3 min

Lack of vision

Canadian pride lost in the digital universe

Late last year a call for help went out from PrideVision TV. With only 20,000 subscribers, the subscription digital channel’s future was in question.

In order to survive, PrideVision, expensive even by digital channel standards, was aiming to enlist another 50,000 subscribers in just under a month. Ads in the gay media soliciting support from the community apparently produced mixed results.

The Headline Media Group, owner of PrideVision TV and the regular cable sports channel The Score, released its annual report in mid-January. Like many Canadian digital television properties, the balance sheet shows a hefty loss, this one at $36.5 million in 2002.

The economic realities of digital television in Canada mean that HMG has had to drastically cut staff and the production of original programming. There was a third round of staff cuts just before Christmas, and plans were announced to sell the channel.

According to the 2002 annual report, PrideVision has enough money to remain viable until the end of Aug 2003, and HMG remains committed to “maintaining current levels of service.” In reality, PrideVision continues as a shadow of its envisioned self, without the financial resources to realize its mandate or satisfy its audience.

So what went wrong? There’s no simple answer, just a combination of variables, and market realities that present a persistent obstacle to realizing the vision of a dedicated Canadian GLBT television channel. One thing is certain, PrideVision’s marketing strategy has failed to entice their target market. In fact, their approach neatly sidestepped the primary issues of cost and content.

The success of PrideVision always hinged on one risky proposition: the public acceptance of digital television and a fast transition from analogue to digital broadcasting. But the Canadian Digital Television Association predicts that analogue broadcasts will continue to be available until at least 2010, and so far consumers are not rushing to foot the bill for the transition to digital.

Nonetheless, in HMG’s 2001 annual report, owner John Levy optimistically predicted that “the true niche services are going to thrive” and that PrideVision TV would prove to be “a significant driver in the deployment of digital boxes.”

One year later, consumer buy-in for digital TV has been underwhelming in both the US and Canadian markets, and premium pricing of PrideVision, along with poor visibility has relegated the channel to the fringes of an already struggling industry.

To get digital channels, consumers must buy or rent a satellite or digital cable receiver and pay a monthly subscription rate that runs significantly higher than basic cable. On top of that, PrideVision subscribers may have to pay an additional subscription fee for the channel depending on the packages available from their cable or satellite provider.

In Ottawa, Rogers sells two packages that list PrideVision as an option and those bundles cost $89.99 or $109.99 per month. On Star Choice, PrideVision is sold as a premium channel, and costs $6.95 per month on top of the basic subscription fee of $20.99. Showcase, another popular channel with significant gay and lesbian programming is sold with seven other channels for the same price.

Although the high cost of going digital is a big deterrent for many in PrideVision’s target market, perhaps the more compelling issue is content. When targeting a community that is anything but homogenous, how do you program something for everybody? If there’s one generalization that can be made about the diverse group of individuals that make up the GBLT hodge-podge, it is that we are both highly informed and incredibly picky. We know what we want, but it’s hard to find five of us that agree on what that is.

When PrideVision launched, the network had ambitious plans for original programming. Early focus tests indicated that people wanted “local and community oriented programming” that they couldn’t get elsewhere. PrideVision responded with an initial offering of original shows including the current affairs program Shout and So Gay TV among others.

As the channel steadily lost money, original programs were just as steadily dropped from the schedule.

From a commercial perspective, the gay and lesbian market remains a sought after and potentially lucrative consumer segment. But without compelling, saleable programming, PrideVision is fast losing its unique selling position.