The dumping ground of television

What's happened to Aussie TV? Dropping shows is now an epidemic, turning loyal viewers into cynics. Nine's Head of Acquisitions Les Sampson talks to TV Tonight about the art of scheduling.

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.”

44 Responses

  1. Simple … introduce a new ratings system that provides an accurate measurement of what viewers really watch that includes everything they record to watch later (which is normally the favourite shows) and then there will be no need for all these excuses and ignoring the viewers in preference to the advertisers.

    Until then, we will continue to downlaod and watch what we want when we want … because the Networks have abandoned us … and all networks will continue to loose viewers and see ever decreasing audiences. I don’t think most of us have any “loyalty” to any Networks these days … they show absolutely no loyalty to us so why would we!

  2. I think also the point of how one network can run a show into the ground whereas another network with the same show can turn it into the ratings winner(eg. The OC).

    I’d like to see how a show like Fringe would rate on Channel 10 – a channel I think a show like that would be more at home on.

    Obviously we’ll never know (probably), but it’s an idea to for Australian networks to buy shows that fit their branding, rather than just buying hype.

  3. the programmers are becoming totally detached from reality and real people, too much blah blah blah about demos and preemtions.

    Folks just want to watch some entertaining tv. It has now got to the stage where there is no point whatsoever watching any over hyped imported show cos ya know its gonna get ditched after a few weeks.

  4. What all these channel is have a advance play channel for your PVR to record shows off. They air the prime time shows during the middle of the day for you to record and when you come home there ready for you

  5. I’m not making excuses for the Kath and Kim US, and while it did slip down to 4 something million, there was a huge baseball game on at the same time, so it will be interesting to see how it fares without it this week. The demos aren’t as bad as do not disturb either, so it might stay a little while longer (2.2 vs 1.4 in 18-49)

  6. Thanks David! I’m gald I didn’t come off too much like a burnt viewer.

    It was a great story and I appreciate hearing from the networks, for their “right of reply,” which in forums like this often does get little to no attention amongst the message boards.

    As for Kath and Kim, I’ll be interested to see what they do with it. Remember, The Office was a dud in the States in its first season, but eventually won viewers over during its second, when it really came into its own. Maybe NBC will leave it be for now in hopes of having another Office-like success….

  7. Ellis you make a lot of valid points, particularly in reference to being the audience of the future. Networks are like political parties, we need good opposition and viewers don’t swap allegiances very quickly. I agree there is a clear distinction between fall shows and the programming culture we now find ourselves in. Australia and NZ are almost unique in this infernal trend.

    I certainly felt with all the angst against Nine (and others) programming it was time for a “right of reply.”

    That said I’ll be very surprised if K&K stays put in the US after this week.

  8. Oh please, how pathetic!

    I can’t believe he actually compared American programming to Australian. America are producing these shows, not just buying them. Of course if a show isn’t rating they pull it off the air because it’s a waste of production costs and advertising revenue. But at the very least the majority of the time they let these shows play out its first season. Something that Sampson point out himself. Does that get done here? No! For example, as Sampson quoted, Kath and Kim, it isn’t doing amazingly is the States, but they’re still playing it out so that it builds an audience. So why can’t the same be done here? Most shows in America are at least given a chance; here they are thrown to the curb sometimes after a mere episode. Because Fringe was up against tough competition it deserved to get pulled from the schedule altogether? Rather than trying a new timeslot…

    Australian TV is far too ruthless, undoubtedly far more than America. You would never see the amount of weekly changes to the programming schedule in America than you see here. Australian networks have cultivated this cutthroat nature, not the audience. And what these networks forget is that they’re annoying the 16-30 year old viewers. While we may not seem like the key age demographic now, we are the future audiences that these networks will be targeting. Loose our trust now, it’s going to be very hard to get it back later. Especially in the age of the internet…

  9. While technically true, they ignore some crucial elements:

    – Their shows NEVER start on time after 7pm. Yeah, that’ll stop the viewer erosion!
    – The number of US shows that get axed before a whole season is minimal. Some of them have made stupid mistakes (Jericho axing after the season 1 cliffhanger), and a few more that others would recall, but nothing compared to australian tv
    – The internet is able to provide a reliable and up do date service, unlike them
    – If they can a show, make sure it makes the guide, not everyone visits this site
    – How often does the US move shows around? Minimal, so people know when it is on every week
    – In 2008 and beyond, sometimes near enough with ratings is good enough, the US has learned that, so should our networks.
    – **insert every other mistake they have made in the past**

  10. yeah thats a good story.
    answered alot.
    but i don’t care about pre empting shows.
    if 90210 stayed on the air. we would have had a 3 week gap after the 7th episode. where channel 10 could have just repeated it to try and get new viewers in. it worked in the states. and it has worked with alot of shows here.
    i’d just like to say that channel 10 thinks too quickly. maybe if they slowed down and thought about it. they could give it a chance. i hate having to download shows as it slows my internet down. but i’m one of those people who cannot wait for a show to air here. hence i am forced to the internet which can be very crappy quality. please channel 10. 90210 deserves all the chances it can get

  11. Ben they’re not lying with the amount of preemptions. In US the ratings season starts in September goes to May – repeats have a habit of airing (due to circumstances) in October, December, January, March and April). It can sometimes have one week on, one week off, etc. So 8 isn’t out of the question.

    Great story David, good insight.

  12. What this overlooks is that shows are not getting the time they once had to settle into their slot. How many classic shows have struggled in the first season or two? Seinfeld, anyone? A show like Seinfeld would not survive in today’s market. How many other great shows are being lost through this ruthless process?

  13. “Over an average of about 22-24 episodes they will have at least 8 pre-emptions during that time.”

    What the hell is he talking about? I get a few shows off the net and yeah it may not be on a week here and there but now way is it “at least 8″, come on we aren”t dumb.

  14. This makes a lot of sense. The networks are not at fault when it comes to shows getting axed, pre-empted and moved with little notice. It’s all about meeting the demand of advertisers and making money which is needed to bring us their services and to make the shows we love.

    Cold Case was not on last night and that was a disappointment however, it did not belong there and should go back to Wednesday. Perhaps swap with CSI:NY which would retain more of CSI’s audience. CSI repeats are ok.

    As much as I hate it when the networks moved and take off shows, I do not blame them. They do not want to do it and have little choice. They pay a lot of money for promoting these shows even Fringe was advertised quite a bit and it under-performed.

    Lets hope next year will be better especially with the new channels, new breath of life into the networks and a handful of new shows.

  15. i don’t think they should blame fringes low numbers on the competition:

    “Wednesday night is probably the toughest slot of the week. 8:30 up against House, Criminal Minds, Spicks and Specks”

    all these shows rate ok but not as far to say that it is the toughest slot of the week.

    I would say the toughest slot is Tues 8:30 all 3 big networks have their top shows on simultaneously (PTTR, 2.5men, NCIS).

    Fringe failed because it was a sci-fi that does not appeal to many people anymore. and maybe even the very fact that it was on 9. Blaming it o the competition is just making excuses for the show.

  16. It’s good to hear the other side of the story straight from the centre of the action. While it’s difficult to take when shows get pulled, it is a business at the end of the day. Thanks for the article David.

  17. Very good read but it didn’t answer the question, when will Fringe be back?

    And why didn’t they just move it to later the same night, taking it off the air now will only lead to lower ratings later on in ironically probably the non ratings period.

  18. Excuses, excuses seems to be the catch cry for Nine.

    Nine seem to choose their words carefully nowadays , so that they can justify any decision at later date.

    Maybe if Nine, thought about their scheduling more, thought about their viewers more and got back to being loyal, a lot of their problems would go away.

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