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Shaw poised to control women's TV programming

In the West, or so they say, men are men - but women are where the money is.

When Western cable giant Shaw Communications Inc. reached a deal on May 3 to buy the television assets of CanWest Global Communications Corp. , what drew most of the attention was the $2-billion price tag and the shift in the Canadian media landscape, as one of the industry's most influential families nabbed a piece of another family's failing dynasty.

But a little-noticed aspect of the deal is the control it gives the Shaw family over the most popular specialty cable channels in Canada targeted at women - a powerful niche to for any broadcaster to own in the battle to attract TV advertising dollars.

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Corus Entertainment Inc. , which the Shaw family controls, already has the W Network, which surged to the No. 1 spot among specialties in 2009 in terms of profits before interest and taxes (PBIT). Corus also owns female-focused channels Cosmopolitan TV, VIVA, and W Movies.

Now, through CanWest, Shaw will add Slice, Showcase Diva, Food Network Canada, and HGTV Canada, assuming the deal goes through. Among women age 25-54, HGTV was the third-most watched English-language specialty channel in the country from January to April, according to data from BBM Canada.

In English-language specialty television, the only competition for the newly Shaw-owned basket of women's channels is Fashion Television Channel, owned by CTVglobemedia Inc. (which also owns The Globe and Mail.) Astral Media Inc. owns French-language women's channel Canal Vie.

"Women rule the ad world," said Kaan Yigit, president of Toronto-based Solutions Research Group. He estimates that of the $3.3-billion TV advertising market in Canada, roughly $2-billion worth is targeted at women.

"I don't think [Shaw]set out and said, 'We want to rule the women's ad market,' but they probably looked at the portfolio and saw these are resilient channels."

In 2009, when the recession caused advertisers to slash their budgets, women's channels continued to attract media buys. Ad revenues at W Network rose more than 4 per cent last year compared with 2008. By comparison, the second-most profitable network, Rogers Sportsnet, saw ad revenues drop more than 11 per cent.

Advertisers often invest with women's stations to balance their television purchases. They advertise with the main broadcast networks' most popular shows, and also with specialty channels that allow them to reach a target audience, said Sunni Boot, CEO of media buyer ZenithOptimedia. Often, the demographic most in demand is women.

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"Because of their niche programming, [women's channels]give you very little waste," she said. "It really makes for a balanced portfolio."

Media companies can also benefit from having a stable of those channels. Ms. Boot said it's common to negotiate for spots on a number of different channels at once.

For now, she said, Shaw executives have assured the advertising industry that they won't bundle all those channels under one roof. Buyers are still negotiating with CanWest and Corus separately, and have been told they will continue to do so. "Their plan is to leave everything as is," she said. "How long that will last, I don't know."

But there's no question that the deal will put an attractive stable of media under the Shaws' control.

"The lifestyle channels deliver more engaged female audiences. They're very receptive to advertising," said Muriel Solomon, vice-president of marketing strategy for CanWest's specialty channels. (CanWest officials declined to comment on the overall deal itself.)

In February, Mr. Yigit's firm released a study, commissioned by CanWest, on audience engagement with specialty channels. The SRG study asked 3,000 English-speaking Canadians which specialty channels "I usually choose to watch or turn to this channel by myself." W Network and Showcase Diva were the top two channels; sports channels did not appear in the top 15.

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Surveys and ratings don't always tell the full story, however; much of women's TV viewing may happen while sitting beside remote control-wielding husbands and boyfriends: According to data from BBM Canada, TSN and Sportsnet were the top two specialty networks among women 25-54 in the first quarter this year (a period that included the Winter Olympics).

The SRG study also found that viewers are more likely to pay attention to ads on channels where they are interested in what they are watching; and program content can help drive their interest in products.

The advantage of owning the channels that engage women is clear, Mr. Yigit said. "You could reach a whole household through the woman in the house. Advertisers vote with their dollars."

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