What you learn about TV from five years of ratings for The Block and Shortland St

They’re the two most important shows for TVNZ 2 and Three. And their ratings are changing radically, writes Duncan Greive.

TV channels tell different stories about themselves depending on whom they’re talking to. When speaking to funding bodies, they emphasise the diversity of genres they air, and interest groups whose needs are met. When speaking to government, the selfless public-spiritedness of their news and documentary broadcasts. To audiences, the galaxy of stars who’ll be with them each night, so they need never be alone.

To advertisers, they tell one story above all: that of numbers. The direct correlation with revenue ensures that free-to-air, advertising funded television is obsessed with exactly how many people watch its shows.

As David Halberstam put it in The Powers that Be in describing the powerhouse CBS of the ‘60s. “Nielsen was the new god of television; his truths were not truths, they were commandments; what was rated high was good, and what was rated low was bad.”

Because of this, certain shows become disproportionately important to a network. To TVNZ1, it’s the 6pm news, as it has always been since the dawn of television here in 1960. In late June an average of 675,000 people tuned in each night, and the halo effect of that massive audience ensured 15 of the week’s top 15 shows were on TVNZ 1.

To Sky it’s test rugby, with the 450,000 who watched the first test in last year’s Rugby Championship representing as many as half of those who subscribe to the pay TV giant (read more about Sky’s existential battle with Spark over sports). It’s worth noting that both Sky and TVNZ 1 typically target older audiences, more committed to linear television and less prone to radical behaviour change as a group.

Lots of televisions in an early morning beach.

This is not the case for TVNZ 2 and Three, two lifelong rivals which both target younger viewers, and have thus been dealing with the arrival of many new competitors in the past few years. The arrival of Netflix, YouTube, Lightbox, time-shifting, piracy and a near-infinite tail of screen-based entertainment has made the once reliably profitable business of family-focused television financially perilous.

It has also ensured that the channel’s most important shows are more crucial than ever to ensuring that each achieves its numbers, and get the corresponding ad dollars. It’s not a huge stretch to suggest that the fate of the biggest shows defines the viability of the channel, that a huge year floats all boats and that in a down year everyone suffers.

For TVNZ 2, the big show is Shortland St. For Three, it’s The Block NZ.

Each is superficially dissimilar to the other. One is a New Zealand original, plays five nights a week, near year-round and is closing in on 30 years on air. The other is an Aussie clone, done and dusted in less than three months, and is partway through its eighth season. Yet each shapes the image of the channel, helps drive viewership and revenue through winter when ratings are highest, and provides fresh stars and storylines every year. And while The Block is only on air for a small proportion of the year, it has become so sprawling that its total time on air, at around 60 hours (triple what it generated in its first year), is around half that of a typical year of Shortland St. It also groans with lucrative integrations, and saturates Mediaworks’ various radio brands, so its hours on air likely still undersell its importance to Three.

Both channels target a very similar demographic. For TVNZ 2 it’s 18-49, for Three it’s 25-54 – each cohort is broadly the same size, each one covers a commercially coveted group, the meat of each crosses over with the other. Critically, each is extremely vulnerable to technology driven behavioural change – switching to streaming services or other modes of entertainment, from gaming to social media.

All of which is to say that if you want to know how TVNZ 2 and Three are traveling, you just have to look at how Shortland St and The Block are rating. And from there, you can infer a lot about what a big chunk of New Zealanders are doing with their time.

I asked Three and TVNZ 2 for five years worth of ratings for The Block and Shortland St, and have combined that information into two graphs. There are a few important caveats, which I’ll go through at the conclusion, but the key thing to note is that all the below figures are averaged across the full series that year – thus 2019 is a work in progress.

Still, the numbers say a lot. Here are the two heavyweights of family entertainment, head-to-head, over the five years since Netflix arrived in 2014, along with my read on the story they tell.

NZ’s family entertainment powerhouses head-to-head

In 2015 and 2016, there was little change in stature for either show. Each performed well before a major shift in 2017, which saw Shortland St’s lead evaporate. This was the start of a very consistent decline for the soap, which for decades was unbelievably reliable. The Block NZ seemed to take flight at the same time, with another Australian import format in The Project providing a more sympathetic lead in. Yet it also started a remarkably consistent decline, from over 200,000 target viewers, to less than 150,000, with The Block never relinquishing the lead it stole.

Coupled with NZ on Air research showing a major uptick in streaming usage, and a decline for both Three and TVNZ 2, it suggests that viewers are increasingly swapping ad-funded linear consumption for subscription or other digital services. Barring a major reversal in the latter half of the year, it suggests that, while still massively popular, the power of both Shortland St and The Block is in structural decline.

Life in modern Ferndale

The fate of Shortland St is worth looking at in detail via the two other key metrics, in share and rating. It’s worth underlining the meaning of these seemingly synonymous terms, as their decoupling tells a story of its own. Rating is the audience size as a percentage of the total potential audience. So, if there were 1m people who could theoretically be watching, how many did. Share is the audience size as a percentage of those who were watching television at the time. What we see is that the decline in share is nowhere near as pronounced as the decline in rating – meaning that while Shortland St has struggled with its ratings since the iconic 25th anniversary in 2017, the bigger problem is of the total proportion of people watching linear television is declining.

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The state of The Block

The Block’s story is similar, but less pronounced. It had a huge spike in share in 2017, to an all-time high. And while it has given back some of those gains, it remains above its 2015 and 2016 levels. So while it is suffering declining ratings and audiences, its travails are less pronounced of those of its cross-town audience rival.

Caveats

These numbers were supplied by the channels and measured by Nielsen. Perhaps the most important thing to note is that there are other ways to access each show. Shortland St secures another 60,000 viewers a week online, making it TVNZ’s most streamed show, while The Block is second only to streaming monster Love Island UK for Three Now, and is making major advances year-on-year. It’s also worth noting that both Shortland St and The Block have their biggest episodes of the year still to come: the mid-winter epic and Christmas cliffhanger for Shortland St, and the auctions for The Block. And each channel is not just sitting on its hands – TVNZ 2 has turned MKR Australia into a winner which somehow out-rated The Block in 25-54 in late June, while Three launches Love Island later this year, the first local version of a show which has been the most successful demographic-crushing reality format of the past few years.

For all that, The Block and Shortland St are the jewels in their respective network’s crowns for a reason. They make it rain for salespeople year-in, year-out, and pay hundreds of people’s wages while doing it. Neither is going anywhere, nor will they anytime soon. Yet it’s worth watching this battle play out, because these multi-night monsters hold a huge sway over the fortunes of our two family networks. If they can arrest the trend, the entire industry can breathe easy. If it continues or steepened, the whole enterprise becomes that much harder to sustain.


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