Slow-tracking or Express? Foxtel explains programming strategy.

2014-08-18_2021

As most Foxtel subscribers know, seeing Game of Thrones on the same day as it airs in the US is crucial. It helps you avoid online ‘Spoilers’ and increases opportunities to engage in conversations, such as the death of a character.

But fans also know they can be waiting weeks, even months, for other titles. Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (pictured) premiered in the US in May but won’t air here until November. HBO’s The Leftovers premiered in the US in June but won’t play until October. The CW’s The 100, which launched in March, won’t land in Australia until next month. Given subscribers are paying a premium fee for their entertainment, aren’t they entitled to premium delivery?

Ross Crowley, Director of Programming & Channels, agrees. Ideally he would like to play them all in Live simulcasts with the US. But it isn’t always possible. Crowley programmes Foxtel owned and operated channels including Showcase, SoHo, FOX8, Arena, Comedy and A&E (other channels such as BBC First, Syfy and FX are managed separately).

Since last September, in line with the US Fall season, Foxtel has been running its first year-long Express from the US season. But finding adequate oxygen for debut shows has been tricky.

“We learned a couple of lessons, one of them is that fast-tracking very first episodes of a brand new show that nobody has seen means that quite often people will miss the first eps,” said Crowley.

“With Ray Donovan and True Detective we did do fast-tracking and people missed the first 2 or 3 episodes before the buzz started. We also couldn’t promote it because we didn’t have materials. Part of the problem of going fast-tracked means we don’t get the materials until the day of broadcast.

“So we’ve developed a position that says if it’s the very first episode of a new show and it’s not already viral, then we will probably not run it immediately. We’ll probably run it in a few weeks to build up some story, but then we will try and catch it up as soon as we can such as doubling up the eps.”

Crowley cites Starz drama Outlander, based on the novels by Diana Gabaldon, as an example of a new drama that was given the fast-track treatment due to its viral buzz, evidenced on Foxtel’s Facebook page.

“We knew people already knew what it was, if you will, because there was an underlying source material.”

When it comes to scheduling it’s also been a challenge to accommodate express titles alongside shows that were currently in play.

“We’re nearly at the launch of the new Fall season and we’ve been juggling ongoing and new shows,” he continues.

“I would expect this time next year you will see a far more seamless and predictable pattern of fast-tracking. That’s certainly our intention.”

Another consideration is the need for promotional materials. Crowley says that it’s not as simple as playing US promos which sometimes don’t work for an Australian audience.

“For reasons of security, and I’m talking globally, a number of the big titles are not released to market until they actually run overseas, because of the opportunity for them to go astray.

“Sometimes our fast-tracking (episodes) arrives on site an hour before broadcast. It’s that sort of turn-around.”

There are also US pre-emptions to consider, where shows frequently take weeks off air. At worst a 22 episode series may stretch out over 40 weeks.

“If a show has a break in the middle do you play 13 and take 4 weeks off? It plays havoc with the schedules because you have to put something in there. Or do you wait 4 weeks and then play 22 episodes in a row, which for the viewer is a much more predictable and, arguably, seamless experience?” he asks.

“No matter how much messaging we put on to tell people there is no episode, people call the Call Centre.”

Premium dramas also have a tendency to screen early in the week on competing cable networks. But on a single platform here there is a risk of cannibalisation.

“Sometimes it’s a schedule clash. Ray Donovan comes from Showtime but we have shows coming in that compete from Starz, AMC, Lionsgate, HBO. The truth is in the States a lot of that stuff surfaces on a Sunday or Monday night. So if we were to run it all it would run in competition with each other on Sunday and Monday here. So you would end up with nothing for 3 months a year and then 4 shows a night.

“As far as the scheduling goes I can commit that we will have it much tighter as we head into the second year.”

It would appear, despite a plethora of channels, Foxtel has itself an embarrassment of riches.  So what of upcoming titles?

Penny Dreadful is waiting for an event that we’re holding in November, but the second series will not (be held),” says Crowley.

The Leftovers has come out with a lot of questions so we thought it would be better to get a number of episodes together and explain how it works.

“Everybody who saw the previews said ‘We need to see at least 2 to make this work.’ In America they’ve played it (as singles) and it hasn’t necessarily fired as strongly as it could have.

The 100 was with Channel Nine and we didn’t take that up until they decided not to run with it.”

TEN also on-sold Reign and Beauty & the Beast.

The Normal Heart was a couple of weeks from HBO broadcast so that we could do our own campaign.”

So given the various pressures that impact on whether a show is fast-tracked or not, what kind of timeframe does Foxtel define as Express from the US?

“In a perfect world it is immediate. Live,” says Crowley. “In an imperfect world it is before the next episode (airs in the US).

“Anything beyond that is not fast-tracking to my mind.

“If it lasts beyond a week then it’s not deemed to be fast-tracking by our own internal standards.

“I would expect in 6 months time if we catch up, the list of things we should be expressing will be very low.”

19 Comments:

  1. Think Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, True Blood, etc. For about half the year (I alternate between 2 homes) we have the platinum package as my housemate wants it for sports and kids shows but I don’t pay for it, rarely watch it and would not subscribe to it. Too delayed, too many ads, too much unethical behaviour. That’s great that Mr Crowley has explained the programming decisions but an explanation doesn’t change the fact that the service is clearly not satisfying consumer demand.

  2. I agree with the notion that if you miss the first few eps, you’re not inclined to make the effort “catch up” unless there’s a prompt to do so. Maybe a strategy could be like a once a month weekend marathon (if a weekly series). Foxtel Go doesn’t have every program on demand, so I’d like to see a link somehow to an IQ box so you can access shows recorded (the Guide App allows you to record to the IQ so I couldn’t imagine the reverse concept would be too hard). I was disappointed there wasn’t fast-tracking of S4 of Hell On Wheels.

  3. If Foxtel agree to those licensing conditions that is their prerogative – currently they are looping Boardwalk Empire, Orange is the New Black, Mad Men, etc and I’m sure will do so again with TWD in Sep. Re market research, yes of course in-house and agency data would be used but I am dubious as to how successfully the it is being analysed and acted upon given the low retention/uptake rate of Aus sub TV. On-air promos can be effective if the viewer is: a) actually watching that channel/s, b) has subscription TV and c) does not time shift and skip it. Considering sub TV is only in 30% of households that is a pretty risky strategy. Online marketing is low-cost and more effective than billboards, buses, etc. No, a single promo clip on the net is not a viral campaign. However, if social media is utilised and backed up with things like mini sites, apps, etc then this can trigger the buzz…

  4. Meh, I’ll watch it when I want to. And I’m sorry but I’m not going to wait 4 months for Foxtel to show The Leftovers, especially when I pay such a premium for Foxtel although to be honest I have it mainly for sport. Fast-tracking is the way to go, I can see where he’s coming from but you’ll never stop downloading with that attitude.

    Bates Motel was shown on Foxtel within a couple of days of the US broadcast, so I’ll watch it on Foxtel..

  5. So what about “The Honourable Woman”? A brilliant, critically acclaimed series that is incredibly “of the moment” and resonates with today’s headlines won’t start on Foxtel until next month, when it has almost finished its first run on the BBC (which began almost two months ago now), and is about halfway through its first run in the US currently.

    Why was this amazing series not fast-tracked to Australian audiences within days of its UK (or even US) premiere? You couldn’t find a more timely and important drama if you tried, it’s back story is so viral it’s been all over the front pages of every newspaper, Twitter feed and TV news program on earth for weeks.

  6. FTA made the same mistakes and arrived at the same strategy. Good that Foxtel are explaining things to their subscribers.

    You have to programme for Australian audiences not US ones. There are a few shows like GOT, The Walking Dead and The Blacklist that are global events and are best shown during the US season.

    For the rest to have to take into account balancing stuff across the year, when Australians want to watch TV, blocks of shows that work together, continuous runs of episodes, promotion and all the usual stuff that matters in programming and which didn’t just vanish when bittorrent appeared.

    It’s also worth noting that even once a show is established it can be still be killed by fast-tracking when its bad programming e.g. Homeland.

  7. If promos are shown on the internet, or images advertised on buses etc, that involves paying for time and space. A promo on the internet is not a ‘viral campaign’. The best place to find viewers to watch your show is to promote on tv viewers. When viewers get angry when their show is not on (due to it not being on in the US) they get abusive and blame the call centre, instead of checking the EPG. Generally if a show isn’t on, it’s because it’s not on in the US. And that can happen completely randomly. All foxtel can do is put a filler program in at the last moment. So, often it’s better to stockpile until you have a clear run and play once a week. eg Revolution on FOX8 has only had about 4 episodes this year, sometimes months apart. In all cases, instead of being impatient and angry, just use your IQ to record shows and series link them. You won’t miss anything (except ads!). The…

  8. Great story David. Couldn’t agree more with other comments that this is one exec that makes sense. And I completely agree that if it is a new series then fast-tracking isn’t necessarily the best option, nor a good one. But if it has already had one season air then remaining seasons should be express. For example, SoHo held off on airing Nashville but all of season 1 aired in consecutive weeks which was great. But now it has held off on airing season 2 despite it already finishing in the U.S.. So basically my opinion is slow-track season 1, but fast track later seasons if there aren’t gaps in the season (if so delay by a month of two to allow for a consecutive screening).

  9. Very good to hear what current programming trends are, explained easily for non-industry people. The channels here don’t own the shows, just the licence to play them, and only a very specific number of showings within a very short window, of 24 hours or a week only. They can’t just play episodes whenever they feel like without paying for them each time they play. They also can’t just play one or two episodes on their own without re-buying the entire season. When promoting programs, there are teams of Australian promo producers at each channel who know what Australian audiences want to see in promos. American classification is legally very different to ours. They show a lot more violence that we can’t and won’t show in promos here. On-air promos are the best way to entice viewers, using the channels own time and resources. If promos are shown on the internet, or images advertised…

  10. “The Normal Heart was a couple of weeks from HBO broadcast so that we could do our own campaign.”

    HBO: May 25
    Foxtel: August 3

    Ten weeks is not “a couple”.

  11. Good interview, David.

    He only talked drama re fast tracking and some of what he says does make some sense. However, they underestimate the brand power of the premium cable networks to do a lot of the work for them. I find anything new from HBO and Showtime is usually worth a look and I wouldn’t be surprised if we get to have a more direct relationship with them in the future.

    However, what is their rationale for holding back international, established brands like Project Runway, Ru Paul, Top Model, etc? Their slow tracking of reality is inexcusable.

  12. Of late, I have been very happy with Foxtel’s programming… After reading this article, I can clearly see why. As brekkie said, I’ve never heard a tv exec talk so much common sense.

    I think the perfect scenario is beginning shows about 10-16 days behind the U.S and then going from there. Something like ‘The Strain’ at the moment.

  13. If that’s the strategy it’s ill advised. People may miss first eps of a show until it has buzz but they can air it inline with US then repeat the first episodes. Also, there are other ways of promoting than preview clips – have they heard of viral campaigns?! Re shows having a break – sometimes long ones such as TWD – I’m sure some people don’t know but is that the worst that happens, people ring the call centre?! How dare they call at $110+ p/m. When there are multiple shows the same night – lots of US shows are starting in Sep/Oct, again, they can air them inline then repeat. The gaps during the US off season could fill with UK, Aus, etc shows, movies & repeating US premium shows. Channel BT is only going to get more popular until they do this.

  14. Thanks for a great story David, it is good to here what goes on with fast tracking. I believe this is the only way to stop people downloading. The comment that Ross made on the US promo’s not woking in australia was interesting, after all it’s just a promo. The thing i would like to see is foxtel able to pick up big name shows from FTA rather than waiting for on selling. Some shows deserve HD broadcasting and left to run the series, not moved around and taken off the air.

  15. Great article David. And I think the programmer’s strategy is spot on. I prefer eps in a row rather than pre empted weeks of gaps.

    Foxtel is a must for those of us who like well programmed series that are treated with respect. And no shortage of choice now with BBC First adding to the US output deals.

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