It’s become one of the stories of the 2008 television year: dumping shows ad infinitum. This month we’ve lost Fringe, Cold Case, Wipeout, Battlefronts, Kitchen Nightmares USA, Kath & Kim (US), 90210, Bondi Rescue: Bali and even a repeat series of Friends. Dropping shows isn’t new, but its rapidity is increasing, confusing audiences and disintegrating trust between viewers and networks.
Nine’s Head of Acquisitions, Daytime and HD programming Les Sampson spoke to TV Tonight about the challenges and ramifications of scheduling.
As we all know, delivering demographics to advertisers is an artform. Programming the wrong show at the wrong time can be fatal. In the brutal fight for a diminishing advertiser dollar, networks waste no time in eliminating an under-performing format. Sampson says the increasing trend in Australia is no different to that of the US.
“When it comes to the cost of producing television you’ve got to make sure you’re attracting the profile of the demographic that you’re actually after,” he says. “Look at shows in the States. A show on the FOX Network, Do Not Disturb, went on air for one episode. They had a massive campaign for it on air and after the first episode it was cancelled. Look at the first American episode of Kath and Kim, I think there was talk that the numbers that went to air were ok, around about just over 6.5m people. Episode two went to air it lost 20%. Episode three went to air and it’s progressively falling backwards.
“In the UK they only commit to a short number of episodes. That’s why you only see 5 or 6 episodes per series. Because they know that if for example they put the money in and it’s 5 episodes and it doesn’t work, then they don’t have an issue with removing it. Because that’s always been the pick-up number.”
Sampson says that in the US new shows can be ruthlessly cancelled.
“If it doesn’t work after 13 episodes it’s gone. And in some cases they don’t even go to air. But that’s been going on for quite a while.”
But while that may be historically true for new fall shows, in Australia viewers are irate that it isn’t just new shows being dropped. Life was never this erratic even as recently as 5 years ago.
“The viewing habit and the viewing trends have changed because only 5 years ago we had the free to airs and Foxtel,” says Sampson. “Now there are so many other forms delivering entertainment. You have to be there on the cutting edge to ensure that at no time do you put stuff to air that’s not going to attract the attention.
“I can guarantee you right now that in the next couple of years it will change even more so.”
Scheduling can be so quick that print guides no longer match what’s on screen. Sampson acknowledges the current shortcomings and says technology will address the problem in the near future.
“As you move forward, the delivery of information, such as EPGs, is going to be updated instantaneously. So the information that is given to the public when it comes to what’s on air is going to be 100% up to date.”
But as dumped fans of smaller, under-performing shows accumulate in terms of total viewers, it builds a tidal wave of viewer angst. Sampson says the way to address viewer disillusionment is to remain focussed on acquiring content for its key demographics.
“If we divert off that target then the clients aren’t getting what they’re promised, and the viewing public isn’t as well.”
McLeod’s Daughters was a case in point, a show Sampson says has performed well over the years but now no longer meeting its targets. It will return in summer.
“We don’t move anything because we want to. We devote a lot of time, money and energy to promoting and branding and advertising our new shows. The last thing we want is for them to fail.”
One such show was the new US drama Fringe, given all the network hype, but dropped after 5 episodes.
“Fringe attracted the good demos right at the start,” says Sampson, “and it’s doing huge numbers in the States. But what we’ve now got to do is sit down and say ‘ok it was a very, very tough slot.’ Wednesday night is probably the toughest slot of the week. 8:30 up against House, Criminal Minds, Spicks and Specks on the ABC, it is probably the hardest slot of the week.
Nine has replaced it with The Mentalist which was already building a strong Sunday audience. But it too had to move.
“We’ve got the Rugby World Cup on so the issue was we either take it off air for four weeks or we move it some place else. So we thought it’s a great opportunity. Mentalist did some really, really strong numbers in the key demos 25-54, 18-49, in fact it was number one. So we were very, very pleased with that.”
Sampson says Fringe was also pre-empted because of the US election, off air in the US for two weeks. It’s one of the downsides to fastracking, which will also hit House and, ironically, The Mentalist.
“One thing when it comes to fastracking, we want to do more of it because it reduces the level of piracy and it allows people to sort of say we’re a part of the rest of the world. But we then are at the mercy of the US networks and they are quite ruthless when it comes to pre-emptions,” he explained.
“Over an average of about 22-24 episodes they will have at least 8 pre-emptions during that time. Now our audience really can’t accept that we’re going back to repeats halfway through, or quarter way through a series and we’ve got to try and explain that there’s a pre-emption going on in the US. We spend a lot of money on promos, publicity, getting taxi backs and buses etcetera. We don’t want any show to be pulled off.”
Despite the fact that summer doesn’t afford networks the time to run complete 22 episode shows, Sampson says Nine is planning a slate of shows it hopes will build new audiences.
“Last year we had Ramsay and Two and a Half Men over summer, we made both those shows work. As a result of that we were very definite. Our summer schedule this year is going to be a schedule we want to potentially discover new programmes,” he says.
“We’ve got a couple of shows that we feel will be the next big hits.”