Sydney — 2007 has been a year of significant shifts in Australian TV, including changes of ownership at each of the commercial TV networks; the Seven Network becoming the top-rated network in the country; and audiences moving away from the favored U.S. dramas of recent years and toward Australian comedies, factual series and light entertainment programs.
When the Australian ratings season finishes in the last week of November, the Seven Network will officially assume the title of top Aussie network from longtime incumbent the Nine Network. This year to date, Seven has a 28.8% share in total viewers and a leading 29.9% share in the 25–54 demographic, while Nine has recorded an all-viewers share of 27.2%.
Seven’s ascendancy has been driven by its strong lineup of local programming. Favoring shows like local comedy “Kath & Kim,” factual series such as “Border Security” and “Medical Emergency,” and local versions of global formats including “Dancing With the Stars” and “It Takes Two,” which all regularly air to around 1.8 million viewers, audiences have drifted way from U.S. dramas like “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost.”
But media buyer and TV ratings analyst Steve Allen of Fusion Strategy says that edgier programs like “Heroes” and “Californication” are proving popular in specific demographics.
“The current crop of U.S. dramas are middling at best. While they’re not unappealing, they’re not producing stellar ratings,” says Allen. “However, programs like ‘Heroes’ are drawing rich demographics, making them very viable.”
To hold those audiences, the networks are moving their U.S. programming in sync with U.S. broadcast dates. From late September, no less than six dramas in Australia will air day-and-date with their U.S. broadcasts, including “Heroes,” “Prison Break” and “Bionic Woman” on Seven, and the top-rated U.S. drama on Australian TV, “House.”
TORONTO — The kaleidoscope that is Canadian broadcasting has been shaken up by around $5 billion in recent broadcast mergers.
The biggest include domestic broadcaster CanWest Global Communications and U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs buying Alliance Atlantis Communications for $2.3 billion and rival CTVglobemedia swallowing Chum Ltd. for $1.4 billion. Still others, including Astral Media grabbing radio giant Standard Broadcasting for $1.1 billion, come as major industry players jockey for position in the emerging digital universe.
To survive and thrive, Canadian broadcasters are showing an even greater appetite for U.S. shows, including CanWest Global’s content deal with E! Entertainment Television to relaunch its CH national network as E! Canada, and CTV completing similar content deals with tmz.com and MTV Networks International to rebrand its talktv channel as MTV.
Not surprisingly, U.S. network series continue to dominate Canadian primetime. “Our breakout hits in English-speaking Canada are the same as in the U.S; our tastes in mass television mirror those of the U.S.,” says Sunni Boot, president of media-buying giant ZenithOptimedia. “So ‘Desperate Housewives’ is a huge hit. ‘Survivor’ (is also) a huge hit.”
The continuing Americanization of Canada’s airwaves has not been lost on the country’s TV watchdog.
In a widely anticipated test case, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in November will weigh the Alliance Atlantis takeover — a deal largely financed by Goldman Sachs — to see whether it flouts existing rules that bar foreign companies from controlling Canadian broadcasters.
“Win in China”
BEIJING — Millions tune in to the countdown to the Olympics, plastic surgery reality TV is banned, “Access Hollywood” premieres in the provinces and the BBC commissions a Shanghai expatriate drama. Which way will the world’s largest television audience look next?
Since communist regulators, eager to promote a “harmonious society” and check an overheated economy, keep most foreign broadcasters out, imports are often limited to conservative fare. Nevertheless, new work-arounds to branding and revenue generation are found every day.
MTV, for instance, has launched pop concerts with Motorola and street dancing competitions with Italian sportswear line Kappa, bringing flash to co-productions while provincial stations are still learning the commercial TV ropes.
“More Chinese TV stations are realizing that buying formats is more than just licensing the concept,” says Kristian Kender, research director of Beijing-based China Media Monitor Intelligence. “There’s more interest in the expertise that comes with the show’s original producers.”
China Central Television expects a windfall around the ’08 Beijing Games and many smaller broadcasters are trying to join the race. Some, however, are off to a slow start.
In August, Shanghai Media Group’s Dragon TV launched “Skating With Celebrities,” a licensed Fox format where Chinese TV personalities teamed up with pros to perform figure skating routines. Left cold, audiences gave the show low marks.
Elsewhere, Oct. 9 marks the premiere of Season 3 of “Win in China,” a CCTV-2 competition that awards winning entrepreneurs with venture capital, leading some to say it makes its inspiration — “The Apprentice” — look downright socialist.
Producer Wang Lifen has gone so far as to hire a New York-based lawyer to sell the format overseas, even as the communist leadership heads into its 17th National Party Congress to set the economy’s next five-year plan.
“The most important change this year is that CCTV won’t take a cut of the winning venture,” Wang says. “The money goes 50-50 to the winner and the venture capitalists.”
PARIS — Digitized national television and popular U.S. series are dramatically changing the face of French small-screen politics.
France’s analog-to-digital conversion efforts have amplified over the past months, with audience shares for the country’s digital terrestrial television channels (TNT) rising rapidly from just 3.6% in January to a record 6.5% in August. The move comes at the expense of France’s other main networks, which have been losing viewers to the new digital platform. Ten years ago, leading Gallic network TF1 had a 40% audience share; today it hovers around 30%.
“The TNT has very quickly had a large impact on the major French networks, whose global shares have dropped,” says Francois Jost, head of the Center for Image and Sound at the Sorbonne and a leading television analyst. “TNT represents 17% of audience shares and only 12 million-13 million French people receive it.”
All the major networks have seen their average market shares fall, with the exception of M6, which has seen an upward shift from 13.3% to 15.9% of the primetime market thanks to the ubiquity of U.S. series on what is considered the most “Americanized” network. The French are growing increasingly obsessed with U.S. series on every network. “Without a Trace” attracts over 7.9 million viewers per episode on France2, and the “CSI” franchise on TF1 continuously breaks records with over 10 million viewers. “Young people and intellectuals have a real infatuation with series coming from American cable TV,” Jost says. In response to such an appetite for U.S. fare, TF1 has been adding French flavor to popular U.S. series with programs like “Paris, enquetes criminelles” (France’s answer to “Law & Order”) and “RIS” (the French “CSI”).
“As the major networks continue to try to give themselves a younger look, they will be looking more to understand the spirit of these new American series and to adapt their shows accordingly, instead of just making simple copies,” Jost adds.
Elsewhere, the networks are investing more and more in Gallic original series and are starting to see more promising results. France2’s literary period adaptation “Chez Maupassant” drew more than 7.1 million viewers for the series of star-powered vignettes based on 19th century author Guy de Maupassant. Traditional French series like “Julie Lescaut” and “Une femme d’honneur” are among the highest rated of the year along with TF1’s “Josephine, ange gardien” and “Femmes de loi,” which attracts between 7 million-10 million viewers a night.
ROME — The Italian television sector has arrived at several crossroads at once. Broadcast giant Mediaset is starting to evolve into a major content producer, state-owned rival RAI is focusing on “quality” programming at the expense of low-brow shows and satellite broadcaster Sky Italia is proving the sector is no longer just a duopoly.
Analysts say there are no new programs likely to change the television landscape in Italy — the prognosis is for viewers to continue to be most drawn to sports and reality programs, plus a few major film events. But the landscape seems poised to change on its own.
The biggest changes involve Mediaset. Already this year, the Silvio Berlusconi-controlled company led a consortium that bought 75% of Dutch reality television producer Endemol, moved Berlusconi’s film production and distribution giant Medusa under the Mediaset umbrella, and penned a four-year deal worth north of $1 billion with Warner Bros. and Universal.
RAI, meanwhile, has its own changes in the works. The three-network broadcaster wants to completely withdraw advertising on one network by 2009 in order to reduce commercial concerns and jettison low-brow programming such as reality and game shows once contracts expire next year.
And Sky Italia — which has seen its subscriber base leap from 1.9 million in 2003 to 4.2 million at mid-year and which regularly creates new channels — now rivals Mediaset and RAI in terms of economic impact, prompting many observers to predict a battle for supremacy between the three companies in the coming years.
To make things more complicated, Telecom Italia Media, the country’s smallest national broadcaster, is likely to be sold off as Telecom Italia’s new parent company, Spain’s Telefonica, looks to focus on telephony. Most predict a deep-pocketed foreign buyer will gobble the company up with an eye on making the sector a four-horse race.
“This is the point at which everything in the Italian television sector is changing,” says Enrico Menduni, a professor at Roma Tre University and a commentator on television and multimedia issues. “A few years from now, everything will look different than it does today.”
Mediaset’s “Grande Fratello” (Big Brother), which is set to launch its eighth season, should be one of the most popular programs on Italian television again. If it is, Mediaset should gain twice, as the broadcaster now controls Endemol, the creator of the “Big Brother” franchise.
TOKYO — Despite healthy profits, execs at Japanese TV stations remain jittery about the possibility of takeovers. Fund manager Yoshiaki Murakami followed Livedoor’s Takafumi Horie to prison in July on charges of insider trading related to the latter’s unsuccessful bid for a subsidiary of Fuji TV.
Nevertheless, both Fuji TV, which recovered from losses incurred defending against Livedoor the year before, and TBS, which became the second-most-watched commercial channel after Fuji, reported increased profits for the last fiscal year. Fuji clocked up ¥24.85 billion ($215 million) and TBS ¥13.3 billion ($115 million) in the year ending March.
Pubcaster NHK also announced increased profits of ¥23.4 billion ($202 million) for 2006, and its many affiliates recently reported surpluses of ¥88.6 billion ($765 million) for 2006. The corporation has raised eyebrows among its independent counterparts for its recent aggressive commercial approach. NHK is facing calls for fee cuts, with the Communications Minister recommending a 20% reduction while the corporation has proposed 7%.
In terms of programming, a handful of American shows face an uphill battle with local viewers. “There is no coherence to the way cable services are delivered so that’s why there’s no media buzz to get people interested in U.S. shows,” says Philip Brasor, who has been writing on movies and Japanese TV for over a decade. “The very few that have made it big, like ’24,’ have done so mostly on the back of DVD and video rentals. ‘Prison Break’ has made the jump from cable to terrestrial TV, but that too first made its mark in rental stores.”
NHK occupies the top two spots on the program ratings ranking. Its 7 p.m. news bulletin is the most watched program on TV, closely followed by this year’s morning drama, “Dondo Bare” (Happy Ending), both pulling in over 21% of viewers. (The morning drama is a long and successful tradition of NHK, often set in one of the regions away from Tokyo.)
Elsewhere, Jupiter Communications (J:Com), Japan’s biggest cable network, increased subscribers 20% to 2.7 million as of Aug. 31. The network signed a deal with HBO to make up to 80 episodes of shows like “The Sopranos” and “Band of Brothers” available on VOD beginning this month for ¥300 ($2.60) each. J:Com is currently pushing “Heroes,” which is to debut shortly on its SuperDrama channel. Masi Oka, who plays Hiro Nakamura, made a big splash when he was in Japan recently promoting the series.
SEOUL — On Sept. 11, South Korea’s most expensive television drama ever, “Taewangsasingi,” launched to much fanfare and solid ratings. With Korea’s television industry at a crossroads, the outcome of “Taewangsasingi” will say a lot about the future of the nation’s TV production.
Clocking in at a staggering $43 million for the 24-episode series, “Taewangsasingi” dwarfs almost all previous television productions in Korean history, at a time when most hour-long programs cost $100,000-$200,000 an episode.
And while it is too early at press time to render judgment on the CGI-heavy epic about Korea’s mythical past, early signs appear good. The debut episode pulled in a 27.1% household share, rising to 37.5% the next night and 37.6% for the third episode, winning its time slot.
Despite the success of “Taewangsasingi” though, television producers have been complaining for some time that spiraling costs have made profitability close to impossible. Declining TV exports — which fell from $101.6 million to $85.9 million in 2006 — have further raised concerns about the state of production.
Forty of Korea’s largest drama production companies have formed the Corea Drama Production Association, lobbying hard to lower their costs and keep more rights from the terrestrial broadcasters who buy their programs. But with the majority of terrestrial TV programs made in-house, independent producers have little leverage.
Compounding local production problems over the last couple of years, American television dramas have made incredible gains in Korea, with shows like “Prison Break,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and especially “CSI” transforming cable and the structure of the television industry.
To put things in perspective, cable TV