The death of tele­vi­sion.

As the num­ber of tra­di­tional view­ers fall, Michael Bodey asks, what does the fu­ture of broad­cast tele­vi­sion look like?

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Michael Bodey

The fig­ures pre­sented to tele­vi­sion pro­duc­ers in Novem­ber were alarm­ing. In 2016, the av­er­age age of an ABC TV viewer was 66.

Lit­tle won­der one of Michelle Guthrie’s few tan­gi­ble ob­jec­tives since join­ing the pub­lic broad­caster as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor one year ago has been to “of­fer dis­tinc­tive and rel­e­vant con­tent not just to un­der 12s and to the over 45s, but to all Aus­tralians”.

The quest to cap­ture and re­tain the elu­sive mil­len­nial (15- to 35-year-old) and generation Y (mid-20s to late 30s) au­di­ences is ex­er­cis­ing minds in all me­dia and ad­ver­tis­ing busi­nesses.

For com­mer­cial broad­cast­ers, the rea­son is ob­vi­ous. Ad­ver­tis­ers, who, after all, pay for tele­vi­sion, see the 25- to 49-year-old de­mo­graphic as the com­mer­cial sweet spot of high-spend­ing con­sumers. For a pub­lic broad­caster, the rea­sons are less ob­vi­ous, other than the ABC hav­ing a duty, as Guthrie has said, to pro­vide con­tent for ev­ery­one.

Con­ven­tion says broad­cast tele­vi­sion is at­ro­phy­ing pri­mar­ily be­cause younger view­ers are switch­ing off. De­spite bound­less and higher-qual­ity con­tent, view­ing num­bers are fall­ing and the kids are to blame.

The think­ing fol­lows that th­ese gen­er­a­tions are grow­ing up with­out broad­cast tele­vi­sion, dis­tracted by so­cial me­dia, stream­ing and gam­ing, and con­se­quently will be lost to tele­vi­sion for­ever. So all news, drama, en­ter­tain­ment, mu­sic, ev­ery­thing has to be dig­i­tal, ideally edited into chunks no longer than three min­utes.

Pri­vately, Guthrie has told tele­vi­sion mak­ers that broad­cast tele­vi­sion is dead, a no­tion that put pro­duc­ers back on their heels. Pub­licly, she pre­saged the ABC need­ing to “part­ner with third par­ties so our jour­nal­ism and TV are avail­able ev­ery­where. The idea that the cus­tomer has to come and find you has been turned on its head”.

Cer­tainly within the ABC, em­ploy­ees say, if you’re not on board the dig­i­tal train, you have lit­tle fu­ture there. An ABC ex­ec­u­tive de­fends Guthrie, though, not­ing the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor’s modus operandi is to be “provoca­tive” by ask­ing “re­ally hard ques­tions” of staff to up-end con­ven­tional think­ing. “Her job is to make peo­ple alive to the chal­lenges,” the ex­ec­u­tive said.

In its mod­ern his­tory, the ABC has tended to fly head­first into in­no­va­tion be­fore pos­si­bly fac­ing tech­no­log­i­cal frights. It hasn’t al­ways worked – re­mem­ber the ABC Is­land on 3D vir­tual world Sec­ond Life? – al­though its dig­i­tal strat­egy was em­bold­ened by the out­ra­geous suc­cess of its ra­dio pod­cast­ing, which pro­longed the lives of many Ra­dio Na­tional pro­grams, if not the chan­nel it­self.

Nev­er­the­less, ABC staffers sug­gest the op­er­a­tional side of the broad­caster has been in­ert on dig­i­tal ad­vances re­cently, due to fears about the cost of dig­i­tal transmission as fed­eral bud­gets waned. While tele­vi­sion transmission costs are ex­or­bi­tant, they are fixed in con­tracts; con­versely, the cost to broad­cast dig­i­tally grows per user. But those costs to pro­vide iView have plum­meted, con­trary to ex­pec­ta­tions, so the ABC has ex­panded its on­line of­fer­ings, such as this week’s an­nounce­ment it will in­crease the res­o­lu­tion on iView to high def­i­ni­tion, in line with com­mer­cial broad­cast­ers.

Now will ABC TV be the vic­tim of the cor­po­ra­tion’s rush to dig­i­tal? Or more im­por­tantly, is tele­vi­sion as dead as many would have it?

It de­pends which way you cut the num­bers. In­ter­nally, for in­stance, the

ABC con­tends its viewer’s av­er­age age is 61, based on reach, not 66. But even after fid­dling the num­bers, signs of life in TV are not good.

Twenty years ago, sea­sons of Blue Heel­ers, Mr Bean, Friends or ER av­er­aged more than two mil­lion metro view­ers. Last year, My Kitchen Rules led the way with a 1.6 mil­lion metro av­er­age ahead of The Voice’s 1.2 mil­lion. But there were only five chan­nels in 1997, not to­day’s 23 free-to-air chan­nels, plus Fox­tel and over­the-top stream­ing ser­vices.

Bench­marks for a hit TV show have fallen. At the same Screen For­ever con­fer­ence last year where Net­work Ten crowed the av­er­age age of its view­ers was 46, com­pared to Nine and Seven’s 52 each, Nine’s head of con­tent, Adrian Swift, noted its pro­grams “have an ex­pec­ta­tion of an au­di­ence some­where be­tween 800,000 and 1,000,000 peo­ple”. The “hit” thresh­old was for­merly more than one mil­lion and net­works no longer look so keenly at “overnight” rat­ings.

Au­di­ence frag­men­ta­tion has hurt the top-line TV rat­ings even if ma­jor TV events, such as the AFL grand fi­nal and NRL State of Ori­gin, con­tinue to break view­ing records.

Over­all, TV view­ing has dropped though, says Doug Peif­fer, chief ex­ec­u­tive of OzTAM, Aus­tralia’s metro tele­vi­sion au­di­ence mea­sure­ment provider. “It’s def­i­nitely come back. Five years ago we used to view three hours plus of TV a day; now it’s about two hours 50. But it’s far from dead. How many peo­ple tele­vi­sion reaches across a week (20.19 mil­lion) is roughly the same but the fre­quency of view­ing for some ages is down.”

The most re­cent 2016 Aus­tralian Multi-Screen Re­port by re­search agen­cies Re­gional TAM, OzTAM and Nielsen con­firms the Aus­tralian pop­u­la­tion watches 90.16 hours of video a month and it is pri­mar­ily on a house­hold’s main TV (81 hours of which are live TV on a TV set) rather than a com­puter (7.32 hours), smart­phone (3.49 hours) or tablet (2.41 hours).

Th­ese hours of view­ing on a tele­vi­sion are bumped by the av­er­age monthly view­ing for 50- to 64-year-olds (131.53 hours) and 65+ (158.43 hours), while the 25-34 age group watches only 57 hours on tele­vi­sion and 19 on com­put­ers.

So, younger view­ers watch less TV than older view­ers but it has al­ways been so, Peif­fer adds. Younger view­ers are more frac­tured view­ers, es­chew­ing live TV for time-shift­ing and view­ing on dig­i­tal de­vices.

Not in great num­bers, though.

The tele­vi­sion in­dus­try’s ex­ten­sion of au­di­ence mea­sure­ment to in­clude video player mea­sure­ment, or live and on­de­mand on­line streams of pro­grams, shows on­line view­ing is a frac­tion of the TV au­di­ence. Even at its best, last Tues­day, Seven’s na­tional seven-day au­di­ence of 2.094 mil­lion for My Kitchen Rules added only 66,000 on­line views.

Sim­i­larly, au­di­ences for ex­clu­sive ABC iView con­tent are small, mak­ing the cost-per-viewer in­vari­ably higher than for pro­gram­ming aired on ABC TV.

Broad­cast­ers hoped on­line view­ing might sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease au­di­ences. It hasn’t. Over­all, tele­vi­sion view­ing is down – the ABC’s reach is down 5 per cent year-on-year – and the ques­tion is only at what point does it bot­tom out.

“It’s easy to say some­thing’s dying; it’s more dif­fi­cult to work out what peo­ple are do­ing and want­ing,” said one TV pro­ducer work­ing with all net­works.

The ABC’s de­part­ing di­rec­tor of tele­vi­sion, Richard Fin­layson, agrees view­ing is down and the ABC ap­pre­ci­ates where it needs to fill holes, par­tic­u­larly in Aus­tralian con­tent and fewer re­peats, but broad­cast TV re­mains po­tent.

“Our view in TV is that our broad­cast plat­form is our great­est chance of suc­cess in a dig­i­tal world, so you have to nur­ture and trea­sure the au­di­ence you’ve got and use dig­i­tal TV to fer­tilise and grow those dig­i­tal habits in the fu­ture,” he said. “It’s rid­ing two horses and it’s quite tricky.”

The new horses in town, Sil­i­con Val­ley’s new stream­ing con­tent be­he­moths, Net­flix and Ama­zon Prime, have clouded broad­cast tele­vi­sion’s fu­ture be­cause they con­tend their fu­ture is un­re­lent­ingly rosy. Fur­ther­more, the slow de­cline in broad au­di­ences for com­mer­cial broad­cast­ers has co­in­cided with a weak ad­ver­tis­ing mar­ket, al­though this week Seven and Ten both con­firmed rev­enue in­creases, with Seven chief ex­ec­u­tive Tim Worner not­ing the cur­rent ad mar­ket was the best it’s been since 2014.

The sub­scrip­tion video-on-de­mand ser­vices Net­flix, Ama­zon and Stan have had suc­cess­ful product launches, re­cal­i­brated au­di­ence ex­pec­ta­tions on when tele­vi­sion should be avail­able, and are pro­tected by rel­a­tively pre­dictable rev­enue streams.

Yet no one, not even their own pro­gram mak­ers, knows how many view­ers any show on Net­flix at­tracts. In­dus­try spec­u­la­tion sug­gests Stan’s ma­jor lo­cal pro­gram­ming, the thriller Wolf Creek and com­edy No Ac­tiv­ity, had au­di­ences in the tens of thou­sands, un­sus­tain­able num­bers for any broad­caster but okay for sub­scrip­tion ser­vices. This week, Bri­tain’s Royal Tele­vi­sion So­ci­ety sur­mised, given avail­able data, that Net­flix’s ma­jor new se­ries, The Crown, was viewed by

1.2 mil­lion Brits, fewer than the best­watched episode of Game of Thrones on pay TV (two mil­lion) and well off the 10 mil­lion-plus for episodes of BBC hit, The Great Bri­tish Bake Off.

Broad­cast TV is not dead. Screen Aus­tralia’s head of busi­ness and au­di­ence de­scribes it as “weirdly re­silient but look­ing very dif­fer­ent to what it used to”.

TV has passed its peak ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enues and that has been hard to swal­low. Yet re­search sug­gests view­ers aren’t ex­pe­ri­enc­ing any be­havioural changes; high-qual­ity, long-form video con­tent is still as ap­peal­ing as ever.

Fin­layson says ABC TV wants to make its main chan­nel broader, with con­tent “of in­ter­est to peo­ple of all ages”.

“That’s chal­leng­ing,” he says, “but you can do that with the right con­tent.”

In­deed, the ABC suc­cess­fully low­ered the av­er­age age of lis­ten­ers to its youth ra­dio sta­tion, Triple J, from an av­er­age of 39 five years ago. It did this with a mix of pro­gram­ming ini­tia­tives and the in­tro­duc­tion of the Dou­ble J dig­i­tal al­ter­na­tive.

“We think there’s a greater in­ter­est in find­ing fam­ily-based view­ing mo­ments,” Fin­layson said. “They’re rarer but they’re more trea­sured.”

And they have a greater chance of con­nect­ing when broad­cast on tele­vi­sion. Ninety per cent of the pop­u­la­tion still turn on their main TV ev­ery week. “Why would you give up that foothold and reach of TV?” asks a pro­ducer.

A for­mer ABC ex­ec­u­tive agrees. “You can main­tain that broad­cast strength for a very long time and I don’t know why you would get hys­ter­i­cal about the end of TV,” they said. “Dig­i­tal and

• broad­cast are not bi­nary things.”

ABC man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Michelle Guthrie.

MICHAEL BODEY is a me­dia jour­nal­ist and the au­thor of three books on film and tele­vi­sion.

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