Media buyers on falling linear ratings and whether VOZ will actually change anything

A number of commercial tentpole programs have lost metro viewers in 2021 compared with last year. Mumbrella's Zanda Wilson chats with Pearman Media's Steve Allen, Magna's Nick Durrant, Wavemaker's Sarah Starkey and Nunn Media's Chris Walton about whether it's fair to compare 2020's lockdown ratings with this year, if VOZ will change the game, and whether media agencies even care about overnight ratings.

Commercial network television’s major tentpole programs have, so far in 2021, failed to deliver similar results in OzTam’s linear TV ratings, when compared with 2020.

One of the biggest examples of drop-off comes with Ten’s MasterChef Australia, which regularly hit over one million metro viewers in 2020 and hasn’t gone anywhere close to that this year. The program premiered to 1.268 million across metro markets in 2020, but this year fell to 670,000 at launch.

Big Brother is another program currently airing that is yet to match its 2020 ratings. The program launched with 662,000 metro viewers this year watching the ‘arrival’, compared with 853,000 metro viewers last year.

Even for a juggernaut like Nine’s Married At First Sight – one of the few entertainment programs to regularly break the one million metro viewer mark – this year’s launch of 964,000 metro viewers was down on 2020’s 1.154 million viewer launch (its highest ever).

One or two programs have bucked the trend, to some extent, so far in 2021. I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of here actually had more metro viewers (1.031 million) for its 2021 launch compared to 2020, and similar numbers to 2019.

Meanwhile, Dancing With The Stars: All-Stars had a bigger launch this year compared to 2020, though bringing back former contestants is a tactic that tends to boost ratings for reality television.

As Magna managing director, Nick Durrant, points out, shows like I’m A Celebrity… and MAFS took place at the start of the year, and so they didn’t see as much of a COVID-driven upturn in 2020.

“The thing we absolutely saw in that first round of national lockdowns were significant upticks in viewing. And certain shows like MasterChef certainly caught the zeitgeist of the moment,” he tells Mumbrella

“Nobody could reasonably compare last year’s performance to this year’s performance. We would expect audiences to be down on that COVID period. You could clearly see the update in viewing, you would attribute that to COVID and you would expect that would disappear this year.

“It’s unsurprising that those shows [MAFS and I’m A Celebrity…] were out in January, February and March – the ones that aren’t performing as well are really those that got a boost from that overall COVID period.”

So why are we seeing the results we are seeing in linear television ratings this year, and was 2020 a false turnaround amid years of falling linear ratings?

A downward trajectory

Pearman Media director of strategy and research, Steven Allen, tells Mumbrella a large number of factors have come together to fundamentally change and disrupt viewing habits.

COVID lockdowns and a greater portion of viewers embracing BVOD are just a couple that spring to mind.

“It is pretty clear the combination of 2020 COVID year, working from home, streaming services and resultant uptake, disruption to program production, disruption to scheduling, [and] spasmodic lockdowns in many/most states encouraged a large number of potential and historic viewers to change what previously could/would have been viewing habits,” he says.

“Some have gone to catch up or BVOD, and those numbers have and are trending up.”

Steve Allen

These factors have come together to create, Allen says, “an unfortunate coincidence of many factors, most of which could not be forecast nor predicted”.

“The result is, we believe, a permanent change in viewing by a sizeable section of the population. Hence in all practicality, a consistent trend in viewership of free to air commercial TV, down in average audiences in peak night.”

Despite lockdowns boosting linear ratings last year, Allen believes that they also pushed people onto streaming services, and it would take something significant to change this.

“Until a new blockbuster multi-night Australian program comes along, this trend is unlikely to change. The Olympics could well ameliorate this pattern, we feel sure that is what Seven are hoping for.”

Wavemaker Sydney investment director, Sarah Starkey, says it’s important to remember that downward trending linear television audiences are nothing new.

“Fragmentation has for a long time been the most significant contributing factor, as audiences seek out on-demand content, commercial or otherwise,” she tells Mumbrella.

“What we are seeing in the past year is the dramatic rise of connected TV (CTV) ownership in Australia. This is getting content – and advertising – in front of audiences in new ways.

“We’re seeing it within GroupM with demand for addressable advertising on CTV through Finecast. Richard Murray, [former] JB Hi-Fi boss, even warned earlier this year that shoppers could expect stock shortages on televisions because demand is so high for connected TVs. As CTV ownership expands and more premium content emerges.”

Nunn Media managing director, Chris Walton, adds that there is a swathe of new consumer behaviour and habits that have contributed to falling linear ratings.

“Watching free to air television is one of only several uses that the TV screen is used for, so ratings will continue to trend lower as watching of BVOD, streaming services and YouTube increase.

“My understanding is that 40% of all households now have a Smart TV, and of course getting one opens up the doorway to accessing all non-linear TV content,” he continues.

“It is the simple catalyst that changes viewing patterns throughout an entire household, especially amongst older adults and this is being felt now. Younger adults and kids have grown up viewing content on their phones and tablets.”

Magna’s Durrant agrees with Starkey that 2021’s ratings shouldn’t be looked at in isolation, and certainly aren’t a surprise for anyone in media.

“The key is that declining TV ratings are very much a long-term trend. This isn’t the first year ratings were down. Though on an absolute level, it’s probably the biggest decline we’ve seen, or certainly the biggest decline in the last three or four years,” he says.

“This is part of a trend where people are getting their video entertainment in other places. A key one is probably the BVOD environment where you can take from a smorgasbord of programs that you like, and watch at your leisure.

“I think the extent of the decline this year is surprising, but the fact that it is declining shouldn’t be surprising to anyone.”

Nick Durrant

BVOD is also a factor, concurs Durrant. “The increase in BVOD numbers actually grew faster than SVOD usage over the course of last year.

“The networks are actually catering for the change in audience demand, because people want to have greater control over how they consume TV. But it’s still a very powerful medium.”

Will VOZ change the game?

Current measurement technology is no longer adequate to capture a holistic picture of television viewership, according to Starkey.

“Programs that might not be reaching the million-metro viewer mark on linear TV are smashing live streaming and catch-up records,” she says.

“Granted, it’s becoming more challenging for broadcasters to reach the audience heights of years gone by, however legacy methodology is no longer enough, and linear numbers only paint half the picture. Audiences have shifted how they consume content.”

She explains that VOZ, which is currently in development and promises to measure linear and BVOD audiences together, will deliver important transparency when it hits the market.

“We know that the development of the VOZ database has many milestones to reach until it becomes a fully functioning database that is an end to end solution from planning to post.

“We have confidence that the VOZ database will certainly deliver value for our Wavemaker clients, in understanding screen consumption and reach analysis across all devices. It will certainly help fuel our industry and will help to democratise the broadcast video landscape for full transparency for our clients.”

Sarah Starkey

So do our other media buyers also believe VOZ will change the game?

Walton says it depends on a few factors. “If the ‘problem’ is decreasing numbers of people watching live TV in the classic sense, then VOZ won’t solve this.

“I would advise the TV industry to embrace all metrics. It will help all of us grow our understanding of what works and why. Smaller audiences can still have great impact as those that are tuning in may well be seeking out the content to view rather than being apathetic to what is on.

“With so many choices nowadays, increasingly a conscious choice needs to be made on what to watch. Less can indeed be more.”

Regarding VOZ, Durrant says that the forthcoming currency may change the game for how TV is bought and sold in Australia, “but not necessarily for us”.

“The way that video is sold would need to change as well for the currency to make a difference. But there’s absolutely an advantage in being able to see how a program performs across a myriad of different ways that consumers choose to consume it. That is only of interest if I am buying it through different ways, multiple different costs, through multiple different touchpoints.

“VOZ will have an impact, an impact in our understanding. But the way video is sold will need to change for it to have an impact on the way that we trade.”

Do overnight ratings still have value?

Reports have emerged that Seven and Ten have been pushing to get rid of overnight ratings altogether.

Starkey believes it would be a mistake to get rid of overnight ratings, saying they are still valuable for media agencies.

“On first thought, it makes sense, less and less viewers are watching programs in the exact time slot it was scheduled. However, the removal of overnight data could see brands and their agencies waiting 15+ days after telecast for verified consolidated post data.

“This wait is not viable, and an alternative solution would need to be in place.”

Buyers are not yet moving away from linear, she says. “High demand for linear TV over the past six months, highlights that this is not yet the case. The ROI of TV remains powerful; however, buyers must evolve their Investment strategies in line with audience movements – we must take a total video approach and leverage the strengths of each screen to mitigate against the rising cost of reach.”

Walton agrees that getting rid of overnight ratings would be a mistake.

“Getting rid of overnight ratings will be a mistake. Just like getting rid of circulation audits was a mistake for the newspaper and magazine industry. It is of great interest to many advertisers and their agencies to understand how delivery of a campaign is tracking on a daily basis.”

Chris Walton

Durrant says that overnight ratings still play a role in how clients “perceive TV”.

“The demand is certainly there… I would say I haven’t seen too much evidence that TV is suddenly not working for clients. It’s still delivering big numbers.

“You have to remember how TV’s actually measured. I mean, it’s delivering those audiences in a singular minute in time. It’s still delivering big, condensed audiences… not the audiences you might have got in the past.

Having said that, he contests that overnight ratings might not be that important anyway, and their importance is inflated by the networks. He tells Mumbrella that Magna only really uses consolidated ratings anyway.

“I find this quite interesting because it’s their choice to keep talking about the overnight ratings. But most of what we buy, we buy on consolidated ratings. I think there’s value in looking at shows from an overnight basis, because it gives you an idea of how a show is going to perform. It’s a pretty good absolute number perspective.

“I don’t report the overnight ratings, they do. I think if you don’t want to do that, then don’t do it. It’s not an industry currency that we trade on.”


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.