THE AUDIENCE SIMPLY GOT IMPATIENT AND TOOK THE EPISODES OFF THE NET
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