What success means for the commercial TV programmers in 2018

It's been a big year in television for the three commercial broadcasters. Zoe Samios chats with Nine's Hamish Turner, Seven's Angus Ross and Ten's Beverley McGarvey about the year just gone, as they reveal why they're all becoming less focused on the overnight ratings.

Overnight television ratings don’t matter like they used to: the words of almost every television executive at any given point this year.

Ironically, it all changes when a network, or channel, becomes number one. And just like the programmers, the end of the TV ratings year is the time where every programmer, channel, and network, is number one in its own way.

This ratings year, which skips the summer months and Easter holidays, ran from February 11 to March 24, and from April 8 to December 1. It saw Seven lead in all-people, from both a main channel and network perspective. Nine’s strongest performance came from its main channel, in the key 25-54 demographic: its target audience. Ten, with its new under 50s target audience, was naturally focused on growth in that area.

2018 Network and primary channel share across 40-week ratings year | Source: OzTam, analysed by Seven

The result marks an end to a year’s worth of controversy, scandals and some of the biggest sports right changes in history. It was the year of cheating on Married at First Sight and Bride and Prejudice, the year Nick ‘Honey Badger’ picked no-one as his suitor on The Bachelor, and a celebration for Masterchef who conquered its tenth year on air.

It was also the year of controversy of My Kitchen Rules, the year a DJ won The Voice, and Ten sold the rights to its game show, Have You Been Paying Attention. Plus who could forget, Nine’s trip to Majorca where it ran the first Love Island Australia, a move which it believes is a “blueprint” for future programs, and ABC’s frequent main channel dominance over Ten.

Outside of reality programming, Tennis will sit on Nine from January, Seven and Foxtel have already kicked off coverage of Australian cricket, and from next year Ten will have the Melbourne Cup.

But how does Australia’s programming stack up? The exceptionally high numbers once seen by Nine’s Ninja Warrior reset to normal standards, while Seven’s My Kitchen Rules and Nine’s Married First Sight both successfully built momentum across each season.

Of course, there were some flops: Australian Spartan, Dance Boss, Single Wives, Family Food Fight, Blind Date and Game of Games, to name a few.

But Seven held the lead over its commercial free to air rivals, boosted at times in the schedule by one-off events including the Winter Olympics and The Commonwealth Games, while entertainment programs generated small spikes across the weeks.

“These days success is about audiences on all platforms,” Ten’s chief content officer, Beverley McGarvey says.

“We all want to make content that audiences can consume, engage with, talk about and want to see more of. It’s also important that the content is something advertisers can get behind.

“Total people reporting is less relevant to us, and for brands and advertisers.” McGarvey is not alone in this view.

This year Nine’s program director, Hamish Turner, and Seven’s director of network programming, Angus Ross, echoed this idea.

But while they align on the need for cross-platform measurement, no commercial free to air network can agree on how it is measured. And so, until this is decided, the overnight OzTAM ratings remain a strong indicator of how a show is performing.

“We are the only network to have grown share this year across all people and the demos,” Seven’s programming boss, Angus Ross, says.

Ross: ‘We are the only network to have grown share this year across all people and the demos’

Seven’s year kicked off with a number of strong events – the Winter Olympics, Commonwealth Games and My Kitchen Rules to name a few.

Of the top 20 TV shows of 2018, Seven achieved five – its biggest program being My Kitchen Rules, which achieved a metro audience of 1.227m and a national audience of 1.801m.

In sport, Seven achieved the two highest rating shows of the year: the AFL Grand Final and presentations, which had metro audiences of 2.616 and 2.615m.

A lot of Ross’ year has been spent defending the results of one-off events like the Commonwealth Games, with criticism stemming from the idea it probably wasn’t worth the $40m Seven paid.

“These one off-events are exactly the same as any other programming. We see an opportunity to attract audiences, so we pay for the content and monetise it. We should be able to include them in our ratings.”

“It was absolutely worth the investment. We’ve always believed in sport as a way of growing our audience.”

Ross is pleased with programming he believes has resonated across all of Seven’s screens, including the newly launched 7Plus.

But, admittedly, there were a number of shows that didn’t work this year. Ross puts that down to a cluttered environment, where new programming struggles to break through.

“All networks have struggled to get noise around new shows this year. It’s those tried and true legacy TV brands which have continued to deliver, but it is an incredibly cluttered environment” he says.

Despite this, Ross believes Seven “re-invigorated” its programming particularly in quarter two, and he’s careful not to point to any show as a means of achieving high ratings.

“We are never reliant on one key show,” he says.

Ross attributes Seven’s success this year to improvement in the east coast markets, a goal for the Western Australia-owned business. Heightened growth from multi-channels like 7mate have also helped.

Over at Nine, program director Hamish Turner is more than pleased with his efforts.

Turner: ‘Married at First Sight became the number one regular show of the year’

“We continue to dominate with our entertainment brands delivering five of the top seven for the year which resulted in us taking out all primary demos and total people Sunday to Thursday,” he says.

“Seven had a handful big one off events including the Winter Olympics and the Commonwealth Games – they had a lot going for them.

“Over the past two years we have won primary channel in 25-54 demographic. We have worked hard on delivering consistency with returnable platform brands that provide coverage across the year and consistency for advertisers.

“Married at First Sight became the number one regular show of the year, taking the crown from MKR in total people this year whilst continuing to dominate all demos and the national conversation.”

He has a point. Nine’s Married at First Sight not only beat MKR in the daily TV ratings, but the finale was the most watched entertainment show of the year, with a metro audience of 1.450m.

Top 20 TV shows 2018 | Source: OzTam data, analysed by Seven

As for Love Island Australia, it was perceived in the news as a flop: an absolute failure despite the multi-million dollar investment. Next year, it’ll be coming to the main channel.

“Moving the show to Nine will help the 9Now performance. MAFs in terms of VPM has 250,000 per episode. It’s a show that has great growth potential and we think we will see that by moving it to the main channel,” Turner says.

Admittedly, not every program performed as well as Turner would have liked. This year Family Food Fight premiered with just 411,000 and the finale result is yet to be seen.

“It was disappointing we were hoping for better numbers for Family Food Fight. It’s got another week to run and after that we’ll sit down and make a decision on its future.

“From a commercial share perspective its held decent share but didn’t get the volume we had hoped.”

Seven’s Ross suggested that a few pieces of programming may have distracted Nine from the bigger picture this year.

“I can’t say if they were distracted by the merger – I don’t work there. I did feel they were distracted in trying to convince the world that Love Island on GO! was a new blueprint for television.”

But Turner denies Nine was distracted by anything, including the merger.

“Not at all, we are focused and have been focused,” he says.

Meanwhile, Ten had a soft start the the year. It was often beat by Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, but a rise in audience from big programs like The Bachelor and Australian Survivor boosted audience share in the back end of the year.

But as for the comparison to the ABC, McGarvey doesn’t think it is relevant. It’s a fair point, given the ABC’s share of 16-39s was just 5.4%.

“We consider all our competitors seriously and the ABC appeals to a significantly older audience than us,” she says.

“When you look at the audiences we target – under 50s, 16 to 39s and 18 to 49s – we were never beaten by the ABC across the year. I am not sure why people report the ABC beating Ten as a headline, it’s an apples and oranges comparison and is not really relevant.”

McGarvey, who is particularly thrilled with the efforts of Masterchef’s 10th season, has spent the last year working with CBS executives for the first time.

“It’s been great to be working with CBS in this new capacity. They respect the investment required to make quality content – you can see that when you look at their US network business,” McGarvey says.

“They’ve been very clear that we are the experts in local content and they are happy to support us with their global expertise. You can probably tell at a glance that we have invested more in local shows and as we have said for a few months now will not be stopping our schedule when the arbitrary ratings period ends.”

McGarvey: ‘It’s been great to be working with CBS’

McGarvey’s challenge, in her view, is the 6pm slot this year. Ten made headlines for axing its weeknightly program, Family Feud, which was run by Grant Denyer for four years.

It was quickly replaced by another game show, Pointless, hosted by Mark Humphries. However that show didn’t gain traction either, premiering with 493,000 before dipping towards the 200,000 mark.

“Our challenge is, and has often been, 6pm. We would love to have more audiences at 6pm and certainly intend to grow that time slot next year,” McGarvey says.

“I don’t think there is anything I would do differently. I have certainly learnt a lot this year, as I do every year. TV is a business of constant evolution.”

McGarvey is particularly proud of Ten’s efforts with Pilot Week this year, an initiative which saw a number of pilot episodes produced and aired on television.


“Pilot Week was absolutely worth the investment,” McGarvey says.

“We are really passionate about growing original Australian ideas and talent to complement our very successful format franchises.

“We received great ideas, were privileged to work with many talented people across the industry and we already have slate of brilliant ideas for next year.”

“>She disputes the idea that Ten invested heavily in ‘shiny floor’ programs.

“I stand by the decision of investing in quality entertainment programming,” she says.

The challenge, as McGarvey, Ross and Turner describe it, is the ‘next big hit’, and finding ‘cross-platform, engaging programs.”

“The best thing about the industry globally is the volume of quality content available in all genres and the skills that this creates in the creative communities. The challenge is measuring and monetising that content consistently and appropriately so the volume can be sustained to meet audience demand,” McGarvey says.


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