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Are Australians still 'hungry' for TV?

Cindy Nguyen / June 05, 2014 03:02 PM

Australian audiences remain "hungry" for free-to-air TV, according to Channel Nine's group sales and marketing director. 

Speaking on Wednesday as part of the Mumbrella 360 conference, Peter Wiltshire said "audience fragmentation and the internet bare not a threat for free-to-air TV".

Wiltshire is adamant the decline in audiences will be an opportunity to redevelop free-to-air TV in Australia. But is it too late to change the future of Australian television?

Last month Channel Ten axed its breakfast show Wake Up, as well as its early morning and late news bulletins, and it is estimated around 150 Channel Ten staff will lose their jobs as a result. Is the damage done to Australian free-to-air TV beyond repair? 

At Wednesday's conference, Wiltshire and other Australian TV executives discussed the decline in free-to-air TV audiences. With content that can be watched on TV now easier to access and view on the internet, computer and phone screens are competing with television screens. But as traditional TV viewers move onto viewing TV content online, screen time has not been lost.

The attention of viewers is fragmented, drawn to multiple screens, yet the hook of TV content remains strong. Wiltshire says "more screens, more users, more devices translate to "more opportunities to view". In the end, “it all boils down to having premium quality content”.

According to recent findings by Roy Morgan Research, within an eight year period, the average time spent online has increased by around nine percent, while the average time spent watching television has decreased by about two percent. The less people who watch free-to-air TV diminishes the attraction to advertisers, ultimately affecting the quality of broadcast.

The internet has had an undeniable impact on the time Australians spend watching TV, but Roy Morgan's findings show TV still has predominance. The average Australian aged over 14 watches an average of 19 hours of television, ahead of the average 16 hours they spend online. With the power of television still evident, Wiltshire says “Consumers are hungry for it, they’re driving to it, so there’s good examples of growth”.

Although there is still a clear market for television, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has released studies which show TV audiences don’t watch TV solely as a means of entertainment nor for news. Instead, audiences use the TV screen to transition their mood from work to home or back again. 60 percent of TV audiences often use a second screen while using the screen on a TV, and only five percent of people watch TV without any other screens.

Social media has a huge impact on the multi-screen trend and multi-screen viewing can amplify the impact of TV. According to the IAB, 35 percent of people watching TV actively discuss the show they’re watching through social media. Programs like Q&A, which encourage viewer discussion on social media platforms, are a prime example of the way TV consumption has evolved.

Infograph- Australian TV     Screen time is shared between all devices, with computers the most popular by far                                             Infographic via IAB

For free-to-air television to survive, advertising must be integrated not just on the TV screen, but also on competing screens. Xavis, a US media, programming and data platform, have announced the launch of a “real-time, multi-screen advertising technology”. The technology allows TV advertisements to be coordinated with viewers’ other devices. The IAB, who is the peak trade association in online advertising in Australia, believes this is the future of Australian television, concluding “the ad [audiences] are listening to has to be integrated to the screen they are watching”.

Millward Brown, the world’s second largest market research organization, have released their 2014 digital and media predictions. They say "In 2014, the technology to tie together the pieces of the multi-screen puzzle will be leveraged on a much wider scale than in the past"; those "who implement truly integrated multi-channel strategies will be the biggest winners in 2014". 

Subscription TV is also battling against online content, with savvy audiences seeking out free content (legally or otherwise). Pay-TV providers like Foxtel are therefore struggling to offer a paid service. 

Not only is subscription TV battling against online content, it is also challenging the content found on free-to-air broadcasting. BBC First, an upcoming worldwide entertainment channel, will be launched in Australia in August. Paid for via Foxtel, BBC First audiences will have exlusive broadcast access to certain British drama, documentary and comedy shows.

As part of BBC First's progamming licence, new releases will be locked to its program schedule for a year before being made available to any rival channel. Introducing BBC First in Australia will affect Australian programming. Free-to-air viewers could miss out on international releases with exclusive subscription deals. BBC shows are often given an Australian release on ABC, so the public broadcaster's schedule may be negatively affected by this new channel.

Funding cuts to the ABC from the federal budget forced the public broadcaster to consider axing the popular UK kid's show Peppa Pig. Although Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has since assured worried parents the pig would remain on TV, the popular pink cartoon became a symbol for the threat of ABC and SBS funding cuts. Free-to-air content is already under threat; introducing another subscription channel adds more paid competition and could limit the international content Australian free-to-air viewers are exposed to.

The ABC often shares TV shows and content with the BBC and in the longterm, the newly-exclusive deal Foxtel has forged with BBC First may have a detrimental affect on free-to-air content. ABC viewers may have to pay to see shows once the licensing rights shift to BBC First, or worse, viewers may be forced to illegally download content online. As has been seen with recent news surrounding shows like Game of Thrones, Australians are not shy in following illegal avenues to get free, timely TV content

Australian free-to-air channels are increasingly trying to reach online audiences and stem the flow of viewers away from TV by offering content though catch-up websites. These services are often tied to broadcast TV schedules, so online audiences may wait until after free-to-air broadcasts until the same content appears online. This may shift, as has been seen with the recent move by the ABC to launch a mass-release of  the first season of Chris Lilley's Jonah from Tonga, echoing Netflix's House of Cards binge upload.

The ultimate challenge for broadcasters is the need to juggle program schedules with the instant access available online. Audiences are asking, why wait for free-to-air? And, the recurring question for digital media consumers, why pay for content?

The answer, according to Peter Wiltshire, is “as long as you can measure those audiences and how they are consuming your content then who cares where it’s going or being consumed”. By showcasing a solid variety of content, and incorporating the multi-screen trend, the future of Australian TV broadcasting depends on whether it will be capable of engaging viewers and creatively adapting to the digital age. 

Check out Margaret Gee's other media news