Playing hard ball
Ten has polarised critics with its proposed 24-hour sports channel, writes Colin Vickery
THE gloves are off in the TV sports broadcasting war. In one corner, a cocky Channel 10 reckons it will deliver its opposition a fierce blow with the looming launch of ONE — the network’s 24-hour digital sports channel.
In the other corner, Foxtel, Channel 9 and Channel 7 would like you to think this ‘‘punch’’ being promised by Ten wouldn’t knock the froth off a cappuccino.
The knockers say ONE will prove an expensive exercise (said to be costing Ten more than $20 million to launch) and be a channel padded with events that have little viewer appeal.
So will the ONE channel prove a knockout or is Ten punch drunk?
Foxtel’s chief executive Kim Williams has already scored the digital channel fight.
Williams is adamant all the new digital channels (Channel 7 and Channel 9 as well as the ABC and SBS are also set to launch new digital channels in 2009) will fail.
‘‘When consumers see the new channels and the lack of compelling programming on them, they will have limited interest in them,’’ Williams said recently.
‘‘Now is not a good time to be launching new services that are reliant on advertising revenue, given the uncertain outlook for the free-toair TV advertising market over the next year.’’
The launch of ONE comes just after Ten executive chairman Nick Falloon unveiled a worrying 25 per cent slide in the broadcaster’s fullyear net profit. Ten’s share price has slid more than 50 per cent since the start of the year.
The network’s audience share is also down. A week ago in Melbourne, it didn’t have one program in the Top 20 and languished on a 20.3 per cent share— well behind Seven (31.0) and Nine (25.9).
Nine and Seven also have stronger shares of Ten’s 18-49 target demographic.
In recent weeks it has axed Taken Out, Download, Bondi Rescue: Bali and 90210 and shifted underperforming Kenny.
Critics say the timing of Ten’s ONE announcement is designed to divert attention from its poor programming performance this year.
‘‘No wonder it’s leaking its plans for its new digital channel — anything to distract us from the sagging performance in prime time,’’ a Seven spokesperson says.
Fans of Ten HD shows, including Torchwood and Battlestar Galactica, are seething that they are being dumped for 24-hour sport.
Ten has been on a sports buying spree over recent years. It spent a reported $10-15 million to secure the rights to the IPL Twenty20 cricket and recently outbid Nine to win the rights to Australian swimming. That’s on top of its share of the $780 million deal to show AFL.
The ONE channel will show those sports (often simulcast with Ten), but it is being topped up with a lot of marginal sports including America’s Nascar, National Football League, Major League Baseball and NBA basketball. ONE will also feature a Monday night AFL review program hosted by Stephen Quartermain.
Golf events — ONE’s include the Johnnie Walker Classic and Singapore Open— have never been strong raters. Australian netball is a high participation sport, but can’t buy a viewer on television.
It’s niche viewing at best, but one that could still be attractive to advertisers, according to media com- munications company MindShare’s managing partner Mark McCraith.
‘‘We’re quite interested in it,’’ he says. ‘‘Obviously it will be male skewed and young men are hard to reach (through commercial network advertising) these days. Something like Nascar might only pull 30,000 viewers but they’ll be new viewers.’’
It is Formula One that is most likely to drive ONE’s success. Ten has confirmed that ONE will have live coverage of all the F1 events.
The free-to-air networks are hoping their new digital channels will halt the growth of pay-TV. Why pay for 24-hour sport on Fox Sports when you can get it free on ONE?
The pay-TV operators are punching back, saying new channels like ONE won’t have any effect on subscription TV audiences and that all they will do is cut into the commercial stations’ already dwindling viewers.
‘‘They’re going to cannibalise their own,’’ John Porter, chief executive of regional pay TV company Austar United Communications says.
‘‘The eyeballs that are on these new channels are going to come from other free-to-air channels. Advertisers pay a premium for mass audiences and now they’re working against that.’’
Nine Network chief executive David Gyngell is set to unveil Nine’s new channel to advertisers and media buyers in December.
Nine sources say it won’t include any sport content. Seven is tightlipped about its channel.
It looks like all the new channels will follow Ten’s model for ONE and concentrate on specific genres rather than offer general programming. Comedy is one possibility, lifestyle programs another. News and current affairs or children’s programs are other alternatives.
‘‘We don’t want to dilute the premium channel or take away from what it stands for,’’ a Nine source says. ‘‘It (multi-channeling) is being driven by advertising revenues so it’s obviously a little bit harder time now (given the world economic crisis) but it’s good for the average person at home because they get extra channels for free.’’