Lessons from Covid

THOUGHT LEADERS: Continuing Content Canada’s series of Q&As with industry leaders, Bell Media’s president of content and programming Mike Cosentino discusses the impact of the pandemic and what the future holds.

Mike Cosentino

How has the pandemic impacted your business most significantly?
Our business has mostly been impacted on two fronts: content and revenue. With production shutdowns across Canada and around the world, series we were anticipating couldn’t start or complete production. This has meant changes to our schedule, especially as we look forward to the upcoming fall season. We have, of course, also experienced financial impacts, with advertisers pulling back campaigns and spending, although we are now seeing some campaigns return.

Which projects have been affected and in what way?
Pre-production or production was halted for all Bell Media original productions. Series among the CTV original production slate that have been impacted include returning shows The Amazing Race Canada, MasterChef Canada and Wynonna Earp, as well as new series Holmes Family Effect and Children Ruin Everything.

Across Bell Media Studios, our syndicated programs pivoted from in-studio filming to virtual production strategies so they could remain on the air. Our hosts and reporters from Etalk, The Marilyn Denis Show and The Social have welcomed viewers into their homes, while Your Morning merged a physically distanced studio setup with at-home filming.

Additionally, some series among CTV’s slate of hit US shows were impacted as they finished their seasons with reduced episodes due to production shutdowns.

When do you expect these projects to be back on track?
We are actively working with our production partners, as well as the producers association, guilds, the government and public safety officials, to determine the best steps to re-enter production for our original production slate.

A return to production will also be dependent on the type of production and where it’s filming, so each series will be evaluated differently and they will move forward at varying times. It’s also necessary to find an industry solution in terms of insurance to cover any Covid-related costs. All necessary steps will be taken, as the safety of the cast and crews remain our top priority.

We are also in touch with our partners south of the border in terms of timing for the return to production for our US studio programming.

What new programming initiatives have you introduced to make up for the deficit brought about by these projects being put on hold?
Some series were already complete and ready to air, including CTV original series Jann and hit new series Transplant, which had completed production on its first season and was able to finish its run at the end of May unaffected. A number of acquired series on our schedule were also complete and are airing as part of our summer schedule, including Blindspot, Ultimate tag, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

We were also able to unite Canadians through a number of specials, most notably Stronger Together, Tous Ensemble. Produced in an unprecedented collaboration between Insight Productions, Bell Media Studios and CBC/Radio-Canada, Stronger Together, Tous Ensemble featured iconic Canadian artists, activists, actors and athletes, and was the biggest multiplatform broadcast in Canadian history, raising millions of dollars for Food Banks Canada. One World: Together at Home, in support of the World Health Organization, and Global Goal: Unite for Our Future – The Concert were also big, important events that joined our schedule.

We’re also using this opportunity to encore some of our fan-favourite original series, including season one of Jann, season two of Carter, Cardinal, Mary’s Kitchen Crush and The Indian Detective.

A number of completed projects have also been strategically held for a fall debut, among them the anticipated second season of CTV original series Jann and acquisitions including The Amazing Race and Filthy Rich.

What have you learned through these initiatives as a result?
News is more important than ever, both on a national and local level, with viewers turning to our news properties for the latest information as they follow what’s happening in their communities, across the country and around the world. The team at CTV News adapted quickly to produce and deliver stories safely. These journalists can be seen day after day reporting and conducting physically distanced interviews in person and via video conferencing technologies.

This experience has also reinforced what we know about our audience. They’re looking for strong and engaging content, as well as series that are fun and uplifting and can provide some escape when needed.

We’ve also seen the great adaptability of our Bell Media Studios series, and the teams behind them and in front of the camera, as they’ve evolved to continue to provide engaging and relevant content. This includes producing specials from home, featuring multiple interviews executed with guests from across the country for Change & Action: Racism in Canada.

How will your business be different after the pandemic?
Content will be more important than ever, but production will be drastically different to ensure the safety of casts and crews. These necessary changes could lead to some adjustments in terms of the creative side of production, and could also impact budgets and production timelines as all necessary safety precautions are taken.

Throughout this time, we’ve developed and adapted, and in particular have become more confident in terms of being nimble with our Bell Media Studios productions. Some of these changes could become part of our approach moving forward. We’ve definitely seen success with virtual interviews and junkets, which could allow for greater access to talent in some instances.

In response to the current situation, we’ve also made some changes to sales deadlines and introduced some new initiatives to provide increased flexibility for our clients. Our sales team has been hard at work on SAM, our new Strategic Audience Management tool that allows us to offer attribution in linear TV, which is a game changer. SAM lets clients leverage Bell’s first-party data and pre-built segments to better target consumers through the new self-serve platform that delivers almost instant campaign profiles and real-time results.

How do you think the business as a whole will be different?
This business has been fluctuating for 30 years and is sure to continue to change. With those changes, we will continue to adapt.

In terms of any specific differences, there is the potential effect on production timelines and formats. As we look to the US and pilot season, will conventional networks move more towards ordering additional scripts instead of filming pilots? As also discussed, will virtual interviews and junkets become the new approach when promoting content to provide more flexibility for actors? We’ll be ready for the changes that come our way.

What will be your biggest challenge?
In relation to the pandemic specifically, the main challenge will be to ensure program continuity in an environment of production uncertainty.

What will be the biggest opportunity?
The biggest opportunity will be to look at this pandemic as an opportunity to refine our business from end to end.

The industry as a whole has proven that engaging content can be captured from people’s homes, changing our understanding of what can be accomplished. We will continue to look for ways to evolve our approaches to securing and delivering compelling and entertaining content.

What ‘good’ has come of the pandemic?
We have seen an increase in viewership as Canadians look for news and information and to escape with entertainment. CTV News is Canada’s most trusted news brand, and ratings have soared even higher throughout the pandemic as people turn to it for information on a local, national and international level.

The resilience of our team members has also really shone through during this time, as our teams continue to work from home.
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