‘We’ve all learned not to take anything for granted’: TV bosses on the changes and challenges that lie ahead

Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby asks Nine's Hugh Marks, Seven's James Warburton and Ten's Beverley McGarvey and Rod Prosser for their thoughts on ad spend, changes, and performance heading into 2021.

It’s been an action-packed year for those within, and watching, TV. Productions were paused, cancelled, and adjusted. News programs experienced a surge in worried audiences relying on up-to-date and accurate information on the bushfires, US election, and COVID-19.

Live sport was postponed and, when it did returned, played without live crowds in many cases (just as other shows grappled with not having studio audiences). The AFL grand final on Seven was the most-watched show of the year, with 3.864 million total viewers tuning in from home, rather than watching at the pub or with mates (Melbourne was still in lockdown). The NRL grand final was next, followed by the second State of Origin game and day eight of the Australian Open, both airing on Nine. And internally, TV companies experienced significant personnel shake ups.

Paul Anderson stepped down as CEO of Ten early in the year. Beverley McGarvey was elevated to lead the business, and last month was joined by KordaMentha’s Jarrod Villani, who became her co-lead.

Clockwise from top left: Warburton, Marks, McGarvey, and Prosser

Seven was stable at a leadership level, but its year was defined by the cancellation of the much-anticipated Tokyo 2020 Olympics. And while the pandemic impacted all live sport – and therefore sports rights – Seven’s feud with Cricket Australia heated up recently when it started proceedings in the Federal Court.

From a content perspective, the TV network nabbed The Voice off Nine (who were happy to get rid of the format), and flagged it would be reviving Australian Idol in 2022. And CEO James Warburton acknowledged that while the business’ first half wasn’t good enough, there would be “no more excuses from us … don’t bet against us.”

While Nine finished the year on top of the ratings pile – The Block and Lego Masters finales were also the most-watched entertainment shows of the year – and launched Stan Sport, among other plays, it’s performance was accompanied by a bigger story: chief executive Hugh Marks resigned on a Saturday last month, after admitting to a relationship with recently-departed executive Alexi Baker.

With such a tumultuous year almost over, how are TV bosses thinking about ad spend, change, and performance heading into 2021?

TV bookings grew 12.7% in October year-on-year thanks to the football grand finals. How optimistic are you feeling about TV ad spend heading into 2021?

Hugh Marks, CEO of Nine: We have definitely seen the ad market recover far more quickly than I think many people expected. Marketers have recognised the value of not just television but of brand advertising and cross platform opportunities – across TV, radio, digital and publishing.

It is a really good sign and we are confident we can maintain that momentum and have strategically positioned all our businesses to capitalise on that opportunity as the economy recovers. The market is also hopefully continuing to move to return on investment as the principal decision making driver.

Rod Prosser, chief sales officer at Ten ViacomCBS: We are feeling really optimistic about television ad spend heading into 2021. Since October 2019, Network 10 has seen 12 consecutive months of year-on-year revenue share growth.

Our commercial proposition this year and heading into next year has only strengthened. We added MTV, Nickelodeon – the #1 kids brand – and Nick Jr. to our brand portfolio, all of which have seen audience growth since March 2020.

We spent this year supercharging the opportunities for advertisers with the launch of Effect and a whole new digital experience including a Premium Pause product on 10 Play, a non-intrusive, high impact way for brands to integrate online. And, we further accelerated addressability on mobile and Connected TVs deploying data capabilities across all of our ecosystem, underpinned by our premium data partners, Red Planet, Flybuys, Quantium and Smrtr.


In 2021, our premium offering increases with the launch of the Content Carousel, a high cut-through ad placement service on web and Connected TVs. This innovation positions us as unrivalled innovators and the clear leaders when it comes to BVOD integration and sponsorship amplification. We are in a unique and exceptional position heading into 2021.

James Warburton, CEO of Seven West Media: It’s great to see the ad market recovering, as business and consumer confidence increase. October and November were strong months for us and that momentum has continued into December and January.

Of course, this year we’ve all learned not to take anything for granted, but our Fast Start 2021 initiative – including our summer of cricket – has been very well received. Our tentpoles tee off with Holey Moley in early 2021, accompanied by an unbeatable sports offering including the Tokyo Olympics mid-year. I think we have good reason to feel optimistic about our performance and optimistic about the TV ad market next year.

Nine’s Hugh Marks is departing. Ten has a new co-lead in Jarrod Villani. And Seven’s James Warburton is still early on in his tenure, but had to deal with the Olympics postponement this year and now Cricket Australia court action. What do you anticipate the biggest changes at your company, and in the wider industry, will be in 2021?

For the industry, key changes next year will include the ongoing rebound in ad spending, the continued success of BVOD platforms including 7plus, and the arrival of VoZ data which will – for the first time – give a true picture of the size of TV audiences across all screens.

Hugh Marks: In the immediate future, 2021 will see the industry need to work with [the] government to pass real and meaningful legislation around the ACCC code that reflects the very real value that our content provides tech platforms and allows us to negotiate fair and equitable terms with that digital duopoly.

If I look more broadly at my five years, with Nine we have set very clear and public goals on what percentage of revenue we want to be digital. When I first became CEO, 90% of our revenue came from linear TV but in the not too distant future I have every confidence that more than half our revenue will come from digital sources.

Nine’s focus will remain on how do continue grow that revenue and manage that transition from ‘traditional’ media to being digital led but in a way that’s sustainable for the long term. Enabling us to legitimately compete with the digital platforms on much the same basis.


Beverley McGarvey, chief content officer and executive vice president of Ten ViacomCBS: I believe the launch of VOZ will change the landscape of audience reporting to include a fuller picture of how Australians are consuming free-to-air premium content across multiple platforms and this in turn will assist in us better serving our partners and audience.

The rebrand of 10 All Access to Paramount + will take place in 2021 and will boast premium iconic content from the extensive ViacomCBS library as well as premium exclusive Australian originals. P+ will strengthen our multi-platform offering as we maintain investment and focus on streaming.

In 2020, we soared from 10% to 85% addressability on mobile and connected TVs underpinned by innovations on our 10 Play platform and our premium data partners, Red Planet, Flybuys, Quantium and Smrtr. In 2021, we will have 100% addressability. We will further our commitment to amplifying 10 Play through integration, sponsorships, content and addressability.

And of course, we will deliver a strong, consistent line-up of premium content that will deliver across all channels and platforms.

James Warburton: Change and transformation has been a recurring theme for us at Seven West Media this year, and we’ve been busy. We’ve been very open about our strategy to simplify, diversify and scale the business, and open about our ambition to position Seven West Media to participate and lead industry consolidation as the economic cycle moves forward from COVID.

That’s going to carry into 2021 with our primary focus being to continue delivering the content-led growth we saw in the second half of this year. Heading into next year, we have four proven big hits that will drive demographic wins on broadcast and big growth in digital – SAS Australia, Big Brother, Farmer Wants A Wife and, of course, The Voice – plus the strongest sport-line up of any network, including the AFL and the Tokyo Olympics.


Are you happy with how your network performed this ratings year? What’s the goal for 2021?

Hugh Marks: Again, we are number one across both platforms, so great performance. And, of course, stronger in the right demos. For the fifth year in a row.

In 2021, we will do what we always set out to do and that’s have a consistent content slate throughout the year that delivers for clients. In 2021, we will see 9Now continue to go from strength to strength, boosted by both MAFS and the return of Love Island, and we’ll see Stan continue to roll out both more original content and also its new sporting proposition Stan Sport – bring on 2021 and the rugby I say!

Beverley McGarvey: Absolutely. Despite the obvious challenges that 2020 presented, this has been a remarkably successful year for 10 ViacomCBS.


We were the only commercial network to grow its audience, and we had the biggest prime time commercial shares in key demographics since 2011. Our advertising revenue share continued to grow, and our digital platforms boasted record audiences.

Our established suite of shows is engaging, innovative, noisy and connects emotionally with Australians like few others can.

We delivered a 50-week schedule of popular content – content that is familiar, brand-friendly, celebrates and rewards talent and achievement, and taps into the under-50s.

As part of a global media powerhouse our commitment to making premium entertainment content, connecting across all platforms, will only continue to develop and strengthen in 2021 and beyond.

James Warburton: It has been a huge year for Seven West Media in terms of executing our strategy. We’ve done the hard yards to transform the business and position it to win. In June, our new programming strategy emerged with three hit new tentpole shows in a row – Big Brother, Farmer Wants A Wife and SAS Australia – which grew our audience in 25 to 54s, 16 to 39s and total people. With the addition of The Voice, plus the Tokyo Olympics, we have no plans to slow down in 2021.

The success of 7plus was a highlight of 2021. No matter how you look at it, 7plus has led the market since April and is the #1 commercial free to air BVOD platform on any measure, across the calendar year and the survey year. It’s not a catch up service; it’s a rapidly growing streaming business with 50% non-broadcast content. One of the reasons for its success is that we look and program across not just linear channels but for BVOD. Big Brother, Farmer Wants A Wife, SAS Australia and The Voice are all huge BVOD programs and Holey Moley, Ultimate Tag, Australia’s Got Talent and Australian Idol will add to that strength.

We’ve taken huge strides to reinvent our schedule and, more importantly, our content across a broader platform with digital. Building on that success is a key goal for 2021.


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