Seven looks to 2020, but quiet on more immediate issues

Alex Hayes headshot 2014Yesterday and today Seven West Media has been unveiling its plans for 2015 to media buyers and journalists. However amongst the glitz and glamour questions around regenerating formats, fast-tracking, streaming and HD broadcasts remain unanswered, writes Alex Hayes.

Seven West Media’s upfronts always take some beating, if there’s one thing the company knows how to do it’s put on a show. Today the sell was all about the ‘Destination 20/20’, keeping the network at number one for the next five years. And while there was plenty of good stuff, it struck me none of the executives addressed some of the major issues facing all TV networks in the next couple of years.

Cathy Freeman and Bruce McAvaney relived that Sydney 200 Gold medal triumph

Cathy Freeman and Bruce McAvaney relived that Sydney 200 Gold medal triumph

This year the company took its upfronts to another level, the promised interactive extravaganza was delivered in abundance, with stars like Luke Jacobz, Chris Bath, tennis star Todd Woodbridge and Olympic hero Cathy Freeman reliving her 2000 gold medal run with Bruce McAvaney, all graced various stages on a walking tour to show off their programming and digital content slate for 2015. In terms of a show, it set a very high bar for its competitors in the next few weeks.

Seven upfronts helicopterThe team from Play Communications herded groups of media, marketers and media buyers around various rooms; the X Factor set where host Jacobz did a big sell on the shiny floor talent show’s virtues; to a living room with stars from My Kitchen Rules and House Rules pushing those brands; an ‘outback’ farm where new local shows, Yahoo!7’s ‘localised content’ as well as a fake chopper to deliver Mark Ferguson and Chris Bath; and finally a sports locker room where tennis legend Todd Woodbridge and AFL great Jude Bolton sold the network’s sports lineup including the Australian Open and AFL, as well as plans for the Olympics in 2016 and 2020.

And they laid out a lot of excellent plans and content, not just for next year, but up to 2020 (Destination 20/20: geddit?). These included plans for multi-channel broadcasts of the Olympics in 2016 and 2020, notably absent from Nine’s coverage in 2012, a few new shows including Winter, which follows hit telemovie The Killing Field,  a drama series on serial killer Ivan Millat, and a new ‘Rules’ format show Restaurant Revolution, which will hit the trifecta of business, food and renovation. For more see the article here.

Digital and HbbTV were also emphasised. Yahoo!7 is putting on a new personalised content app delivering ten personalised pieces of “news you need to know” to your mobile twice a day, whilst also pushing social networking site Tumblr with more brand integrations. There’s the new HbbTV lifestyle channel launching 7Living along with 7Food, and the Australian Open tennis will be showing matches on the platform.

But while the big sell was very much based around CEO Tim Worner’s Destination 20\20, with talk of remaining the number one network until then, there was a distinct lack of coverage of some of the more immediately addressable issues affecting their business, and the industry as a whole.

seven piracy proof photoPiracy did get a mention, specifically when programming director Angus Ross flashed up a slide showing the three content pillars for the network: live sport; live news; Australian programming which then had the tag “Piracy Proof” emblazoned across them. And while it’s universally accepted these three strands are ‘piracy proof’, a coherent and diversified schedule they alone will not make. Overseas content is still hugely popular and necessary for diversity.

And indeed there will be more. US dramas The Age of Aquarius, State of Affairs and How to Get Away with Murder will all air next year, with Ross proudly boasting “we have a record that’s unmatched” in promoting and scheduling new shows, pointing to the massive audience the first episode of Resurrection which launched to 1.9m metro viewers in March, the biggest overseas drama launch this year. What he didn’t mention was the return of series two of the show on Sunday night, which got 460,000 viewers.

Seven are past-masters at promotion and marketing for big shows, we’re all more than aware of the ongoing promos during the Australian Open in January trailing the endless slate for next year. The problem is by waiting for that platform these shows are airing a long time behind the US.

Ross said State of Affairs, starring Katherine Heigl, would get a big launch after the tennis in January following more hefty cross-promotion, whilst in the same breath noting it was launching in November in the US. Whether through ‘extra-legal’ streaming channels or sheer piracy anyone who wants to access that show sooner than Seven finds convenient.

In the last couple of years several of these shows have tailed off during the season as eager fans seek them out elsewhere, and unfortunately for Seven it’s often the younger advertiser friendly demographics who are doing so, making it hard for them to shake the ageing audience feeling. That in turn often leads them to be shuffled around the timeslots and days at the whims of schedulers, making it tougher for the still substantial audiences who want to watch them through linear channels to find them and stick with them.

They also talked up the multi-channels, saying 7Mate was reaching the young males on a scale no-one else is with shows like Family Guy and Pawn Stars, and 7Two was undergoing a refresh to bring in younger demographics, although interestingly repeats of some old UK crime dramas seem to get the consistently best ratings on that station. But while multichannels are becoming more important, the big advertising bucks are still made on the primary channel.

As for the local slate of productions, House Rules which picked up viewers this year and outrated Nine’s the Block, will get two series next year with “format tweaks”. However there was no mention of any changes to the returning My Kitchen Rules or X Factor, which both suffered some audience declines this year, despite media buyers telling Mumbrella yesterday these kind of talent shows need a “refresh” to regain their mojo.

SWM’s chief revenue officer Kurt Burnette was keen to boast “we own all platforms, even those not invented yet”, and was keen to talk up the HbbTV offering from Seven, which does seem to be leading the market, and deserves some credit for that. He pointed out it is “measurable” and targetable for advertisers, and “can be delivered to users with no set top box”. Of course, it can also be delivered via set-top box, such as those being rolled out under the FreeviewPlus banner, which have been the subject of a concerted marketing drive from all the free-to-air networks, including Seven.

However, HbbTV is still very niche and needs more support from the other free-to-air channels to get a groundswell of support. We’ll have to wait and see whether they announce any dedicated channels at their upfronts in the coming weeks.

While it was refreshing to see a multi-channel approach being taken to sports broadcasting, there was also no mention of playing AFL matches in HD, a sore point for many fans of the code, and one I’ve written about before.

And while Yahoo!7 was keen to push its personalisation of content, there was no mention of how it plans to make that more compelling for readers to want it. One theory is it will be the joint-venture partner with the Huffington Post when it launches here next year, which would offer it some more populist and international fodder to push.

Streaming was also notably absent from any of the discussions. With Nine and Fairfax readying for their joint StreamCo venture next year, as well as the imminent arrival of Netflix, the way people consume content will change dramatically. Whilst it is heavily rumoured Seven will sign on with Foxtel’s Presto service it’s not clear what this would entail in terms of content sharing, or revenue raising. However, Seven’s Angus Ross did tell media post-event that there would be an announcement coming “soon”.

In 2020 Seven could still be the number one free-to-air network (although Nine will no doubt have something to say about that). But while they may have the largest slice of that pie, the real question is how much of the increasingly diverse content pies will it have a share of if they’re not willing to publicly address some of the more basic issues?

Alex Hayes is editor of Mumbrella.


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