The TV networks are gearing up for another year dominated by wall-to-wall reality programs. But they might want to reconsider, because this year’s offerings didn’t work too well, especially among younger viewers.

The reality TV programming splurge might have damaged TV viewing to the point where viewers do not return, according to Sydney TV and media analysts Fusion Strategy. Hundreds of thousands of viewers have been lost to the increasingly fragmented TV market and the rise of alternatives such as streaming video.

In a detailed report on 2015 TV viewing, Fusion said that audience numbers were down acrors all demographics, but the fall was especially concentrated in the three most important for TV advertisers — 16-to-39, 18-to-49 and 25-to-54. The falls were much larger in the free-to-air networks and especially in the commercial main channels, which were dominated this year by programs such as I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here, My Kitchen Rules, The Voice, The Block, Restaurant Revolution, The Biggest Loser Families, MasterChef Australia and The X Factor.

The falls in viewership were concentrated in the Seven and Nine networks, with Ten recovering from the self-inflicted viewing disasters of 2013 and 2014. But Fusion said that the recovery was something of an illusion as Ten had, in previous years, “stood still” in audience terms. The ABC also had a poor year, while SBS had the best performance of the networks (admittedly off a smaller base).

Looking at all TV (including pay TV) viewing, in total, audiences fell 4.22%. For all free-to-air networks, the loss was 4.83%. For the three major free-to-air commercial networks, the loss of audience was 6.16%, and for the three main channels (Seven, Nine and Ten) the loss was 6.98%. In pay TV, the loss in all people was a mere 0.61%.

If you exclude pay TV, the falls in the 16-to-39 groups exceeded 10% in the one year. And for the 25-to-54 demographic — the most important demo for Australian free-to-air television — the loss ranged from 8.60% to more than 11%.

In their end-of-year wraps, the three commercial networks skated over these numbers. Seven focused on how well it did in total people watching, Nine stressed the major demographics, while Ten spruiked year-on-year growth.

In its report, Fusion said Seven and Nine had “appalling years”. Fusion’s Steve Allen wrote in the report:

“We have never witnessed peak night falls of (16-54) audience of the magnitude of 7 (-16%), 9 (-17%), 7 Group (-16%), 9 Group (-14%).These are severe falls, and … in this increasingly crowded and fragmented market place, are very hard to win back.”

“Ten has a better year, no question, and have a brighter year ahead, but in fact Group wise, they pretty much stood still. The stellar year was in fact SBS with really strong increases … the strongest, at station and group levels. [It was] a poor year for ABC, ABC Group and Pay TV Group.”

This massive loss of audience is unprecedented, according to Fusion, and not the result of “time-shifting”, i.e. the use of recording devices to watch programming after it airs:

“In considering the Peak Night audience declines, we wondered if time-shifted viewing had an influence on live viewing. We studied four years of data, and could find not an up tick in time-shifted viewing which would explain some of the live Peak audience declines. The audience declines are simply loss of audience.”

Allen says while Ten has traditionally been the home of reality television, both Seven and Nine were fighting for that title. Fusion blamed the “reality onslaught” for much of this loss of audience, as was the frequent clashing of similar programs in time slots on Seven and Nine in particular, with both networks programming spoilers to ruin each other’s audience shares. The clashes between two reality programs often caused audience loss for both networks. Fusion singled out the deliberately programmed clash between House Rules on Seven and Nine’s Reno Rumble, and between Seven’s hyped new program Restaurant Revolution and the hastily put together The Hotplate on Nine.

A further problem was the length of these programs. Instead of the normal hour length, they grew to 70, 75, 90 and 120 minutes (and longer in some cases) as the networks looked to cut costs and save money on having avoided producing to new programs (or having to buy them) to fill the extra half hour or more. In doing so they willingly sacrificed some existing hit programs, especially in local and imported dramas, which had huge audience falls.

The OzTAM figures (and Fusion’s analysis) confirms the damaging spillover from the reality overkill: the programs they were leading into (mostly local and foreign dramas) lost viewers. These usually started around 8.40pm to 9pm onwards. As Allen wrote in his report, nearly all drama programming experienced significant audience drops in 2015.

While Fusion says the first quarter of 2016 will be “a little better” with the networks programming “lighter” styles of reality shows, the question now is whether viewers will be enticed back to watch these, after making their way through the jungle of reality programming.

Peter Fray

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