Television’s working holiday
Back in the pre-1991, pre-people meter days, television ratings were recorded by viewers in handwritten diaries. There were eight four-week surveys between February and December each year, and the data was laboriously collated.
It created the system of non-ratings weeks and ratings weeks which still exists today. This now-quaint system saw ratings only collected between week seven and week 48 of the year (excluding two weeks over Easter which were also declared non-ratings), and the television industry went into a slumber during summer from the first week of December – right before the biggest retail spending period of the year. Effectively, this was to give the diligent diary writers a holiday of sorts.
When the ratings went off, repeats filled the schedules, advertising spots were cheaper and viewers were frustrated and bored. Despite the introduction of people meters, this continued for more than a decade.
But in the past five or so years all that has changed.
Networks now run fresh programming over summer and launch shows such as MasterChef: The Professionals and My Kitchen Rules well before the first week of February when ratings begin, as they did this week.
Yet the industry still scores itself between week seven and week 48.
It used to be that these results would set advertising rates, but that has changed also. So why does the industry persist with the non-ratings period despite making a mockery of it?
The funny thing is, few in the industry actually know, and agree it is becoming meaningless. “From an OzTam point of view I don’t shut the factory down. The numbers come out every day at 8.30am and I get calls at 8.30am,” says OzTam CEO Doug Peiffer, whose company records the ratings. “We don’t stop. And the networks don’t stop. There’s just so much content over summer with cricket and tennis and the promotional spots. The US doesn’t stop, and the content has to be fast tracked because the download appetite in Australia is very big, so they can’t hold off those shows for long.
“And the networks are still selling and running adverts over that time.”
Indeed, the networks now offer 52-week rate cards.
Channel Nine sales director Peter Wiltshire agrees it’s an oddity.
“It is an anachronism,” he says.
“From our point of view we are measured every day of the year. The reason it’s done is we try to have a standardisation of how we are measured, because we are so measured. Every day, minute by minute, and if you don’t have a currency around that people just won’t have any framework to use that measure. But I don’t spend any time thinking about those terms – I think about year-to-date, year-on-year.”
The advertising industry agrees. It judges the TV industry on its performance from January 1 to December 31. “I don’t think there should be a non-ratings period,“ says group investment director Alex Pekish of media buying giant Aegis.
“While audiences and involvement may change during the year, advertisers advertise every single day of the year. Furthermore in summer – the traditional non-ratings period – tennis and cricket provide some of the highest ratings of the year.”
Encore’s calls to Free TV Australia chief Julie Flynn to gauge the industry body’s stance on the issue were not returned but Seven’s programmer Angus Ross says there is pressure to compete every day of the year.
“I’ll still get a bollocking any day of the year if we don’t perform,” he says. “We program strongly in summer, and have done so for a number of years. Once the Australian Open starts, it’s game on, and we launch straight out of that. And I’m sure the sponsors of My Kitchen Rules are pretty happy this year. But it’s probably something that needs to be decided at a higher level.”
Which begs the question, who will make the call and will we see the end of the non-ratings period any time soon?