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.”