Australia’s free to air television networks give comprehensive ratings information daily and weekly. So what about pay-TV? Terry O’Dial reports.

Each Monday, the Wannabe TV Mob known as Subscription Television, tries to play the ratings report game so it regularly issues its version of ‘ratings’ each Monday for the preceeding week.

Compared to the leggies, offies and googlies tossed up by the experienced teams at the free to air networks, it’s a bit of an ordinary effort.
From Nine, Ten , Seven and the ABC we get details on numbers of people watching their programs, with share, number of bums on seats and gleeful pointing to problems in the opposition’s schedule such as bagging The Block or Big Brother.

But for Pay TV we get nothing remotely as informative or entertaining. This is what they said in this week’s release from ASTRA, the Pay TV industry association:

“According to results released by OzTAM for Week 20 (May 9th to May 15th), over half the viewing (50.2%) in Subscription TV homes was to Subscription TV. Subscription TV last week also recorded 12.9% of all viewing across the five capital cities (2.00am to 2.00am).”

Why 2 am to 2am, who knows? Apart from two colourful graphics which showed exactly nothing except the above, that was it, well almost. On the bottom of the release were four paragraphs explaining why subscription TV is better than free to air. It’s all about greater choice to the viewer etc, etc, etc. Hmmm and so is the ‘off’ button on the television set for that matter.

People are paying to have Foxtel, Optus or Austar in their homes but this so-called “Subscription Television Week in Review” is a joke.

There’s no actual review of the sector’s ratings performance in the preceeding week, no breakdown for any of the many, many channels. The Pay TV mob may claim that it should be treated like free to air and lumped in under one ‘channel’, called ‘Subscription TV’, but they then go and bag free to air television for cramming everything they broadcast into one ‘channel’. It’s sort of like having your cake and eating it. That’s a skill ALL media possess.

Now why don’t they break it down into channel by channel comparisons? Because the numbers are derisory. Tiny. Fewer people watching than an unpopular SBS program in many cases.

To provide the same amount of information on a comparable basis to the free to air channels would be to invite scorn and laughter, and undermine the notion that Pay TV is popular. It may be in the Murdoch press, but in the viewing numbers Crikey has seen in the past, this is not the case.

Oh, the Pay TV spruikers quite often give audience numbers, when pressed, in what are called ‘cums” ie the total number of people who watched that program. Because of the high rotation policy of Pay TV, many movies and other popular programs, are shown once or twice a day or in a week. The audiences watching are quite often added to produce a cumulative audience.

It would be like someone adding the audience watching a free to air channel in a day and being added together. It’s misleading and done merely to inflate the numbers of people watching and disguise the lack of people watching Pay TV at any given point.

Looking at the figures given by the free to air networks, you can work out roughly how many people were watching, say at 6.30 pm on Sunday. With the figures from the Pay TV mob, there is no hope of doing this.

The Oztam figures given to the Networks and advertisers and others who pay for them would give all the relevant information, broken down into demographics. It’s quite comprehensive.

In reality the highest rating channels struggle to get 100,000 viewers on a one-off basis. In fact, half that number watching a channel at any one time would be a good performance.

If the “Subscription TV ‘ industry wants to be taken seriously in terms of audience numbers, then it will have to provide figures on a timely basis that are comparable with the free to air industry and take their lumps. This is not a free to air supporter talking. In fact it’s the only way to judge whether the various forms of television are doing their job and keeping viewers and advertisers happy and paying.

It’s a bit like disclosure in the corporate world, really. Then again, considering Rupert Murdoch’s attitude to disclosure over the years, it is not surprising that the man who has management control over Foxtel continues to drag his feet.