Entertainment TV Why the TV networks don’t care about you
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Why the TV networks don’t care about you

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Australians hunt for two things around Easter. Chocolate eggs. And any hint of information about when their favourite television program is likely to go to air.

While the networks beg viewers to vote in the Logie Awards, when it comes to decisions about scheduling shows, the audience is merely collateral – and occasionally collateral damage – in the process.

If you wondered why all the ads for The Voice – ever present on the buses, trams, trains and cabs of Australia for the last few months – failed to mention a start date, it’s because the Nine Network didn’t have one.

While television ratings represent viewers, for the free-to-air networks, the audience are not the clients. That honour goes to the advertisers.

In fact, as recently as the Wednesday before the Logies, the network was still toying with the idea of launching the ratings goliath on the night of the awards. They were torn. They wanted to win the first night of the new ratings window, but they also wanted to hurt their rivals.

Oh and of course they wanted you, the viewer to experience the best night’s entertainment as well. Yeah, sure they did.

The holiday is over, Baby

Based on historical notions of family travel periods and viewer behaviour, the official television ratings run by OzTam has two non-ratings periods. The well known one is the large block of around two months over Summer, otherwise known as the ‘dead television Christmas period’.

Manu Feildel and Pete Evans from MKR. Photo: Supplied
Manu Feildel and Pete Evans from MKR. Photo: Supplied

The second is a fortnight over Easter, shifting each year in line with the religious holiday’s timing, where ratings and the networks pause for breath after the first few months of competition. It is a far less logical gap than the summer break – when it is presumed families take advantage of additional daylight hours to hop off the sofa.

Regardless of the motive, the effect is a second starting line for the ratings year – and a strange break in broadcast for shows like My Kitchen Rules. Traditionally that starting line is Logies night, when Nine until recently were granted a free kick by the other networks as the host broadcaster of the event. Seven and Ten did not schedule big, new or even shiny programs against the awards.

When in 2012 Seven and Ten chose to compete with the Logies, by programming Dancing With The Stars and MasterChef on the same night, Nine responded by launching The Voice before the ceremony. It worked. The spinning chair talent quest took off to the point where fans have been anxiously waiting since the beginning of the year for word of when the show would return, complete with new judges Kylie and will.i.am. Surely it would be Logies night again?

The answer from the network was a definite maybe.

What viewers want doesn’t matter. You want to plan your Sunday viewing? Tough. You want to be able to watch both of your favourite reality shows? Heresay. Just sit down and watch what you’re told.

And the winner is

Seven had dominated ratings for the first part of this year with My Kitchen Rules. The cooking-cum-soap opera had held off competition from The Block to prove the first ratings champion of 2014 and the network were keen to piggy back the launch of its renovation-based cousin House Rules on to that success.

The powers-that-be at Nine however saw House Rules as vulnerable after its weak start last May, but also as a threat. Last year the average weekly audience for the renovation show jumped from a paltry 758,000 in the five major metropolitan capitals for its first week last year to an impressive 1.2 million by the week before the final. The thought that it might pick up where it left off was threatening.

The best defence for Nine would be to counter-program the House Rules season launch. Schedule a guaranteed winner in the same time slot. And the biggest stick they carry in that regard is The Voice. They just needed to know when House Rules was going to land so that they could scorch the earth.

It was the perfect recipe for a game of chicken. Which of Seven or Nine would blink and announce an air-date first? Promotion opportunities and TV guide listing deadlines

AAP
Singer Ricky Martin’s face has been plastered across public transports ahead of 2014 The Voice premier. Photo: AAP

came and went as neither network would confirm their Sunday line up. Finally Seven left the Logies alone and scheduled House Rules for the Wednesday after the MKR finale. Nine were safe to hold The Voice for another week and held an unusual event on the Today show to provide some notional fanfare to their announcement of the season’s start. Eventually the Logies night proved the quietest post-Easter break Sunday for years.

Reality bites

Don’t for one minute doubt that they would have launched The Voice with four days notice if required. In their minds the audience is just waiting with nothing better to do.

While television ratings represent viewers, for the free-to-air networks, the audience are not the clients. That honour goes to the advertisers. Instead, the audience are part of the product: an appropriate show with a desirable fanbase who will consume the advertiser’s goods.

Many in the industry love to complain (particularly in piracy debates) that viewers believe television is free, failing to note that it is more than 50 years of conditioning that has induced such a belief.

Many in the industry love to complain (particularly in piracy debates) that viewers believe television is free, failing to note that it is more than 50 years of conditioning that has induced such a belief. The networks for their part make their own fallible assumption: that a show’s audience are waiting, twiddling their thumbs, for the return of their favourite show. Their twisted Field of Dreams rationale is simply: if they air it, you will come.

What viewers want doesn’t matter. You want to plan your Sunday viewing? Tough. You want to be able to watch both of your favourite reality shows? Heresay. Just sit down and watch what you’re told.

Seriously?

Even Network Ten, the ‘other’ commercial network who have stumbled and tripped their way into fourth in the ratings race behind the ABC, continue to treat viewers with disdain. Two years ago they launched a risky talent search based on Priscilla Queen of the Desert called I Will Survive. Imperfect but enjoyable it was, like its movie parent, incredibly quirky. Good programming would have seen it nurtured to find an audience, help those who like a bit of singing hop on the bus. So Ten launched it in competition to The X Factor. The singing reality fans had to choose. They did.

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Carrie Bickmore hosts So You Think You Can Dance on Ten. Photo: Ten

Ten did the same thing this year with So You Think You Can Dance. Begged by those working on the production to give it a time slot with oxygen, Ten insisted on putting it up against not one but two reality heavy weights: MKR and The Block. It lost. By the time station chiefs realised their mistake and pushed it to the otherwise empty Thursday, it was too late.

Ironically last week the networks somewhat disproved their own accepted wisdom regarding Thursdays.

For several years the ratings week effectively ended on Wednesday. A self-fulfilling prophecy dictated that the audience wasn’t big enough on Thursday or the weekend, so decent programming wasn’t scheduled. But, once House Rules started on the Wednesday Seven wanted to keep momentum so they put episode two on Thursday.

Nine responded with their most consistent short-notice ratings winner: The Big Bang Theory. The result was the third-best audience this year for the sitcom which won the night. House Rules found 300,000 more viewers than the corresponding episode last year and almost topped the ‘magic’ one million mark that represents success for commercial networks. The only show that failed to rate was the So You Think You Can Dance final, with 495,000 tuning in for the announcement.

Can you hear the people sing?

Ten weren’t listening though or if they were they misheard. Desperate for success with MasterChef this year after it stumbled on the back of MasterChef Professionals in 2013, Ten’s programmers have chosen Monday at 7.30pm to launch the new series. Placing it in direct competition with House Rules and The Voice.

Once again viewers are the losers. You have to choose a side even if you don’t want to. Sure, you can record it but in the age of second screen social media engagement, reality television is more and more about the live shared experience.

Oh and Seven and Nine have both abandoned Thursday again.

Seven have already begun their advertising campaign for The X Factor. It’s ‘coming soon’ we’re told. Just as soon as they know when Nine plan to finish The Voice that is.

As for you, well you’ve got nothing better to do right?

Giles Hardie is a television, film and arts critic. 

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