Vintage television

Boasting about winning the annual ratings battle used to be a big deal, a reason to celebrate with end-of-year media releases, interviews, parties and lunches. The networks split hairs and then diced the numbers till they found a winning figure to boast about and wave at ad agencies in end-of-year rate talks.

But as 2019 closes it is now a very different story. With revenues falling and profits following and the cost-cutting never ending, its all a bit pyrrhic to be claiming a ratings victory as the Nine Network did on Sunday.

The silence was telling over at Seven and Ten, neither of which have issued their own version of ratings reality. Ten did have some significant wins from programs such as Have You Been Paying Attention, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette and The Project. Seven’s year, on the other hand, was one of substantial flops. They changed CEOs in August and are now hacking and slashing, selling businesses, cutting staff and other costs and launching an all-paper bid for its NSW regional affiliate Prime Media Group to beat the collapse of Prime in a year or two.

While Nine did lift its game, it failed to note that this was a victory only in the five major metro markets — Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. The regional figures were omitted, but Seven was the easy winner there due to its domination in regional Queensland, central and southern NSW, Victoria, South Australia, WA and Tasmania. If the regional figures were added to the metro data and adjusted, Seven would have been the clear winner. But as usual, regional media markets are ignored.

Seven’s winning shows were Nine’s black holes — in particular the 6pm hour of news. Nine did better in Sydney but Seven has closed the gap there and is doing better in Melbourne and Brisbane.

Regional affiliate Southern Cross started cutting jobs this week across its TV and radio businesses, with as many as 90 staff positions going in the shake-up. Southern Cross was the first to face reality in October with a warning that first quarter TV and radio revenues had fallen 8.5%. Seven and Nine refused to say anything about loses until their AGMs in November, where revenue and profit falls were confirmed, reversing expectations for gains at the time of the release of 2018-19 results in August.

The reality, as we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, is that the broadcast TV model is breaking down and can’t be repaired, no matter what deal News Corp trumpets with Facebook, Google or Apple. The barbarians have won by sucking up viewers, revenues and profits.

Profit updates from Nine, Seven and Southern Cross in the past six weeks or so have all spoken of falling revenues (a surprise as months earlier they were confident the falls seen in 2017-18 and 2018-19 would slow this year). They’ve shown downgraded profits, warnings of cost cuts to come, or actual job and program losses.

And remember, it is no different in commercial radio where metro station ad revenues plunged 10.2% in the three months to September.

December 17 sees the release of the final radio ratings of the year for the major capital city markets. Winners will be highlighted, losers sacked, but the revenue slide is telling that TV and commercial radio are in sync as they ride the slide.