To even the most casual TV observer it’s pretty clear that since the end of Easter non-ratings Nine is back in the game.
After Seven’s record-breaking run of 2011 and Nine’s own under-performing start to 2012, it has finally found form, spearheaded by the success of The Voice and The Block.
Nine is now in front of Seven and TEN in three demos for 2012: 16-39, 18-49 and 25-54.
And there are others winners it can thank: Nine News is winning on the East Coast (in Melbourne it is just a few weeks off winning the year). A Current Affair and Today are also performing on the East Coast. State of Origin is breaking records. Hot Seat is ahead of Deal or No Deal. 60 Minutes remains strong -and the Olympics are 6 weeks away.
As Nine’s Director of Programming and Production Andrew Backwell explains, having hits creates a “halo effect” and puts a spring back into everybody’s step.
“When you get big shows like The Voice to promote your product you do get momentum and you start to see everything get a lift. Particularly in early evening at 7:00. If you can just get that constant push through your schedule, it lifts everything,” he said.
“News is a much harder one to turn around. People get into the habit of watching News. The News guys have put in a lot of effort to get to this point, but it’s like turning a big ship around. It doesn’t just happen. You need to get the confidence of the viewers and credibility in News gathering. I think they’ve done that, but it’s been hard slog.
“It’s not like a show where people come and sample it. News is a habit, people watch it everyday and getting viewers to switch across is tough, and likewise, to get them to switch back is tough.”
Backwell has been with Nine for 9 years, his second stint in 25 years. He began as as an editor on 60 Minutes and later returned as Director of Development, then Director of Production before becoming Director of Programming and Production.
“Michael (Healy) is the Director Television but while he oversees all three channels I only work Channel Nine. So all the programming, promo and presentation departments all report to me. I look after the day to day running but in the end Michael is making the big programming calls. He’s the most experienced in the market and I believe the best and it’s great to work with him.”
This Sunday and Monday, Nine concludes its juggernaut series The Voice. With some episodes already topping 2.8m, just how high can the Finale go? Earlier this week Group Sales and Marketing Director of Nine Entertainment Co. Peter Wiltshire tipped 3.5m, but Backwell is more conservative.
“I would hope for close to 3 million. I think 3.5m is a very big number,” he suggests.
“I would think we’ll be going somewhere close to 2.5m.
“Nobody tipped 2.8m. When we first launched it we were hoping for 1.6, 1.7m and when it launched at 2.1m everyone was blown away. Then it just grew and grew.”
Sunday night the show takes on the finale for Dancing with The Stars. While Nine is expected to land higher, Seven’s show is no pushover.
“They always spark the Dancing final, it does well. I would think it’s a fairly fair bet to say The Voice will win the slot. But with finals, everyone who has seen an episode here and there all comes back for the final to see who’s going to win it.
“And Monday is not an easy slot either because they’ve got Revenge at 8:30, which is a new episode so it’s not the easiest of environments. But 2.5m -we’d be delighted.”
The success of the two Reality shows is in stark contrast to the widely reported debt of $2.7B. Then there was Nine pulling its highly-publicised Excess Baggage before the ratings year began. It was a humiliating start.
“We did have a soft start, no denying that, but we came back with a stronger slate after Easter with The Voice and The Block and we’re leading the year in 25-54,” Bckwell insists.
“We’re not interested in All People. Our sales people can’t commercialise it. So it’s all about 25-54, that’s our focus and we’re leading in that and that makes our sales team happy. We’re a business after all.
“It’s gotten harder and harder to read the market, especially with all the multichannels. You’ve got the big shows like The Voice that absolutely spark, anything that’s average is just flat, and it’s all cylical. You can see in the market that factuals and ob-docs aren’t really cutting through as well as they used to. Lifestyle’s come and gone….
“What you will see is that there will be Reality overload. The good ones will cut through and the ordinary ones won’t. But I think it’s a genre that’s here to stay. I don’t see it tiring. It’s just that there are too many shows on and too much choice to get viewers to commit.
“We had it this year with Excess Baggage –just one Reality show too many to commit to.”
Backwell says Nine prefers The Block after Easter when viewing numbers go up and where the show has performed before.
“We could have had it up at the beginning of the year but remember Easter is a tricky period because what you end up doing is burning first-run product all through the Easter period. So that’s a roadblock to launching at the beginning of the year. So you either time it to finish at Easter or you have to go through with a big financial commitment when you’re not really in Survey period,” he says.
“In the early period viewing levels are down with Daylight Savings, and when it ends they jump up and in the middle of winter the viewing levels are huge. So it’s worked really well for us in this period and the numbers speak for themselves.”
Nine has confirmed two seasons of The Block for 2013 -but isn’t it at risk of killing a hit show?
“There will be an adaption to it, it won’t be exactly like this year. So don’t think two big series like we’ve got at the moment. But we will have two and split them across the year, but don’t just think the content we’ve had this year is doubled, because it won’t be.”
The Block finale, 2011’s highest rated show, will take place in the same week as the State of Origin decider in the first week of July. That will be another week won to Nine. But with the Olympics beginning on July 27th, how will Nine fill the void left by its 2 biggest shows?
“We’ve planned a few Specials in that period, but nothing I can talk about straight away,” he admits.
“We’ve got Hamish and Andy going through but I think it’s fair to say we won’t be delivering the same demographics for those few weeks before the Olympics that we’re delivering now. If you take out those two big properties, they’re the two biggest shows on TV at the moment. But we’re not too worried because then the Olympics come and you rebuild all that momentum and a huge platform to promote all your stuff. Our strategy is to promote Big Brother, Underbelly, Howzat! and all the new product. So I think any momentum we may lose we’ll rebuild straight away”
Big Brother will launch as a “Family friendly” show on the back of the Olympics, and reports emerged earlier this week of an Up Late edition on GO!
“I don’t know where the Up Late came from. We’re not planning an Up Late but we are planning a show for GO!” he says.
“We’re not going to cast Big Brother like the previous versions. We’re making it a family entertainment show and going back to basics, to the social experiment rather than stunt casting.
“We’re casting for interesting debate rather than mindless chat and part of our strategy is not to have an Up Late, edgy kind of Adults Only show.
“It would also look like we’re censoring the 7:00 show and we don’t want to. We want to have a family viewing experience where you can sit there with your family and your kids are fine to watch it, rather than sanitise it and make the other stuff later.
“There will be some adult content, but not nudity. I mean adult debate, adult discussion that you wouldn’t play in a PG slot.
“We want relationships, adults who relate to each other, rather than just people looking to hook up.
“You put all these people who don’t know each other in this environment and they’re trapped. And then you see how they relate to each other. That’s what people found fascinating, that’s what drove the series initially.
“We’ll cast it a little bit older than it’s been in other versions in Australia, but not very old. We’ll cast it with a mix, but not young, vacuous people. Interesting people who can have an interesting discussion about something.
“It’s a risky show for us. No-one knows exactly how it’s going to go.
“I don’t want to see people fighting and screaming at each other in the house. I don’t think that’s broad family viewing.”
Last night Nine launched Hamish and Andy’s Euro Gap Year with Gold Logie winner Hamish Blake traversing Europe with Andy Lee.
“I think this series will grow on the last series. I think it’s a good slot on Thursday, coming off the back of The Block. We’re hoping we can flow through some more younger viewers who are available at that time. I think it’s the toughest slot on TV, but the campaign’s been strong and the boys are very talented,” he explains.
“There is a classification change but it doesn’t affect them. The last season we could have played earlier.”
So if Nine is chasing 25-54 demos, why the big push to family viewing?
“Family viewing is the only way you can get the big numbers. It’s really hard at the moment. If you have a show that just targets young blokes it’s very hard at the moment. For the multichannels that are targeting young males it’s very hard. So to get the big numbers you have to have families watching.”
But if their Reality shows are their new salvation, where does this leave new drama Tricky Business?
“With a Drama series it always takes some time to find its feet. The episodes now are much stronger than the earlier episodes, and I think it’s quite a solid Drama. It was a big decision for us to play it at 9:30, and sometimes it’s much later because of The Voice running over. It was originally designed as an early evening Drama but the choice was to put it there and pump big audiences in to sample. The numbers are ok. I wouldn’t say the show’s on fire but I wouldn’t say in a disaster zone.
“The timeshifted numbers are about 140,000 so when you add that in it’s not a bad performance.”
Still to come this year are BBC-HBO miniseries Parade’s End, Treasure Island, Charlie Sheen’s Anger Management and at long last Episodes starring Matt LeBlanc, which has been gathering dust on Nine’s shelves for 18 months.
“It’s a matter of putting it in the right slot. The problem is when you get something with a short run. You get 6 episodes and you spend a lot of promotional time, but you get such a short run. So we’d rather put something in there that can stay there for a while and build a brand. But when it’s such a short run it makes it harder to schedule,” says Backwell.
“I think we’ll probably play it as one hours on Nine in a 9:30 slot. It will come soon because everyone it starting to run out of their first-run US content, so we’ll need some content coming up.”
Nine also has the rights to the Dallas remake.
“I think we’ll see Dallas post-Olympics,” was the only hint.
What are the considerations in scheduling US content? When you have the rights to a show like Charlie’s Angels, is it better to launch it swiftly before word of mouth kills off the show?
“There’s a lot of debate because people download from the US and that can impact your launch here. With some shows you’re preferring to get them on before they’re cancelled in America, because you’re still paying for the thing. So you want to try and get some value out of it. So it’s really tricky,” Backwell explains.
“I reckon we get it right 50% of the time. Anyone who thinks they know exactly how this works is kidding themselves.
“We’ve certainly been in that position before where you scramble shows. But when you scramble shows usually you go backwards. But we’ve been guilty of it, when you make knee-jerk reactions. Viewers find it hard to find where the shows are and often you go backwards.”
When it comes it multichannels GO! still delivers despite a significant shift away from new series to Big Bang reruns, Top Gear and movies. But what about GEM?
“Demographically our multichannels do a solid job. If you look at All People you would think that 7TWO is on fire but demographically it’s just not in the game,” he insists.
“GEM skews fairly young for an older female-based channel and still delivers demos and we do that on purpose.
“Last week in All People we lost the week by 0.1 but if you look at the Demographics it’s so far in front. The perception is All People and I understand that everything is reported on All People. But for our advertisers they’re really not interested in older viewers. They can’t commercialise them. So in running a business it’s just all about Demographics.
“It’s a nice bonus to win All People because perception is good, but really it makes no difference to your revenue.
“In America it’s all about 18-49 and I think we’ll see that in Australia in the future.”
With all of Nine’s successes this year, it still has the big one to come: the Olympics. Fortunately for Seven and Nine, such events are usually excluded by media buyers when collating the annual stack.
But Backwell, speaks the language of TV execs.
“I think we’re in a good position because we’ve built some franchises now. The Block is strong, The Voice is strong, and they’re franchises you can bring back and that gives you a place to build some new stuff.”