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TV is dying (at least, in Australia)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012
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When I grew up we had a clacky TV. I Can still see it now: a brown wood-panelled ugly dog of a machine, with a bubble screen that made it look bloated from endless Happy days reruns.

And there was no remote. My goodness, no. Might as well ask for a smartphone back then. This was the mid-eighties. You had to actually get up off the chocolate brown cotton weave couch and change the channel yourself.

The buttons made a clack sound. Clack. Josie and the Pussycats. Clack. He-Man. Clack. Scooby Doo. Saturday Morning was clacks and Coco Pops.

I grew up in that era, where TV was the gathering point for our house, the watering hole of outside interaction and how many questions could we get right on Sale of the Century?

I was a fan of Tony Barber, but he always seemed a bit smirky.

Say it ain't so!

We have five main channels here: ABC, Seven, SBS, Nine and Ten. Each station owns one or more other stations which seem to be primarily for showing endless repeats of 'classic' shows (The Love Boat, anyone? Charmed? Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman?), bizarre guy shows (Coal, Ice Road Truckers, Megastructure Demolition) or in the case of Channel Nine and the Olympics, the exact same content on both channels.

Listen buddy...put some quality locally-produced shows on TV. NOW. Got it?
Channel Ten owns Eleven and One. One was created for the very valid purpose of providing sports content all day, every day. Its content was however last year 'rededicated' to shows like Bondi Rescue, Get Smart and M*A*S*H.

There are also infomercial stations broadcasting 'shows' like Oreck Air Purifier (my favourite!) and Ninja Knife Cutter (ooooh...Mrs Speech could use that for Christmas. All sewn up).

Channels Nine and Ten are in huge financial difficulties. The private equity firm, CVC, which bought Nine a while back, handed over almost $1.5bn for it, also purchasing $3.6bn in debt. The further two billion dollars they pumped into it is also gone.

Channel Ten's ratings are so poor they might as well start showing the Ninja Knife Cutter. After all, it slices and dices.

I'd rather watch grass grow

The main problem, at least on the surface, is the turgid lineup of prime-time programming, which of course is the time-slot where the numbers come from - both ratings and ratings' cousin, advertising dollars.

I haven't witnessed a disinterest quotient this high since Brisbane City Council introduced bikes for rent in the city.

All the star power in the world wasn't able to save this tired format.
The problem - and I know Mrs Speech will want to weigh in on this - is that prime-time content seems to be either a) US shows 'fast-tracked' (more on that later) ie Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, that odd new self-serving Matt LeBlanc show, etc...or locally-produced shows which utilise trends discarded years ago.

People will think what they will about the American shows; most of them aren't to my taste. I've been meaning to delve into Breaking Bad and Mad Men, though.

But the Aussie ones are worse. They're mainly reality TV shows which draw on an ever-descending spiral of the concept of derivation.

That is, each year they're paler and paler copies of shows from the year before.

These are Channel Nine and Channel Ten's major locally-produced shows for this year:

  • Being Lara Bingle (let's follow around a third-tier celebrity!)
  • Can of Worms (panel discussion - things like, 'if you could have one superpower, what would it be?'...I kid you not)
  • The Shire (compared by many to Jersey Shore)
  • Everybody Dance Now (post-Olympic dance competition which, though massively hyped, failed spectacularly)
  • Don't Tell The Bride (what would happen if the groom was allowed to plan the wedding?)
  • Big Brother (grinding my teeth)

People refuse to watch these tv shows. Personally I'd watch...well, anything really. SBS shows the news from various countries. I'd listen to the Cyrillic intonations of Macedonian news before causing my brain to contract by tuning in to Can of Worms.

The Chicken had to have come first

Aussie programming has always been reasonably derivative. The Price is Right, Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune...Seven shamelessly copied Neighbours with its summer lovin' Home and Away. Those kids and their surf-related angst issues.

But the lack of originality alone is not imploding the major networks. A funny thing happened to Australian TV over the last five years.

It really, got lost in a back alley off a dark city street one night with rain falling heavy upon the well-worn concrete...and was mugged by the internet.

Let's face it...TV wandered down here after a night at the pub and really got what it deserved at the hands of the internet.
People wanted what they considered (and read, was) quality programming and stopped waiting for it from the US. Ten may fast-track Homeland within a week or two, but it's available on the internet within hours of being shown in the States.

A recent case involving the second largest internet provider in the country, highlighted this problem.

In 2008 iiNet was sued by the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT, on behalf of Channel Seven and many major international film distributors) alleging that iiNet had a responsibility to ensure its customers did not download content via BitTorrent. A judge in 2010 ruled in favour of iiNet and then earlier this year the High Court threw the case out.

The point is, people want their content NOW. And will watch it on a laptop, instead of a 42 inch screen if they have to. This is happening a lot.

Fewer people watching their favourite shows on television means less advertising money.

Poor local content means fewer people watching television too.

Both issues affect TV's bottom line. Ironically, the lack of advertising money is probably significantly affecting Aussie stations' capital outlay on new shows. Which then tend to be poor. And which people don't watch. It's like the chicken and the egg.

I refuse to watch the telly on my wristwatch

So what now? Who knows.

Seems reasonably clear that content is moving online. Smart TVs now can access the internet, albeit under the constraints of the manufacturer's frontend software. I can plug my laptop into our TV if I feel like buying a long HDMI cable.

The crossover is really, taking shape. Don your silver jumpsuits, and all that. Tron will soon be here.

No. No. No.
You can also watch on your phone too. You already knew that. Seriously, when the programming on your digital TV is so...analogue...why would you bother? The market has already proved itself aggressive enough to choose what it wants, when it wants. If the networks don't actively seek to catch up, they'll become about as relevant as CDs, which were essentialy relegated to the status of artifacts as soon as the internet realised that a four megabyte file could be downloaded in anyone's bedroom.

There's a blog post somewhere in the deintegration of the Australian home. Dinner in the fifties was around the table. Dinner in the eighties was in front of the TV. Dinner now can be wherever your laptop is; families have more than one computer.

The gathering point for your house, the watering hole of outside interaction, can be wherever you want it to be. It's fluid. It's not stationary. Don't try to fight it. The tube as we know it is dying, in this country.

Some days I bloody miss that clacky television.
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