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. What a load of codswallop. The americans/canadians do not preempt 8 or more times in a season. They do stop for holidays and the inauguration of the president. They also do not jerk around their viewers and their show. I have rarely watched a show there that was uncerimonously pulled mid way thru the season, or moved around so mcuh that if you wnated to watch it you didn’t know what time it was on. Tv Guide’s in this country are just that: a guide. Not to be taken literally.
    The viewing public is not as stupid as channel 9 seems to think and some of us know about how things work outside of the country. The networks treat the public like they don’t have a clue about the outside world.
    If no one is watching the repeats, then no one is watching the 15 mins of ads they are including either.

  2. One of my favourite stories about Nine idiocy concerns the award wining Pushing Daisies – a cult show in the US. Nine promoted it mercilessly even putting it on a DVD given out free with Sunday newspapers. Did Nine ever air Pushing Daisies? Of course not! I’m sure by the time Nine do air it, most will have already seen it or hell would have frozen over. Wonder what kind of spin Les would put on that debacle. No doubt more of the same meaningless PR speak we read above.

    What would be funny and very watchable would be a TV series in the vein of “Yes Minister” about a multi billion dollar TV station with a sportscaster/sports club co owner as CEO, programmers who have no idea and are constantly terrified by the power of their advertisers and corporate sponsors and female staffers living in fear of being harrassed or sacked. I’m just not sure how believable this show would be. Calling it “Boned” might be a good start.

    Where is Chuck??

  3. Like most people I am really annoyed that they show none of the persistence that is such an admired skill. No wonder people get the idea that if something doesn’t work first time then ditch it.
    I have no idea why they even hang so much on ratings. Like many of you say we work long hours or have kids that monopilise the telly for foxtel kids shows etc. So guess what??? We live in a digital age and we watch it when we want. Has nothing to do with timeslot. If it was on during the morning and we liked it then we would record it to watch when we were able. We set up playlists on our recorders and create our own multimedia environment at home. Tell the networks to get with the program (no pun intended) and stop treating us like idiots. We will watch it when we are able, just make it available for us to access.

    Here endeth the lesson

  4. Listen you two bit geek TV programmers and execs. You are no better than the night Kerry Packer chucked a tantrum and pulled Doug Mulray mid show.

    What maintains viewers is loyalty. let me see my shows. Be and adult and if you start the series then finish it.

    People turn off because of ads every five minutes. Pathetic overlays in the middle of shows and really just being lied to by programmers. Nine wiped Fringe . 600000 odd viewers in a population of 21 million? Do you honestly believe we are all in front of the idiot box?

    Sowing 3 thousand episodes of 2 1/2 men is monkey programming. surely there is space in between episodes of that show (as good as it is) to show programs like Fringe. or perhaps 7 for example could grow up and stop raping timeslots with the same show being shown twice a week. Can’t wait for my onslaught of Triple My Jack Bauer 24 episodes soon enough!!

  5. Channel 9 should realise that disenfranchising viewers is not an optimal way to restore fatih in an ailing network. The public buys into TV programs and welcomes them into their households just to have them ripped away weeks later.
    The networks are concerned that people are illegally downloading TV shows from the internet and complaining that it is resulting in reduced advertising revenue based on contracting viewer statistics. Channel 9’s behaviour and lack of commitment to viewers is driving people to this medium and they should take responsibility for their actions. Bring back Fringe or lose hundreds more households to the virtues of shareware websites.

  6. I was so furious to not find Fringe on when I was all ready and waiting with anticipation to watch the show. How many times do they keep doing this to us. We get loured into wanting to watch the show from all the pre-marketing, we get involved in the story once it starts, and it just gets better and better with every show and then it gets ripped from us with absolutely no explanation. Why not move it to another time slot! Those who are into the show will watch it regardless of when it is on. Do the programmers not know this!

  7. Thanks for the article David.

    How much of an impact do you think the second SD channels will make in regard to the moving and axing of programs? Surely with a whole second channel to fill any under rating programs will be moved to the second channel rather than axed altogether.

  8. What is going to happen when Channel Nine adds the new HD channels next year?
    More moving shows around then dropping them.
    Surely if a show is rating well like the Mentalist, leave it where it was, don’t move it to try and win another slot.
    Sampson and Healey are overpaid for a poor performing network.
    The empire was dead the day these programmers were given power.
    Kate is right, the networks are poisoning the viewers.

  9. Coulda sworn Kerry’s focus was always on money….. but he also spent it to make it and was passionately involved with the network’s brand / image.

    TV is a business, of course execs should be focussed on money. FTA would die quicker if they weren’t.

  10. ” …Craig on October 29th, 2008 9:37 am
    No wonder free to air is dying. The people in charge of all the stations are not “tv people”, but “money people”… ”

    Spot on Craig! That is exactly what this article and the comments from the apparently incompetent Head of Acquisitions has proved … Kerry Packer and people like him are missed greatly and the entire industry is suffering because of their absence. The focus on money alone is destroying it.


  11. It’s like a friend saying to you…hey you’re gonna love this program. Yep. Oh it’s good. Just wait till you see it. Actually I mean, yeah you know what…it’s not that great. In fact it’s terrible, I’m never watching it again.

    Networks are poisoning viewer trust. Shows take time to build. Of course business realities mean networks need to hit certain audience numbers but programmers need to explore other ways to build audiences for TV.

  12. “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.”

    Well maybe Nine needs to stop suing IceTV

  13. Channel 9 is just on the backfoot trying to justify themselves before all viewers abandon them.

    When they stop jerking everyone around and altering their schedule every day, viewers will be able to find the stuff they want to watch, rather than hunt it down….

  14. Great article, David.

    Sadly, we live in an age of instant opinion making – people decide on the strength of one or two viewings of a show, or even form an opinion of an album based on one song. What about the slow burners like Battlestar which I thought took a few episodes to get up to speed then became – in my opinion – the best drama on television? I think people have lost their patience in giving things a chance.

    (Oh god – I’ve just realised I sound older than I am… “When I were a lad, kids would watch fourteen seasons of crap loyally without question before forming an opinion – people like me gave Darryl Somers a career!!!!!”)

  15. What is this idiot talking about. Is this the same guy who puts 2 and a half men on how many times in a week. Last count it was on 8 times a week with seven of those eight being repeats. Lost count how many times of have watched the same episode in a few short months.
    Don’t get me wrong 2 and a half men is a good show but come on, 8 times a week when you axe programs like Fringe. I think you should go back to the drawing board mate. All the networks suck!!!

  16. Hey David

    Just wondering do you have a ratings page for the HD shows like smallville etc?
    And about Smallville, when is channel 10 going to show the new season?

    Ive read the reviews over in america and they said its the best season ever.

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