Blue-sky thinking

THOUGHT LEADERS: Jamie Schouela, president of Canadian media at Toronto’s Blue Ant Media, outlines the impact of the production freeze on the company, how it is finding ways to get thing moving again and what the long-term changes will be for the industry.

Jamie Schouela

How has the pandemic affected your business most significantly?
Needless to say, we’ve been impacted across multiple parts of our business as a direct result of the pandemic. We first felt an immediate impact on Blue Ant Media’s consumer events business – we hold annual Spring Cottage Life Shows in Toronto, Ottawa and Edmonton and a Spring Baby Show in Toronto.

At the beginning of March our shows were in great shape, they were sold out for exhibitor space and we had strong advanced ticket sales. However, when it became clear they weren’t going to be possible, we cancelled all of our shows and that had a material impact on the events side of our business.

Also, like every broadcaster, we felt the advertiser impact right away. The advertising market quickly declined as our clients’ businesses slowed down, first in the travel and tourism sector and that quickly spread to other categories including retail, automotive, etc. This also had an immediate impact on our advertising business.

Blue Ant Media is also a producer in Canada and many markets around the world. Similar to every producer, our active productions were stopped, although we were still able to complete series in post-production, as well as continue to develop projects.

Which projects have been affected and in what way?

Overall, we got lucky as our content pipeline is produced with long lead times and has been largely unaffected. A few of our original, commissioned [projects] were in the final stages of post-production when the lockdown began. However, our production partners adapted quickly and set up Covid-friendly plans to finish on schedule with minor delays.

We had a few shows with Saloon Media, a Blue Ant Studios production company, that were wrapped remotely: Hotel Paranormal and Life Below Zero: Canada. For Hotel Paranormal, narrated by Dan Aykroyd, Saloon Media formed a plan to record the final voiceover sessions with Dan and edit the episodes remotely to deliver to our T+E channel for our premiere in May, as well as Travel Channel, which premiered Hotel Paranormal on July 11 in the US. The series has quickly become the channel’s number-one original series.

Similarly for Cottage Life’s Life Below Zero: Canada, the last half of the series needed to go through the final post-production process when the lockdown began. Saloon Media had to complete the editing, color grading, sound mixing and packaging remotely. Life Below Zero: Canada premiered on March 17 on Cottage Life and we’re pleased to share it has become the most successful commissioned program since the channel launched in 2013.

Also on Cottage Life, the last episode of season 10 of Hope For Wildlife, from Arcadia Entertainment, was also shot under strict social distancing measures in late winter and edited remotely to meet the delivery for the episode’s premiere in June.

When do you expect these projects to be back on track?
On the production side, as provinces move into stage two, we’re hopeful that we can safely return to shooting content again with the necessary protocols in place. We’re also hopeful that we’ll be able to open our consumer shows in the fall and we’re working now with the venues to ensure it can be done safely for our attendees, exhibitors and staff. However, we’re still awaiting more guidance from the government at this time.

On the advertising front, the market has started to stabilize in late May and June. As retail and automotive plants are re-opening and our clients’ businesses are slowly moving back on track, we’ve seen a modest increase as compared with in the spring.

What new programming initiatives have you introduced to make up for the deficit caused by these projects being put on hold?
We’re fortunate that throughout the pandemic the content pipeline across Blue Ant Media’s eight Canadian channels (T+E, Cottage Life, Makeful, BBC Earth, Love Nature, Smithsonian Channel Canada, HIFI and Aside) have been largely unaffected and we had a steady flow of original commissions go on-air as scheduled.

From an acquisitions point of view, our pipeline is very robust and has remained steady throughout the pandemic. We’re well positioned because we acquire our factual and lifestyle content on a year-round basis from all over the world, including regions like Australia and New Zealand that are already beginning to start production again. Going forward, like all of our industry peers, we’ll be working with our distribution partners and watching the evolving pipeline.

What have you learned through these initiatives as a result?
We’ve all been really impressed with how smoothly our business has been able to run almost entirely remotely. It’s not just staff who primarily use laptops, but also technical roles like editors and designers and even our master control operators have successfully worked from home for periods. We didn’t miss a beat – it’s been largely business as usual despite many of our team having to balance having kids and other challenges at home. This was a great insight we’ll take with us well beyond the pandemic period.

How will your business be different beyond the pandemic?

We’re looking to be more flexible with people working remotely at times, or a couple days a week. In certain cases, we’ve seen that people have worked even better remotely without office distractions, and that was an amazing discovery. Of course, face-to-face time is always going to be important for team building, forming relationships with colleagues and meeting clients, but I’m confident we can find a good balance between virtual and in-person communications.

How do you think the business as a whole will be different?
The fundamentals of our business will remain the same, however, the pandemic and economic recession could accelerate current trends, including migration to streaming platforms if consumers have fewer dollars to spend on entertainment. We don’t, however, anticipate that the day-to-day business operation of creating and delivering compelling content for our niche audiences will really change. But we have seen how well our employees can adapt and work remotely, so moving forward we’ll be offering them more flexibility in how they structure their time in the office.

What will be your biggest challenge?

The long-term economic impact caused by the pandemic is still unclear and it’s likely that the effect on the advertising business overall will continue in the coming short and mid term. We’re also hoping that we’ll be able to hold our consumer shows this fall, but at this point are waiting for more guidance from the government.

We’re also working to put the right protocols in place to bring people back to the office when they’re ready. We’ve created a task-force team to ensure all of the recommended health and safety measures are in place. But it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to have all staff back at one time until a vaccine is found and we’re committing to ensuring staff continue to have everything they need to keep operating remotely as long as necessary.

What will be the biggest opportunity?
Blue Ant prides itself on being agile and entrepreneurial – two of our corporate values. Since we were founded in 2011, the media and content industry has been experiencing ongoing disruption and that is likely to only accelerate in the coming years. We’re always looking for ways to grow through new partnerships or acquisitions and will definitely continue to keep our eyes open for new opportunities in the coming months and years.

What ‘good’ has come of the pandemic?

The pandemic has forced everyone to pause and reflect. Out of this will come new ideas, new ways of working, etc. And it’s remarkable how well everyone has stayed connected virtually, both our staff and partners. Communication between teams remains strong and, as I said before, we haven’t missed a beat. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s truly that we work in a resilient, creative and resourceful industry.
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