Network Ten: Acquisition ready

Alex Hayes headshot 2014The frugal programming slate unveiled by Ten last night is that of a network ready for an injection of cash and programming from new owners, writes Alex Hayes.

There’s a saying that necessity is the mother of all invention, and Network Ten certainly got inventive at its upfronts last night.

Ten's priorities for 2015

Ten’s priorities for 2015

Firstly to Ten credit where it’s due – they got the tone of the big bash at The Star in Sydney bang on. Humble was not far from the lips of most media buyers I spoke to, although there was a hint of desperation in the voice of sales boss Louise Barrett when she said during her presentation there was no need to “excessively compensate the opposition”. There was none of the bombast you see from their free-to-air rivals.

But let’s be honest, Ten doesn’t have a lot to brag about at the moment. The troubles of the third-placed free-to-air network are well documented, and deep. Whilst ratings are slowly clawing their way back (anyone present will not have failed to notice Ten is the “only network to grow in 25-54s” this year) it’ll still be a while before there’s enough consistency for media agencies to, as CEO Hamish McLennan put it, make sure their revenue shares match their audience shares.

understand and drive engagement ten Louise Barrett

Louise Barrett talked up Twitter engagement

That might be why they got fairly inventive with some of the ‘metrics’ they were trotting out, including trending on social media, which I wasn’t aware was a tradable metric for media agencies. That’s probably a bit glib, and indeed Ten was the “number one platform in July for social TV” (when its biggest show of the year Masterchef was ending), with Barrett mentioning the Nielsen Twitter TV metrics tie up to stand up its claims. Notably though there was no mention of the efficacy of the social media campaign which accompanied the underwhelming drama Party Tricks recently.

But with little else solid to talk about (The Winter Olympics didn’t get a mention) Ten was forced to point to the performance of catch-up service TenPlay (the fastest growing), and some promises around HbbTV enabling people to purchase items being used in shows. Attractive, but not exactly ground breaking.

It was also interesting to note the personnel in the room. There were a handful of media agency CEOs from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, but far more of the operational ‘dots and spots’ bods who actually allocate the cash, and may be more susceptible to the sales pitch.

So what was said?

I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here!Well, let’s start with the programming. It’s not a stretch to say almost everything ratings-wise next year for the network is pinned on reality format I’m a Celebrity…Get me Out of Here. Julia Morris as host is a very good get for a format that relies on some sparkling repartee to string together what can sometimes resemble the bleaker moments from Vietnam war films as half-starved and dazed people wonder round a jungle performing demeaning tasks for food and acceptance. Casting Bondi Vet Dr Chris Brown as her co-host is an interesting move, and time will tell if the duo can form a good on-air patter.

That will launch in February straight off the back of the Big Bash League, and everyone at Ten will be hoping a pretty packed summer of limited overs cricket (with the World Cup starting in February and a lot of one-dayers for Australia on Nine) doesn’t fatigue fans of the game. Ratings were pretty good last year, and some big-name signings on and off the paddock could help it achieve some bumper summer audiences.

If that happens the network will have another of last night’s buzz words, momentum.

Ten set out its programming slate

Ten set out its programming slate

The programming slate after Celebrity looks pretty solid, but unspectacular, with Ten taking the pretty much unprecedented step of setting out when each of its big formats will air, with Shark Tank set to appear early in the year as well.

The Bachelor getting a spin off ‘event TV’ mini-series in The Bachelorette (yes, the jilted Sam Frost is in the mix for it along with some of this year’s unsuccessful contestants) will get plenty of chatter.

The Biggest Loser is getting its Masterchef style makeover with the return of the families format, and programming boss Beverley McGarvey claimed last night there was something in the light entertainment bracket being prepared for the end of the year. The last time they said that it turned out to be Family Feud which has actually been a real boon for Ten, so they’ll have their fingers crossed at being able to pull something like that off again.

Other local bits and pieces included McGarvey admitting they were “working on how we move forward with a new season of Offspring“, suggesting star Asher Keddie might be out of the picture, while Party Tricks didn’t get a look in.

Whilst that slate felt somewhat tried and tested, the line up of international programming was – surprising.

James van der Beek in his Dawson's Creek days

James van der Beek in his Dawson’s Creek days

Let’s put it this way, it’s the first time since the late 90s I’ve heard the names James van der Beek (think Dawson from the Creek) and Matthew Perry (he’ll always be Chandler to us) used with such excitement. It’s not inappropriate to mention Perry is the star of a rehash of The Odd Couple. I’ll say no more.

In the end it all felt a little bit minimalist.

And perhaps that’s the point. Ten has very little cash to throw around, and if the persistent rumours of a takeover are true then it’s not in its interests to have a lot of big-budget stuff in the bag.

There were times last night when it felt a little bit like an investor presentation than an upfronts, like when they set out the route map for its shows. When the talent from Ten’s shows was trotted out on stage it did feel a little like some form of cattle auction was about to kick off.

There were execs from Foxtel in the room – programming boss Brian Walsh and marketing head Ed Smith were both present – as Rupert Murdoch was addressing the News Corp global AGM and telling activist shareholder Stephen Mayne the company is looking at a 14.9 per cent stake in Ten. But it won’t be his son Lachlan’s. 

That might well be acquired by rumoured joint-venture partners Discovery International.

And the fact Ten has already partnered with Foxtel to produce a local version of UK smash Gogglebox (casting will be crucial for that one to live up to its potential) shows there is scope to cross-polinate shows on free-to-air networks from pay-TV. By having a very lean slate now the door is open to some of that pay-TV content that’s out of reach of many at the moment to be trickled down (Think Wentworth – Ten is the spiritual home of Prisoner after all) and maybe entice a few more people to pay for that content sooner.

Equally the network is not spending exorbitant amounts of cash on big budget dramas – making it more attractive to the would-be owners who already have a pretty parlous financial situation to deal with at Ten. And that also frees up more cash to go for those sought-after sports rights which are coming up in the next few months – the AFL.

As with Seven there was no mention of a streaming play, but then that would also be nicely taken care of if Foxtel gets its stake with Presto being the solution.

Ten might not have a lot of cash in the bank, but there is still a lot of good will in market for it. However, media buyers will expect to see a substantial uptick in the network’s ratings pronto if they’re going to be able to make the case to match revenues to audience share. By the looks of last night Ten is banking on an injection of cash and programming during 2015.

Alex Hayes is editor of Mumbrella


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