The Shane Warne interview on pay TV last night was the best performing broadcast for subscription TV in this country for a considerable time.

An average 248,909 people watched the interview on the UK TV channel on Foxtel in the five metro markets: that was nowhere near the figures on all five FTA channels at the same time (including SBS) but in terms of Foxtel, it was pretty good.

The ABC’s 7.30 Report won the 7.30pm slot with an average 988,000 people, while the 8pm program on the ABC, Dynasties, averaged 905,000. Ten’s Smallville (young Superman) averaged 820,000; Seven’s The Master averaged 799,000, Nine’s Motorway Patrol at 7.30 pm, 589,000 and the repeat at 8pm averaged 528,000. SBS’s repeat of Mythbusters averaged 518,000 or more than twice the size of the Warne audience.

So it was not in the hunt when compared to the “summer viewing” on the FTA networks. But Foxtel only has a market penetration of around 24-26% of Australian homes (it’s higher in Sydney and in some regional areas), so it’s harder for people to watch pay (many don’t want to pay for their TV viewing as well).

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But the Warne interview would have been a welcome success for Foxtel and pay TV this summer where viewing levels are down on last year, having been hurt by Nine’s cricket broadcasts in late November, December and early this month.

UK TV is 60% owned by Foxtel, 20% by the BBC and 20% by Fremantle, the big global production group. The decision to do a deal with Warne would have been a Foxtel one and the decision to program the interview in prime time would have been a Foxtel decision – that opens up another quirk in the industry.

A sore point between the FTA TV networks and the pay industry is ratings and audience numbers. Foxtel is the dominant player and the main proponent of the idea that pay TV is a single entity for purposes of comparison with the FTA channels (and SBS and the ABC): not the individual channels carried on the various pay platforms.

That basis of comparison makes pay TV’s total audience look good: but on an individual channel comparison it’s less flattering.

Foxtel and the pay industry have for years rejected the notion of prime time evening programming: the industry claims its programming and repeating of programs over a 24 hour, 48 hour or longer cycle enables viewers to sample and watch programs at their convenience instead of being tied to an inflexible schedule based on the most attractive programs being shown from 6pm to 10.30pm: the so-called zone 1 of prime time, the most attractive and most costly four hours of TV programming each night.

Prime time actually runs from 6pm to midnight but the main game is in those four hours from 6pm. It’s where viewing audiences are at their greatest and where advertisers just love to be and will quite often pay a premium.

Pay TV (Foxtel in the five major metro markets) does well, especially in summer, quite often attracting more viewers than Ten, the ABC and at times the two major commercials, Nine and Seven: but that’s Foxtel as a whole, not the individual channels.

Foxtel has been very resistant to any daily comparison of its audience numbers, either collectively and especially for individual channels, with the figures for the five FTA networks.

But although the pay industry rejects any idea there is a “prime time” for it, you only have to look at what its programmers do to find that they speak with forked tongues: Foxtel-exclusive Super 14 Rugby union games in Australia or New Zealand are mostly shown in the early to mid evening in Australia when audience numbers are at their greatest: Foxtel’s exclusive Saturday NRL games are broadcast on Saturday nights.

And possibly the highest profile sports-related (but not an actual event) program, the Michael Parkinson interview with Shane Warne, was programmed for 7.30pm last night: right in the heart of prime time. It’s another example of watching what the media do and not listening to what they say.

Perhaps 2007 will be the year when Foxtel and others in pay TV are confident enough to allow meaningful comparisons to be made with FTA networks for its audience numbers, right down to individual channels.

But don’t hold your breath: the pay industry isn’t happy with the Oztam system of measurement and is being pushed to go its own way. To get the result it wants, of course.