TORONTO - Royal watchers enthralled by the Canadian debut of Prince William and Kate can watch wall-to-wall TV coverage of the couple's Canuck tour this weekend, a live news event that observers say is key opportunity for beleaguered broadcasters to prove their relevance in an Internet age.
Hammered by splintering audiences and digital competition, TV channels still have one thing they do better than their online and mobile rivals: large-scale coverage of live breaking news, says media analyst Carmi Levy.
"It's no wonder we're seeing them go full tilt on Will and Kate's first overseas trip," Levy says of the steady coverage that began the second the couple touched down in Ottawa on Thursday.
"When big news happens we don't run to our computers, we run to our television. For all the inroads that online distribution of content has made in recent years, that technology — the Internet — still fails to match live television in terms of its social and cultural impact and its immediacy. If you want to know what's going on right now and you want it in full motion and full colour, you're only going to get it from television which explains why the networks are pulling out all the stops to provide this breadth and depth of coverage."
CBC News Network and CTV News Channel followed the couple's every move Thursday as they stopped at the National War Memorial and greeted onlookers. CBC's main network and SunTV also aired live footage but Global waited until its supper-hour newscast to offer a glimpse of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
CBC News Network's royal wedding team includes anchor Peter Mansbridge, Heather Hiscox, Anne-Marie Mediwake and royal commentator Ciara Hunt. It extends to royal-themed programming, including weekend documentaries about William and the late Princess Diana.
CBC boss Kirstine Stewart says the public broadcaster will be relying on local coverage to provide a more defined regional perspective as Will and Kate criss-cross the country.
"When people say they've looked at the future, the demise of television, and ask what role television will really play in a future when people can PVR and people get things on DVD sets, well this is it — this is the great kind of momentous occasion for television where it kind of triumphs all," says Stewart.
"It's the only place to get that full-on, I'm-almost-there experience because you can get the visuals, you can get the coverage, you can get the interviews. It's the closest thing to be there as you can get while sitting in your living room."
When the duo wed in April, 5.22 million viewers watched the ceremony and procession on television, with 12.55 million Canadians watching all or some of the coverage, according to BBM Canada.
CTV News president Wendy Freeman expects big numbers for William and Kate's Canadian adventure, and promises as much up-to-the-minute coverage as possible.
"We are going big on this," said Freeman, adding that News Channel coverage will be augmented by analysis from Bonnie Brownlee, former advisor to the royal family.
"Any time we are able to go to a live event you will be able to see it on CTV News Channel. We'll also have coverage on our website ctv.ca as well as the CTV national news, the local newscast, as well as 'Canada AM.'"
Global, the only network without an all-news sister channel, is basing its coverage on live evening reports from Ottawa, where Dawna Friesen and bureau chief Jacques Bourbeau are recapping tour highlights. Online coverage includes RoyalVisit.ca and GlobalNews.ca where Global National reporters will be live-blogging and posting photos, video, and Twitter updates.
Media analyst Gerry Wall, president of Wall Communications Inc. Economic Research and Analysis, says the main networks have had an uphill battle keeping viewers interested in the small screen and can leverage social media hubs like Facebook and Twitter to bring in even more viewers.
"It's been dismal," Wall says from Ottawa of TV's viewership decline.
"It's been bad and that's sort of a downward trend, both in terms of revenue and in terms of profitability and of course in terms of viewership over the last six, seven years. And that's not likely to change."
Live news events offer a rare opportunity for broadcasters to tout their strengths, Wall said, advising them to make the most of this royal visit while they can.
"You have to promote it as best you can, you have to work it," he says.
However, Freeman says one-the-ground TV reporters will be feeding online portals as well.
"The reporters who will be on the scene, they should all be Tweeting. It's always a big part of the way we gather and cover the news," she says, noting that video clips are also being made available online.
Levy, however, says the digital tools are not enough to entice him online during the tour. The London, Ont.-based tech analyst says many online options are still too slow, too unreliable, and too expensive to navigate if you're looking for comprehensive reports.
"And let's face it, 42 inches of LCD, backlit Dolby stereo ... high-def coverage is very different than watching it on a 3.5 inch-screen," says Levy, comparing a top-of-the-line TV to a mobile device.
"If I want to do the same thing with my laptop or my iPad, I've got to start it up, connect to the Internet, find the right resource, wait for it to begin streaming, hope that I get a clean stream. It's just not as dead simple easy to consume content on a computer or a tablet or a smart phone as it is on a television. And until such time that it is, consuming live content online or even recorded content online is not going to be as mainstream as content distributors would like us to believe."
News cameras are set to follow Will and Kate as they continue their travels to Montreal, Quebec City, and Summerside, P.E.I. where they are expected to visit the Anne Of Green Gables House.
From there, cameras will track the couple as they explore Canada's north in Yellowknife, N.W.T. and finish up at the Calgary Stampede and Calgary Zoo on July 8.
Stewart credits CBC News Network's impressive numbers — higher than all the other news networks combined — to a spate of big news events that have reminded people of CBC's reputation for up-to-the minute coverage.
But Wall says a must-see news event is not enough to save television from its eventual decline.
"People are changing," he said. "We're changing our tastes, we're changing the way we live our lives and are very much driven by the Internet."