The Bachelorette spoiler: When viewers are collateral damage in a billion dollar media war

Tim BurrowesThe Daily Mail’s spoiler story about the winner of The Bachelorette may seem trivial. But it’s a skirmish in a billion dollar business battleground where viewers end up as collateral damage, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.

It’s easy to sneer about fans of a silly reality TV show getting upset about hearing a result before they can watch it.

But the actions of Daily Mail Australia in what looked like a calculated attempt to ruin the outcome of The Bachelorette for viewers, means more than it may seem.

It shows a misjudgement on the part of a young brand in putting what looks like the interests of its owners ahead of the interests of its audience.

As followers of free TV will be aware, last night marked the climax of The Bachelorette on Ten.

The show marked a turning point for the troubled network. After building a franchise with three series of The Bachelor, The Bachelorette was where Ten really capitalised on an audience that had bought into the dramas of the unhappy ending which had seen Blake Garvey choose, then reject, Sam Frost in the second series.

Viewers of The Bachelorette – more than a million of them nationally – chose to go on the journey as Sam Frost began the hunt for love again.

One can be as cynical as one likes about people who choose to watch reality television. But it is a fact that many bought into this show, whether ironically or otherwise, and planned to tune in for its finale last night.

Enter Daily Mail Australia.

Relevant here is that the operation is a joint venture with Ten’s rival Nine. Also relevant is that Ten is now aligned with Foxtel, which got the okay yesterday to take a 15% stake. And Foxtel is of course half owned by News Corp.

TV is competitive, and I’m sure Nine hated seeing Ten getting a successful franchise up after four or five years in the doldrums.

And this is where the misjudgement (or cynicism) from Daily Mail Australia came in.

There’s something of an etiquette about the online reporting of TV shows. If news emerges of a plot development, and there’s a risk that readers might not want to know about it before viewing, the over-used “spoilers” phrase is deployed as a warning.

It’s a signal to readers to go no further if they don’t want their viewing spoiled by revelations about the show.

And the abandonment of this protocol by Daily Mail Australia was what was so unusual, and perhaps cynical. For anyone who stumbled upon the Mail’s home page, the winner of The Bachelor was immediately obvious, without needing to click through to read the story.

Plans for a harmless night in watching Frost choose Sasha Mielczarek were ruined, or at the very least made less fun.

The Bachelorette S1 Ep10 Sam and Sasha (2)

To me, it looked like this was the deliberate intention.

A reasonable person may well conclude that an obvious explanation for such behaviour was to discourage viewers from watching the show, as they now already knew the result.

Which makes a scoop (of a sort) for the Daily Mail, and a point scored by the Nine family against Ten.

And of course, against the viewer.

The collateral damage in this is Daily Mail Australia’s audience, of which I’m sure there is a large crossover with The Bachelorette.

Given the choice between hurting a rival and avoiding spoiling its own readers’ night, Daily Mail seemingly chose self interest.

It’s hardly surprising there’s been a backlash.

To me it seems a misjudgement. In the UK, the Daily Mail gets to throw its weight around because it’s a 119 year-old brand. In Australia, it’s less than two years old and still finding its place.

Then there’s the matter of the Press Council. The invasion of privacy of long lens photographs taken into a high rise hotel may earn censure for breaching privacy principles. (There’s a public interest defence, but not an interesting-to-the public defence.)

Regardless of whether the pair were alone in the room together or, as has been suggested, doing a photoshoot for a newspaper, there’s still a reasonable argument that they are entitled to privacy from third party photographers. Plenty of business takes place privately. It will be interesting to see what the Press Council does with it, if there is a complaint.

By the looks of the picture credit, by the way, the images were taken by a paparazzi agency and bought by the Daily Mail, which may well not have commissioned them ahead of time.

But this is still business. Ten is a half billion dollar company. Nine Entertainment Co is worth $1.3bn. Millions of people consume these fast moving consumer goods every day. It just so happens that the products are TV shows, where advertisers spend millions of dollars on the products that attract the biggest audiences.

Even if the editors were not acting under instructions from management – and I’m sure they weren’t – the competitive business environment won’t have escaped them.

Imagine if this was any other sector but media, and one ASX listed company used surveillance techniques against another. If that information was then used to damage the rival’s product before it could be launched, it would look a lot like the unconscionable behaviour that the Australian Competition and Competition Commission usually such takes a dim view of.

But because this is media, the argument could well come down to whether the Daily Mail was simply doing its job to tell its readers the news, or whether its main motivation was to engage in sharp business practices.

In a highly unusual move, Ten succeeded last night in getting an emergency injunction against the Daily Mail, despite the horse having bolted.

While the reasons for granting this unusual type of injunction have not yet been shared, it suggests that the judge was at least persuaded that Ten had an arguable case.

As the Fairfax Media versus Joe Hockey libel case demonstrated, when a media brand can be shown to have acted with malice, rather than in the public interest, many of the usual legal protections for journalism are lost.

If The Bachelorette spoiler ever goes to a full court hearing (and of course, these things are almost always settled first) the legal arguments will be fascinating.

Not least, it may be hard for Ten to prove what the damages were – the winner announcement still got a healthy 1.5m national viewers and Ten won the night, although we’ll of course never know whether it could have got more.

The cheap points that the Daily Mail scored may prove to be quite expensive.

The show may have been lightweight, but the wider issue is not.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella



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