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Ratings system for the future, by Michael Bodey - 20th March 2008
(Credit: The Australian)

A NEW pay-TV ratings system is likely to give Foxtel, Austar and pay-TV sales group Multi Channel Network (MCn) and their advertisers a break on their free-to-air TV rivals next year.

Foxtel and regional pay-TV group Austar, in conjunction with MCn, yesterday announced the launch of a new digital television audience measurement system (AMS) to begin mid-2009.

It will be the largest measurement system in Australia, providing viewing results from a panel of 10,000 Australian subscription TV homes.

It will give the pay-TV providers research into how Australians are adapting to the digital TV environment, the acceptance of the new standard definition and high definition multi-channels and trends in time-shifted viewing.

No one was willing to admit it was a competitive service to OzTAM's, which measures free-to-air and pay-TV viewing. Rather the new system is seen as complementary.

It will give pay-TV providers robust information about audience engagement with all aspects of their platform's programming, advertising and interactive features.

"For advertisers, it's all about accountability and increasing the level of accountability is not able to be delivered by existing measurement systems," said Austar's chief executive officer John Porter at the annual Australian Subscription Television & Radio Association conference in Sydney. "It will really measure the level of engagement with programming and by default with the advertising."

OzTAM will not begin reporting time-shifted free-to-air TV viewing until February 2010 with its next-generation TV measurement system Unitam, although unofficial data is expected to be provided to the networks by mid-2009.

The urgency for this is now paramount as the FTAs are unlikely to like the pay-TV providers having a research edge with advertisers.

The new digital broadcast environment was a key focus for Mr Porter and Foxtel chief Kim Williams at the conference.

Mr Williams dismissed the FTA broadcasters as "not adaptive or responsive" and compared them to the textile and footwear industries.

"And like all protected industries, while they negotiate the terms of being less protected, they eventually diminish."

Mr Williams said their multi-channel roll-out had been "particularly inept" and he pilloried the expected launch of the FreeView brand, which plans to consolidate the Seven, Nine, Ten, ABC, SBS and regional TV networks' digital channels.

"FreeView is a slogan not a product and there's a very big difference between a piece of branding or sloganeering and a delivered product," he said.

He added the rush to acquire programming for their new standard definition digital channels, which launch in January, will stretch their finances.

"I'm aware of the number of product deals they've been doing and if they continue to pay the sort of money they've been paying to build up their catalogues for FreeView, let it roll, because let me tell you, they're going to go out of business," he said.

Mr Williams said the free-to-airs were paying multiples of five to 20 times the going rates for programming, which is believed to be primarily in the general entertainment area.

Both Mr Williams and Mr Porter were characteristically optimistic about pay TV's future, despite the threat of the internet, new FTA channels and a recession.

Mr Porter said interest rate rises mean some subscribers drop off but: "It's a very small percentage of our customer base (and) there is no substantial impact on the financial side of our business".

Mr Williams also noted the troubled launch of Foxtel's new subscriber management system, particularly the failure of technicians to adapt to new voice recognition software, was close to being resolved.


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