Groundhogs and the dearth of creativity in TV land

James McGrath
By James McGrath | 5 May 2015

I, like David Gyngell, am really not excited by anything on the schedule these days.

At the end of February I sat with Gyngell and two other journalists as we probed the silver-haired executive about the future of the network. Stan was on the scene and Netflix was approaching quickly, and already ratings for the network were down.

"It hasn't been an exciting start to the year. We've had House of Hancock, which has been great ,and Gallipoli, which hasn't been great for us, but great for Stan," he said.

However, he hit a note of weariness about TV's broader response to a sea of what he saw as mediocrity.

"Outside that, I don't see a lot which is exciting, and a lot of you as viewers would say the same thing.

"There's a little bit of Groundhog Day going on when you look across the schedules at 7.30pm."

Back then, it was Seven's My Kitchen Rules versus Nine's The Block and Ten's I'm a Celebrity.

Yet again we're going to see Groundhog Day.

Tonight, it will be Seven's House Rules versus Nine's Renovation Rumble and Ten's Masterchef.

There will be two home renovation shows and one cooking show at exactly the same timeslot.

How did this complete dearth of creativity come to be? Was it the lack of creativity which drove people away, or are executives looking to play it safe, looking for the broadest possible reach play and integration opportunities for advertisers?

Undoubtedly TV executives are looking at the wandering eyeballs heading for other platforms such as Netflix and YouTube, but instead of trying to win them back with quality content, they've seemingly given up on increasing their base audience, and  are squabbling about share.

They've headed toward jam-packing their shows with product integration to make up for the revenue from eyeballs they've given up on reclaiming.

It's a boon for brands, but not so much for the people who are actually watching. High in the mind of programming directors at the main commercial network is the question: 'How many brand integration opportunities are in this?'.

Even in between the seemingly ever-increasingly short programs, there's a plethora of ads pointing to other programming. There's only so many times I can watch a promo for House Rules without wanting to watch anything but House Rules out of spite.

In some ways, free-to-air TV is between a rock and hard place. It can't focus on creating a tonne of niche content like a subscription-video-on-demand player such as a Netflix, Presto, or Stan. Its entire business model has been built on delivering a massive audience at one particular time.

However, the networks' response to the business challenges they face has been completely uninspiring. Their main play is to get numbers for its online catch-up to drive up the value of CPMs, get on all the platforms they can, and cram as many brands into programs as possible.

Increasingly, it seems that TV networks are more interested in delivering integration deals for their shows and being across multiple platforms than actually creating compelling content, which, call me old fashioned, is why people traditionally watch TV.

I'm not sure about you, but I've never heard anyone say: “Yeah, I'd watch Breaking Bad but it's not available on YouTube.”. While user choice has some bearing on why people are looking for their video fix on other platforms, they're not heading to Netflix because they can watch on an iPad.

They're heading to Netflix for compelling content.

By far the biggest investment for Netflix, outside international expansion costs, is its original content. It spent US$90 million on a single season of Marco Polo.

Netflix gets it. It's about content, stupid.

There are one or two really cool things going on – like Seven's push into HbbTV – but by and large the content, which is the entire reason people watch TV, hasn't caught up.

Actually, that's not entirely true.

Nine did try to put out some quality content. We, as viewers, completely spurned it, though.

Much was made of the failure of Nine's Gallipoli, commissioned from Endemol. However, those who watched it either on free-to-air or Stan can tell you it was a quality series that actually took a departure from the norm.

Critically, it was a success. It was smart content made for an audience that increasingly demands quality content. I wasn't entirely sold on the first couple of episodes, but by episode four I was on board.

So what did we do as an audience? We didn't watch it, the ratings were poor, and Nine moved to burn off the series.

Of course, David Gyngell had his theories on why it didn't work, and anecdotally people were put off by the mass of advertising accompanying the series, but the series' failure to excite was damning.

Was it us? Are we simply too fickle to support quality Australian content?

In this context, is it a surprise to hear programming directors talking about commissioning content because it will be “noisy” as opposed to “quality”? What's a programming director to do when we yell for quality content – which we subsequently spurn?

The result is what you'll see tonight at 7.30pm.

The same old, same old, with networks too scared to go outside the norm with content, lest they actually commission a flop and have to explain the loss of further revenue to their shareholders.

Seems like a night to settle in with Better Call Saul on Stan.

Or heaven forbid, read a book.

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