James Packer’s decision to cash in his chips at Channel Nine is looking like a better bet with every day.

The latest six monthly TV ratings data not only has Nine trailing the rival Seven Network by a growing margin but the whole Free to Air TV sector is also quietly sinking under the pressure of new competition.

The big winner is Pay TV which has seen its overall audience grow by a formidable 15.3% in the capital cities.

The biggest losers are Nine — which has seen its overall prime time audience slide by 7.7% — and Ten which has suffered a 9.5% drop. Even Seven, the current jewel in the junk heap of Free to Air, has seen its overall audience fall away by nearly two percent.

The smile on the face of the Foxtel boss, Kim Williams, has been getting smugger by the day as he gloats about rising subscriptions and a reduction in the rate of “churn” — the process that sees subscribers leave Pay TV after brief subscriptions.

He probably has good cause because surely this data confirms that the inexorable migration away from Free to Air TV is quickening and, what’s more, that the networks are pretty well powerless to stop it.

Not so, says Steve Allen, Managing Director of media planning company, Fusion Strategy. He protests that this is not “structural” but merely “cyclical”. He told Crikey that it’s due to a lousy six months for both Nine and Ten. In Nine’s case it’s due to some poor programming and the lack of hit shows out of the US. Ten’s woes are the fault of Big Brother which has failed to excite viewers this season, albeit with a slight resurgence last night.

But Allen does acknowledge that Pay TV is doing rather well at the moment. “Pay TV is unquestionably going well,” he said. “There’s no doubt there’s a trend to Pay TV.”

Allen’s theory is that networks are not powerless to stem the tide toward Pay TV. He has faith that “as soon as Nine gets back on the front foot”, it can turn these ratings around. In fact he thinks Nine has already started with the launch of its new Thursday night miniseries, Sea Patrol, and will make some dent on its notoriously bad Tuesday night ratings with the launch tomorrow of Things to Try Before You Die.

But doesn’t this all seem a bit desperate on the part of the networks? It looks increasingly like they’re attempting to lure back the deserting masses with feeble promises and token gestures as Pay TV and now internet protocol Television make greater inroads into their markets.

In the meantime, if this is just cyclical, the ABC is the other beneficiary. Aunty’s prime time audience climbed a respectable 4.9%. SBS, while not travelling quite as well, also notched up a rise of 0.5% – but even this is not a bad effort given the figures compare this year’s ratings with last year’s stellar performance with the World Cup.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off