How can TV shows launch better?

EXCLUSIVE: There was once a time when new television shows would launch with a formidable campaign of promos, billboards, print & radio ads and press interviews.

Everybody would wait for the ratings the next day to see if viewers had turned up. Sometimes talkback radio would gauge feedback. There might even be Letters to the Editor.

But in 2018 the responses are instant.  Thanks to social media, it only takes a few tweets lifted by journos to construct a clickbait story and brand something “Worst Show Ever.”

Overnight ratings, may indeed be the industry standard, but they only tell part of the picture -and only for 5 city metropolitan audiences.

Amid fragmented viewing and increased competition, viewers are increasingly watching on their own schedule: a complex mix of timeshifting, catch-up and Live viewing on devices (Video Play Measurement).

A show can also live or die based on its lead-in, and the length of end credits or network promos in between shows can be enough for viewers to press a button.

All of which can be pretty disheartening to producers who have poured blood, sweat and money into their new baby.

TV Tonight asked several production companies how hard it was to launch a new show? While most were reluctant to address the issue, Nick Murray from CJZ (Gruen, The Checkout, Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery, Wanted, The Ex-PM, Street Smart) said these were the 5 hardest questions in TV to answer.

Here are his responses:

1. What are the three biggest hurdles to currently launching new shows in Australia?
Obviously the main challenge is getting some attention from the right kind of audience. There are so many sources of entertainment, trying to get people to invest precious time in taking a punt at home on something they haven’t heard of, is really hard. Mix this with the blood-lust on social media (from people who don’t appear to have people meters) and the perceived need for instant success, and you can see why launching a new show requires intestinal fortitude. The final challenge is balancing known faces, formats and familiarity with the blue sky upside offered by launching new talent and ideas. You can see how successful TEN’s patience with Have You Been Paying Attention has been. The fact that they were prepared to persevere for several years, has resulted in a hit show and an anchor in the schedule for TEN.

“The launch of The Office didn’t work at first at all”

2. What can networks do better?
They need to find a way to ignore the chaff on social media and in the media itself. Given the furore on talkback radio when Kath and Kim launched, imagine what would happen now on social media and the probable Twitter storm, especially when a lot of it is anonymous. Try to ignore the calls for someone’s head and the death threats. Similarly in the UK, the launch of The Office didn’t work at first at all – not just the first few episodes – the whole first series was largely unwatched. So the BBC played the whole thing again in a prime slot and the audience found it on the second run. So remember the reason why the idea excited when it was first pitched, and use that memory to block out the inevitable noise.

“The media loves negative comments.”

3. What can media do better?
The media loves negative comments. So it is tempting for them to use a handful of anonymous comments on Twitter as the basis for a tear-down of a new show. There isn’t any other industry that has to weather attacks based on anonymous vitriol to the extent we do. This isn’t potential life and death like a Samsung washing machine burning down a house. These are shows that the audience have been given for nothing, being torn down because it’s easy.
The media also forgets how long it took hit shows in the past to become an actual hit. We all think that Fast Forward, Kath and Kim, Have You Been Paying Attention, The Office, Gruen, Seinfeld, Neighbours, Offspring were immediate successes. They weren’t. Ratings in season three of Gruen were up to 50% higher than season one. Fast Forward got more than three times the ratings for episode 38 than it did for episode 9. Neighbours got cancelled at Seven before becoming a hit at TEN. Kath and Kim’s ratings increased around 400% over the run of the first series.

Let’s try to remember that building a hit takes time for the audience to find it and then like it. It’s lazy journalism to simply use a few anonymous take-downs and initial low ratings as “evidence” of a flop. Remember that a new show will probably be a bit ropey at the beginning and needs time to evolve. Audiences have shown they are happy to stick around during that process and be rewarded as the show grows more mature. That’s how we find exciting new things.

“Australia is the only country in the world not using national numbers”

4. What can OzTAM do better?
I’m not sure it’s fair to blame OzTAM at all for new show launches. But it is weird that the audience numbers released to media, (including by the ABC) are the 5 capital city numbers. These are only relevant to advertisers looking to price a 5 capital city spend. Why not wait an hour and use the real national numbers? Regional audiences matter too and can make up 30% of the actual audience. Australia is the only country in the world not using national numbers to indicate audience. That’s just insane and under-values the real overnight audience for our shows.

Also, there is a risk that the wide availability of a brand new show online – via FaceBook, YouTube, Instagram and the network’s catchup services – works against a launch. If the audience thinks they don’t have to watch it now, they may never watch it. Those alternative outlets are not properly measured and reported even if they are successful. And currently there is no hard data on the relative success of a wide online release vs. keeping it exclusive to broadcast TV. I’d like to see that before our shows are spread on the four winds.

“We all need to keep taking risks.”

5. What can production companies do better?
We all need to keep taking risks. It’s tempting to play safe, but we need fresh ideas and fresh faces. Not every successful show was filled with famous names. Seinfeld, Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, House, Friends, Big Bang Theory, Modern Family (and the list goes on) all had virtually unknown lead cast in the US when they started. (Yes I know Patrick Dempsey was known, but not from a prime time show and Hugh Laurie was unknown in the US which is why he was cast). We need to keep championing fresh creativity, new talent and local ideas, because that’s what the audience loves.

We also need to hang onto the skills to build and launch new shows from the ground up – not just by peering at an international format bible and cracking out the international graphics package. We are a creative industry. Let’s make sure we stay creative and protect and nurture the fantastic people who can write, produce and appear on new shows. We need to champion great ideas not just copy them.

8 Comments:

  1. His point about sticking with a show and giving it a real chance is something you don’t see much these days. A premier season might only be half way through screening and they will already pull the plug. Some ideas need time to grow but in this world of insta everything it is like no one has the patience, which is a real shame because there have been some great ideas thrown to the dogs of late.

  2. Some very interesting and thoughtful ideas – that is an excellent article – well done David. Should be permanently affixed to every TV executive’s office wall.

    If I could just simplify it and take a few of my own liberties – the idea seems to be:

    1 make good original written content and take risks – excellent content will always be sought out.
    2. schedule something and stick to it – don’t yank it here there & everywhere across the schedule
    3. Twitter, facebook etc are not news, and are not the ultimate arbiter of what is “correct” or good.
    4. Ratings are imperfect and are “gamed” for short term commercial KPIs only
    5. I didn’t see any mention of low quality reality tv – its cheap to produce but has a worthless shelf life and I argue that they are a mis-allocation of valuable monetary and scheduling resources.

  3. There is too much noise out there. Social media, youtube, online shopping, muli channels, Netflix, etc etc. There are lots of shows I miss because I cannot bother going through long TV guides. How about going back to just 3 Channels and ABC and go quality rather than repeats, old shows and news, news ,news. Most people I know have the TV going just for background noise.

  4. A very impressive piece – thank you for putting it together David. I know you couldn’t get anyone from the more commercial space which is unfortunate as that perspective would have been interesting.
    My perception of this is that the social media impact is overrated – the big issue is lack of publicity. Ten had a new drama last week but I only knew it was coming from the comments on this site. “The formidable campaign of promos, billboards, print & radio ads and press interviews” that used to be used should occur again as people like me do not and will not watch commercials so don’t know these programs exist.

  5. So 5MC ratings only matter to advertisers? Funny I thought commercial TV main source of revenue was what those advertisers paid for the 5MC stations that the networks owned ratings for people under 55. Otherwise why else do networks commission, schedule and cancel shows based on how well they do there? What’s more ratings are relative to population. So a show that rates 500k 5MC and 650k nationally rated the same. The main issue for finding out what people watch these days is that for dramas you have to wait a week or longer for the timeshifted and streaming figures. However, timeshifted numbers don’t bring in much extra revenue so aren’t that important for programming.

  6. Thank you for this David, very interesting and informative to those of us who have no idea. I totally agree with him regards ratings totals, it’s like the rest of the country doesn’t matter.

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