By Bernard Hickey
There's a saying that you don't know what you've got til it's gone.
I discovered over the summer holidays that free to air television is going, going and is almost gone. This surprised and saddened me more than I expected. I grew up in what seemed like a golden age of free to air television in New Zealand when the advertising was often as entertaining and memorable as the regular programmes.
I remember the Crunchie ad, the Barry Crump Toyota Hilux ad and the Telecom meerkats ad from the 80s and 90s. There were the occasional ads from The Warehouse and Michael Hill Jeweller that seemed to tout their wares in the simplest and most irritating ways, but I remember it as a relatively rare thing.
Six years ago I was an early adopter and got a MySky recorder that allowed me to fast forward through the ads and record series of programmes weeks in advance. Since then we've stopped watching ads at anything less than 30 times speed.
But this week I found myself stuck in a motel room in Whitianga watching the rain on the window and trying to watch free to air television without MySky. The change in the content and style of the advertising over that six years since I stopped watching ads shocked me.
It had become so unwatchable as to make me wonder if free to air television funded by advertising has much of a future beyond the next decade.
Most of the ads were of the flashing, loud and cheap style pioneered by the likes of Harvey Norman, Noel Leeming and The Warehouse. These ads look a lot like a full page or double page ad in the newspaper, but with the addition of a soundtrack of a man (usually) yelling out the details of the special offers.
My (least) favorite is the one advertising 50 months interest free loans (over four years!) that implores me to "GO HARVEY NORMAN!"
I decided to note down the number and type of ads shown on Television One on Thursday night over one hour of prime time. There were 33 of the cheap and nasty retail ads from 6.27 pm to 7.39 pm and just 20 of the more traditional ads without the blaring collection of special offers. Even the 'normal' ads were very simple affairs without any attempt to entertain. Only 3 (ANZ, Finish and Regal Salmon) of these were traditional brand building ads. None of them were entertaining.
After just over an hour my family forced me to call off this exercise because it had become too irritating. We turned off the television and chose to play a board game instead.
It struck me that many New Zealanders are now making this choice, relegating free to air television to an increasingly cheap and nasty spiral towards irrelevance, if not death.
This spiral accelerated markedly over the last 18 months, thanks to a 47% rise in the number of MySky subscribers in the year to June 30, 2011 to 279,875. If that growth continued over the second half of 2011, then almost 20% of New Zealand households had MySky by last Thursday night when I reacquainted myself with ads.
As more people stop watching ads, viewership drops and splinters, driving advertising quality even lower. The most lucrative viewers have already left, as can be seen in the average monthly revenue per MySky subscriber of $84.79, versus $65.19 for regular subscribers. This reinforces Sky's drive to convert regular subsccribers to MySky, which also reduces Sky's churn rate. It remains at a near record low 14% despite the four year long consumer recession.
The last bastion will be motels in Whitianga. The first one to get MySky has a potential customer. At least while the weather is so bad.