The elephant in the room

The elephant in the room

Posted March 5th, 2012 by debritz

If you've been following this blog, or you've heard me speak on radio, or you follow me in social media, you'll already know my stock response whenever anybody tells me how a television program attracted a large audience.

Other person: "My Kitchen Rules had two million viewers last night."

Me: "Well, that's 20 million people who didn't watch it, then."

Now, I'm not dissing MKR, or the rugby league, or whatever else it is that Australians want to watch in great numbers. What I am saying, however, is that when, on an average night, fewer than two million people in the country's five biggest cities are watching the same program -- and, importantly, the same ads -- at the same time, can it really be referred to as "mass media" any more?

Take a look at the excellent research by popular culture historian David Dale.

According to Dale, at least three programs in the history of television have been watched by more than half the Australian population. They were all special events: the wedding and funeral of Diana Spencer and the 2000 Olympics opening ceremony. Now that's a mass audience.

But amid these one-offs, and a swag of hit movies and miniseries, you have to run your finger a long way down the list to find a regularly scheduled program that has captivated anything like a genuinely huge audience slice. And, as the years go on, fewer and fewer people are consuming the same thing at the same time.

So far this year, the top-rating show has been MKR, which has been watched by about one in 10 Australians. Of course, they are the same people night after night. From an advertiser's perspective, it's a matter of reinforcing a message to those people over and over again, but not reaching anybody new.

The figures are nothing to sneeze at, and television remains the biggest show in town for now. But while the number of eyeballs and ears glued to the goggle box is getting smaller and smaller, things are rather different on the internet. The growth is all online.

The internet is a wild and strange place, and advertisers and their bookers are rightly wary of it. Most importantly, rather than a choice of a dozen or so channels, there are hundreds of millions of websites.

However, some sites are cutting through big time. How can you ignore this burgeoning medium when one of the biggest players, News Limited, claims it alone attracts about 7.7 million unique viewers to its sites every month?

Now, there are big difference between banner ads (or even splash ads and video) on the internet and TV commercials, but the former do have some significant advantages.

While it is possible to block ads on a website, most people don't, and indeed can't, do it. They do see web ads (and, increasingly, hear them), but they can and often do choose not to see television ads (via time-shifting, or by changing channels, or by simply leaving the room for a few minutes).

Like newspaper ads, web ads are always there for most of the audience. Unlike newspaper ads, they can be directly targetted to the particular person viewing the page, thanks to technology that stores our personal information on our computers and, increasingly, in the cloud.

I can, and almost certainly will, write more on this subject, but the simple point I'm trying to make now is that the TV networks, and other "traditional' media for that matter, can't afford to ignore the elephant in the room. They have to ramp-up their own online offerings if they are to stay in the game.

And they have to realise that their competitors are not just the other television networks. Everybody with a web page is now a potential broadcaster, and television sets are not the only (or even major) means by which people tune-in.

At least, a program like MKR is a step in the right direction, because it's popular, original content that the Seven Network can exploit in other media. Other networks are relying on sport -- to which they have only the telecast rights (which they risk losing) rather than actual control -- and imported programs which audiences can access through other means.