The Globe and Mail, November 8, 1994
When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, a technician in the master control room will press “play” to start a reel of videotape running over a helical-scan playback head. The signal from that head will snake through distribution amplifiers and a lot of other complex circuitry, bounce to a satellite, then be relayed to earth stations at cable companies across the country.
The cable companies will pump the downlinked signal to their subscribers’ cable boxes, where it will end up as a new TV channel — another choice accessible through people’s remote controls.
The Life Network’s staff of 43 will doubtless be toasting one another and reflecting on the effort that made throwing that switch possible.
Life Network is one of 10 specialty channels the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission licensed last June, one year after putting out a call for newcomers to meet the challenge of “the rapid expansion of digital distribution and transmission technologies.” The CRTC was trying to increase Canadian content as choices expand for people watching TV — the much-ballyhooed 500-channel universe.
The CRTC knew what it wanted. “They were really specific,” says Alexandra Brown, the Life Network’s vice-president of communications. “They. wanted people to be innovative; they didn’t want to damage existing broadcasters- you couldn’t compete with anything that already existed . . . They wanted you to contribute to overall Canadian broadcasting in terms of variety and depth of programming and offer things that weren’t there.”
The Life Network plans to offer something that isn’t there now but in a way used to be.
A decade ago, cable’s first crop of specialty services included the Life Channel, conceived primarily as a venue for health and fitness programming. It had trouble filling its schedule and broadened its mandate to include a lot of what’s called, for want of a better term, “lifestyle programming,” and wound up the video equivalent of those bygone “women’s pages” in newspapers.
“I hate the word ‘lifestyle,’” network president Juris Silkans says, wincing. “It’s so soft and meaningless.” He was part of the group that put together the old Life Channel, then watched as it hemorrhaged, losing $7 million in its 12 months of existence in 1985-86.
“The problem in those days was that you didn’t have the cable carriage we’re able to get now,” Mr. Silkans says. These days, “consumers are aware of and familiar with the extended tier of cable services, which is where Life Network will be. In the mid-1980s, the whole concept was unfamiliar and, apparently, overwhelming, which meant it was ignored. There are also more homes wired for cable. “We had only about 500,000 subscribers. Now, we have a potential sir million viewers,” he says.
At the time, Mr. Silkans worked as a vice-president for CUC Broadcasting Ltd. Both it and Rogers Cable are what’: known in the trade as MSOs — multiple system operators, companies that own and run a number of local cable systems. Toronto’s Trillium Cable is one of CUC’s main properties.
CUC had considered reapplying for a license and trying to get the Life Channel going again during, the 1988 round of CRTC hearings in which the children’s channel YTV was licensed. But CUC was committed to getting YTV off the ground, Mr. Silkans recalls. “So I got assigned to that project instead.”
Even as he worked with the team putting together YTV’s application, Mr. Silkans held on to the idea of the Life Channel, trying to think of ways to relaunch the idea without making the same mistakes. “I opened a file called Project Phoenix,” he. remembers. “And every year I would pitch the CUC board with the idea of letting me go ahead with another application.” Finally, in 1990, he was given the green light, partly because the television landscape had changed. No longer was the very notion of a specialty channel new. The early channels that succeeded offered a proven product. ESPN in the United States had paved the-way for The Sports Network; MuchMusic was MTV with a smaller budget and a Canadian accent.
More important for Life Network’s architects, the market for instruction videos had grown exponentially With VCRs in most homes, more people were learning from teachers on tape, from exercise to home improvement.
The first task was to figure out the programming. “I knew the new channel had to be more than just health-related,” Mr. Silkans says. “We found with the Life Channel we lust couldn’t do it; there just wasn’t enough there to fill 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
To find out what people want, it helps to ask them. Audience research started in July, 1993. According to Ms. Brown, the first people questioned were those who watched TV only occasionally — 10 hours or less a week. Life Network’s researchers wanted to know why these people weren’t watching and what the medium would need to do to get them to turn on a set and park themselves in front of it.
“Most of those people said they didn’t watch television was because TV wasn’t useful to them,” Mr. Silkans says. “Television had nothing to do with their lives. When television was launched in the 1940s, the commentators of the day said it was going to be the greatest force for education in the history of the world. Certainly it’s the most pervasive medium. But educational? Hardly. Take Rwanda, or what’s happening in Bosnia. When you watch that stuff, within two minutes you feel sick. You take that stuff to heart and you’re depressed by it. Obviously, you need to air stuff like that because people need to know. But often they don’t watch because it’s soul-destroying.”
Mr. Silkans says the Life Network aims to even that balance by giving people information they can apply immediately, in their own lives, for concrete, appreciable improvement, instead of informing them about a horrible situation, the facts of -which will likely make them feel either guilty or helpless.
“Research was such a key factor in the application,” Ms. Brown says. Of the more than $250,000 spent on the application, the bulk was in research. “But we had to prove to the CRTC there was a demand for the programming, demand for the concept.”
Mr. Silkans says: “When you add new channels, people don’t watch more television. Most people watch about 25 hours of TV a week — they watch that much in Canada, in the United States and in the United Kingdom. And all the research shows that. people watch no more than 10 channels on a regular basis. And they don’t really watch channels anyway; they watch programs. When Seinfeld is on, you don’t really care where it is; you’re going to find it anyway.”
Before research got rolling, the network — then known as YOU: Your Channel — suddenly lost its backing from a consortium of cable companies. They worried that the CRTC would look askance at the arrangement, fearing conflict of interest among cable companies running a cable channel. Meanwhile, Atlantis Productions — the company known for producing such successes as Anne of Green Gables and The Road to Avonlea — had been thinking of putting together a cable service of drama reruns as a secondary market for its output.
Mr. Silkans persuaded Atlantis to back Life Network instead: It owns slightly more than 80 percent of the channel, with the rest held by the Interpublic Group, a holding company that owns advertising agencies.
After finding out what people didn’t like about TV, Life Network put together a 10 minute videotape of its alternative: instructional and information shows from which people could immediately derive some kind of benefit.
Late in August, 1993, after the first two rounds of research — telephone and face-to-face interviews with the 997 people who had seen the sample videotape — Mr. Silkans hit on an idea that sharpened the focus of the application and made it easier both to program the channel and explain it to advertisers and potential viewers. Life Network would organize its offerings by themes, a different one for each day of the week:
Monday: “Habitat” would cover such things as carpentry, home improvement, interior decoration and various kinds of nest-feathering.
Tuesday: “Bodyworks” for programs covering health, exercise, preventive medicine and nutrition.
Wednesday: “Food Plus,” offering cooking programs, from how to boil a potato to how to orchestrate a multicourse gastronomic blowout.
Thursday: “Explorations” for travel of all sorts, from hiking vacations for families on a tight budget to sleeping one’s way through Europe’s grandest hotels.
Friday: “Relationships” for patenting, human sexuality, caring for one’s aging relatives and every kind of human interaction in between.
The weekend schedule would rerun the best Canadian programs from the preceding week.
“The programming is in a six-hour block that runs m prime time, from 6 p.m. to midnight. That’s repeated three times,” Ms. Brown says. All of it would feature 70 percent Canadian content over the broadcast schedule during the first year, with a pledge to increase that by 2.5 per year up to a constant level of 80 percent.
A weekly schedule that was so heavily Canadian got some of the most enthusiastic responses from the channel’s sample of potential viewers. They said they believed they would likely watch, on average, about five hours a week if such a channel existed. For people who currently can’t find more than 10 hours of worthwhile viewing in a week, this was astounding. It convinced Life Network’s researchers and programmers that they had discovered some kind of previously untapped ratings motherlode.
In all, the CRTC received more than 200 initial proposals for new cable services, of which 48 made it past the first cut in December, 1993, and were invited to make a formal application in person in Hull, Que., just 10 weeks later.
In that time, Life Network’s staff had to do all its market research, rough out some kind of schedule, canvass the production community to find out whether the resources existed to fill that schedule, then bind all that information into a proposal convincing enough to be granted the go-ahead by the CRTC.
Jan Platt had come aboard from Atlantis to work as the channel’s vice-president ,of programming. Almost immediately, she started a series of 14-hour days portioned out in 30-minute slices. Each half-hour was devoted to another group of would-be program suppliers; producers who would make their pitches for shows for the network.
The CRTC’s hearings began in March, but luckily for Life Network, it appeared fifth from last. So it was able to watch more than 40 other hopefuls, benefiting from their mistakes and learning how to anticipate what the CRTC would ask. To make sure, there were numerous dry runs in a Toronto hotel room, with a panel of hostile lawyers asking the most challenging questions they could devise. “We got five killer people,” Ms. Brown says. “We developed a whole book of Q&A on potential questions. Then we were grilled on that.
“We kept refining and honing the application kept up until the last minute. Toward the end, we would leave work well after midnight and roll out of bed at about 5:30 or 6 in the morning to start again.”
“I knew the application was bulletproof,” says Mr. Silkans matter-of-factly. But one thing CRTC chairman Keith Spice’ didn’t like was the name, so YOU: Your Channel (which had already led to much confusion) was junked. After much discussion of replacements (such as simply Your Channel, the Quality Channel and the I Channel), it was decided to turn back the clock with the Life Network.
Getting the nod from the CRTC means more work for Life Network’s people. Now, they have to find a building to work out of, sort through hundreds of program proposals from would-be producers, set up an entire full-time television network’, from scratch and be ready to roll that videotape on Jan. l.
A gift arrived just in time to add some gusto to the Life Network’s staff Christmas party. Okay, so it wasn’t exactly a gift, but the delivery of 10 episodes of Training Room was cause for great celebration, nonetheless.
The show has Toronto Blue Jays trainer Tommy Craig as its host and gives viewers a glimpse at the fitness regimens followed by various celebrities and sports figures.
It also comes as a relief to vice president of programming Jan Platt. “It was just what we’d hoped for — dynamic, entertaining and informative.”
Why the relief? “At least we have one new series.”
Life is one of 10 new specialty television channels hoping viewers will notice whent ehy begin to broadcast on New Year’s Day. Needless to say, viewers would like to have something to watch.
Providing that something has occupied most of Ms. Platt’s working hours since she stepped aboard the Life boat in August 1993.
Back then, network executives were still preparing their license application. They were promising that 70 percent of their programming would not only be original but Canadian-made. And reckoned Ms. Platt would know where to find it.
She's been a producer and was a founder of Atlantis Films, the Toronto-based production house that holds a major stake in Life. After 11 years, she had sold her Atlantis stake and moved to Owen Sound, Ontario “to have babies and run a farm with my husband.”
Once back in action, she began to canvass production companies for material — even before the network was exactly sure of its mandate. It finally settled on “television you can use,” which made her job even more difficult. This concept requires that programs contain useful information for those seeking it without alienating casual viewers.
“We have four criteria that the programming has to meet: It has to be entertaining, practical, energizing and encouraging,” explains Ms. Platt. “But at the same time, it can’t be just straight instructional, and it can’t duplicate educational programming that’s already available.”
And then there’s the matter of quality control. “We also had to make sure that prospective programmers understood that the channel isn’t just a dumping ground. We’re a national broadcaster, not local cable. We have a prime time schedule and the production values have to reflect that.”
It hasn’t helped that there is so little programming around to serve as a model. Informative shows are often made by aficionados for a like-minded audience — people not overly concerned if the production isn’t very polished. Life, however, wants content and production on an equal footing.
There was certainly no shortage of people willing to try. Even before Life had its license, almost 200 proposals had landed on Ms. Platts desk. After the go-ahead was given last June, that number tripled.
When it came time to make their pitches, people began to troop through her office 14 hours a day — one proposal every 20 minutes.
“What I most wanted to know when I was a producer was, ‘How realistic is this?’,” she says. It showed up pretty quickly which producers ‘got it.’ We wanted to be able to tell people who didn’t get it, ‘Don’t waste your time.’”
Given the Jan. 1 deadline, no one had much time to waste. Those who made the cut had to put the first batch of episodes together in a hurry, which meant telescoping the standard development process.
Instead of producer and network hashing out the selection of hosts, music, credits and scripts well in advance, the approval and production steps were combined. Producers submitted their choices to the network for approval, and, if necessary, negotiation. They simply didn’t’ have time for television’s standard operating procedure: a lengthy period of development with most issues resolved before production begins.
In some cases, cutting the process so close to the line has forced Life to take a leap of faith. “A lot of the programs we’ve agreed to, we haven’t seen yet, so that’s exciting,” says Ms. Platt. “We’re sitting here waiting desperately while the producers are scrambling.”
Desperation, of course, is the mother of invention and, starting on Sunday, viewers will see whether Life’s has borne fruit.