Programming to win

In his first four months in the job, Seven’s new programming boss Angus Ross has faced tough competition from rival networks and seen his key shows take a ratings dip, but he tells Brooke Hemphill the game is only just getting started.

Torrential rain is pelting against the windows of Seven’s offices in Sydney’s Pyrmont as Angus Ross poses for Encore’s photographer. “Let’s go for a less serious shot,” the photographer suggests. “Can I get a smile?” Ross acquiesces although he tells the photographer: “You haven’t caught me on my best day.” 

Seven director of programming Angus Ross

Indeed, it’s less than half an hour since the ratings results dropped for the evening prior and for the third night in a row, Seven has been creamed by Nine’s talent series The Voice. As Ross explains, Seven doesn’t like to lose. “If you want to talk about the culture of Seven, we certainly don’t enjoy losing. I can give you the tip on that,” Ross will later explain. And after claiming ratings victory for the first quarter of 2012, and for 18 months straight, they’re a little out of practice.

Ross was appointed Seven’s director of programming in February after Tim Worner, director of programming and production, was promoted to CEO of the network. His role was effectively split with Ross taking on the programming half and Brad Lyons stepping up to head of production.

After 12 years with the company, it was a natural progression for Ross, an acquisitions executive who, prior to joining the network, was a consultant for Audience Development Australia, the company responsible for the now defunct on-air talent measurement, the Q Scores. Ross worked with the networks on pilot testing and focus groups, an ideal training ground. “That was where I first met all the program directors from all the networks. I started to get an understanding of ratings, scheduling and what the audience actually wants. It was pretty good grounding before I came to Seven,” says Ross.

He was initially drawn to television by the power of the medium which continues to excite him. “It’s still amazing the impact TV can have on popular culture. When you’ve got several million people all enjoying a program together and talking about it, that’s immensely satisfying. When you program something that really resonates with an audience, it’s an enjoyable thing,” says Ross.

And Seven’s shows certainly resonate with their target audience of women aged 25 to 54 with standout results in 2011 and the start of 2012. “We came out extremely strong in the first quarter with My Kitchen Rules, Please Marry My Boy and Revenge and we absolutely dominated the first quarter, but second quarter’s always a whole new game and we’re only in the opening couple of minutes at the moment,” says Ross.

While the media is currently fixated on the performance of Nine’s new talent show, Seven continues to quietly kick goals with formats including Dancing With The Stars, now in its fifth season, and Packed To The Rafters, which still pull more than a million viewers a piece during their timeslots, gaining additional audience share from viewers recording the programs for later viewing, in industry parlance time-shifting.

In the coming months, Seven will roll out another series of the Amazing Race Australia, alongside more curious offerings including socialite Brynne Edelsten’s reality series, a rumoured prime-time vehicle for Seven’s recent recruit Kerri-Anne Kennerley, and a period drama series, A Place To Call Home, from the creators of Packed To The Rafters.

“Every show you launch, whether it’s been a proven performer overseas or not, is a risk. If you don’t get nervous the morning after you’ve launched a new show, you’re not human. A lot of things have to come together. As well as a program being an extremely good production it has to be well marketed,” says Ross.

And with today’s media savvy audiences with all manner of viewing options, marketing is key to getting viewers in front of the box. In this new-media world, Seven has shown it still knows how to draw a crowd with the recent example US drama Revenge which the network launched after the Australian Open.

Ross says: “With US content from the past couple of years, you sometimes talk yourself down with the numbers it’s going to get. Online piracy is obviously a problem. When we launched Revenge it had been playing in the US for five months so it was very satisfying to get the result we did, which was the highest numbers for a US drama since 2006.”

But right now for all of the networks, the real value is in locally produced formats as demonstrated by the success of The Voice and the return of Ten’s MasterChef. “That is the sort of program that’s resonating with audiences – big characters in a kind of soap opera that runs over several days a week. That’s what people are looking for and that’s why there’s been an explosion in local production over the past two to three years after a number of years of dominance of US production,” says Ross. Given the ongoing response to grand scale formats, or ‘shiny floor’ shows as the networks like to call them, it would be safe to assume Ross is on the look out for the next big franchise.

“When you’re a programmer you always feel like you’re one show short,” he says but, acknowledges the formats delivering ratings across the globe are already sewn up. He proposes a different approach.“We like to think, with our very strong production arm here led by Brad Lyons, that we have the people to create formats we can export around the world. There’s a lot of interest around My Kitchen Rules in the UK and the US based on the numbers it achieved this year.”

Already smarting from Nine’s ratings revival, the next couple of months will provide a new set of challenges for Ross. Firstly, Nine’s Olympics broadcast from the end of July.

“We’re going to continue with our regular programming targeting the audience that is least attracted to the Olympics. We also feel with the time zone difference, there is an opportunity,” says Ross. The other opportunity during the sporting event and beyond is the digital channels 7Mate and 7Two. While the network’s main channel has the female demographic locked down,with 7Two acting as an extension of the offering with catch-up viewing, movies and comedy series, 7Mate caters to men aged 16 to 49 providing a spread of alternate viewing.

But while the public benefits from the additional channels, it’s still less so for local content producers. Ross says: “Most of our ad revenue is still on the main channel and the budget we have for digital channels is significantly smaller. We’re certainly not averse to commissioning programs for the digital channels but they have to be based around a financial model that would make them cost effective.”

Ross will clearly have his hands full for the coming months and while the ratings race for 2012 is in its early days, so too is Ross in this role.

“I’m really enjoying what I’m doing,” he says. “There’s a responsibility to ensure Seven maintains a leadership position by delivering programming that cuts through and resonates with the public consciousness. I’ve got my dream job at the moment for sure.”

This piece first appeared in Encore magazine. Subscribe to the print edition here or download the iPad edition here.

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