“Watch this channel”: TVNZ’s Louis Niven and Ed Kindred talk Duke’s first year and future

Cast your mind back a year, and TVNZ was kicking off the hunt for the hard to find eyes of 18-39-year-old males. The solution was TVNZ Duke, a free to air channel on TV and online with the freedom to experiment with its offering to gain the greatest appeal.

And it hasn’t failed on that mission, with the channel boasting a 57 percent male skew, while the TV average of all channels is 41 percent. Therefore, it’s the only male-skewing channel on local free to air TV. But it’s not all males, as general manager of online sales Louis Niven points out, as it’s achieving strongly against all people 25-54 including household shoppers with kids.

“It’s broader than we initially set out to do,” he says, but of course that’s nothing to complain about.

No more is that more apparent than in its advertising offers, in which Duke has the flexibility to sell spots or a guaranteed audience—of which it started with 18-39-year-old males. But fast-forward a year and the channel now has 11 guaranteed audiences to sell against, including females.

“We want it to be a challenger channel so we are really cost efficient for people,” Niven says. “And the advertisers are trialling it and coming back to spend more.”

And being a channel that’s streamed online simultaneously to its on-air broadcast, it’s also flexible in its trading with TVNZ incorporating something of a hybrid-model to its ad-selling approach. 

Linear television ad slots have been combined with a CPM (cost per impression) approach for the online stream, meaning that advertisers are only required to pay for the number of people who have tuned in.

When TVNZ announced the new approach last year, its formal commercial director, Jeremy O’Brien, told StopPress the marketing industry needed a collision between currency measurement and the data it uses for audiences.

“For too long the industry has struggled with misaligned currency – tarps versus measurement, misaligned definitions of audiences – people versus browsers and misaligned standards across the methodologies to capture and report who is watching what and when,” he said. 

Today, Niven says the CPM model of transaction has been accepted by about half of the market and it’s kept the cost per tarp buying available for those that prefer it.

He says that flexibility is not available on its other channels and is an example of how TVNZ is considering the constant evolution of the media and audience behaviour in its actions.

Even without the CPM model, the fact Duke is streamed online at the same time as it’s on TV demonstrates its commitment to being a channel of the future. Niven says it’s streaming sits at around the five percent of its audience, but as people’s consumption habits change, it’s one of the things it thinks will grow.

“The numbers for live stream are small,” programmer Ed Kindred says. “But we’ve almost done that knowing they’d be small but kind of future proofing TVNZ.”

Where it does see the greatest spikes in its live stream audience is when sports are on, and the SuperBowl provided the biggest audience to date.

Offline, it’s also seen some of the channel’s most outstanding ratings from its 2016 Paralympics coverage, with over a million New Zealanders tuning in between 8 and 19 September to watch. Those numbers saw Duke beating the other channels in some time slots.

“People wanted to see live sport and the Kiwi athletes, and it was a great thing for us to see how well it did,” Kindred says, adding it provided a way to promote the channel, which at the time was only six months old.

“To us, it highlighted the importance of live sport, which is one of our key pillars of the channel,” he says. “There was a new channel, not many people knew about it at the beginning, but we were able to put on a live sport event and people flocked to it.”

Today, the channel features a wide variety of sports, from the NBA, AFL and NFL, to the WRC (World Rally Champs)—featuring local star Hayden Paddon—and the likes of local triathlons. It also has the Audi Quattro Winter Games lined up for later in the year.

Until now, sports in such quantities have been limited to Sky, but with 50 percent of New Zealand homes not having Sky, Duke has become the provider of sport in the free to air offering.

“If you look at the sport on the channel now versus what we started with, it’s much broader and there’s more of it and that’s bringing in more audiences,” Kindred says.

Growing its sports offering on the channel is just one example of how the team is always working to evolve its programming.

It may have just marked its first birthday, but that didn’t see the team stop and evaluate as Niven says it’s always doing that and it hasn’t waited a whole year.

Every morning at 9:27, Kindred can be found looking at the latest ratings and assessing what has and hasn’t worked. He uses his instinct to tell him what’s a reasonable time to test something, but he gives the example of giving the 7pm line up a refresh after four months because The Late Late Show with James Corden and Family Guy didn’t perform as well as hoped.

Now, there’s factual programming in their place and it’s rating really well Kindred says.

Duke was always intended to be an experiment lab for new forms of content as it doesn’t have the same pressures as TVNZ 1 or TVNZ 2 to make everything work, allowing it instead to focus on its brand.

“On Duke we take the unusual step of putting programmes on purely for our brand to go ‘we think this is a really important programme’. Our gut instinct says it’s not going to be the number one show in the country, but we think it does something for the brand,” Kindred says.

That focus can also be seen in the episode stacking it does with some programmes because it’s less of a rating’s driver and more of a viewer experience the brand wants to create. And while Kindred says it wouldn’t necessarily replicate that approach on 1 and 2, that’s not to say those channels aren’t willing to try something new.

“Personally, I don’t think people give 1 and 2 enough credit for also experimenting,” Kindred says, pointing out how 1 has twice now put a drama on every night of the week.

“This year it was The Level and previously it was Dr Foster on every night of the week. I would be terrified to do that and I can’t think of any Australian or US broadcaster willing to do that on one of the main channels.”

What Duke was willing to do, however, was the first live branded sport and comedy event, Fresh-Up’s Chad vs Larry. It saw Duke partner with Fresh-Up and Colenso BBDO to put two friends up against each other in a series of challenges.

And while its ratings “didn’t set the world on fire”, Kindred says it was a “properly good TV programme” and the action kept audiences on their toes.

When asked if Duke will be pushing to include more brands into its content, life Fresh-Up was for Fresh-Up’s Chad vs Larry, Kindred says if they come to it with an idea, it’s happy to listen. He points out Mind over Money, which was Kiwibank’s idea and made with TVNZ and Ruckus, as an example of potential types of collaborations.

However, in the coming months it will also be going out to the market to find partners to get involved in a range of local programming it’s set to launch.

Kindred says Duke’s commitment to local programming will become more apparent, particularly in the comedy genre because there’s little on offer in that space across any other free to air or Sky channels—although he acknowledges Three’s few comedy programmes.

One of those Duke will be introducing in the coming months is Banter, which he describes as a punchy live debate and discussion, which will be helmed by a regular host and a revolving panel of contributors drawn from the world of comedy, politics and media.

“TVNZ is about the moments that matter to kiwis and we as Duke are not exempt from that,” Kindred says.

“We’re going to be pushing aggressively to see what we can do in the local space. Watch this channel.”

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