Words by Fi Bendall
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the demise of the Ten Network, but in a media landscape dominated by online platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Netflix and a hundred other internet services, it’s no surprise one of Australia’s commercial FTA networks would fall upon hard times sooner than later.
The Ten Network announced to the ASX it was going into voluntary administration on June 14, with its directors appointing KordaMentha as administrators. There are still hopes the network will be able to recapitalise and continue to operate.
However, if we pull the camera back and take a broader lens view, it becomes fairly obvious the reason for its woes is the massive disruption the traditional TV networks have faced from streaming and online entertainment more broadly.
True, years of management and board level instability and strategic confusion have not helped matters. But like newspapers and radio stations, TV networks were always going to be up against it when the technology developed to such a point as to make online streaming viable for a mass audience — which is what we started to see happening with YouTube around 2005, aided by infrastructure advancements over the years.
The three Australian commercial free-to-air networks have all been up the proverbial creek in the face of the tsunami of online media and changed audience viewing habits and behaviour, but Network Ten’s management issues just meant it was up that creek sans paddle.
There is nothing new coming out about the management woes the network has faced. TV networks have always been volatile places that thrive or dive depending on how well commercial and creative imperatives are meshed.
Writing for Switzer in 2014, Janine Perrett likened the management situation at Ten to an episode of the soapie The Bold and the Beautiful: “What on earth is going on over there? No wonder they want changes to media laws for someone to come and save them.”
Things don’t seem to have improved a great deal since then and, at the macro level, audiences, especially younger ones, have been abandoning the idiot box in droves as they discover the myriad delights of the personalised digital entertainment experience.
In fact, just recently it was confirmed that online ad spend had just outstripped TV ad spend for the first time globally.
Just think about the really big buzz TV shows over the past few years everyone talks about, like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, etc. None of these shows have been screened on Australia’s commercial FTA networks.
What the FTA networks generally have on show now is a hodge podge of reality shows and second-string US drama franchises like NCIS — not exactly the most enticing lineup for young audiences spoilt for choice. That’s reflective of the power shift away from networks to online players like Netflix, Amazon and pay TV outlets.
It perhaps makes sense Ten would be hit hardest by all this, considering it has most often been the network associated with a younger audience. The skew to a younger demographic was long an explicit strategy for Ten, and it is partly what has made it vulnerable to the shifts in media consumption among younger people.
Back in the innocent days of 2005, Ten was chuffed with its position as king of the kids. Speaking to The Age, the network’s then general manager of sales said the 16-39 age group was the fundamental target demographic for Ten.
“They are very impressionable, and a lot of marketers spend an extensive amount of time trying to understand their consumer habits,” he said.
The strategy served Ten well for a short time. Longer term, though, the ground was shifting and that “impressionable” group of viewers was discovering YouTube, downloads, and soon enough, Netflix.
If you delve a little deeper into the annals of Network Ten history, you come across a curious experiment called Village Ten Online, which soon changed its name to Scape. This was an online portal project launched at the height of the dotcom bubble in 2000 that was a partnership between Ten and Village Roadshow. The group even imported a CEO, Ken Manning, fresh from San Francisco and with plenty of digital experience.
The plug was pulled on the project in 2001, right in the midst of the dotcom bubble bursting, as Village Roadshow and Network Ten explained in a media release announcing Scape had been put into voluntary administration:
“When Network Ten and Village first set out to develop a joint online presence, strict financial and performance criteria were established. Despite the efforts by the SCAPE team, these criteria had not been met and were unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future. A key reason for this has been the failure of the online sector globally to develop as expected.”
Could things have been different for Ten if they had stuck with Scape for a few more years and let it develop? Hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes. But one thing is for sure, the online sector certainly did develop and grow, well beyond many people’s expectations.