The year 2020 hit all the free-to-air networks hard, but perhaps none harder than Seven, a broadcaster who was already struggling to get its books out of the red.
Even its chief executive James Warburton said at its virtual Upfronts on Wednesday COVID-19 hit Seven hardest, but by all accounts, the network’s key executives say it’s looking towards a bright and successful 2021.
B&T spoke with head of programming Angus Ross (pictured top, right), chief marketing officer Charlotte Valente (pictured bottom, right), chief revenue officer Kurt Burnette (pictured bottom, left) and network sales director Natalie Harvey (pictured top, left )to get the low-down on key pandemic learning, Seven’s financial state, that cricket debacle, and just how it plans to house three singing shows.
On the most important learnings to come out of COVID-19, Ross said the more content you have in the bank, the better.
“What we are doing for next year is basically from mid-December 2020, we will have our entire first eight months of content in the can. Big Brother, Holy Moly, Ultimate Tag and Farmer Wants a Wife will be produced, finished and in the can. That way we can roll things out in whatever way we want next year.
“We’ve very much got a COVID-19 proof schedule for next year. Many of our shows are produced and we’re fully loaded for next year.”
Burnette said Seven has also made a point of cross-utilising its team.
“The learning points have been to be more creative, and a lot more agile. We’ve been using people in our workplace across different things, basically putting cameraman into quarantine and teaching them how to edit and shoot while in quarantine.”
From a marketing perspective, Valente also noted the importance of being agile and flexible.
“We’ve all realised the importance of being flexible and agile. I think that can be said for anything, but for us specifically, it’s being able to pivot marketing strategies in order to be able to engage audiences, and to continue to engage them in non-traditional ways. That’s really underpinned by a deeper audience understanding as we continue to grow and engage our audiences.”
Harvey said COVID-19 and 2020 holistically has proven television is an important medium,
“What we saw during COVID was a large number of brands needing to connect with their customers very quickly and be able to pass on very important information, and that started with the bushfires. What we saw was that television was the platform of choice. In a way, COVID and 2020 has reinstated television as a very important medium.
“We do a lot of work talking about the power of television, but when it comes to a crisis, you see very quickly what the most powerful and most important medium is, and that’s television.”
Value-based over cost-based
Speaking to whether advertisers became more demanding amid the pandemic, Harvey said at first clients were looking for savings and efficiencies, but the conversation eventually shifted to value-based rather than cost-based.
“When [COVID] first hit, there were a lot of clients whose businesswere under a lot of pressure, so they were looking for savings in everything that they were doing. But that shifted more to ‘how do you actually help me talk to my customers rather than just get a cheaper price?’
“As we go into the most important Christmas and summer retail period we’ve ever seen, brands need to stand out and they can’t afford to get it wrong, so right now price isn’t really a key focus for them.”
Burnette agreed that in these times, value is certainly the priority for most brands and the most important thing Seven can provide its clients.
“It’s something that we really want to convey is this notion of value. The schedule we’ve put together is one of the most disruptive schedules that’s even been put togehter by a network and that’s going to change the audience.
“We’re going to deliver a huge amount of growth, and that’s going to be an opportunity for brands and create value for brands. That’s what we want: big audience, big reach, cross-broadcast, e-commerce, ad-innovation – it’s all creating value.”
Not-so cautious predictions
Last year, Seven boldly predicted to media buyers how its tentpole programmes would perform. For the most part, they did not deliver.
MKR, House Rules and Plate of Origin flopped, as did Pooch Perfect – with none of these shows returning next year. Olympics got postponed, and some shows couldn’t go ahead altogether. While Farmer Wants a Wife outperformed predictions, as did Big Brother, is Seven going to be more cautious with its predictions for 2021?
“No, we’re not being cautious,” said Burnette. “We’re being fact-based. We’ve done a lot of work on the schedule that’s been built and whar audiences will deliver across our platforms. The work we’ve done there will show how that audience growth will happen by quarter, by half and by sport.”
Harvey added that feedback from agencies around Seven’s “efforts” have been positive.
“Agencies are grateful we’ve been putting all this effort in, because it can be difficult to predict ratings for a completely new content slate.
“And, when we’re talking about growth next year, every client we’re talking to doesn’t want to repeat the year they had in 2020, they want to grow, they want to build their brands and have a completely different year. That’s what we’re focused on delivering for them from a content perspective, and value.”
Chasing a younger demo
Seven has often been viewed as the older free-to-air network, yet since the arrival of CEO James Warburton, it appears Seven is chasing the younger demos.
Ross said: “A big difference since James arrived is we’ve had a very out-ward looking commission strategy. We’re now out of the programme development business, through seven studios. All we are doing now is commissioning proven and powerful international formats.
“Essentially, we are de-risking a lot of the schedule for next year for using shows that have well-established proof points overseas, or in the past here in Australia.
“We’re definitely on a path to driving the audience younger and I think you see that with our formats.”
Valente added the refresh of Seven’s brand was to align to its objectives to hit the core demos in 25-54s.
“Part of our new strategy is making sure that we not only have the content, but we have the environment and the platform to engage the younger audience.”
Harvey said that very soon, exact demographics won’t be as important, but rather whether people are actually buying.
“It’s going to turn away from the exact demographics to do you have more people going to buy a house or buy a car or buy a kitkat next week? And that’s where having that scale and the right audience, people who have money to buy a car, becomes even more important, and I don’t think that that’s too far away.”
A sports rights swap?
Earlier last month, industry murmurings suggested Network 10 may offload its Melbourne Cup carnival rights – which it snared from Seven in 2018 – back to Seven, and in turn receive rights back to the Big Bash League (which Seven took from 10 in 2018). Essentially, a re-swap.
Cash-strapped Seven has been embroiled in a big spat with Cricket Australia over the value of the BBL deal amid COVID-19. The issue escalated last week, with the AFR reporting Seven may take CA to the Australian Centre for International Commercial Arbitration (ACICA) over the matter.
When asked if there was a sports right swap in Seven’s future, Burnette denied the rumours.
“The speculation has been unfounded. I think it’s people creating mischief in market than anything else. As James [Warburton] said, we believe in the rciekt and we hope these disucssion are finished soon.”
not in the green, but not as deep in the red
COVID-19 has hit Seven West Media harder than most, forcing widespread cost-cutting across the business that has seen shows and staff – both on-air talent and behind the scenes – made redundant.
The late-starting AFL has played heavily on the network’s bottom line, with a number of ad sales people forced out the door.
The Olympics moved to 2021, and left a gaping hole in Seven’s slate.
And, it started off the year in over $500 million of debt, although it’s unclear the exact figure or just where it stands now.
So, how do Seven’s finances look in 2021?
Burnette said: The banks have all they need and what they were hoping to see, and the market has certainly improved a lot more.
“We’ve got a number of initiatives that will see us very easily clear all of that [debt].
“We are in a very strong position. Three quarters through our transformation and all the hard stuff is done. I think if there’s ever a signal about what position we’re in, look at our content slate. That is a clear sign of a company invetsed in content, sport and the like. We’re in a very strong position.”
how many singing shows is too many singing shows?
Seven has snared The Voice off Nine, and also has Australia’s Got Talent in its content slate. Meanwhile, 2022 will see Australian Idol brought back to Australia’s screens after last airing on 10 in 2009.
The question begs: can you have too many singing shows?
Ross said: “We’re planning to roll out all these shows in a way that delivers the best results for us. These shows have all existed in various markets together for a long time. The difference is Idol, The Voice and AGT are all controlled by one network and under different formats.
“All I can say is with The Voice and switch of network, the response ITV has got for the casting of this new season is absolutely incredible versus the last few seasons on Nine. And Idol has an incredbily rich history in markets, and is remembered fondly.”
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