Chris Brown and Julia Morris are the host of Ten’s major new show, I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. (Pic: Ten)
Chris Brown and Julia Morris are the host of Ten’s major new show, I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. (Pic: Ten)

Does my kid’s question flag the end of free-to-air TV?

THERE are some seriously big shows launching this Sunday and Monday on free-to-air television.

Married at First Sight, I'm a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here, My Kitchen Rules - these are all flagship shows for the major networks, who are launching their content a week early to get a jump on the official start of the ratings year.

You can bet there will be scores of TV execs and advertising head honchos wringing their hands and tapping their feet as they anxiously await the results. But here's the thing - does anyone, outside of these boardrooms, really care anymore? And is anyone even watching free-to-air TV these days?

I know I'm not.

OK, that's not strictly true. As a News Corp TV Writer, I'm paid to keep abreast of shows airing on commercial television. I'll be tuning in as Lisa Wilkinson takes to The Project desk for the first time this weekend. I also set my alarm to see Georgie Gardner take the reins over at Today. And when the first two episodes of Married at First Sight came across my desk last week, I devoured them (spoiler alert: it's shaping up to be another great season).

But, actually, if it wasn't my job to do this, would I really be switching over to Seven, Nine or Ten? Would I really be OK with sitting through endless ad breaks and self-congratulatory promos, infomercials for the Nutribullet, and pizza ads tempting me away from my New Year diet?

The answer is, no.

Like so many others (especially those under the age of 30), the idea of having to sit through advertisements now feels totally wrong. And the content, increasingly, on free-to-air just doesn't grab me in the way it used to.

These days, when I'm not on the clock reviewing, I spend most of my voluntary TV time on iView, Netflix and Stan - no ads. I also choose to consume content via the Foxtel and the SBS on Demand apps - both fantastic platforms. And, yes, both have commercial breaks, but with just one or two ads per break, they don't feel nearly so intrusive.

Shows like Stranger Things have steered audiences away from free-to-air and into the arms of streaming services. (Pic: Netflix)
Shows like Stranger Things have steered audiences away from free-to-air and into the arms of streaming services. (Pic: Netflix)

Most of the TV content I watch for my job is via preview viewing sites ahead of time (yes, my job is unreal), so I'm rarely exposed to ads these days. Needless to say, it came as something of a shock, over Christmas, to have them in my face again.

Staying at my in-laws, and without Wi-Fi, we were forced to watch 'normal' TV for the first time in years. At one point my three year-old actually asked "What's this?" when the show we'd been watching momentarily ended to cut to an ad break.

It was an ad for Save the Children that caught his attention. It featured a very sickly looking kid, literally dying in his mother's arms, and was all a bit much for his little brain to comprehend - cue conversations about world hunger, how lucky he is, and "Mummy, can I give some of my dinner to the little boy?" conversations (I know - what a sweetheart).

It made me think - how funny that my child, and all his peers, will grow up with limited exposure to traditional advertising platforms. How strange that they don't know what an ad is. That they won't feel compelled to go out and purchase a Nutribullet. That they'll live their entire lives not knowing how ridiculous that guy's voice from the 'Nationaaaaaaaal Tilessssssssss' ads is.

At the moment he's only exposed to ABC Kids, Netflix, and kids movies I download through Apple TV. None of these have ads. And none of these services are subject to the same business models used by commercial television to make money.

Which begs the question - in another five years, will this model even exist? Will our industry even exist?

It's a valid question.

"The Monday after the Australian Open has become the traditional start of the [ratings] battle, as networks want to get some momentum before the start of Survey a fortnight later," says James Manning, editor of industry publication Mediaweek.

I was interested in getting his take on things.

MKR will soon be back for another season, but how outside of these marquee shows, how many people are tuning into free-to-air? (Pic: Channel 7)
MKR will soon be back for another season, but how outside of these marquee shows, how many people are tuning into free-to-air? (Pic: Channel 7)

"Seven triggered this change in strategy after it started running My Kitchen Rules in 2010 with the first episode launching the Monday after the Men's Open final," he goes on to say.

"The free-to-air TV business model is definitely under attack, but advertisers still need ratings to guide their investment.

"Networks need to be careful not to confuse advertisers and audience with new data (streaming minutes data from Seven during Australian Open for example) which doesn't mean a lot ... yet.

"Streaming audiences will grow over the years, but as of now the data being released doesn't indicate how many are actually watching. For example 400,000 streaming minutes sounds impressive, but that could mean less than 30,000 people started the stream."

Which is interesting, because, anecdotally, it feels as though NONE of my friends and family watch conventional TV these days.

It feels like, in no time flat, we've all become overly accepting of the notion that we have to shell out dollars to avoid having to sit through infomercials (side note, I tallied up the cost of all my subscriptions lately, and I spend a whopping $134 per month for my on-demand platforms. I know - in what universe, should that be deemed OK?).

So should I actually start tuning into Seven, Nine and Ten to ensure I even have a job to go to in another few years time? Perhaps.

And, somewhat hearteningly, people still are. In week one of the Australian Open, Channel Seven recorded strong ratings. They ranked No. 1 with a 31.9 per cent FTA (Free to Air) prime time share. They were also Number One on Sunday Jan 21 with 44 per cent share, the number one non-news program for the night, averaging 1.5 million combined viewers, peaking at 2.1 million for the match that saw Aussie Nick Kyrgios knocked out of the contest.

So yeah - that's promising.

But as ratings season kicks off for another year, am I enthusiastic? No.

Will I be watching? Only because I have to.

Will I have a job in five years' time?

Watch this space.

Clare Rigden is a News Corp TV writer.



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