Where have all the kids gone?
For many years the 16-to-39 demographic was highly coveted by television networks, but with ongoing competition from online platforms, some say the youth audience has deserted TV altogether. In a feature that first appeared in Encore, Amanda Meade looks at whether this is actually the case.
On Monday night, two of Australian TV’s marquee reality shows will launch their 2013 season against each other: Big Brother on Nine and The X Factor on Seven.
The original fly-on-the wall reality series and the more recent big budget talent search are both vying for the same youthful under-40 audience, a group with unreliable viewing habits but plenty of disposable income that advertisers would like to get their hands on.
So far this year, the top three shows among young Australians have been My Kitchen Rules (Seven), The Voice (Nine) and The Block Sky High (Nine).
Seven programmer Angus Ross says Australian reality shows dominate the lucractive 16-to-39 demographic but both Seven and Nine have not always been this popular with youth audiences. According to figures supplied by Seven, the network has had more young viewers in 2011, 2012 and 2013 than any other time in the last decade.
Although this has since fallen away slightly for Seven, Ten has been harder hit. Ten lost 13.4 per cent of 16-to-39s in this time, Seven lost 2.7 per cent in the first half of this year and 3.3 per cent last year. Nine was the only network to see the 16-to-39 demographic increase with a rise of 6.7 per cent from 2011 to 2012, followed by a further 3.9 per cent increase in the first half of 2013. It’s also worth noting that overall, live free-to-air night-time viewing has decreased by 12 per cent for total audience, with a three per cent drop for the three main commercial channels alone.
While shows like Big Brother and The X Factor appeal to a youth audience, Seven and Nine have never made a point of solely targetting this age bracket, unlike Ten until recently.
Ten – previously the home of event TV with the original Big Brother and the now-defunct Australian Idol – once owned the demo but the network’s new CEO Hamish McLennan has publicly disavowed it in favour of an older, more stable demographic of 25-to-54. “The younger demo are not watching TV like they used to,” McLennan said at last month’s Mumbrella360 conference.
While it is certainly true they’re not watching Channel Ten like they used to when it was unapologetic about being the youth network, audiences under the age of 40 have not abandoned free-to-air television altogether. According to OzTAM survey year data, Ten’s share of 16-to-39s dropped 13.4 per cent from 2011 to 2012 and 16.3 per cent from 2012 to the year to date. While in total people the network trimmed 11.1 per cent off its share, the biggest loss was in the under-40s.
“We would go out of business if we stayed with our traditional demographic of 16-to-39,” McLennan said at Mumbrella360. “That was a massive issue for us. We were getting caught in a narrow band because a lot of viewers in that demo are [recording] or downloading content.”
Seven’s Ross is blunt in his assessment of McLennan’s comments. “Ten is the only commercial network with a decreasing number of younger viewers. They are still watching TV in large numbers,” he says.
“Ten is trying to turn a Ten problem into an industry problem – you will find Seven and Nine are very pleased with their 16-to-39 performance.”
Another argument is that youth audiences, typically more willing to adopt new offerings, have become fragmented by the digital channels. Ten’s McLennan seems to think so.
“The thing that hurt Ten was the advent of the digital channels,” he said at Mumbrella360.
Research provided by analyst Steve Allen from Fusion Strategy supports this claim and shows that digital channels have taken away 25 per cent of the live peak metro free-to-air audience – and mostly from Ten. Seven’s Ross says his network’s digital offerings are certainly appealing to youthful audiences. “7Mate is the leading digital channel in men 16-to-39 and 25-to-54. This is through a combination of targeted US and UK product plus local commissions like Outback Truckers,” says Ross.
Analysis from Fusion Strategy shows that for 16-to-39 year olds, the most popular digital channels are Nine’s GO!, 7Mate and Ten’s Eleven, in that order.
Nine programming executive Hamish Turner, who has responsibility for scheduling digital channels Gem and GO!, says the 16-to-39s are a broad range of viewers who, while difficult to tie down as they watch more TV online and eschew traditional viewing habits, are growing steadily across Nine’s three channels. “What Ten’s Hamish probably meant is that they are harder to get at because their viewing is so broad,” says Turner. “They are quite industrious and seek out their own viewing. The content they want to watch is ubiquitous and they will watch it when they want to watch it.
“They will have their Foxtel Go apps, their ABC iView apps and all these things that enable them to watch across myriad platforms. It’s harder to get them sitting there at 8.30 on a Monday night. Having said that, if you’ve got event television like Big Brother then they’ll come in droves.
“They get their news but they get it through a range of places, online or on their iPad. The 6pm news is very much a 40-plus franchise.”
While Ten is busy getting out of the youth game, another channel is looking to get in. SBS2 relaunched earlier this year as “a bold, provocative channel for younger audiences aged 16-to-39”.
“SBS2 is about re-engaging SBS with younger audiences,” Tony Iffland, SBS’s director of TV and online content, told Encore. “We did a lot of research around what that audience may be like and we came up with the phrase ‘the thinking 20 and 30 somethings’; the generation that is the most travelled, has the best education and is accepting of diversity. It’s harder to serve them on the main channel as their viewing is promiscuous.
“There would be some crossover with a Big Brother audience but it is slightly different. We wanted to create something that was unique. We want those people that are caught between the wild exuberance of youth and the embracing of responsibility.” Thus far, SBS2 has failed to pull a significant audience commanding only 0.5 to 0.7 per cent free-to-air channel share in recent weeks.
Seven’s Ross agrees that young people are promiscuous viewers and that they like to be early adopters of edgy programs but in reality, these sorts of shows are unlikely to appear on networks like his as they don’t have a broad appeal.
“The appeal of the big commercial networks is that you can attract the big, broader audience for the advertiser, so it’s dangerous territory to exclusively target 16-to-39s,” he says.
Fusion Strategy’s Allen, who independently verified the data used in this piece, says that while younger audiences may be fragmenting, the key driver for them switching off the box is not platform competition.
“The decline in 16-to-39 viewing is by no means explained away by take-up in alternative media channels. The biggest problem for free-to-air and especially for Ten is not enough new hit younger programming and no recent big break-out,” says Allen.
While Seven and Nine will be watching closely next week when their reality juggernauts get the ball rolling, the two networks at least have the comfort of proven performance for the formats. Ten, on the other hand, is taking a punt on unproven programs The Bachelor and local drama Wonderland. Yet if they get it right, it would seem that the audience is there for the taking.
This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.