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‘I hope the others fail’ – Competition between free-to-air networks heats up

The official ratings season is well underway, and every network is claiming a few victories - but how did the battle really play out? Vivienne Kelly spoke with the free-to-air commercial networks to find out what happened in Q1 and their plans for Q2.

The first quarter of 2017 kicked off with a three-way reality ratings battle in which viewers could tune into the jungle (Ten’s I’m a Celebrity), the kitchen (Seven’s My Kitchen Rules) or the altar (Nine’s Married At First Sight).

At the start of 2017, the networks weren’t underestimating the scale of the battle they were facing. The first quarter can determine a network’s success for the year ahead and make or break a slate of upcoming programs.

So it’s no surprise that as Nine’s Married at First Sight, Ten’s I’m a Celebrity and Seven’s My Kitchen Rules fought for viewers, they were all claiming various victories on different nights, with key advertising demographics and pointing out how strong their performance was.

The narrative quickly shifted as Ten moved on from I’m a Celebrity, and brought back the transformed version of The Biggest Loser – a series which aspired to be less aggressive, more inspirational and featured “more relatable” overweight contestants.

The show failed to resonate and was the subject of various scheduling changes, as Ten tried to readjust its plans and win back viewers from what was rapidly becoming a two-horse race between Nine and Seven.

The headlines in Q1 very much wrote-off Ten’s performance, and focussed on the runaway bride, gossip, drama and intrigue of Married and the kitchen battles and inappropriate dinner-table language of MKR. To many, Ten wasn’t even in the race anymore, but the network has a different story to tell.

“Ten has had a strong start to 2017,” contends Ten’s chief content officer, Beverley McGarvey. “In weeks seven to 11 this year, we had our highest network share in total people and under 55s since 2012. And in weeks 1 to 11, we had our third-highest network commercial share in 25 to 54s since the OzTAM system started in 2001.”

“We’re delighted that so many Australians enjoyed the KFC Big Bash League this year, which was once again was a smash hit across summer and dominated its timeslot. I’m A Celebrity also resonated with viewers like never before, with its television audience increasing 10% in a highly competitive timeslot. Its grand finale part two episode was up 37% year-on-year. I’m A Celebrity was also a major success on social media and online: its audience on TenPlay, for example, more than doubled compared with the 2016 series.”

Despite all the networks claiming mini victories, Seven contends it still has the number one show on television – an achievement it believes is all the more noteworthy given Nine’s improved performance and the buzz generated by Married.

“You can’t expect every year for Nine to have a string of disasters like they did last year,” quips Seven’s director of programming, Angus Ross.

“And unfortunately for us, they didn’t bring back Australia’s Got Talent and a raft of other shows. So we always knew that obviously Married was a successful show and we knew they were going to lift their game this year.

“The thing that gets lost in all this is that MKR is still the number one show on television, and that’s how Q1 is going to finish – with MKR as the top show.”

Michael Stephenson however, the chief sales officer at Nine Entertainment Co, unsurprisingly sees Married as the success story of Q1.

For it to do 1.988m people for the finale nationally, in anyone’s language, that’s a breakaway success,” he says.

“But what’s important to me I think is the percentage of the audience that was 25-54. We said to everybody when we unveiled our plan for 2017 that we would be focused on two things – which is grow our audience in thousands, but more importantly do it in the demographics: 16-39, 25-54, and grocery buyers with kids – and [the Married finale] was an amazing success based on the percentage of its audience that was 25-54.”

Reinventing the wheel
The networks may all think the Q1 ratings battle was intense and innovative – but there’s no denying that it was three established, formulaic programs in the same genre competing for viewers’’ attention.

Are any of them nervous that viewers might wake up one day and tire of the same story lines, the same dramas and the same formulas? What if Australia falls out of love with MKR, the same way they moved on from The Biggest Loser?

Seven’s Ross says whilst nothing is guaranteed, he can’t see people tuning out of MKR or Married anytime soon.

Seven’s Angus Ross: “You have to surprise people each year”

“We do reinvent the show [MKR] each year. We always at the end of the season go back and look at that season, look what worked, what didn’t and look at how we can tweak the show to make it a better experience for viewers. How can we surprise viewers the next year?

“The core elements of the show will always remain the same, but there are always changes that we can make to make it a little more interesting. I mean you have to surprise people each year, you can’t just roll out the same show.”

Nine’s reinvention this year was largely centred on drastically extending Married’s run. It went from eight to 29 episodes. Nine is so confident viewers won’t tired of Married – that moving into 2018, it could be on audiences’ screens for even longer.

“We’ve taken it from eight to 29 episodes. We felt really confident. It was in the safe hands of Endemol Shine to produce that. I think that was the right timeframe, but what we have done is we’ve uncovered these other opportunities because people have got this thirst for knowing more and getting inside each of the relationships and each of the stories that are unfolding. So, whilst I think this year it was the right size, I think there are more opportunities to extend it into the future,” says Nine’s Stephenson.

Reinvention, however, is no guarantee of success – Ten’s The Biggest Loser: Transformed being a textbook example of this.

Ten acknowledges the show didn’t go to plan, but says all they can do is learn and move on.

“It is true that The Biggest Loser: Transformed did not resonate with viewers as we had hoped and we will fix that part of the schedule for 2018,” says McGarvey.

“The Biggest Loser: Transformed team did a great job but very occasionally these things don’t work. A variety of factors may have led to its performance, including the timing of the show, the strength of the competition and possibly a bit of brand fatigue.”

Beverley McGarvey: Ten’s schedule will be fixed for 2018

Seven’s Ross says despite Loser’s struggles, Ten can take heart from other successful reinventions.

“I was surprised when it was renewed,” he says of The Biggest Loser. “I’m sure they had their reasons and were confident they had a show that would work. The great thing about all these formats, whether it’s Loser, Masterchef, anything, is that they can always be reinvented. So I guess they thought they’d reinvented it enough to make a difference – and there have been shows that have been successfully reinvented.”

Where to from here?
Seven may have had a strong start to 2017 with MKR which could put the network on the front foot moving into Q2, but the show is due to conclude on April 30, and a whole new reality franchise battle is about to kick off.

“The battle is going to be House Rules [Seven] versus The Voice [Nine] versus Masterchef [Ten] – that will be the key 7:30pm battleground,” Ross says, acknowledging, it might be more of a three-way battle than Q1.

“Well I have to be confident in our own offering, obviously,” says Ross of whether Seven can maintain its momentum.

Nine is also confident in its Q2 slate, and says it won’t be distracted by the other networks.

“Our focus doesn’t change. I don’t unfortunately have a crystal ball,” says Stephenson. “Our focus isn’t changing. We feel really good about our content. We’re focussed on growing our audience of 25-54s, I think we’ll keep doing that. I feel really good about Q2. When you put in The Voice with Last Resort, House of Bond and Love Child, those big Australian formats, big Australian stories into the schedule, I think we’ll continue our ratings momentum.”

The race, he concedes, could only just be beginning.

“Our focus is on creating the best Australian content and distributing that across every platform. We’re really focussed on our own game and we have got off to a great start, but it’s a marathon not a sprint. We’ve only just started the year. We’ve got a long way to go. But, we do feel confident in the most humble way that we have a strategy which is around creating great content, distributing it broadly to ultimately grow audiences and that’s where we’re at at the moment.”

Nine’s Michael Stephenson: “Our focus doesn’t change”

Ten has a steep climb ahead of it, as despite early successes with The Big Bash in the non-ratings season and a solid-enough performance from I’m a Celebrity, the network’s ongoing issues with The Biggest Loser put it in a difficult position to woo viewers back for Masterchef’s debut.

Seven’s Ross knows what it’s like to be on the backfoot, but says we shouldn’t write off Ten’s 2017 based on a disappointing Q1.

“Look, I know what it feels like when something doesn’t work. It drags your whole schedule down. They are great when they work. When they don’t work, it’s a nightmare. I’ve walked in those shoes before and it’s not pleasant. Removing shows from the schedule is a painful process. People put a lot of work into these shows and when they don’t resonate, it’s very, very disappointing.”

Ten acknowledges the show didn’t go to plan, but says all they can do is learn and move on.

“We need to learn from The Biggest Loser: Transformed, move on, and focus on the great content we have coming up for the rest of the year,” McGarvey says, citing The Bachelor Australia, The Bachelorette Australia, Australian Survivor and Gogglebox as example’s of the network’s track record.

Basically, says McGarvey, Ten may be down, but they’re not out.

“We are very confident in the quality, appeal and potential of our next round of programs. We have been challenged in the pre-Easter period a few times over the past few years and always ensure our audience know when Masterchef Australia is on. This year is no different. Of course this challenging ratings period is making us extremely diligent in how we communicate and market our shows, but that is true every year.”

They might not agree on much, but the networks can all agree on this: the Q2 battle is going to be fierce.

“Commercial free-to-air television is always competitive, which is great for the viewers and pushes us all to service them better. The 7.30pm timeslot at the top of the week will remain the most competitive area for the foreseeable future,” says McGarvey.

“Look, they are all strong shows, The Voice, Masterchef and House Rules, all with proven track records. You’d have to say the battle is going to be pretty intense. I’m not foolish enough to come out and say ‘This is going to dominate. This is going to fail’ – all the shows have a track record that’s impressive,” says Ross.

“Obviously I hope the others fail, but as we know, hope is not a strategy”.

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