Into the (test) tube: Duke’s Ed Kindred on conducting a few programming experiments

Ed Kindred walked into the position of Duke programmer around three months ago, and was given a pretty clear objective: attract younger viewers back to free-to-air television.

It’s no secret that younger viewers, particularly males, are shifting their viewing habits to online channels. A quick look at the latest NZ On Air report confirms this trend and it places enormous pressure on free-to-air players to offer something slightly different to an undeniably impatient generation.

Kindred doesn’t shy away from this challenge by quoting statistics like the fact that over 80 percent of the population continues to watch television. Instead, he concedes that linear TV faces a tough future unless it can find a way to stay relevant to the younger generation.

“We look at a wide range of demographics on any given day and the one that we have the hardest time getting is younger males,” he says.

“One of my hardest struggles is trying to find programmes for my group of friends in their mid-20s. I always question whether they would want to watch a show for 20 weeks in a row any more. And most of the time, unfortunately, I don’t think the answer is yes.”

While Duke has come under criticism for its male skew, Kindred explains the aim of the channel is really to experiment with scheduling, programming and promos in a bid to reach what TVNZ sees as the most problematic audience segment.

“The types of programmes we’re playing and the way we’re playing them is again different to anything you’d see on the other channels,” Kindred says.

An example he points to is the decision to air all episodes of Angie Tribeca consecutively when the second season of the show premieres.

“It’s probably not going to generate ratings, but we hope it will maybe drive a bit of buzz and encourage people to watch it week by week,” Kindred says.

“You would normally only see stunts like that on pay TV, but Duke gives us the freedom to do quirky stuff. There’s a little bit less risk than there would be on TV1 or TV2.”

Kindred believers that sticking to the standard methodology used on mainstream channels will simply continue to bleed viewers.  

“If we just make the same old promos or develop the same old programmes, we’re not going to be able to attract young viewers,” he says.

“We don’t want Duke to just be another channel.”

What works on Duke also has the potential to be rolled out on the mainstream channels, giving the channel greater strategic significance across the entire TVNZ channel portfolio.

“Duke does a lot of double and triple programme slots, which is something the other channels are looking at quite closely,” says Kindred.

Duke aired triple episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s third season on Tuesday nights, and recently debuted double episodes of Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal on Wednesday nights (following on from a single episode on Tuesday).

“The reason I like Samantha Bee’s show is that it’s so topical that you want to watch as soon as you can. We’ll be airing it only a few hours after the US, so everything will be relevant to that moment.”

The introduction of Bee’s show also provides a reminder that Duke isn’t looking to exclude women as it looks to attract a young male audience, with the show likely to attract both male and female viewers. 

However, this isn’t the case for Duke’s sports show Short and Wide, which has been criticised on The Spinoff for not leaving much room for women.

In response to the criticism, the trio of hosts (Anthony Niterl, George Harper Jr and Andrew James) released a statement saying: “Everybody is entitled to their opinion, which we respect and we understand the show may not appeal to all.”

Whether the show lasts or not is yet to be seen, but one thing that is clear is that sport content forms a very important part of Duke’s strategy—something further emphasised by the decision to host the Paralympics on the channel.    

“We see Duke as the home of live and free sport in New Zealand, so the Paralympics were a really natural fit for us,” Kindred says.

“This year, we gave it the most comprehensive coverage it’s ever had in New Zealand. Almost the entire day, except for primetime, we ran highlights and live Paralympics coverage.”

Between 8 and 19 September, the Paralympics content on Duke was viewed by over a million Kiwis, with weekend programming pulling in particularly high numbers.

“On Saturday at around 11am, there were periods when Duke was beating TV One, TV2, and TV3 across all demographics,” Kindred says. 

“It’s exceeded our expectations by far.”

The Paralympics also became a major talking point on social media, with Kiwis sharing clips of some of the inspiring moments at the event. And Duke responded by also doing a fair amount of sharing during the event.

In a column written this week, NZ Herald sports writer Chris Rattue described the Paralympics as “the feel good story of the year”—and there will be few Kiwis complaining about having been given the opportunity to enjoy that story as it unfolded over the course of the event.

While Duke’s programming experiments have certainly had a few ups and downs along the way, it is good to see the nation’s biggest free-to-air broadcaster take a few risks. Because if there’s one thing we know about digital disruption it’s that standing still and hoping for it pass probably isn’t a great idea.  

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