Late last year, Seven’s recently installed CEO, James Warburton, conceded that, under the previous administration, the network had been “weak, inward focused, tired and stagnant”. He promised rapid renewal, declaring, “From here on in, we will be fierce”. Seven had stalled and was no longer a robust player in the free-to-air commercial arena. In 2019, for the first time in 12 years, its long-time rival, Nine, claimed victory in the ratings.
In addition to novelty shows, Warburton’s campaign to regain supremacy is built on reviving a group of reality TV productions – The Farmer Wants a Wife, Australia’s Got Talent, Big Brother, SAS: Who Dares Wins – revamping House Rules and recycling presenters including Sonia Kruger and Kyle Sandilands. Only the signing of Olympia Valance for Holey Moley and AGT suggests some more imaginative talent-spotting.
While the idea that discarded reality shows might spearhead a recovery is in itself worthy of scrutiny, there are additional worrying signs. There have been reports that the number of episodes commissioned for Plate of Origin (the wonderfully abbreviated POO, which Rebel might remark is an ideal companion to Pooch Perfect) has been reduced. Confidence in a new food show, set to star former MasterChef judges Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan, might’ve been shaken following the tepid response to MKR.
Then there’s the shining light of the Olympic Games late in July, a costly jewel in the crown intended to provide two weeks of blockbuster ratings and a prized promotional platform for the programs screening in the final stretch of the ratings year. But the Games are now looking depleted, if not doubtful, given the spread of the coronavirus.
No one could’ve predicted the pandemic when Seven paid a motza for rights to the Games, but, even without such problems, the network’s strategy for revitalisation seems dubious. Its slate looks hokey and tired, noticeably devoid of inspiration. Who, exactly, is crying out to see Kyle Sandilands judging another reality TV competition?
However this campaign does recall the one that Warburton initiated during his brief tenure at Ten. Under his stewardship in 2012, with a line-up optimistically touted as “bold, irreverent, innovative and noisy”, the network rolled out the dance contest Everybody Dance Now, the talent quest I Will Survive, the reality show Being Lara Bingle, and the execrable “dramality”, The Shire. There was also Don’t Tell the Bride, in which a groom had three weeks to organise a wedding. Some of them flopped on arrival; Come Date With Me was bumped to a digital channel. None survived longer than a single season.
That attempt at revival, deployed on the back of Ten’s unimpressive financial performance, did not simply have a worried eye on the bottom line, but also on the lowest common denominator. It was a catalogue that exhibited contempt for its audience, which responded accordingly.
Even though the TV landscape has changed significantly and irrevocably since then, and FTA networks are enmeshed in the toughest fight of their lives, the current strategy reveals striking parallels.