Our newest television multichannel, called 7Food, flickered to life last week. Though it's run by Australia's No. 1 broadcaster, Network Seven, its ratings target is arrestingly small: a mere 1 per cent of the free-to-air viewership.
Judged by traditional industry metrics, our secondary TV channels are a failure. Even the most popular, 7Mate, captures just 4.1 per cent of the metropolitan audience. If a prime-time multichannel show cracks 150,000 viewers, it's doing well; more typically, they rate between 50,000 and 80,000.
Love Island Australia, airing on 9Go, did especially well with younger viewers.Credit:Channel Nine
This was no coincidence. A decade ago, local broadcasters – having lost viewers to pay TV – faced fresh competition from DVD box sets and online piracy. ABC's iview service was also cause for concern, revealing a growing appetite for streamed content that Netflix would later exploit.
It was a case of (begrudgingly) adapt or die. For some networks, this involved new stations with unimaginative names, such as ABC2, SBS2 and 7Two. Had they filled their schedules with first-run local programs, they’d have gone broke – explaining their reliance on repeats and international content. But their early attempts to woo multiple demographics were not especially lucrative. A sponsor may desire the million-plus audience of The Block, for example, but few target the 40,000 watching a Married with Children rerun on a secondary channel.
"You can't be a digital channel with no particular flavour," Allen says. "It's better to have a highly-focused format with smaller ratings than just be another generic channel."
He praises 7Mate for appealing to young men and believes 7Food could succeed with a tiny audience. "Seven might have 100 clients who want to be on My Kitchen Rules but can't afford [ads on the main station]. If those clients can reach foodies on a multichannel, Seven can monetise that pent-up demand."
In 2011, long-running soapie Neighbours moved from Network 10 to a secondary station, now called 10 Peach.
The multichannels also provide a better home for traditional programming blocks, such as after-school cartoons, allowing more profitable series to take their place on the main channel. It's a different story for public broadcasters, who use multichannels to fulfil their charter obligations.
Consider the SBS Indigenous station NITV, averaging just 0.2 per cent across the major capitals. No commercial network would tolerate such a small share, but NITV has a loyal following in regional and remote communities. Though none of its individual programs rate highly, in total they reach 2 million Australians every month.
In 2016, the SBS2 channel re-launched as the youth-oriented Viceland. Ratings fell, taking more than a year to recover. Even if they hadn't, Allen says, the new format would be justified. "There are a stack of edgy brands out there that would naturally go to Foxtel but are now [interested in Viceland]. And there are plenty of advertisers who don't want 600,000 viewers, they actually want a specialised audience."
Another recent re-brand is Network 10's conversion of Eleven to the “cheeky”10Peach and One's switch to 10Boss, aimed at an older crowd.
Any future multichannels, Allen suspects, will focus on advertiser-friendly themes such as home renovation. "The networks have to fight for every single eyeball, and they can't keep letting those eyeballs go somewhere else."
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TV multichannels: Who's watching?
Target: Men 16-54
Audience share: 4.1 per cent
Key shows: Family Guy, Outback Truckers, The Simpsons, American Dad, Storage Wars
Audience share: 3.7 per cent
Key shows: Murdoch Mysteries, Bargain Hunt, Escape to the Country, Better Homes and Gardens, Building the Dream
Target: Women 16-54
Audience share: 2.2 per cent
Key shows: How to Get Away with Murder, movies, Code Black, Scandal, Once Upon a Time
Audience share: Target 1 per cent*
Key shows: Guy’s Grocery Games, Food Network Star, Chopped, Restaurant: Impossible, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives
*Channel launched on December 1
Target: Under 40
Audience share: 3.6 per cent
Key shows: Love Island Australia, Top Gear, Survivor: Ghost Island, The Middle, Robot Wars
Audience share: 2.7 per cent
Key shows: Death in Paradise, Midsomer Murders, New Tricks, Major Crimes, As Time Goes By
Target: Women 18-54
Audience share: 2.0 per cent
Key shows: Masters of Flip, Fixer Upper, Flip or Flop, Escape to the Chateau, House Hunters
Audience share: 2.9 per cent
Key shows: Judge Judy, NCIS, Formula 1, CSI, MacGyver
Audience share: 2.2 per cent
Key shows: Neighbours, The Flash, This is Us, Sex and the City, Supernatural
Target: Kids under 7 and comedy fans 25-49
Audience share: 2.7 per cent
Key shows: Room on the Broom, Peppa Pig and Play School on Kids; Spicks and Specks, Whovians and stand-up specials on Comedy
*Channel is branded as ABC Kids in the day and ABC Comedy after 7.30pm
Audience share: 1.4 per cent
Key shows: The Drum, Insiders, Planet America, Weekend Breakfast, The World
Audience share: 0.7 per cent
Key shows: Mustangs FC, The New Legends of Monkey, Nowhere Boys, BtN, Teenage Boss
Audience share: 1.2 per cent
Key shows: The Feed, The Orville, Wellington Paranormal, Travel Man, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Target: Women 25-54
Audience share: 0.9 per cent
Key shows: Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey, Donna Hay: Basics to Brilliance, Lee Chan World Food Tour, The Travelling Chef, Outback Gourmet
Target: Australians interested in Indigenous culture
Audience share: 0.2 per cent
Key shows: Going Places with Ernie Dingo, The Point, Living Black, Little J & Big Cuz, Grace Beside Me
Metropolitan audiences only, survey year-to-date excluding Commonwealth Games, as at November 2018. Source: OzTam.
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