Terry O’Dial examines Australia’s changing television viewing habits –
the Ten Network has led the way this year with its bold and innovative
decision to drop the traditional Sunday night movie in favour of fresh, original programming.
Television viewing habits are constantly changing. Sounds trite, but it
is the reason why television programs rise and fall in the
ratings. Boredom, outright dislike, poor plots, dodgy writing and
poor production values plus viewers sensing that they are watching a
cynical conjob are some of the factors that cause viewers to change
channels or switch off.

Usually the reasons are quite obvious, except to the programmers and
senior network executives and their spinners. It’s a case of ‘the
Emperor’s New Clothing’.

But why viewers watch is much, much harder to ascertain. Sometimes it
resembles necromancy and tarot card reading. Understanding greed and
envy helps as does more modern ideas, such as ‘aspirational viewers’
who like to watch some programs such as Burke’s Backyard for
example. (An idea grabbed by political groups to explain things like
Iron Mark’s popularity and the latest federal Budget.)

Then there’s the ‘perv’ factor, best explained by programmes dealing with sex. There’s one on SBS this week called Why Men Pay, which looks at why men go to brothels in Australia.

As well there’s genuine entertainment, although what’s entertaining to
you is boring for me. It’s a very subjective thing, like the whole area
of why programs attract and hold viewers, or lose them.

Of the programmers at the commercial networks, Seven’s Tim Worner and
John Stephens (formerly of Nine) are battling with limited product.
Michael Healy at Nine is doing well with too much product (although why
Nine didn’t show the Danish Royal Wedding still astounds the other
channels – 1.2 million people watched the hitchin’ on Seven and SBS at
midnight on the Friday!) and David Mott at Ten (with John McAlpine
there to advise) is running rings round the others.

Reality television was the biggest thing in Australian TV last year.
This year it’s aura has faded. Those ‘reality’ programs to have worked
this year, such as Seven’s My Restaraunt Rules, have done so only after a slow start. Many, such as Hothouse on Ten have failed. The Apprentice on Nine has sort of worked and is sort of a reality program, but its more a melodrama fronted by a very rich ham. It’s no Survivor, which continues to attract viewers here and in the US.

Now The Apprentice has been moved to Monday nights by Nine after
starting strongly, but softening in subsequent showings. People have
worked out that the crunch won’t come for a while. Those soft ratings
continued on Monday night in its new timeslot. Likewise The Block
has, by last year’s standards, failed. But if it had started this year
and attracted the sort of ratings it is getting now (between one
million and 1.8 million viewers per episode with the latter figure at
the start), it would be considered a success.There is no momentum for
the program, no build up and people have quickly worked out when it’s
worth watching. The same applies to Ten’s Big Brother. In short reality programs have become boring and predictable.

Rugby League broadcasts in Sydney and Brisbane were doing better than
expected on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons before the atrocities
of last week. AFL viewing looks better than expected as well.

But the big successes have been Nine’s US ‘lauranorda’ dramas, CSI, CSI Miami, Without a Trace and Ten’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent and NCIS. ER has also done well for Nine as has local drama McLeod’s Daughters. While Stingers does well for Nine on Tuesday nights, McLeod’s is the oddity. It’s local, doing better this year after spending a while building and out performing those standbys on Seven – Blue Heelers and All Saints.

McLeod’s Daughter’s success probably has a lot to do with those sepia “the
way we would like to be’ feelings many Australians in the city have
about the bush. The ‘Seachange factor’ at work again.

McLeod’s is also different it is a series-based production, with
the story line continuing across the weeks. While there might be small
resolutions in the plot each week, nothing big really happens until
either mid series, the start of a new series or the end (ie. fire,
flood, bomb, car accident etc etc). Australian dramas tend to
have more of a series look to them, although Seven produces some
of their dramas with a defined start and end point within some of the
episodes, with some sort of story line to link to the next one.

But American programs are heavily episodic. They have plots and
storylines that open and close in the 45 minutes of airtime. The
characters will be around next week. Some of the story lines will
continue for several weeks building to a crescendo in a sweeps style
program in the US (Sweeps are ratings periods in the US held several
times a year for a month where the ratings achieved influence
advertising rates for the next few months and the program’s life).

There is a strong belief among American networks and producers that
because people are time poor, they don’t have time to attach themselves
to series style programmes and prefer to dip in and out of episodes,
hence the trend to more self-contained stories.

Of course producers use devices like UST, unresolved sexual tension
between characters, to carry their series forward. There’s a bit of
that going on in ER at the moment. It was one of the things that gave McLeod’s Daughters a lift last year and the year before.

These episodic style series are felt to be less demanding on the
viewers and easier to them to watch. But there are producers here and
in the US who believe this is rubbish and produce programs that are
just one long, long story. These tend to be the soaps or near soaps of
the daytime or the Neighbours/Home and Away style. But many of these viewers were rusted on a long time ago.

The success this year in its umpteenth repeat of Frasier on Nine at 7 pm up against Home and Away and Everybody Loves Raymond/Big Brother,
is a good example of the episodic approach to a sitcom winning over a
series-driven soap and another episodic sitcom (but one based more on
stand up comedy. Raymond is one long monologue with several voices and
it’s starting to grate on viewers).

But while these trends are happening, something has ducked under the
radar and surprised all those highly paid executives at Nine, Ten and
Seven. For some reason nature has become popular once again.

The big surprise at the moment is the success of Seven’s The World Around Us
on Sunday nights hosted by Lisa McCune. It’s really ‘topped and tailed’
in TV parlance. She just reads some scripts in a studio in front of a
flat that can take a digital graphic. An editor and producer ‘tops and
tails the segments and intros and the end. And off it goes to rate
between 1.2 million and 1.6 million viewers on Sunday night.
It’s warm, it’s cuddly and it’s cheap. But it’s not demanding of the
viewer, people can watch this week or next and not feel as though they
have missed anything.

But at that time slot on Sunday nights, the content is good for
families, especially against the slick, cynical Sydney approach of The Block on Nine and American Idol on Ten.

Of course it isn’t news for the ABC who have done well out of the David
Attenborough industry and continue to do well with more intelligent
documentaries such as the special on Alexander The Great a couple of
weeks ago which made it into the Top Ten programs nationally. (This
Sunday, The World Around Us looks at Polar Bears. A month or so
ago the ABC had a couple of polar bear shows. Bet you that the Seven
program gets better numbers).

But it has come as a big surprise to Ten and Nine. Ten had a series of
wildlife documentaries several years ago ‘topped and tailed’ by Sandra
Sully, the late night newsreader, but they didn’t do well, as they were
more a ‘meetoo’ type of program to compete with The World Around Us.

Nine ran a ‘Bermuda Triangle’ documentary a couple of Monday nights
ago that rated reasonably well at 9.30 pm, and put a shark story into
60 Minutes with Peter Overton and made it the lead story. But that’s as
far as the leading network has gone this year.
Seven shifted The World Around Us from propping up a slot before
the Saturday evening news (hosted by that old stager and a former Seven
and Nine news reporter, Greg Grainger – he of the booming voice).

Both Nine and Seven have had documentaries from the Leyland Brothers
and from various adventurers who have traversed Australia countless
numbers of times, trying to keep out of each other’s camera shots. But
they haven’t done as consistently well as The World Around Us has this year.

Perhaps it’s Lisa McCune. She is a gold logie favourite of Seven and its viewers from Blue Heelers.
But her biggest exposure in the past two years has been hosting Coles
supermarkets ads (Coles Around Us?). Go figure as the Americans say.

But the best programming decision this year belongs to Ten with the decision to slot Law and Order: Criminal Intent and NCIS
into Sunday nights slot at 8.30pm instead of movies. In the space of a
month both programs have undermined the ratings of both Seven and Nine,
contributing to the poor Sunday night performances by Nine for the past
three weeks. The programs are doing movie type audience figures: 1.6
and 1.3 million viewers nationally last Sunday, which are
revenue-enhancing numbers that Nine and Seven would kill for.

So why is that happening. Both programs are new, first run material,
unlike the tired movies that have been in movie houses, on DVD and
perhaps on Pay TV. Both programs are episodic so you can watch this
week, miss next week and return the week after. But so far more and
more people are tuning in and watching. There’s nothing like good,
original material to hold an audience on Sunday nights.

That’s what movies did years ago. Many movies now finish closer to 11
pm instead of 10.30. If you have to be in bed by 10pm on Sunday nights,
then Law and Order is perfect. It finishes at 9.30, off goes the tellie and off to bed, while the night owls can last another hour and watch NCIS. Look at the numbers, that’s what is happening.

The content is new, but the timing is predictable and works for people.

So how long will it be before Seven and Nine bite the bullet and
abandon their Sunday night movies, if only to neutralise Ten’s
advantage?
And finally, the Sunday night move shows that Ten has much cleverer and
adventurous TV executives than either regimes at Nine or Seven.

While Seven has sort of lucked in with The World Around Us,
Ten’s changes on Sunday night were bold, and showed that they had a
better understanding of why current viewing habits are changing in
Australia.

For how long? Well that’s always the biggest unanswered question in television.

Peter Fray

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