EXCLUSIVE: Foxtel has signed deals with Free to Air networks to acquire new programmes. The first-time deals with Seven and TEN follow similar arrangements for new shows with Nine.
In his first feature interview with TV Tonight, Foxtel’s Director of Television Brian Walsh has revealed the subscription TV provider has picked up NBC’s new period drama The Playboy Club and Steven Spielberg’s music drama Smash.
They are two of fifteen new US titles it will announce next month for 2012.
“The Playboy Club comes from FOX and we share that output deal with TEN Network. The other shows we’ve picked up through commercial arrangements we’ve made with the studios and the Australian networks, with whom they have an affiliation,” Walsh explains.
“We’ve picked up some NBC product through an arrangement we’ve made with the Seven Network. We’ve picked up some Warner product through an arrangement we’ve made with Nine and Warner.”
New deals with Seven and TEN differ from previous arrangements to ‘on-sell’ unused programming, but Walsh declined to detail further.
“All I should say is we’ve come to a commercial arrangement that’s favourable for the networks, the studios and to Foxtel,” he says.
“We are about providing a deep and rich library of content for our customers and we’ve made a commercial deal that’s favourable to everyone.
“In the past Nine has on-sold some Warner product which has largely been shows that have been produced for the CW Network and skew young. Nine hasn’t necessarily had the timeslots available for those younger-skewing shows. In the past that’s how we’ve acquired Gossip Girl. So in the case of Nine that’s exactly the deal that we’ve done again.
“With Seven and TEN Networks it’s a different style of deal.”
The arrangements between competitive sectors come at a time when Freeview channels are programming more content. But Walsh says there is still enough content for all. Next year Foxtel will feature the biggest haul of Hollywood content since the company began.
“The Playboy Club is NBC’s big hope for the Fall sweep. It’s set in the Chicago in the 60s and it’s about the bunny club where the girls worked. We’ve got high hopes for that and it will play here on Arena,” says Walsh.
“We’ve also got the highly-anticipated drama / musical from Steven Spielberg called Smash. It stars Debra Messing and Angelica Huston. It’s the story of 2 girls who are vying for the role of Marilyn Monroe in a Broadway musical. It’s got all of the great sparkle of American Idol, together with a really strong narrative.
“NBC are playing it behind The Voice mid-season and it will launch in the US late January, early February and we’ll be going same day and date with it here.”
Fast-tracking of shows is one way Walsh points to combating television’s ever-competitive landscape. It’s a challenge for both Pay TV and Free to Air.
“The challenge for every player in the market is to combat piracy and the only way to do that is to go as close as we can to day and date, and that’s for all of us. Clearly we can’t get across all the shows being made at the same time as they are in the US, so we are sharing the product around,” he explains.
But in seeking to fast-track there may be limited promotional materials available.
“How are we going to promote and market a product when we don’t have the materials to do so? Social networking means that is the marketing tool and we’ll be on top of that. We’ve got to get on top of this piracy, it’s a challenge and a problem for the industry.
“I think it’s something that has to be legislated. The government has to do a stronger job at ruling out piracy. It’s a criminal activity.”
Right now Foxtel has some of its premium local brands on air: Australia’s Next Top Model, Project Runway Australia, Spirited and SLiDE. Programming them at selected periods is also part of Walsh’s strategy.
“The reason we have some of our big franchises on air at the moment is because we waited for MasterChef to finish its run. When we did our planning twelve months ago, knowing that TEN would roll out MasterChef in the same fashion in 2011, we elected to hold back Top Model, Relocation Relocation, SLiDE and so on, until that had finished,” he says.
“But what’s clearly emerged now is that MasterChef’s programme strategy of having compelling must-watch TV five nights a week is going to continue for quite some time.”
Walsh expects Free to Air networks to strip even more shows across the week in 2012.
“For the next 2-3 years the Free to Airs will absolutely strip a format five nights a week and I think that’s what’s ahead for Australian television viewers. You can look at it and think ‘Does that mean there’s more of the same five nights a week?’ and the answer to that is ‘Yes.’ So what does that mean for the Pay sector? I think for us it means providing variety and diverse programming and to promote the richness and the depth that we have on the platform.
“So I see it as being an opportune moment for us, to look at what the Free sector is doing and counter-act that by providing choice.
“I would offer that the Nine Network has hit a sweet spot at 7:00. They know Seven has to stick with Home and Away, TEN has to stick with 7PM, ABC has to stick with News, and so for them 7:00 all of a sudden becomes a very fertile area to run locally made formats. I think it’s very obvious they will launch the year with The Block and finish the year with The Block and we’ve heard about the other big franchises they’ve stitched up with FremantleMedia from Mark Burnett. But it’s better for them to announce them rather than me.”
To counter-act these moves Foxtel channels will look for other timeslots to roll out their marquee shows, such as 9:30pm when the Free TV sector is not necessarily as competitive. With so many Foxtel subscribers using iQ there is less reliance on screening a show in traditional 7:30 and 8:30 timeslots.
“The thing that differentiates us from the Free sector is that we’re not hung up about programme performance in any given timeslot. 78% of our subscribers have the iQ so it follows that a lot of our customers are doing Timeshifted viewing. We have to get into the thinking it’s not about how a show did at 7:30, it’s about how a show did over the course of a week where we can look at its Encores and get a sense of its Timeshifting,” he explains.
SLiDE‘s first episode averaged 256,000 viewers with a Reach of 7.3% of subscribers. ANTM has reached 1.47m subscribers, around 20% of the subscriber base. But while 43% watched the show live, the rest were all in Encores and Timeshifted viewing. Similarly, for the first episode of Spirited 55% of viewing was live.
“So we tend to look at all of that because that’s the way people are watching television. The days of tuning in on one night for one show are not the ways we measure. It’s certainly what the Free sector measures because the shows they’re commissioning, like MasterChef, Got Talent, The Block, are all about live performance and that is what advertisers look to and what drives their revenue.
“For us 95% of our revenue is subscription. 5% is advertising. So our mathematics are completely different.”
So is Walsh happy with the performances of Spirited and SLiDE?
“Spirited is down on its performance of Season 1 by about 8% which is not dramatic. I love the show. I think it’s spot on for the channel that it plays for which is W. It plays to that female audience. Its performance is good but not spectacular. Do we go again? When we make the decision about a further series it will be looking at the overall performance of the show combined with research that we do with our subscribers.”
It’s also too soon to make decisions about teen drama SLiDE.
“We’ve just run Episode 3 so I wouldn’t even take the temperature on that show for another couple of weeks until we get the Consolidated viewing in.”
A decision on renewals will be clarified at Foxtel’s 2012 Upfronts to advertisers in October. Walsh will reveal the remainder of Foxtel’s highlights. But will fans get confirmation about cult zombie series The Walking Dead? Independent distributor FX Channels own the show but viewers have been awaiting its arrival for nearly a year.
“They are looking to set up a channel here. We’re in discussions with them currently. If and when the channel launches, The Walking Dead will be on FX,” he teases.
Originally promised for 2011 but now pushed back to 2012 are Got to Dance Australia, The People Speak Australia and a new Alan Jones programme, in conversation with one-on-one interviews.
“Our strategy going forward is encapsulated in three words: fewer, bigger, better –in terms of local production. So it’s about looking at formats that we think will cut through and giving them the resources and commercial backing to ensure that a) it’s a great looking piece of television and b) we market it effectively,” says Walsh.
“We are competing in the same space as the Free to Air networks and we need to make noise about what we commission. Those shows that ‘pop’ are the ones where you do see the money on the screen, and you see the money in the marketing. That’s our way forward.”