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Ratings show people under 50 are abandoning television. So what are NZ on Air going to do about it?

A call for submissions on a new NZ on Air television funding strategy closes today. Duncan Greive looks at the familiar biases hidden in the new strategy – most notably a continuing bias towards television, a medium which ratings numbers sourced by The Spinoff show is plummeting in popularity for younger audiences.

A few months ago NZ on Air published some research which showed how radically media consumption has evolved among younger generations in this country. Specifically, it showed that the younger half of the country was more likely to watch video online on a daily basis than linear television. I read it, thought it fascinating, and published an analysis of it under the intentionally provocative headline ‘Good news: TV is dead’

It was not well received by much of the television industry, or by NZ on Air, whose CEO Jane Wrightson and head of digital Brenda Leeuwenberg criticised the piece in online comments. Wrightson said “it overlooks that all ‘TV’ content is available online” – a truism which ignores the fact that online audiences consume different content in different ways. Just putting it there doesn’t mean people will watch it, or that it is now magically digital spend.

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FILTHY RICH

I understand the desire to protect television. It has been a wonderful medium, and for many, many years represented a place we all came together at a particular time of day and looked at more or less the same thing. The unifying effect of that did great things for our society – we had this one common experience we could talk about that wasn’t the weather.

But time marches on. And neither the medium, those who make it, nor those who work in it get to continue to do so forever as a right. Simply put, it can only justify the enormous investment which has been devoted to it – around $800m over the past decade – if it continues to maintain the same peerless grip on our attention.

The research showed that grip was slipping, with more 18-39 year olds consuming online video daily than consuming linear television daily. But the way it was presented actually failed to really display how fast that was happening. The pretty infographic it came with made few comparisons to an equivalent piece of 2014 research, and NZ on Air told me they were unable to provide me with the raw data so that I might be able to draw further conclusions, saying “We only have the final report (which is all we asked them to deliver.) We don’t employ an analyst so would have no use for the full data set.” This unfortunately meant the rest of us were unable to examine the data in more detail either.

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So I asked a friend who works at a media agency to provide me with some television ratings data. I was curious about whether the media consumption behaviour of myself and my peer group – which has massively swung away from linear television consumption in recent years – was borne out in ratings.

What I found astounded me.

The above data is taken from the top 20 – IE the most popular programmes – ratings for 18-49 year olds during the last week of September between 2006 and 2016. For much of that period the ratings are broadly stable, though that is helped somewhat by the introduction in 2012 of consolidated ratings, which included time-shifted viewing rather than simply overnight ratings.

Then they fall off a cliff. Between 2012 and 2016 they decline by double-digit percentages year-on-year. The total decline is 41% – in just four years. Even though this is a narrow sample, it matches what I’ve noted in the small amounts of data which are released publicly. It appears telling that ratings have gone from proudly trumpeted to closely guarded secrets lately.

41% is a staggering drop, one which shows no sign of slowing or levelling off. It suggests that linear television is now essentially the domain of those over 50. The numbers now watching even the most popular shows really struggle to justify the vast investment made into drama in particular.

The implications for NZ on Air are stark. They simply cannot keep funding programming if the audience is no longer watching it. Which makes the organisation’s new draft strategy’s implementation all the more vital. Submissions to it close today, and on the face of it the document looks like it will evolve our content funding into an exciting new era. It simplifies a very complicated number of funding tranches into essentially two: scripted and unscripted. And, more vitally, it pretends to platform agnosticism – long a kind of holy grail for those who see NZ on Air’s unquestioning fealty to television as a distribution medium as a form of Stockholm Syndrome, trapping it to the increasingly weird and dated whims of a tiny number of commissioners at the major broadcast networks.

And yet I and others who’ve contacted The Spinoff in recent weeks are deeply concerned that the good in the draft conceals a continuing attachment to linear television. The reality is that to get over $500,000 you essentially must have a broadcast partner. This means that for any project of scale the same tired old voices will be gatekeeping.

It also contains a bizarre confluence of demands. “A greater expectation of co-investment” and an emphasis on “creative risk versus business risk”. These seem to be in direct and aggressive contradiction to one another. Because co-investment is hard enough in television, let alone the microscopic advertising markets found online. And yet they ask that in this brave new world distributing media companies invest more than television companies did in the past. Then that they take more creative risks – which necessarily are a harder sell commercially. Often the best stories – that confront uncomfortable truths, take on difficult topics or tell truly diverse stories – are near impossible to sell into marketing departments.

On closer inspection it looks more and more like it risks being a fresh coat of paint over the same old broken machine. Like a way to look like the future while continuing to create the $3m Sunday Theatre-style productions and $7m dramas which we supposedly desperately need to recognise our nationhood.

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Only, it seems we no longer want them. In fact, the last episode of Dirty Laundry – TVNZ1’s flagship drama, produced at a cost of over $500,000 per episode – attracted an audience in its channel’s target 25-54 demographic of just over 25,000. A minuscule number, by any standards – particularly given that we are repeatedly told that television remains the place mass audiences live, and thus justifies its exorbitant share of the funding budgets. 25,000 people in a target demographic watching a $500,000+ episode of television represents around $20 per viewer. Which seems a lot.

It’s a shocking indictment on the current system, and the extent to which this much touted and incredibly costly show has singularly failed to connect with an audience.

The most infuriating part is that the audience was entirely predictable, given its timeslot. It started after 10pm and ended after 11pm on a Wednesday night – far removed from the 8.30pm slot at which it debuted in September. TVNZ has callously dumped a show which had such an extraordinary level of public investment. The episodes played back-to-back with another – the channel is essentially racing to get the show off its schedules so it can get something higher rating in its place.

Really.

This is a repeat of what MediaWorks did with 3D Investigates, another supposed flagship show which got shifted around the schedules until it finally succumbed after 10pm on a Monday night.

It shows the utter contempt with which the major broadcasters treat publicly funded content when it doesn’t quickly find an audience. And that by the time it actually airs, the audience which watches it is actually far smaller than the supposedly fragmented audience found online.

It’s an outrage and a long-running scandal and should be completely intolerable to those of us who fund this content. Unfortunately, while it makes the right noises about a voyage into the future, NZ on Air’s new strategy looks like it’s still somehow wedded to the very organisations and distribution strategies which have got us into this mess.

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