Nine Upfront: A dozen iterations, no revolutions
Welcome to a Thursday edition of Unmade, written a few hours after Nine wrapped up its Upfront event, held at Sydney’s Luna Park in front of the media industry’s biggest live audience since before the pandemic.
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We’ll come on to the substance in a moment. First let’s get the sizzle out of the way.
The purpose of upfronts used to be to reveal the coming year’s programming slate, in order to lock in annual share deals. In more than a decade of attending Nine’s upfronts, I can’t recall one where less new detail was revealed about the next year’s schedule. The point of these events has changed, particularly for a multi-platform company like Nine.
Now, the main reason that media companies hold upfronts is to not just remind customers what they do, but demonstrate it. Sizzle means ad dollars, and if perceptions shift even a percentage point of share, that means millions of dollars.
The sizzle was there. The event had the biggest production values of any Nine upfronts I’ve seen. It was neck-and-neck with Seven’s pre-pandemic Olympic extravaganza of 2019, and also with Ten’s 2018 effort which had a giant dance number featuring most of the network’s talent.
It was a big crowd last night - well over 1,000, I reckon. It was a marvel of organisation that the presentation pretty much started and finished on time, before successfully shipping the crowd across the harbour to the afterparty.
There was dry ice, flame machines, giant screens and a couple of ‘live’ crosses during the presentation.
The cross to Nine News correspondent Amelia Adams outside Buckingham Palace seemed to be genuinely live, while the one in which head of content, production and development Adrian Swift talked to Sophie Monk in the Love Island villa felt rather more like her end of the cross had been pre-recorded.
There were a couple of what-ifs around the event.
There would have been an enormous uplift to the gathering if the organisation had last week won its attempt to snatch the AFL rights for Nine and Stan, from Seven and Foxtel. Yes, Nine’s reliable ratings performance is down to NRL and tennis as much as anything, but that’s a given.
And the tone would have been quite different in Nine’s newspaper journalists had gone on strike as planned and picketed the event. Personally, I hadn’t joined the dots on the timing when I bought my flight to Sydney, but I would have struggled to cross a picket line if there had been one; I wonder if that would have been the case for other guests. Sensibly Nine settled with the journos’ union the day before.
On to the detail. No single announcement stood out. There were no big strategic shifts revealed, no major content acquisitions announced, no top tier presenter changes revealed. I’m trying to avoid using the cliche of “evolution, not revolution”, but... So let’s call it a year of iteration.
Now with added purpose
Like many large organisations (but not many media companies) Nine now has a statement of purpose. CEO Mike Sneesby revealed it on screen.
For a company which stretches from the public interest journalism of its newspaper division to the tawdry entertainment of Married At First Sight, via the populist talkback of 2GB’s Ray Hadley, it’s not a bad attempt to capture the company’s scope.
That phrase “Australia belongs here” was peppered throughout the presentation. In terms of positioning Nine as a progressive company, it’s more inclusive and less arrogant than “Still the one” ever was. The content of the event reflected that, with a far more diverse group of people on stage, including first nations representation, than one usually sees at a TV upfronts.
According to Nine, the “Austraia belong here” line will be reflected in its values, but it’s not the company’s new slogan. Presumably “still the one” is still the one.
Although it feels like longer, the Nine - Fairfax merger took place less than four years ago. This upfront was the first where the news division took equal billing with television. The Sydney Morning Herald’s formidable investigative reporter Kate McClymont was pretty much the first face in the opening hype reel.
Investigative journo Nick McKenzie made it onto stage, as did The Age and SMH’s executive editor Tory Maguire. I’m pretty sure it was the first time Nine has put any of its newspaper journos on stage at an upfronts.
Not that there was much radically new to talk about from the newspaper division. Chief sales officer Michael Stephenson told the audience that one of the things he was most excited about was the ability to insert more dynamic ads into the papers’ digital replica editions. Helpful for advertisers, sure. But more of an iteration.
Slow at FAST?
It was also the first time on stage for chief product officer Rebecca Haagsma since she came back into the fold. She unveiled new navigation for the 9Now streaming platform in what the company says is its biggest refresh since launch. The service will now be available in HD.
But the announcement of Nine joining the race on FAST channels looked a bit thinner. FAST (free ad supported TV channels) is the acronym used to describe curated channels based on genre or show where viewers join a stream in progress just like any other channel, rather than watching specific episodes on demand.
FAST is huge in the US and UK, where Ten parent company Paramount’s Pluto TV is among the market leaders. If Paramount doesn’t announce a local launch of Pluto at its upfronts next month then I’ll eat my metaphorical hat.
Meanwhile, Seven was first to market locally, with more than 30 FAST channels already available including the likes of Better Homes and Gardens, Border Security, a Medical and Rescue channel, and a Blue Lights (think police shows) channel.
Yesterday’s announcement from Nine promised “the introduction of new 24/7 Free Ad-Supported Streaming TV (FAST) channels with exclusive additional content” but there was no further detail and no actual images in the presentation to suggest a FAST product is close to launching. Beyond simulcasting its existing channels, likely Nine will be third to market with FAST.
In another iteration, similarly to the Foxtel iQ box, 9Now will start to offer a “start over” option for viewers arriving midway through a show already streaming to go back to the start. Annoyingly for viewers and reassuringly for advertisers, the ads will be unskippable.
The Tassie connection
The closer tie ups with WIN means that Nine is finally taking Tasmania (a little) more seriously. The company announced a brand new local Nine News 6pm bulletin. Somewhat bizarrely, until now Nine viewers in Tassie received a feed of the Nine News Melbourne bulletin at 6pm instead.
It was a quirk of affiliate economics, but as a Tasmanian resident it was particularly jarring during Covid. Imagine living a normal life in a Covid-free state while watching the Victorian bulletin during the miseries of the Melbourne lockdowns.
As a result, the Seven bulletin currently dominates in Tassie thanks to the lack of copmpetition.
Still, I’ll miss Peter Hitchener when he’s gone from the lounge room.
A smart commercial iteration announced yesterday was the creation of NTN - the Nine Traffic Network. That’s exactly what it sounds like - live traffic reports across the company’s radio stations radio stations 2GB, 3AW, 4BC and 6PR, plus Today viewers.
That single offering will be a handy piece of advertising inventory in the media kit, and a competitor to ATN.
For an indicator of the value, Southern Cross Austereo dug itself out of some of its debt pile back in 2016 by licensing its traffic airtime (and sponsor messages) to Australian Traffic Network for 20 years, at a price tag of $207m.
The programming year
One of the staples of upfronts presentation was missing. There was no schedule grid. Usually there’s a some sort of table of the year showing which tentpole shows will be appearing, and when.
There was surprisingly little detail.
Warnie, a biopic about Shane Warne, was announced, but with no detail of who will play him.
The return of The Block (of course) was on the schedule, but no detail on next year’s format.
A new show with Gordon Ramsay was revealed, but no early sizzle reel.
There will be a lot of relationship formats. Married At First Sight (the clip for that got a big laugh); My Mum Your Dad fronted by Kate Langbroek featuring single parents looking for new partners while their children look on (in horror); Love Island in all its dumb fun glory; another attempt to turn Parental Guidance into the sort of culture shaping controversial hit that MAFS became.
One of the new reality shows announced was The Summit, in which a group of individuals attempt to win money by climbing a mountain in beautiful New Zealand. It sounded a bit like Paramount’s The Bridge, in which a group of people attempt to win money by crossing a bridge in beautiful Tasmania. Because The Summit has (presumably) not yet been made, it was impossible to tell from the teaser whether it will be any good.
One trailer which made lower lips quiver on the night was for Big Miracles, an observation documentary series following couples going through IVF.
Absent from the announcements - as far as I can see - was a single shiny floor show. Unless there’s a commission to come, it looks like there is not a big talent format on Nine next year.
For media agencies and brands looking to justify their spending decisions, the event achieved its purpose. With more than three months until the end of the year Nine may have gone earlier than usual, but it has now set the agenda.
Time to let you go about your Thursday.
I’ll be back with Best of the Week, written during the trek home to Tassie, on Saturday.
Have a great day.