This week we saw the confirmation of what many have suspected for the last couple of years.
Free-to-air (FTA) television is indeed dying.
Undoubtedly the market leader, the Seven Network confirmed that season three of their big Sunday night period drama A Place To Call Home would not go into production (even though it has been written) and that it would play out the remaining eps of season two and end it with the already recorded cliffhanger.
“But it’s just one show, and a poor rip-off of Downton Abbey at that,” I hear you claim.
While there are elements of truth in your protestation, let’s look at what’s played out in the 2014 ratings year already…
No question reality television is on the (Network-supported) upswing: already this year we’ve seen hits with the fifth and highest rating season to date of My Kitchen Rules; a blockbuster result for the eighth season The Block, at least at auction; the third season of The Voice Australia started strong though has as expected softened in the middle but is expected to return with strength once the Top 12(!) are determined; the second season of House Rules is starting to deliver MKR-style; and even the grandaddy of the crop MasterChef Australia in it’s tenth season (including Kids, All Stars & Professionals) is seeing a slight resurgence and has been slated for a return in 2015.
The only thing that didn’t fire in an Australian-produced reality show was the ninth season of The Biggest Loser Australia. The less said about that, the better.
PLUS we still have seasons of The X Factor, The Voice Australia Kids, Big Brother, Recipe to Riches and ANOTHER season of The Block to come before the end of November.
Each of these shows represent significant investment for the Networks that present them. Producers, sets, entire multi-story buildings, tens of contestants, camera teams, editors by the thousands – it costs a lot of money to make this schedule-eating “tent pole” programming.
So they promote it. A LOT. They build dreams around it (“This will change your life”). They tease out the contestants through the media and their own vehicles to build it further. Then, when it rates, we can’t just have one episode of a week filled with tears/stories/journeys, we have to have multiple episodes filled with recaps of what happened just before the break/last night/last week on the show. It keeps us engaged and “in the moment” so we feel we can never leave the show. Integrate advertising so that we pick up revenue in the show to reassure advertisers their message is getting across despite people skipping ad breaks. Layer in the idea of you commenting about the show on social media and that comment appearing ON-SCREEN ON A NATIONAL TV SHOW during the broadcast and you’ve got televisual crack.
All the Networks need to do is keep pushing it, though the TV equivalent of jacking up the price is turning what should be an hour ep into one hour forty.
Stretch the commitment from the viewer. Engage. Snag them and don’t let them go. Add sneak peeks of what’s coming up in short bursts in the ad break so they don’t switch over. Maintain the average. Don’t let the minute-by-minute figures drop.
All this then turns average people into household names and delivers them their 15 minutes of fame, and the Network their $15,000,000 ROI. Per contestant.
It also then turns their schedule to mush.
Viewers continue to be outraged over the timing “creep” these mostly pre-recorded shows then deliver when they’re on. Renovation shows know well in advance what their show length is for any given episode yet an hour of MKR quickly became 72 or 78 minutes. Then hour-long eps just transformed into 90 minute epics (that still run longer than the 9pm advertised finish time). All to keep the viewer hooked and to spoil the start of the next competing show on the other Networks.
They’ve had enough and are either sourcing the US drama they want to watch elsewhere to view on their own terms, are just flat out giving up on Aussie drama. How can they be expected to keep up when their favourite shows are continually pushed back, changed, dropped or bounced around in the schedule making them near impossible to find?
It’d never happen to a reality TV episode. Too much rests on the weary heads of those contestants to have it be chopped and changed like that. Reality TV holds up the FTA Network’s schedules with the view that people will then hang around to watch the next thing. They’re not.
Over the last week we’ve had epic volumes of reality – 3 hours of The Voice; 5.1 hours of MasterChef & a massive 6.25 hours of House Rules. This is just the first runs of these too as they’re getting next day encores, mulitchannel replays and Saturday/Sunday binge replays!
If you’re watching one of those shows (and given the numbers most FTA viewers are) that’s a sizeable commitment. How do you fit in anything else? The numbers say you don’t.
Once the reality show on each channel finishes the numbers taper off sharply and are not hanging around.
The idea was the reality show would draw them in and the Networks could drop in their drama/imported product off the back and get big sunset numbers to build the audience. But people just aren’t hanging around.
Sure people are choosing to move outside the linear broadcast model of TV to source their content to watch it when they want, to ensure they see the episodes in order (enough cannot be said about that) and/or to see it as quickly as possible to US airdate – but the latter isn’t possible for first run Australian drama.
A Place To Call Home struggled with its return this year and even though it regularly wins 8:30pm Sunday for Seven it was drawing the wrong demo in its softer numbers. House Husbands season three kicked off this week to weaker numbers than it has ever seen for a premiere. In response Nine are moving it the week after next to launch off the back of The Voice Australia Kids on Sunday nights. Offspring, though in its fifth season, is much softer too (likely reflective of the endemic problems at Ten at the moment) and at best only has one season to run. Winners and Losers will return shortly with the “missing” three episodes os season three before continuing with the newly minted season four. And, yes, Ten are still making more eps of Wonderland