The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

VER­NESA Toro­man and So­phie Kalantzis were meant to be the fu­ture of tele­vi­sion. The Bo­toxlov­ing perma-tanned best friends were the fo­cus of The Shire —a drama-re­al­ity blend, fea­tur­ing a bunch of at­trac­tive, beach­side res­i­dents of gen­er­a­tion Y.

They were not soap stars but real peo­ple and The Shire was a real-life Home and Away, an Aussie ver­sion of the huge in­ter­na­tional ‘‘ dra­mal­ity’’ hits Jersey Shore and The Only Way is Es­sex.

Net­work Ten cer­tainly needed a hit and the me­dia loved the con­cept — and the con­tro­versy about its de­pic­tion of Cronulla — giv­ing it heavy-duty cov­er­age, much to the de­light of the net­work. Its pop­u­lar­ity would show that net­work TV was not a di­nosaur but find­ing new ways to tell a story and at­tract the in­ter­net gen­er­a­tion. Just as the minis­eries was for the 1980s, dra­mal­ity would be the sig­na­ture for­mat for this decade, at a frac­tion of the cost.

View­ers were not fooled. They quickly re­alised the show was de­void of de­cent char­ac­ters and com­pelling sto­ry­telling. It stank. The Shire will go down as the big­gest TV flop of this year; it fin­ished its run last month with just 237,000 view­ers tuned in, a smaller au­di­ence than the one for Bananas in Py­ja­mas on ABC for Kids.To be deemed a hit in 2012 a show on com­mer­cial TV needs to av­er­age about one mil­lion view­ers.

It’s hard to avoid the sense that our com­mer­cial free-to-air chan­nels are un­der great pres­sure. Ten’s rat­ings have been a dis­as­ter this year. In the past month it has launched five new Aus­tralian shows and seen four tank: Ev­ery­body Dance Now, Don’t Tell the Bride, Can of Worms and I Will Sur­vive. Some were al­lowed to limp along, oth­ers were pulled off air af­ter a few nights, ef­fec­tively tear­ing up the $20 mil­lion they cost to make.

Around the dial, heav­ily in­debted Nine may crash into re­ceiver­ship and even mar­ket leader Seven is cut­ting costs. The al­liance that un­der­pinned tele­vi­sion for more than 50 years, the bond be­tween net­works, view­ers and ad­ver­tis­ers, has shat­tered. View­ers are turn­ing else­where: to pay-TV, to il­le­gal piracy, to over­seas, to YouTube. Worse, ad­ver­tis­ers are also turn­ing their backs.

One me­dia ex­ec­u­tive re­marked re­cently that it was the worst ad­ver­tis­ing out­look in mem­ory. It is sober­ing to note that in an Olympics year, sup­pos­edly a high point in the ad­ver­tis­ing cy­cle, the Nine Net­work couldn’t turn a profit from the Games be­cause of lack of spon­sors and the hefty price it paid for the rights (about $72m for the Van­cou­ver and Lon­don event).

Eq­uity an­a­lyst Justin Did­dams, head of me­dia and tele­coms at Cit­i­group, says TV net­works are stuck be­tween a rock and a hard place. ‘‘ On the one hand they would love to show a lot of rich cos­tume dra­mas that at­tract au­di­ences,’’ he says, cit­ing Down­ton Abbey. ‘‘ The re­al­ity is that the au­di­ence model won’t sup­port that kind of in­vest­ment any more. By de­fault, they end up with more cost-ef­fec­tive pro­gram­ming that can be more eas­ily mon­e­tised. That’s not nec­es­sar­ily what the au­di­ence wants but it’s what the mar­ket can sus­tain.’’

Thus the in­ter­minably long runs of The Block segue into in­ter­minably long runs of MasterChef. Big Brother ran for seem­ingly 40 days and 40 nights. ‘‘ The qual­ity of TV is de­clin­ing but the cost of TV is go­ing up,’’ Did­dams says.

The net­works are not sur­ren­der­ing, how­ever. De­spite the chal­lenges, many ex­ec­u­tives are still supremely con­fi­dent about the medium. Their weapons are record bud­gets, a con­cen­tra­tion on lo­cal pro­grams, must-see event TV that can’t be pi­rated and in­vest­ment in tech­nol­ogy that matches the de­mands of au­di­ences for in­stant and flex­i­ble ac­cess.

Nine En­ter­tain­ment co-chief ex­ec­u­tive David Gyn­gell says pri­vately that the coaches on the big­gest hit of the year, tal­ent show The Voice — they in­cluded in­ter­na­tional stars Seal and Keith Ur­ban — had ‘‘ cost a bloody for­tune’’. The net­works have spent record amounts on the rights to the AFL and rugby league, while they will buy into Down­ton ma­nia with lo­cal pe­riod drama in­clud­ing Nine’s Gal­lipoli minis­eries and Seven’s forth­com­ing A Place to Call Home, a landed-gen­try saga set in the 1950s. They want TV to re­main at the cen­tre of the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion.

To com­bat the rise of pay-TV, the net­works struck back with multi-chan­nelling, and view­ers now have 15 chan­nels avail­able for free, such as the pop­u­lar Go! chan­nel from Nine and 7Two from Seven. The best shows on the sec­ondary chan­nels, which are su­per-cheap to run as they show mainly re­peats, can at­tract up to 300,000 view­ers — more than The Shire man­aged on Ten — and those two chan­nels alone at­tract about 10 per cent of the free-toair au­di­ence be­tween them.

On top of the multi-chan­nels, about 30 per cent of Aus­tralians have pay-TV and an in­creas­ing num­ber of Aus­tralians, in par­tic­u­lar younger ones, are mak­ing use of broad­band TV through il­le­gal down­load­ing of TV shows or le­git­i­mate IPTV (TV via in­ter­net) ser­vices such as Big­pond TV and Quick­flix, ser­vices that will be­come com­mon­place as the su­per­fast Na­tional Broad­band Net­work rolls out.

The net­works can’t af­ford to take a back­ward step. It’s not just bad shows such as The Shire that strug­gle in a com­pet­i­tive me­dia en­vi­ron­ment. So do good shows on un­der­per­form­ing plat­forms. Ten’s crit­i­cally ac- claimed and ex­pen­sively pro­duced lo­cal drama Pu­berty Blues should be at­tract­ing an au­di­ence of more than a mil­lion, but its viewer num­bers lan­guish at about 700,000 and be­low.

‘‘ Chan­nel 10 is un­for­tu­nately stuck in a re­verse halo. It is suf­fer­ing be­cause it is not get­ting a cross-pro­mo­tional ben­e­fit. Chan­nel 10 has pro­duced a good show [in Pu­berty Blues]; it just hasn’t got the au­di­ence,’’ Did­dams says.

In to­day’s cli­mate view­ers aren’t in­clined to give net­works the ben­e­fit of the doubt. Last year Ten lost the good­will of view­ers when it dumped the AFL, earn­ing the con­tempt of Mel­bourne, which has larger au­di­ences than Sydney. It caused an even big­ger up­set by in­ter­rupt­ing the MasterChef Aus­tralia fi­nale to show­case a new show called Ren­o­va­tors, thought to be the most ex­pen­sive fail­ure in Aus­tralian TV his­tory. Ten spent at least $20m buy­ing the untested for­mat from pro­duc­tion com­pany Shine Aus­tralia, guar­an­teed ad­ver­tis­ers a cer­tain level of view­ers, and spent the rest of the year mak­ing up the short­fall by of­fer­ing in-kind ads in other pro­grams.

View­ers and in­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als agree the net­works can be mad­den­ing. In­de­pen­dent TV pro­ducer Anita Ja­coby, who cre­ated TV hits in­clud­ing Enough Rope and Gruen Planet with her for­mer part­ner at Zapruder’s Other Films, An­drew Den­ton, says: ‘‘ The feel­ing among the pun­ters is that free-to-air needs to lift its game. View­ers are a lot more savvy than they used to be. They know when net­works play episodes out of or­der or mix up new episodes and re­peats. They are also jack of pro­grams say­ing they are start­ing on the hour when they don’t. That hap­pens to me week in and week out with Crim­i­nal Minds. I miss the end­ing ev­ery time.’’

David Knox, who runs the coun­try’s most in­flu­en­tial TV blog, TV Tonight, has four years of data he has col­lected from his read­ers that show view­ers are frus­trated with the level of ser­vice from the broad­cast­ers.

‘‘ There are al­ways three key com­plaints that res­onate with view­ers,’’ Knox says. ‘‘ They are late start­ing and fin­ish­ing times, in­ac­cu­rate elec­tronic pro­gram guides and the fail­ure to com­plete a se­ries run. All three are linked to a lack of con­sis­tent sched­ul­ing and view­ers are un­able to make in­formed de­ci­sions. Strate­gies de­signed to stop view­ers from chan­nel­switch­ing ac­tu­ally un­der­mine the level of trust with the au­di­ence.’’

The chief ex­ec­u­tive of Free TV Aus­tralia, the in­dus­try body re­spon­si­ble for lob­by­ing on be­half of the free-to-air net­works, is Julie Flynn. Flynn passes the buck to ‘‘ in­di­vid­ual pro­gram­mers’’ for late start­ing times, but adds: ‘‘ A lot of tele­vi­sion is live and you can’t al­ways pre­dict when a pro­gram is go­ing to end.’’

Piracy re­mains a big threat to net­work TV. Dex­ter, the pop­u­lar show about a se­rial killer screened here on Fox­tel, was the world’s most pi­rated TV show last year with a stag­ger­ing 3.62 mil­lion il­le­git­i­mate down­loads an episode. In the US, more peo­ple watched it il­le­gally than le­git­i­mately on ca­ble TV, where the au­di­ence was 2.19 mil­lion for a sin­gle episode.

Some thought the grad­ual au­di­ence de­cline for US melo­drama Re­venge on Seven, which de­buted with two mil­lion view­ers ear­lier in the year but slipped to 1.22 mil­lion af­ter Easter, was be­cause the au­di­ence, weaned on box sets they could binge on with mul­ti­ple episodes, sim­ply got im­pa­tient and took the episodes off the net fresh from the US. One study, by Au­di­ence De­vel­op­ment Aus­tralia, found that for 25 to 54-year-olds in Sydney and Mel­bourne, 30 per cent of TV view­ing was through il­le­gal down­load­ing.

The prac­tice is hav­ing an ef­fect not just on ad rev­enues but on TV’s share of the ad­ver­tis­ing pie. Re­cent fig­ures from the Com­mer­cial Eco­nomic Ad­vi­sory Ser­vice of Aus­tralia show free-to-air TV ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue slid 2.6 per cent to $1.65 bil­lion for the first half of the year. TV was still the medium that at­tracted most ad rev­enue, with a 24.4 per cent slice of the ad­ver­tis­ing pie. But this was down from 24.9 per cent a year ago, while on­line ad­ver­tis­ing soared 24 per cent in the same pe­riod to $1.63bn. The next sur­vey is expected to show on­line sur­pass­ing TV.

As head lob­by­ist Flynn, un­sur­pris­ingly


The ABC’s Arul Baskaran

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