Reasons behind TV’s summer, non-rating period.

A subscriber has asked some very pertinent questions about what we have this so-called unofficial non-rating period. He wrote:

Call me naive, but why is there a non-ratings period?

Over December and January, consumers outlay something like 40% of their yearly spend. It makes no sense for TV and radio networks to hide their lights under the non-ratings bushel during such a key period.

I understand why it was introduced way back when, but things have changed. Back in the ’50s people left the cities on their holidays, to places beyond the reach of city TV (as opposed to now, when there is probably no part of the continent not covered by the Nine/WIN syndicate, or John Laws). People spent their days and nights doing anything but watching TV (as opposed to now – do you want the stats on how much TV kids watch these days?).

Take away the outdated reasoning, and what you have is an old-fashioned cartel. We’ll send our ratings stars on holidays if you send yours, we’ll screen crap if you do too.

On one hand: surely this is a job for the ACCC. On the other hand though: how hard is it to do ratings anyway? As is to mainstream media, is there no independent researcher capable of compiling and publishing audience figures for radio and TV? Would it make a difference to those odd gems which get trialled during this period? Would there be a media exec willing to break this cosy agreement for the sake of an edge, even if they had to stagger holidays for their big stars at other periods through the year?

Now this person is certainly not naive, in fact they are positively on the ball. All good questions. The main reason (beside the outdated ones above) is the cost element.

Firstly, the ‘official’ advertising rate cards for the ‘non official ratings’ period carry sharply lower rates than in prime time official ratings periods in winter. So the networks try to match their income with their costs by sending staff on leave.

These lower rates also reflect lower TV use and different viewing patterns, but viewers have come to expect better quality programming than what the networks are prepared to give them, for this cost reason.

Part of the cost reason is that these programs are expensive and need to be reserved for the ‘official ratings’ period.

The official TV season used to run up to Christmas week back in the late 1960s and then the new period would resume mid January. That has been steadily whittled back to cut costs.

Because TV can send so many staff on holidays at the one time, they do not have to have such large staff numbers on programs and in some departments.

Accounts, production, advertising sales, programming all have to work through. The admin departments are more like regular workplaces with people taking holidays during the year and have larger staffing levels.

But in most of the regular current affairs programs, it’s off they go, see you all in four or six weeks time from the end of November-early December.

Production people have to work on programs like news, Today, Sunrise, ACA, TT etc. Sports people have to work on cricket, tennis, golf coverage etc. But even so staffers are encouraged to take leave at the end of the year or in January-February if they can.

By doing this the networks do not have to run larger than needed staff numbers to cover for people taking leave during the year.

The Networks all have summer rate cards and have started negotiating advertising deals for the non-rating period, which is based on the unofficial ratings.

So it is a competitive non-official ratings period with an official rate card!

Joseph Heller, where are you when we need this Catch 22 explained!

The ABC doesn’t worry so much about ratings and that’s why it puts good shows to air and does very well in the summer slow period.

Viewing numbers are down by between 10% and 20% depending on the time of day and the day concerned (Christmas-New Year’s Day).

This isn’t a naive set of questions from the subscriber. They are all good, hard nosed and pertinent but I’d bet that an commercial TV network executive would have a tough time explaining rationale for this absurd ‘unofficial ratings’ period.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey