible 20 million. The question is whether a market that size can sustain so many services – particularly when you add lifestyle nets such as Carlton Food Network, [.tv] and Breeze to the broad range of factual choices available.

Discovery Communications Europe (DCE) managing director Joyce Taylor believes the market for factual channels is largely viable – as long as it keeps its eye on the real competition. ‘The other channels are competition for analog distribution – but not for viewers,’ she asserts. ‘The real competition for us are the terrestrial networks like ITV and the BBC which are showing a lot more factual entertainment in primetime.’

Having spent eight years alone in the U.K.’s pay-tv marketplace, dce has been introducing a number of initiatives to protect its position, says Taylor.

The first strategy has involved maximizing the brand’s exposure to its audience. Says Taylor, ‘We have been creating more channels and looking for ways to move outside of TV into other areas.’

On SkyDigital, for example, DCE’s bouquet of seven channels means ‘we are in a position to meet a viewer’s mood for factual entertainment, whatever it might be. If they don’t want a program on aviation showing on DCE, there will be numerous alternatives within the Discovery bouquet. We fill the shelf-space instead of letting our rivals do it.’

At the same time, DCE is fast developing ideas for enhanced TV and on-line under former Excite executive Natalie Hugh. ‘On-line and enhanced [TV] is at the same place now that cable and satellite were in Europe ten years ago,’ says Taylor. ‘It’s important for us to plan our strategy now.’

While access to viewers is critical, so is the need for distinctive brands. Taylor says original production, an attractive on-air look, and interstitials which involve the audience are all fundamental to the prospects of the company in Europe. ‘Original programming…puts you in control of your future.’

With Discovery at the hub of the U.K.’s factual wheel, the other doc networks have had to find clear points of difference in order to establish themselves.

Although there is some overlap between Discovery and NGC, the latter has benefited from its brand heritage. ‘From the beginning, distributors, advertisers and viewers were all familiar with ng’s high quality image which made it an easier sell for us,’ says Glover. ‘We backed that up with a good program library and a lively on-air look.’

That said, NGC’s market share is down year on year and Glover acknowledges the need for more origination. ‘After rapidly establishing a 17 million distribution base in Europe, the issue for us is quality program flow. The bulk of our library is beautiful one-offs, but we need more support series.’

Hence an ongoing production partnership with Carlton Productions and the recent announcement of NGC Europe’s biggest-ever commission – 65 episodes of Explorer’s Journal from Mentorn Barraclough Carey. Designed as a daily stripped show, the series will showcase the current generation of explorers, adventurers and scientists. ‘We have to commission and coproduce the right shows quickly,’ says Glover – who reckons that 40% of the channel’s schedule will be original production by the end of the year.

A clear brand proposition also underpins fast-growing UK Horizons, claims channel editor Bryer Scudamore. ‘Our key message is that we offer programs made by Brits for Brits. Other channels are originating shows at the cheaper end of the spectrum, but we have a schedule which is 80% recent blue-chip BBC series.’

A typical evening on Horizons will include science, history, natural history fronted by David Attenborough, and docusoaps like Airport. Shows with well-known personalities are particularly strong ratings pullers, says Scudamore. ‘Celebrities like Jeremy Clarkson, Michael Palin and Rolf Harris are extremely popular with U.K. audiences – and something the other factual channels can’t offer.’

Horizons is able to secure program licenses very quickly after shows have had their first-run on the BBC. As a result, ‘we pick up a large audience of people who missed series or parts of series and are looking for another opportunity to view.’ Of the three main factual channels, UK Horizons skews younger and more female than Discovery and NGC. In this respect, it comes closer in character to Animal Planet, which generally airs family series in primetime.

However, Scudamore also sees the competition as all encompassing. ‘A sunny day is competition for us,’ she says. ‘And any person zapping towards UK Horizons could be stopped in their tracks by a good comedy on UK Gold.’

The most male of all U.K. factual channels is A&E’s History Channel which has carved out a following among older, upmarket men. When it launched in the U.K., it aired for 15 hours a week but is now available on analog eight hours a day. It also has an 18-hour digital satellite feed, which has been picked up by analog cable operator Cable & Wireless.

Channel chief Geoff Metzger identifies similar priorities: branding and origination. ‘You have got to own your niche and keep refreshing your output. Fifty percent of what we do is new to analog viewers in the U.K.’

Much of the material is commissioned for the U.S. network, such as the flagship strand Biography. Metzger says originations out of Europe include a copro with The Imperial War Museum called I, Witness; a series called From the Bomb to the Beatles produced by Flashback Television; and an ITN Factual production called Playback in which British political protagonists like Tony Benn and Ken Clark talk about key political moments in their lives. ‘We will probably double our commissioned output this year,’ says Metzger – who adds that the he’s working with ITV regional broadcasters like Carlton on series.

History’s popularity is made clear by response from carriage operators, says Metzger. By airing the channel during the day, Sky’s analog platform offers ‘an alternative to women and children’s programming’ – though primetime is the heartland of History’s upmarket male target audience.

Going forward, Metzger aims to personalize the brand. A forthcoming project based around genealogy, on-line support services (which get 22,000 visitors a week) and off-air photographic exhibitions at regional museums and libraries are all examples of History’s efforts to spread word of mouth about the service at the grassroots level.

Between them, Discovery, NGC, UK Horizons and History are able to meet the needs of most documentary viewers who can’t find what they want on terrestrial. This puts pressure on new digital services to find a unique proposition.

At Carlton World, for example, the schedule (7:00 p.m.-12:00 p.m.) has been themed each night. Starting on Monday, the topics are mind & body, human interest, travel, entertainment, leisure, law & order and news & business.

‘We felt it would make a change from the usual stripped schedules on cable and satellite,’ says Carlton Digital Networks’ head of programming Anne Grey. ‘It gives people the chance to get deeper into a subject.’

The schedule is largely acquired from the U.K., Australia and U.S., though there have been 14 original series commissioned to date. The stacked format means ‘we have to make sure we cross-promote the nights effectively,’ says Grey.

In a sense, Carlton World is not in competition with either Discovery or NGC. ‘We are exclusively available on ONdigital while they are only on SkyDigital,’ says Grey. ‘As a result, our success is tied closely to ONdigital’s efforts to appeal to the majority of households which have yet to enter the multichannels markets.’

With limited audience information about ONdigital, it is impossible to assess the success of the Carlton World format, says Grey. Digital penetration will need to grow significantly before anything other than anecdotal viewer feedback is available.

Digital has also opened the way for services with a less commercial agenda. Digital operator sdn’s proposed premium pay service Channel Earth is one example.

Due for launch in 2000, the channel is expected to broadcast 16-18 hours a day on the subject of the U.K. environment – not an obvious ratings winner. However, the network is likely to receive free programming from charities like the National Trust and Friends of the Earth.

The launch last month of BBC Knowledge, with an annual budget of £10 million, is another landmark for public-minded factual television. The channel’s head of programming, Liz Cleaver, is quick to point out that BBC Knowledge is more than just a TV network. ‘It is a pioneering multimedia service which has lifelong learning at the top of its agenda,’ she says. ‘The TV schedule is there to inspire, engage and stimulate viewers while on-line will provide the information back-up.’

Cleaver has commissioned more than a dozen original shows at budgets of around £16,000-£20,000. These are designed to appeal to all age-groups. Zenith Productions’ Hot Pursuits, for example, is a tongue-in-cheek gameshow format designed to help 16-24 year olds find their first job. Other original shows include K Club, a kids magazine show about the Internet which has on-line back-up.

Echoing Discovery’s ambitions, BBC Knowledge is seeking to create robust linkages between tv and on-line. According to Cleaver, Knowledge is ‘encouraging companies with mixed TV/on-line skills to come to us.’ She also expects the Net to play an important part in marketing the channel.

While the prospects for all these channels depend on their ability to own a niche, the switch to digital is regarded as a potential benefit to some of the main players.

Says ngc’s Glover, ‘Part of the problem for ourselves and UK Horizons at the moment is that, in the analog universe, people don’t zap to us by accident very easily.’

By contrast, the electronic program guide (EPG), which acts as the entry point to digital, allows viewers to select their genre of choice. ‘That at least puts us on an equal footing with the likes of Discovery – which is better positioned than ngc on the analog platform,’ says Glover.

Likewise, recently announced set-top box giveaways by Sky and ONdigital have been welcomed by the channels as a way to push the market beyond one million subscribers by the end of the year. Sky has committed itself to switching off its analog signal in 2002.

For producers, the emerging digital picture is unclear. Both Discovery and NGC have upped their commitment to locally made original production but the opportunities for digital commissions are limited at present. With available budgets so low, most shows at BBC Knowledge, Carlton World and Granada Sky Broadcasting’s Breeze are produced in-house.

Currently, indies can only justify digital commercially if they are commissioned to make large numbers of episodes. However, there may be increased opportunities for those that can bring broadcasters a dual TV/on-line proposition.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.