Gloveslap! Victories claimed, rises charted and rebuttal given as old broadcasting foes face off once again

The latest TV viewership figures for March are out and, amid the many regularly overused adjectives (primarily staggering, dramatic, massive and all-important), both warring parties are, as per usual, claiming victories, with TVNZ’s news audience increasing substantially and MediaWorks trumpeting a big rise in more lucrative eyeballs since the launch of FOUR. And while there’s always a bit of press release-based argy bargy when these numbers are set loose, it’s pistols at dawn when it comes to the morning news figures. 

For the month of March, ONE News clocked up nightly average viewing of 614,000, almost double TV3’s 315,000. Overall, this is a jump of 3.2 ratings points from the same period last year, so TV3’s 0.3 point decline could be seen as a bit of salt in the wound given it lost 2.5 ratings points in its “Auckland Urban” stronghold.  ONE News has always had a solid following outside of Auckland but it has ramped it up in the regions recently, with a four point ratings increase outside the Auckland Metro area in March.

Of course, while ratings points are an important tool to gauge the success (or otherwise) of the programming, it’s also a gauge of potential ad revenue for the networks and TVNZ’s traffic analysts came up with an estimate for the value of a ratings point in the post-recession advertising market in August 2010 that showed one rating point for 3 News is worth an estimated $3.5 million in advertising revenue, while ONE News rakes in an estimated $4.1 million per point (so, on that scale, a four point rise outside of Auckland would be just enough to cover the costs of the failed TiVo venture, which was announced in its recent financial statement).

ONE News’ share is also on the up, increasing by 11 percent in March YOY, while 3 News’ share dropped almost three percent outside of Auckland. It increased its share from 29 percent last March to 39 percent last month in the 25-54s and TV3’s share was down from 31 percent to 28 percent, although, according to a MediaWorks release, 3 News went from a 28 percent to a 28.5 percent share in March, with growth of 0.4 percent in the 25-54 demographic.

“No matter what way you look at these numbers ONE News has had an outstanding period of growth,” says TVNZ head of news and current affairs, Anthony Flannery. “Our news and current affairs programmes right across the board are attracting very large audiences… Strong viewership is only maintained if you deliver consistently high standards of journalism and I believe our viewers have that confidence in us, they turn on our programmes knowing we’ll deliver…They select programmes on merit, not by routine… you can’t sell them a lemon.”

Like politicians, you can always rely on media companies to find a way of making bad news sound good (or, when discussing its competitors, making good news sound bad). And while MediaWorks has been in the headlines for its $43 million “loan” from the Government that allowed it to delay payment for the renewal of its radio frequencies, there are a few bright spots, particularly its new venture into the slightly older, wealthier crowd with FOUR, which MediaWorks chief executive Jason Paris says has so far proven to be a ratings and revenue success.

He says revenue for FOUR has increased by 50 percent for the season year to date (6 February to 29 March) largely on the back of ad spend growth in the FMCG and Household Shoppers categories, and its share in the 18-49 demographic is 14 percent higher than at the same time last year. FOUR’s website also clocked up 400,000 online page impressions in March and has over 80,000 fans on Facebook.

“We’re confident this is just a sign of things to come,” he says. “The positive market reaction is what we expected. In particular, the share growth in HHS with kids of 60 percent year on year is particularly impressive.”

TVNZ’s commercial youth-focused channel U won’t be releasing its ratings until the mysterious threshold is reached.

As far as the early morning ratings war goes, it’s heating up. And who’s winning pretty much depends on whose release you’re reading.

MediaWorks says Firstline is off to an outstanding start since launching on 7 March, with an average 12.1 percent share in 25-54s and 900,000 people aged 5+ tuning in to watch the show so far. It claims TV ONE’s Breakfast’s share is down 11 percent compared to previous four weeks since Firstline launched.

“People are telling us it is great to have an early morning News programme minus the fluff,” says director of news and current affairs, Mark Jennings. “We will continue to develop the programme over the next few months but our focus will remain on providing in depth coverage and analysis of the major news events in New Zealand and overseas.”

Not content to sit back and have tomatoes hurled, however, TVNZ responded to MediaWorks claims with a swift ratings rebuttal, questioning the use of reach in its Firstline numbers and claiming a decrease in viewers for Breakfast was within the margin of error.

“TV3 has said today that 900,000 viewers have tuned in to its new morning show, Firstline during the past three weeks,” the release said. “To provide context, in just one of those weeks (13-17 March) almost one million viewers tuned in to Breakfast. This measurement is a cumulative figure called ‘reach’ and measures the total number of people who watched a programme across a designated time period—so 962,000 viewers turned on Breakfast at some stage during the week 13-17 March. Reach is rarely quoted because it measures every viewer rather than regular viewers and in advertising a viewer who watches for a few minutes once a week is not considered as important as someone who watches every day for half an hour.”

Since launching, TVNZ pointed out that Firstline has had an average of 25,000 viewers per morning, around six times smaller than Breakfast’s audience, which, perhaps slightly surprisingly given the departure of its polarising host, who’s now on his way to MediaWorks, has upped its year-on-year audience numbers from 138,000 viewers per morning in March 2010 compared to 150,600 last month.

TVNZ also said TV3’s suggestion that Breakfast has lost audience share since Firstline’s launch was inaccurate, with Nielsen TAM data showing Breakfast’s average audience during March of 150,600 viewers was down from 154,940 in February. Talented mathletes will see that this in fact a decrease, but TVNZ said this difference in viewership is within the margin of error.

“The sheer volume of Breakfast viewers is clear evidence that the audience likes the new presenting line up, the daily diet of news and business updates, location weather reports and wide variety of content we provide in the morning,” says Flannery. “Right across the world successful morning TV programmes provide a deliberate mix of light and shade. Breakfast is well resourced and therefore able to fully update New Zealanders on everything that’s relevant; what’s happened while they’ve been asleep, what’s happening in the day ahead. It’s fresh, engaging and interactive. It was a ground breaker in terms of respecting and responding to its viewers. We’re confident we’ve got the mix right.”

MediaWorks obviously isn’t scared of taking the fight to TVNZ. In many ways it has to. And it did that more explicitly than ever before with its recent comparative ad, which highlighted the difference in coverage between the two networks when the Japanese earthquake struck. But in our humble opinion, it was a bit low-rent and a scarily close to Fox news or American election-style advertising.

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