Play­ing hard ball

Ten has po­larised crit­ics with its pro­posed 24-hour sports chan­nel, writes Colin Vick­ery

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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.’’

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