Canadian supermodel Coco Rocha makes her debut as the host of Canada's Best Beauty Talent on Sunday night. But you won't be able to watch highly produced, high-definition reality television show on a traditional television network.
The 12-part series – which pits makeup and hair specialists from across the country against each other in a series of competitions intended to crown one contestant the most skilled of them all – is being filmed by Rogers Media Inc. exclusively for broadcast to the Internet, and is funded directly by an advertiser.
It's a novel and potentially profitable approach to reality-television programming that the broadcaster is counting on to drive viewership higher, even as more Canadians cut their cable subscriptions in favour of cheaper online alternatives.
"I think viewers are looking for content, entertainment and a good story, and that's what we're striving to achieve," said Jacqueline Loch, Rogers Media's vice-president of client solutions, about the company's first online-only feature series. "Obviously, L'Oreal brands are present in the context of that storytelling, but nobody is holding up labels."
A study by Convergence Consulting Group released this week showed that cable companies lost about 0.7 per cent of their subscribers last year, or 80,000 homes, the first drop since 2004.
And while vertically integrated companies such as Rogers Communications Inc. – which not only create their own content, but also own the distribution networks used to get them to viewers – are forced by regulators to share most programming with competitors (for a fee), anything produced exclusively for online use need not be shared.
So in the fight for mobile subscribers with companies such as BCE Inc. and Telus Corp. , any popular online television series would be a welcome advantage.
It's also part of a wider media trend, which has seen newspapers and broadcasters twist the traditional relationships between content and advertising, using corporate money to produce material that otherwise would never have been created.
While online-only shows are still rare, Google Inc. has been cultivating the market since it began overhauling its YouTube service last year. It has created dozens of "channels" for web-only content, and sees a not-so-distant future in which viewers will flip from regular programming to YouTube channels on their living room televisions.
Right now, most viewers find that difficult to do; they lack the technology or know-how to move easily between Internet and cable programming.
"People aren't watching more online right now because there is some 'friction,' " said Thomas Sly, head of original programming, news and information at YouTube. "But once that friction is gone, there should be no difference between watching something over the air or on the Internet."
The potential viewers for Canada's Best Beauty Talent are certainly there to be had. Rogers-owned websites averaged 7 million unique viewers a month in 2011, Convergence Group estimated, generating about $80-million in advertising for the company. Most of its reality shows – including The Bachelor Canada, which premieres later this year – air on CITY-TV.
CITY-TV, which lacks a national network of stations but can be found in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, made about 95 per cent of its prime-time programming available free across multiple digital platforms – online, iPad and iPhone – in 2011.
But online viewing is still in its early stages: Only a small percentage of its weekly viewing audience watched a show on Citytv.com last year.
L'Oreal contends overall viewing numbers don't really matter – what does matter is the precise targeting of its advertising dollars.
"This is very different from traditional advertising because the marketing of the future is more about branded content that communities of people can talk about," said Marie-Josée Lamothe, chief marketing officer at L'Oreal Canada. "It's not so much about logos and products, though there is some of that. It's about generating content that is relevant to a particular community."
L'Oreal, one of the country's largest advertisers, will be closely watching the very precise viewership numbers afforded to online advertisers, but will also watch social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter to see whether the show has successfully sparked conversations about its products.
They company's executives are also acutely aware of the risk of pushing their products too heavily and alienating consumers. Rogers runs the same risk, because its magazines, such as Flare and Chatelaine also feature prominently in the show, alongside L'Oreal lines such as L'Oréal Paris, Yves Saint Laurent, Lancôme, L'Oréal Professionnel and Kérastase.
"We can learn a lot from a regular commercial," Ms. Lamothe said. "But we can now see how engaged the community was and if they felt it was relevant. Were social networks active? Did we get more people enrolling in our education sessions?
"This is very different than advertising."