Hard News by Russell Brown


The Future of Television

As Regan Cunliffe reports this morning, last night was a big one for TV3. The finale of its competitive home makeover show, The Block, set a new record for the programme, which has been on three nights every week since the dawn of time (oh, okay, since August 24) -- and it was also the highest-rating programme of the night, eclipsing even One News, with an average 637,950 viewers over two hours.  According to Nielsen, 1,185,300 people watched at some point in those two hours.

Welcome to the future of commercial television.

The Block format is exquisitely designed to attract viewers in the demographic TV3 needs to deliver to advertisers. The first show of the current season attracted 412,400 viewers, or a 23.5% share of all the people watching TV. But the 257,400 of those viewers within TV3's target 25-54 demographic was a 33.4% share in that demographic. And the 86,800 viewers identified as "Main household shopper with children aged 0-14" represented a 34.6% share of that group. You can see how this works.

With The Block, TV3 is attracting more than a third of all the viewers that major advertisers seek. But it's better than that. It's building advertisers -- its "foundation partners", Bunnings Warehouse, Kiwibank, Mazda and Wild Bean Cafe -- right into the show. Fast-forward through that, PVR-owner.

TV3 is also doing a magnificent job of what it calls "engagement", which is basically getting people to amplify its reach via social media. There's nothing wrong with that -- I fired off my share of X-Factor Twitter funnies when that was on -- but I was staggered last night by quite how many people in my Twitter timeline were using the #TheBlockNZ hashtag.

I didn't bother watching. I don't mind the odd makeover show, but The Block is a kind of leviathan version, a dramatic narrative constructed in the edit suite around an infomercial. There's just no way I'm going to give it that much of my time.

I gather than the live element of last night's show did allow for some reality (the genre should really be called "actuality" rather than "reality") to sneak in, as unsuccessful contestants realised they'd taken months off work and surrendered their privacy for a relative pittance. (And they had to eat from Wild Bean Cafe. That's just mean.) But I still don't think it's going to be hard to find future competitors.

You can expect to see even more of this from TV3. And fair enough. They have clear commercial goals, and "event programming" is manifestly delivering better results for them than scripted drama or nerdy media comment shows. It's no accident that Julie Christie, who founded (and later sold) the company that makes The Block, will be on the Mediaworks board of directors.

But TV in a wholly commercial environment will start to feel pretty weird if local programming does just evolve into a series of long, dramatic infomercials, especially if you happen to be in the half of the population that's not in a target demographic.

But let's be clear about this: the idea that meaningful public broadcasting goals can be achieved without a public broadcaster becomes more of a fantasy with each passing day.

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