‘When we grow, I hope all of television grows’: Growth key as official TV ratings year begins

Ahead of the beginning of the official ratings period today, Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby spoke to Seven's Kurt Burnette, Ten's Rod Prosser and Nine's Hamish Turner about 2021 slates, the Australian Open and Olympics, BVOD strategies, and which competitor shows they're keeping the closest eye on.

Today marks the beginning of the official TV ratings year. While OzTam records ratings across the entire year and “declares no official ratings period”, the networks’ official count runs for 40 weeks, pausing for two weeks over Easter, and 10 weeks over summer.

And what an official ratings year it’s shaping up to be. Its commencement coincides with a delayed Australian Open, meaning the usually January-based Grand Slam will be captured within Nine’s ratings year. But can Nine hold on to its third ratings win in a row, should the Olympics – touted to pull upwards of 1.3 million metro viewers each night – go ahead?

Here, Seven’s chief revenue officer Kurt Burnette,  Ten’s chief sales officer Rod Prosser and Nine’s program director Hamish Turner, unpack how TV will shake out in 2021.

A year of sport: The AO and Olympics

The Australian Open’s three week delay meant Nine “had to change direction and make some quick scheduling and commissioning decisions”, including airing a two-part Married At First Sight special, a domestic series of Travel Guides, and a number of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? specials. The event was threatened by another delay last week, when a hotel worker tested positive to COVID-19, forcing more than 500 tennis players and staff into isolation, and cancelling Thursday’s lead-up events.

Turner says “there’s going to be some real positives” to the tennis’ timing. And he’s “very confident, from a share perspective through this period, we’ll do some very strong share numbers”.

“There’s more people who are at home. There’s more people who are sitting down in front of the TV,” he tells Mumbrella.

“If you have more people in the eco-system, there’s more audience floating around and as such, I think the tennis will benefit greatly from that.”

But Seven and Ten are adamant the Australian Open won’t be disruptive. Burnette expects to come out of the quarter “in a growth position”, and notes that “obviously the timing [of the tennis] has changed, but that doesn’t change our strategy too much”. And Ten’s Prosser points out that “we’ve been quite fortunate as a network not to carry as much sport as the others”.


“So it’s not disrupting for us,” he says. “Of course it’s disruptive for Nine, as it was with those guys with their footy codes across the middle of the year of last year. For us, we’re really fortunate that both of our major sporting assets are happening in November. So hopefully, we can bank and load those and they’ll go ahead.

“We’ve got such a solid base of audience that look for an alternative to sport. And you see that with IAC [I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, which ran against Seven’s Big Bash League]. The tennis will do well … but certainly from our point of view, we’re just ploughing ahead with the way we run our entertainment schedule.”

As for the Olympics, set to launch on 23 July but still cloaked in uncertainty given the Australian Open’s lead up and the cancellation of Cricket Australia’s South African tour,  Prosser confirms Ten “will run as we would normally over that period, and we will continue to run big franchise content”.

“We know that works because we’ve had Masterchef up against State of Origin. We’ve had IAC up against cricket and tennis, and we still managed to pull a solid audience because surprise, surprise, not every Australian is into sport,” he adds.

Nine’s strategy will shift if the Olympics is postponed again, though, with Turner explaining that “it fundamentally changes what we do from a strategic perspective through the year, because there’s two weeks there that you then have to account for”.

Burnette is confident the Olympics will go ahead, despite its logistical scale and complexity compared to a tennis tournament or cricket tour. The network is in touch with the International Olympics Committee (IOC) “pretty much every 48 hours” and as of a few days ago, “we believe it to be on, from everything that we’re hearing”.

“We’re not putting our heads in the sand and say[ing], ‘Oh, it’s going to be fine’. We’re listening to make sure that what we’re hearing is saying that it’s going to go ahead,” says Burnette, who suspects Olympics organisers are watching the Australian Open closely and learning from it.

“We are planning our production, our sets, and we are in market currently talking about what will be the largest digital audience event in history and the largest and most watched event this year by a country mile, on every single demographic.

“The average audiences now, we’ll call them 900 [thousand] or 750 [thousand], or nationally, over a million. The Olympics in metro only, every night, will be doing 1.3 [million], 1.6 [million], 1.7 million on all key demographics.”

And should the Tokyo Olympics be cancelled for the second year in a row, “there is absolutely a contingency plan in place”.

“Certainly by the time July comes around, we’ll have all the year in the can. So we have a very clear plan of what it is we would do if the Olympics for some reason was called off.”

Keeping an eye on the competition, and pre-filming

Both Nine and Ten are keeping a close eye on Seven’s Holey Moley. It launched last Monday to 983,000 metro viewers, but finished its first week on 543,000 in what Burnette thinks is a “highly successful” start. “The first night out exceeded the expectations,” he confirms, and “across this first week, we are on track to deliver what we said we would”.

Nine’s Turner thinks the mega mini golf format “promoted very well” – “You couldn’t turn around without seeing it somewhere” – and “launched at a good number”. He’ll be “equally intrigued to see where that audience finishes up”, as will Prosser.

“It’s obviously dropped off over the last couple of nights. That I think was because it was a new format,” Ten’s chief sales officer says. “So I think we were mostly, well certainly from a sales point of view and a commercial point of view, mostly interested in that format.”


Turner notes that Ten “just had some success with I’m a Celebrity which was good to see”, and is looking forward to “what the Eureka guys do” with Making It, a new show launching on Ten this year. Prosser claims that “since we’ve announced it at the upfronts last year, the advertiser interest has been amazing”, so he thinks “we’re onto something”.

But Burnette won’t be drawn on competitor shows, stating: “We don’t really worry about the others. Everyone’s keeping an eye on other things, [but] in a competitive sense, it’s not just broadcasters these days, it’s the whole host of mediums. We’ve got our very clear strategy and we’re focusing on that, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Given the way the pandemic impacted productions last year, all three networks are conscious of getting as much in the can as possible. Nine has Married at First Sight (which will run after the tennis), Lego Masters, and Celebrity Apprentice ready, while Beauty and the Geek, Parent Jury, and The Block are filming soon.

And “there’ll be another commission announced this year that’ll most likely go into this year,” Turner teases. He says early episodes of Celebrity Apprentice are “looking fantastic”, Parent Jury “is shaping up really well” and has been cast, while Beauty and the Geek is a “re-imagination of that format for 2021”, hosted by Sophie Monk.

Lego Masters has completed filming

“We’re always front end in terms of our production slate, which is a good thing because it reduces the risk in case of a breakout or anything changing in the year,” Turner asserts.

Seven is also “locked and loaded for the front half of the year” and has “as much in the can now than what we’ve ever had, certainly in the last 10 years in pre-production”. Everything through to the Olympics is ready to go, including Big Brother, Farmer Wants a Wife and Royal Flying Doctors Services. The network will also air its first season of The Voice, which it nabbed from Nine, but hasn’t brought back poor performers including My Kitchen Rules, House Rules, and Plate of Origin.

Ten had pre-filmed The Amazing Race and I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! in the back half of last year, and also has majority of Masterchef and The Cube produced, Prosser says.

“What I’d say is our first half is solid and safe. So I don’t see any issues or any potential interruption.”

Across 2019 and 2020, the network confirmed the axing of Playing for Keeps, Trial by Kyle, Celebrity Name Game, and One Born Every Minute Australia, and scrapped Dancing With the Stars and Bachelor in Paradise for this year. Last week, children’s programs Totally Wild and Scope also got the chop.

7Plus, 9Now, and 10Play: BVOD strategies

“Audience[s] never disappeared from television, they just went to another one of our platforms to view it,” Prosser says of the importance of a broadcast video on demand (BVOD) strategy.

“Our ambition is to continue to grow 10 Play … We’ve done a lot of technical work across the last 12 months rolling out the app on a unified platform. We’ve now got a clear focus on actually growing the offering. So we’ll see more content appearing on 10 Play as we progress through a year. And obviously with that, we’ll see an increase in revenue.”

Nine has the same goal for 9Now: “continued growth”.

“We’ve continued to stimulate our VOD-only audiences by buying content that creates 9Now as a destination in its own right,” Turner remarks.

“I think the big thing for us this year is welcoming back Love Island to the slate. It was clearly our biggest 9Now exclusive show, I’m talking about the UK one, in 2019. We didn’t have it there in mid-year 2020, so having it back in will be great to see.”

Seven also plans to “get more original content” on 7Plus, “which we are currently doing as we speak”. Burnette notes that SAS: Who Dares Wins, which aired late last year, attracted more men to 7Plus, “and that’s going to be further bolstered by the introduction of the V8s” and accelerated by the Olympics.


“We’ve got shorter ad breaks, so better cut through for advertisers,” he adds.

“On 7Plus, we’re also obsessed with making that a better viewing experience or a better user experience, so when people are watching it, you’re not seeing back-to-back ads. There’s no ads cutting into the content. There’s a lot of technology and investment that’s been made into ensuring that that is the best possible viewing experience, as well as having fantastic content.”

‘When we grow, I hope all of television grows’: Success in 2021

Seven is working to take back the ratings crown from Nine this year. Burnette says the objective is to “grow audience, to grow key demographics, 24-54s in particular, and deliver a great experience for advertisers and viewers” so “when people buy into us they’re getting great value in return”.

“When we grow, I hope all of television grows, but if we’re growing, that certainly puts pressures on others to do the same,” Burnette notes. “If there was anything that’s going to challenge the others, it’s about the growth levels that we’re going to [get].”

Prosser adds that the mandate is always to build on the year prior, “and we’re well-versed to do that”. When talking to advertisers, “we talk about increasing our commercial audience shares, as well as increasing our thousands, and that’s critical for the agencies,” he observes.

“But look, I think it’s more than that. It’s about having, and certainly it’s resonated with the advertisers, really having that base of really strong tentpole programming.”

Ten started the year with I’m a Celebrity, which performed strongly, and has moved straight into The Amazing Race, which has struggled against Holey Moley and the MAFS specials. But Prosser says Ten is “really pleased about [the Amazing Race], it’s really holding up nicely, particularly in demos”. From here, its slate includes Masterchef, then The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, supported by shows such as Have You Been Paying Attention?, Five Bedrooms, and The Cube, which launches this month.

I’m a Celebrity performed well for Ten in January, before the start of the official ratings period

“Advertisers know what to expect with the shows,” Prosser says, promising that this year’s season of The Bachelor will be the “best Bachelor ever, so we’re really excited about getting that to market and talking to our advertisers about that”.

“We’ve had an exceptional result in January, which you’d expect because of the programming that we put on,” he says. “I think the television market will do really well in Jan. And our forwards across both February and March are really solid.”

For Turner and Nine, 2021 success means “ending the year number one on the key demos for us”, and “ensuring that that cross-platform number is where it should be”.

But will 2021 be another ratings year win?

“Demographically, absolutely,” Turner asserts. “And that’s what I’m focused on.”


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