Recent falls in the viewership of the Melbourne Cup should worry Ten and the Victorian Racing Club, with indications that the cup audience has not kept pace with a growing Australian population. Since 2015, the national TV audience for the cup race has fallen by around 17% — from 2.98 million in 2015 to 2.49 million in 2017.  

The falls have been spread across the metro and regional markets as the race has become less Australian and more international. “The Melbourne Cup averaged 915,000 viewers across seven hours of broadcast and peaked at 2.7 million during The Race (1.9 million metro),” a Seven release from November 2017 said. The peak could be doubled to take account for unmeasured viewing in pubs and clubs, and added to the 4.2 million estimated to have tuned in for some part of the broadcast, which was down from 4.4 million two years earlier, according to the Seven release. 

This year, Ten outbid Seven West Media for rights to broadcast the 20 day horse racing festival, which includes Victoria Derby Day, Melbourne Cup Day, Oaks Day (Thursday after the Cup) and Stakes Day (the Saturday after the cup). Ten has taken a $100 million punt on rights for 2019 through 2023, or $20 million a year. The deal is a generous 50% cash/contra mix (free ads given by Ten to the VRC for the race and other events). The rights include free-to-air TV broadcasting, internet, social media, mobile, over-the-top, smart TVs and set-top boxes. 

Ten originally held the rights to the Melbourne Cup for 24 years but relinquished them in 2001 when it started Big Brother and won the rights to the AFL in partnership with Nine and Fox Sports. At the same time the economy had slowed with the tech wreck slide, the start of the GST and the impact of September 11. But Ten has nothing on its plate now since it lost the expensive Big Bash cricket to Seven and Foxtel. The higher costs of the cup contract therefore become a cost worth incurring.

But really, the Melbourne Cup, while it stops the nation, does so for a few hours. Airline Emirates sponsored the race for 14 years (and other races in Australia), but the reported $5 million sponsorship of the race got too costly. Japanese car maker Lexus came in as replacement as Japanese horses began rising to the winner’s circle in recent years. But for most Australians, the race is just a chance to have a once-a-year bet, some lunch and booze and an afternoon off. The only way the TV audience will rise to justify the higher spending on the new contract will be if Winx comes out of retirement and starts next year as an equine pensioner.

You have to assume that Ten and its new owners, CBS, reckon Ten’s finances will be healthier in late 2019 than they are now. And anyone who thinks that CBS will be champing at the bit to direct broadcast the cup into the US market has been eating the wrong sort of hay — the cup will be run around 11pm US eastern time (assuming the race starts at 3pm here). That will be a race that keeps America awake!  

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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