Traditional television needs a fairy godmother. Or maybe a visit from a knight in shining armour. Perhaps that’s why Rogers Communications, one of the country’s largest media companies, is betting on the man who was at the helm of Walt Disney Co. when it launched hit titles like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.
Last month, Rogers (which owns Maclean’s) announced plans to invest millions in Vuguru, a Web video studio launched by former Disney chairman Michael Eisner—the man credited with reviving the Magic Kingdom at a time when Disney was flailing financially. The investment bought Rogers a minority stake in the venture, which will produce around 30 Web series every year, each made up of “mini-sodes” that are a few minutes in length. It may be Rogers’ foothold into what many see as the future of television.
Vuguru is one part of an unfolding revolution in television to make it more responsive, a transformation that includes new visions of local television. Rogers is betting success will come not so much from moving content online so much as giving television more Internet-like features, so that viewers can watch everything from Vuguru shows (which Rogers has exclusive rights to broadcast in Canada) to local sports whenever they want—with the help of personalized TV systems. “I prefer to watch TV on the TV,” says Colette Watson, vice-president of Rogers TV. She’s not alone. A poll last year showed that Canadians spend fully 97 per cent of their TV-watching time watching an actual television (as opposed to TV on their computer).
If TV is to remain king, it will be with this kind of on-demand programming, which allows viewers to buy immediate access through their televisions to shows of their choice, adds Watson. Rogers is eager to extend the on-demand model beyond mainstream shows like House or Mad Men to local shows. It’s a key part of the company’s “new media strategy,” which executives discussed last week at a celebration of Rogers TV’s 40th anniversary. It hopes to add everything from mayoral addresses to high school sports to its Rogers On Demand list. This could grow to include things like local variety shows or talent competitions. The service, it says, could even be “portable,” allowing, say, a New Brunswick native living in Toronto to watch her old hockey team play back home.
Whether or not that community-level expansion is even possible remains to be seen. Already, the CRTC strictly binds how companies like Rogers can profit from community TV—limiting them to selling sponsorships (along the lines of: “This program is brought to you by . . . ”) as opposed to bona fide advertisements. And the fee-for-carriage battle, which pits cable companies against conventional TV stations over who must pay for local programming, could change the way cable companies broadcast local content. (Rogers is one of the companies involved in the dispute). Both sides have engaged in extensive ad campaigns in advance of the CRTC’s review of local programming policies, scheduled to start in April.
In the meantime, Rogers is looking to its On Demand service, in part, as something that could help community TV stay vibrant. “We don’t run the service for ratings, we run the service for relevance,” says Phil Lind, vice-chairman of Rogers Communications. But over the last three years, online video consumption has more than doubled, according to marketing research company comScore. TV is moving in the same direction, with content increasingly migrating to the Internet—a harsh environment for local programming. Still, Rogers will respond to that change by bringing a Web mentality—that viewers want control of what they watch and when—to local television. On Demand, it argues, is the one thing that can accomplish that feat. For a cable TV company, it could be a fairytale ending.