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I recently read an interesting article in the Fairfax press (Ex-Ten owner has doubts on network survival) in which Laurence Freedman, who was instrumental in Ten’s revival after its descent into receivership in the 1990s, ponders whether there’s room in the current market landscape for a “number three commercial television network”.
Admittedly, as a media professional, I didn’t even think about this prospect (maybe I should have?) but to put it bluntly - Network Ten needs to survive. It needs to survive because Seven and Nine require a counterbalance in the market. It needs to survive because it will keep the other networks on their toes. More importantly, it needs to survive because it’s a risk-taker. If we leave the other networks to their own devices, free-to-air TV will be left, to quote Michael Bluth, “in a perpetual state of arrested development”.
Lately Ten has been lambasted for its dud programming which includes I Will Survive, Being Lara Bingle, The Shire and Everybody Dance Now to name a few. Yes, they did not resonate with viewers (some with good reason) but they never-the-less took a chance. We dwell on these shows and comment on how terrible they were but let’s not forget this is the same network that took risks with Australian Idol, MasterChef and Big Brother which paid massive dividends for them.
Personally, I believe Seven and Nine are too conservative in their programming. Yes, it may work for them in the short-term (Seven has been a ratings powerhouse since they struck gold with Lost and Desperate Housewives back in 2004) but as we’ve seen in the past from risky Ten programming, when it pays off, it pays off big. This conservatism has given the naysayers the ammunition to announce the death of TV. However, I challenge them on this point; television is simply not dead, it just needs to modernise and Ten is the perfect facilitator to take on this task. Television is still the most powerful means of communicating with consumers. It has ridiculously high penetration (averaging around 96%) and can (and should) be utilised in way that is conducive to all demographics.
The way the industry is at the moment, we can’t throw TARPs or reach and frequency out the window just yet – they’re still the standard metrics we use to determine, from a media perspective, if a campaign has done well or not. Whether we move into a new model of engagement is debatable (or even realistic) but this is where Ten can really shine.
Realistically, Ten cannot ever really challenge Seven and Nine for a top two position. Their core audience is P 18-39 who are technologically-savvy and are increasingly consuming media in non-traditional ways. Although a lot of commentators have signalled this to perhaps be Ten’s Achilles’ heel, I see it as an opportunity for the network to do what it does best – challenge the status quo, think outside the box and modernise an otherwise dated medium. While Seven and Nine can churn out season after season of The X Factor and The Block, Ten must not fall deeper into the trap it is in now by relying solely on one programme (notably MasterChef) to keep them afloat and competitive.
I absolutely understand that Ten is operating in a market which puts them at a disadvantage. Media traders buy on audience, TARPs and reach and frequency; that’s just the way it is. If Ten is to revolutionise the Australian TV landscape, remain competitive and recapture its 18-39 core, it must move away from this model, which inevitably puts their revenue stream at risk. It’s a catch-22 with no simple answer but it is something the board at Ten seriously needs to consider, and fast. I don’t know what a new model will look like but I can say for certain it cannot viably continue to operate as it is at the moment – we know this, and so do they.