The timing of Channel Ten’s halving of March
quarter profits and warnings of a weak advertising market seemed to reinforce Harold Mitchell’s
dire forecasts for FTA TV (Crikey yesterday).
And then there’s Mark Day’s column in today’s Oz media section pouring poo on Channel Nine and old-fashioned FTA thinking – an interesting window into News Corp

But as Sam Clemens famously said, reports
of his demise had been exaggerated. So too with FTA.

There’s as big a fashion now for bagging
mass-market TV and boosting multi-channelling and video-over-the-internet and
other pseudonyms for narrowcasting as there ever was for dot coms. Just as with
the earlier fad, there is some lasting truth in it, but you’d be a mug to
swallow it all.

Yes, free-to-air television is facing
increasing competition, but its saving grace is that it remains the medium of
choice for advertisers who have a product that you don’t yet know you want.
Also helping is the un-reported fact of narrowcasting – it’s narrow because
it’s mostly not much good and not many people want to watch it. Advertisers who
want a large number of eyeballs will support FTA because it remains by far the
best method of satisfying that want.

The internet is a great medium for
advertising to people who are already looking for your product. Newsagent and
Australian Newsagency blogger Mark Fletcher provided a perfect example of that
power in Tuesday’s Crikey. It’s not much chop, though, at creating the wants in
the first place.

Letting a thousand flowers bloom and a
hundred schools of thought contend through multi-channelling and all other
forms of narrowcasting sounds nice, but you always have to come back to the
reality of asking how it’s going to be paid for.

With rare exceptions, little audiences mean
little money mean little budgets mean
productions of little quality mean little audiences and so it goes.

The couple of million people watching the
soccer in the middle of the night didn’t bring all their eyeballs together because
there was no multi-channelling on offer – they wanted to see the show. It’s the
same with the millions who watch Desperate Housewives, 60 Minutes, Deal or No Deal and all the other successful, profitable FTA TV programs. They
cost a lot but they are about the only way of packaging up the large audience
that many advertisers want to reach.

The protected life of FTA TV gets harder –
as it inevitably does for most protected business – but it still has a rich
future. Offer me shares in a well-run FTA company or a clutch of narrow-casters
and I know which one I’d take.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey