The revolution is here – so why isn’t it being televised?

AlexTV networks need to stop treating viewers like second class citizens and deliver some basic services or risk slipping into obsurity, argues Alex Hayes.

I joined the 21st Century on Sunday and bought my first flat screen TV. It’s a 40-inch smart TV, with full HD of course, that’s standard. Now all I need to find is something to watch on it.

Since getting it I’ve noticed just how poor standard definition TV broadcasts are. I’ll be honest, I never really thought HD would make a difference to my viewing experience, but it most definitely does.

AFL on Seven pictureBefore I would have had very little sympathy for someone like Josh Rowe who has been campaigning for years to get the AFL grand final broadcast in HD by Seven, but suddenly I see his point. Millions of Aussie homes have these shiny, sleek TVs capable of high quality pictures, and the biggest broadcaster in the land can’t get its act together to make the most of the available tools.

Of course, it’s expensive to upgrade the equipment, and Seven has admitted it produces its AFL coverage for its primary channel in standard definition.

And Nine is no better, telling us today it is not sure if it will broadcast the NRL grand final in HD next Saturday. After all, they’ve only had six months to think about it this season, and it’s only one of Nine’s highest rating programs of the year. Indeed when they retained the rights David Gyngell even promised in 2014 that the NRL would be broadcast in HD from this year. We’re still waiting.

NRL on NineMore infuriatingly for fans, they still put a delay on their “live” broadcast matches, and cram them so full of ads they take more than two hours to air. In the days of social media, where armchair fans are sitting on the sofa with a smartphone in hand following live scores from mates at the game, the teams themselves, or just a news site with live updates, there is now a situation where they know a try has been scored minutes before it’s shown on TV.

Telstra is also piping highlights to its subscribers as they happen on their mobiles, so how is Nine offering fans the best possible viewing experience?

Ironically in one shop I went into whilst looking for my TV there were special offers on some TVs marked as “Footy Finals specials”. Why not buy an HD TV for those SD quality broadcasts? A 2011 Newspoll study found that 78 per cent of people looking to upgrade their TVs though HD picture quality was “very or extremely important”. That’s 78 per cent of people who have been left sorely disappointed for three years.

An interesting piece popped up on TV Tonight earlier today looking at why primary channels aren’t broadcast in HD, and it’s a simple subsection of some regulation preventing it. That could be abolished at the stroke of a pen, and is another example of antiquated regulation of the media.

Even so, there’s nothing stopping Seven or Nine simulcasting the finals in HD on their multichannels except expense, and fears they might fragment their audience. For once they might want to look at rivals Ten, which has been broadcasting Family Feud across all its channels as a simulcast, with the same ads, and getting ratings provider OzTam to provide one number for the broadcast. Yes, even Family Feud is on an HD channel.

ten winter olympicsTen has at least dabbled with the Winter Olympics, simulcasting some events on its digital channel One. We’ll wait and see if they repeat that experiment with the Big Bash cricket, or next year’s V8 Supercars, its real marquee sports codes.

Foxtel of course offers the choice to watch shows in HD, but having to pay an extra $10-a-month for the privilege after spending money upgrading my tele seems a bit of a rort. They will have an HD replay of the grand final on Fox Footy on Saturday evening, although for fans of one of the teams, that’s not going to be an appealing prospect.

I understand Seven, Nine and Fox Sports all need to maximise the revenues they get around these matches having forked out a $2bn between them for these rights. That means getting as many viewers to sit through as many sponsor messages and ads as they can.

The problem is, the more ads they cram in, the more they risk testing viewers’ patience. Suddenly the vaunted ‘halo effect’ of promoting their other shows during these large audience events, is under threat as people tune out, or find their good will for the broadcasters tested.

More than that the free-to-air networks have been lobbying for changes to laws which would see them allowed to put more ads in prime time shows. Given a recent survey we did found around a third of major prime-time shows is ad breaks anyway, that’s probably not the best way to pick up more viewers, and at best a band-aid on an increasingly deepening wound. Having any adverts on pay-TV is still a bone of contention for some subscribers.

Our traditional TV broadcasters know they’re locked in a fight to the death for viewers at the moment, as more people turn to video streaming through legitimate, and not so legitimate, means. Privately they acknowledge audiences aren’t anywhere near where they were, with 700,000 viewers the new million. That’s not going to get easier as internet-based upstarts like Netflix, Quickflix and Hulu pursue more content deals, more aggressively.

If you think the media world is fragmented now, just wait to see how it looks in a couple of year’s time, when all these services sit side-by-side on your connected TV.

While these kind of services might have a lot of choice and offer content on demand, they’re not streaming in HD and they certainly don’t have live rights for premium sports, yet, so there could be a major point of difference immediately.

And Aussie broadcasters are jumping on board with their own offerings, like Nine’s Streamco partnership with Fairfax. So there’s even more of a scramble for TV rights than there was, especially for the big US dramas, which have proved so appealing in recent years. And worryingly for our broadcasters even the shiny floor talent shows and reality fare aren’t anywhere near as attractive to viewers as they once were, with numbers for shows like X Factor, Big Brother and Biggest Loser all down on last year.

While we’d all love to see more high quality local drama, like the ABC’s promising looking series The Code, I fear that’s unlikely, with high production costs and limited runs making them harder to make a good return on. At least, hopefully, we’ll see the end of staggering the broadcast of blockbuster international shows, although it’s interesting to note Downton Abbey is back on in the UK, but shows no signs of returning yet on Seven.

There are a lot of well documented threats for these broadcasters, but they’ve not made things easy for themselves by doing the basics a lot of their counterparts around the world have, and treating Aussie viewers like second class citizens too often.

The next two months sees the annual upfront presentations where all the networks give their best sales pitches for their upcoming shows to media buyers, attempting to persuade them to spend more money with them. I hope this year, rather than concentrating solely on the content, they have a long, hard look at the user experience for the viewers. After all, happy viewers makes for happier advertisers.

There might not be an obvious business case for it, but today people expect better service than ever before. It’s time for our TV networks to step up to the plate and start delivering for the people who will make or break their fortunes.

Alex Hayes is editor of Mumbrella.


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