leaders' debate
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten shake hands before the first leaders forum. (Image: AAP/The West Australian)

Whoever agreed to the second debate being on Sky News from Brisbane on Friday night will turn out to be the PR genius of the election campaign. Not.

The fact that it will air up against a popular NRL game from North Queensland gives us the impression that the debate will be almost hidden from view from the rest of Australia, and Foxtel subscribers. It’s as though they don’t really want many people to watch. After last night’s smirk-a-thon in Perth, that may be a good thing.

In agreeing to Friday night and the timing the various parties ignored one very important point: while Friday night is the second lowest viewing night of the week for free-to-air TV, it is one of the two biggest nights for pay TV. Not for the fabulously boring entertainment on Foxtel’s myriad channels and Sky News’ after-dark yellers, but sport — specifically the rugby league and AFL games.

They dominate viewing on Foxtel on Friday evenings, attracting more than 200,000 and sometimes 300,000 for each game on Fox Footy or Fox League. Does anyone seriously think the debate will do any better?

Because of Foxtel’s low penetration rates across Australia, which is falling as subscribers depart in their thousands or switch to cheaper sports packages without Sky News, fewer people will be able to watch the debate on Friday night on Sky compared with the debate from Perth last night on the Seven Network.

And this Friday night even fewer people will be interested in Queensland (and parts of NSW) because there is an NRL state derby match starting at 6pm between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Gold Coast Titans. That’s the seats of Leichhardt, Kennedy, Herbert and Dawson for the Cowboys, not to mention Capricornia and some of the 20 or so seats in southeast Queensland.

The debate starts half an hour into the NRL game and ends at 7.30pm ahead of the second NRL match between the Melbourne Storm and Cronulla Sharks. Cronulla is Scott Morrison’s team, but he will be in Brisbane and probably more interested in watching that game than chatting to Bill Shorten and David Speers on Sky News (as will most Foxtel subscribers).

The AFL game on Friday night on Fox Footy and Seven is between Collingwood and Port Adelaide from Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, so coverage starts at 7.00pm (as the debate is happening) with the bounce around 7.50pm.

Sky News is owned by News Corp and is a part of every subscription package except the sports streaming service, Kayo.

There are just over 2.4 million households with Foxtel subscriptions and Sky News is in most of those homes. At best Sky’s after-dark programming averages between 30,000 and less than 70,000 most nights. The most watched political discussion program in the country is ABC’s Insiders on Sundays at 9am — it’s averaging more than 600,000 viewers at the moment. 

After sorting out a ratings stuff-up which under-reported the size of last night’s audience, Seven produced figures late this morning showing a total of 881,300 people watched the debate (not the 460,000 or 386,000 confusingly first reported) with 603,000 in the metros and 221,000 in the regions.

Friday night’s debate will not match those numbers. So why did the leaders agree to it?