Thursday, November 13, 2008

Learning the hard way – Thursday 13 November 2008

Nine had a much healthier night last night than the previous Thursday thanks to This is Your Life a show which just will not go away and with 1.2 million viewers you can see why. Nine night of unscripted baby-boomer television (they had the exact same schedule as this in the 1990s) paid off for them handsomely – the only fly in their ointment was the move of The Strip to 10.30 where is more than halved it’s audience.

The Strip is the second locally made drama that Nine has benched this year after the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ Canal Road sunk on Wednesdays. Although The Strip premiered to a large audience on a largely uncontested night it has been outclassed on subsequent occasions by the long running Criminal Intent on Ten and even more recently, by The Amazing Race on Seven.

Although channel Ten’s Rush (which premiered in the same week as The Strip) has generally bowed to lower numbers, it is in a tougher timeslot on a network with virtually no hits so it has been renewed for a second season, after moving The Strip to 10.30 I don’t expect a renewal from Nine.

Ten’s early evening is in the doldrums, at first you might wonder why 5th Grader was renewed for a third season in the face of low ratings, but look at the lead in. 5th Grader lifts a hefty 300,000 viewers from it’s paltry starting point – the only other regular show on TV that does more heavy lifting from the lead in would be the news, so the renewal is justified. If Ten gets a decent 7pm show next year then 5th Grader will outperform it’s competition in this slot, the question is – what does Ten have planned for the final third of 2009?

The real standout of the night though is the continuing success of Criminal Intent, on a network which people are avoiding like the plague what lessons can be gleaned from the standout performance of this procedural when so many of Ten’s other hits are faltering?

Lesson 1: Schedule your show straight through
In the old days in Australia TV series (of 22 episodes or more) would be played from beginning to end without interruption, if the show was popular it would be then rerun in the same timeslot for the remainder of the 42 week season, or programmers would schedule another show to take it’s place.

This used to be a viable way to run the Australian industry because movie’s were popular and most networks scheduled movies on up 5 nights a week, usually Tuesdays and Thursdays were reserved for adult dramas post 8.30. After 1995 this started to change with Pay TV adding yet another layer to movie distribution most networks quickly expanded their schedules to keep movies to the weekend.

Also in the late 90’s Australian Networks started treating the two week Easter Break as a chance to take a holiday, pre-empt series and schedule repeats once they did this for a while they got the idea to stretch out their seasons in much the same way that US networks do for their viewers.

In the US this practice is necessitated by the physical time it takes to actually make these shows, When their season starts most TV shows may only have 5 or 6 episodes in the can, with a 10 day schedule for drama filming and a 3 weeks on, one week off schedule for sitcom tapings these shows would quickly run out of episodes for their American audience if it weren’t for midseason reruns.

Here in Australia this was being done when networks already had entire seasons at their disposal (due to the February start time) so it just became insulting. Of course now in the age of Fast Tracking we are going to be subject to these on/off schedules whether we like it or not!

At any rate Law & Order Criminal Intent is rating better than most Fast Tracked shows and these episodes are at least 6 months behind their original stateside broadcast, but they are being shown at a regular time every single week, no reruns, no mucking around.

Lesson 2: Pick your night well
First thing that strikes you about Thursday night is than unlike Ten’s previous attempts to schedule Criminal Intent on Sundays – on Thursdays there are no other procedurals, there is no CSI and no Criminal Minds, in fact last night there was no other drama in the slot. Contrast this to House, floundering on Wednesdays against 2 other dramas or Rush fighting off a very popular Australian drama in the same slot – in these days of spare audiences you cannot afford to outgun the opposition at every turn – sometimes you need to program smartly.

Lesson 3: Stick to your timeslot
Ten is better at this than most (I’m looking right at you Seven) but it has helped Criminal Intent that it is regularly scheduled so that people intuitively know when it is on – barely anyone looks at a TV guide any more so you need to keep shows in their place if you any chance of the audience finding them.

Lesson 4: No Frills Necessary
Criminal Intent is the first Ten show in a while that doesn’t seem to be promoted as some sort of Event TV™ in fact the promos are decidedly low key – this is something that always struck me about channel Nine during it’s 1990’s hegemony – their promos were never, never flashy or bold, they just told you what was going on enough to whet your appetite, no tiresome hype.

Lesson 5: Don’t Kill the Golden Goose
I’m a little surprised at this actually that we haven’t seen multiple nights of Criminal Intent given it’s the only thing rating on Ten at the moment. Earlier this year Nine hit paydirt with Gordon Ramsay – they scheduled him once a week, then twice, then on three nights, finally four until the viewers got sick of it and the fad flamed out. They’re doing the same thing with Two and a Half Men but people are still lapping it up – partially because the overall audience for the Charlie Sheen sitcom would be a lot bigger than even it’s highest rating night – people are watching it at a time that suits them.

Ten has already killed the longevity of The Simpsons, they’ve buggered up Thank God You’re Here with the same action, and trying their best to mame NCIS in the same fashion, but they haven’t touched CI.

When you start scheduling a hit show at multiple points per week two things happen, first of all viewers binge on the show, who wouldn’t – you’re favourite show on multiple times a week - but like any good binge it’s that much easier to get sick and never want to partake again. After you’re conditioned to expect multiple airings it becomes OK to miss an episode because ‘they’re bound to repeat it later’ this is when the law of diminishing returns kicks in – it has hit almost every major success story that has ever been flogged to death and it’s a practice that programmers should avoid if their thinking long term.

So that five things Ten is doing right with Law & Order maybe they can take this model and expand on it in 2009 by treating the viewer and their assets with respect.

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