TVNZ’s channel U debuts, but the eyeballs remain a mystery

TVNZ launched its new youth-centric digital channel U on Sunday. And while there’s plenty of talk about breaking ground, filling gaps and New Zealand firsts, there’s no talk about ratings data just yet. And there may not be any in the future, either.

When TVNZ operated the public service channels TVNZ6 and 7, ratings weren’t collected as there was no commercial imperative to do so. And, somewhat surprisingly given U is a commercial channel hoping to sell ads and attract a very specific audience, U publicist and brand manager Jade Rook says there are no plans to release U’s ratings figures to the public.

“Maybe it’s part of a digital-wide strategy … But, yes, you would think a commercial channel would release them. I’ll look into it,” he says. When he did look into it, this was the response: “TVNZ is likely to release ratings for U. The timing of our ratings release for U will depend on the speed of audience growth. Once the audience size is significantly robust (as determined by Nielsen’s minimum sample size) we will consider releasing the ratings.”

Nielsen’s Caroline Atford, associate director, client services, says getting to this point usually takes a couple of months of number crunching, and then it’s up to the broadcasters to decide whether they will release those figures or not. TVNZ has released figures for its commercial pay-TV channel Heartland, with 508,900 people aged 5+ tuning in the week commencing 2 January 2011, compared to 411,000 on 6 March last year. But she says some Sky channels that could release the data choose not to (on a slightly related note, 2degrees has only released one set of market share stats so far and some believe the lack of info is because the company has actually done too well, which may affect their hopes of forcing more telco regulation on the big players).

After MediaWorks tried to grey up its audiences with new programming on 3 and the newly launched FOUR, TVNZ is aiming to get down with the kids aged 15-24 on U through a mix of real life and factual entertainment programming and the incorporation of social networking directly into the programming. The youth culture market has been strewn with media wreckage recently, with the likes of Pulp, Real Groove, MTV and C4 all faltering or being forced to adapt to the new, largely digital reality. And while TVNZ’s head of digital media and channels (and ten year MTV veteran) Eric Kearley knows it’s a savvy market that’s difficult to attract, he says the difference is that the new channel is being run like a low-budget radio station, rather than a high-cost TV station.

The hook (some might say the gimmick) for U is the Facebook interactivity. The fans of the U live Facebook app (6000 so far) are able to comment on topics, post pictures, vote in polls and look behind the scenes of the show through a live stream “producer cam”. Comments will then be pulled into the broadcast and onto screen. And for a generation that loves nothing more than seeing their comments on Facebook walls and Twitter streams, it seems to make sense to try and put them on TV screens, especially as the trend towards “second screening” develops.

A study in the UK by Digital Clarity surveyed 1,300 mobile internet users under the age of 25 and it showed they are fully embracing the idea of “social TV” and discussing programmes on the web and via mobile apps, often in real time. 80 percent communicated with friends when watching television, 72 percent posted comments on the shows currently commanding their attention using Twitter and 56 percent posted on Facebook.

Elsewhere, 34 percent regarded simultaneous media use as “fun”, 32 percent believed it made broadcast content “more interesting”, and 42 percent prioritised the “community” aspect.

“It’s the first true technology-driven integration of online social media with television in New Zealand,” Kearley says. “…We had identified there was an opportunity to extend the content available for young New Zealanders with new locally made and overseas programming. U will be the only fully localised youth channel in the market providing bespoke opportunities for New Zealand advertisers to speak to young Kiwis.”

U tv, which airs every Sunday at 8.30pm, offers a bit more interactivity for the young’uns. Viewers can enter a competition to be the U programmer for a month via the channel’s website and the winner will effectively “own” the slot, choosing what viewers watch and then, via a video link, present their choices. Some might call it chooser-generated content, which seems only slightly better than loser-generated content.

The channel kicked off with the first ever episode of U live, a live daily interactive entertainment music show hosted by hosts with funny hair. And, when sneaking a peak last night, StopPress caught a glimpse of a show called Manswers, which delved into important youth issues like whether a man can die as a result of forcing out oversized stools. The future, it seems, is bright.

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