The dismal decade behind SCA's radical end-of-year shakeup; Nine locks in NRL
After years of ratings failure, Southern Cross Austereo has sneaked out an end-of-year executive shakeup. And Nine has locked in NRL for another five years
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Today: Big changes at SCA, and Nine renews its NRL deal.
Is SCA going to rip it up and start again?
We’ve reached that late point in the year where every announcement deserves to be put through a binary filter. The question to ask is: Has this been announced because it was a race to get everything in place before year end, or because somebody is trying to sneak things out while everyone is making mince pies?
In the case of Monday’s announcement from Streem - that it’s going to be bought by Cision, I’m sure that falls into the category of the race to get a complex deal done before year end. In the next few hours, I’ll be uploading a bonus podcast episode of my chat with Streem founder Elgar Welch.
The same goes for Nine’s NRL deal, and I’ll come onto that.
Less so though is the shakeup over at Southern Cross Austereo’s radio operation. That one smacks of an end-of-year taking the trash out.
There was no public announcement. Daily Mail Australia revealed that staff were told this week that the company is getting rid of the roles occupied by Gemma Fordham, head of the Hit Network, and Mike Fitzpatrick, head of Triple M. Instead there will be one metro radio supremo across the company’s two networks.
Fordham has already left the company, and there’s not yet any word on whether Fitzpatrick is staying for the bigger gig, moving on, or doing another role.
As I flagged last week, I’d already been planning an end-of-year look at the performance of the major commercial radio companies over the last few years. Crunching the numbers, it’s a dismal story, and one that began long before Fordham and Fitzpatrick were in charge - they were simply the latest who have been unable to turn things around. But under both of them, the performance has gone further backwards by most measures.
Before we get to the miserable story of SCA’s last decade, let’s look at a snapshot of where we are right now.
I’ve taken a look at the GfK audience ratings data for the last eight years. I picked that time period for pragmatic reasons. First, that’s as far back as the data goes on the Commercial Radio Australia website. It also matches the point when GfK took over from Nielsen as the data provider. And it represents the moment immediately after the defection of Kyle Sandilands and Jackie Henderson from 2Day FM to Kiis, which remade the FM landscape in Sydney.
In the analysis that appears below, to make the charts more readable, I’ve compared survey eight, the final one of each year, rather than inputting all of them. While that shows the key trends, it doesn’t of course capture subtle movements within any given year.
Similarly, I chose to analyse Monday to Sunday share for stations as a whole, rather than individual timeslots. And for the purpose of this analysis, I stuck with the FM commercial players.
So let’s start with Sydney.
The chart picks up in 2014, the first year of 2Day FM without The Kyle & Jackie O Show. The bottom station for all eight years was SCA’s 2Day FM, first as part of the Today network, which was then rebranded as Today’s Hit network, and then simply Hit.
And second from bottom was SCA’s Triple M.
Meanwhile, it’s been a three-way battle for top station in Sydney FM. Australian Radio Network’s Kiis was top three times out of the eight, while ARN’s WSFM was top twice, including in last week’s ratings. Nova Entertainment’s Smooth FM won the other three times. Nova has bobbled along mainly in fourth place.
So ARN has been indisputably top dog in Sydney, while SCA has been consistently bottom.
On to Melbourne…
Perhaps the saddest story has been the decline of SCA’s Fox FM, from dominant station in 2014 to middle of the pack in the most recent ratings.
Meanwhile, SCA’s Triple M struggled throughout the period in question - second from bottom in 2014, and finishing 2021 as the bottom FM commercial network in Melbourne.
The major growth story in Melbourne over that period has been ARN’s Gold, which steadily rose to the top, finishing with a strong lead over Nova Entertainment’s Smooth FM.
So again, Melbourne was a story of ARN dominance, SCA’s stations in the doldrums and Nova Entertainment in the middle.
On to Brisbane…
Again, what’s indisputable is the bottom two stations - B105 and Triple M, both owned by SCA.
FM honours mostly belong to the ARN-Nova Entertainment joint venture 97.3FM (part of the Kiis network). Nova has been a regular second.
If you’ve not been keeping score, that’s three metro markets out of three where SCA is the weakest FM player.
On to Adelaide…
In Adelaide, the winner throughout has been ARN’s Kiis-aligned Mix 102.3.
In the middle, Nova and Triple M have done battle. And at the bottom, yes, SCA again, with SAFM. The 2020 rebrand back to the heritage SAFM station name, away from the Hit brand has not yet made a difference. There are questions to be asked, by the way, about the marketing strategy behind the chopping and changing from Today network to Hit and away again.
Which leaves Perth…
Bottom station for the start and end of the period was SCA’s 92.9, which was rebadged as part of the Triple M network at the start of this year and seen audiences fade further.
Meanwhile, SCA’s 94.5 switch in the other direction to become part of the Hit network saw the station finish the year in second, losing its top spot.
Nova finished this year on top in FM. And 96FM’s third place means Perth is ARN’s only weak market.
Which all means that Southern Cross Austereo has the unenviable situation of owning the bottom FM station in all five markets. In three markets the Hit-aligned station is bottom, in the other two Triple M.
It wouldn’t be quite such a depressing story if the company had not once flown so high.
Little more than a decade ago, Austereo was a network of winners. In the two biggest markets, Kyle Sandilands and Jackie Henderson dominated breakfast ratings for 2Day FM in Sydney, while Matt Tilley and Jo Stanley did the same for Fox FM.
And Hamish Blake and Andy Lee’s drivetime show was a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, with a 20 per cent share of the Melbourne audience and 15 per cent in Sydney.
But it all began to slip away. Perhaps the first nail in the coffin was Hamish & Andy coming to an end as a daily drivetime program.
Just as significant, was the decision of the Kirby family’s Village Roadshow to sell the metro focused Austereo in 2011, to regional player Southern Cross Media, led by former accountant Rhys Holleran.
As Kyle Sandilands told me when I was researching my book Media Unmade, the culture went from one of cowboy boots and handshakes to one more closely focused on cost control. I just got to that chapter in my serialisation of the audio version, which you can hear here:
Meanwhile, the network bounced from controversy to controversy, including the Kyle & Jackie O Show lie detector debacle, when they quizzed a young rape victim about her experiences on air, and then - disastrously - the Hot 30 Royal prank call which led to the suicide of a nurse.
It left the company fighting to keep 2Day FM’s licence, with morale at rock bottom and risk averse programming protocols. It’s amazing the sales team were able to do as well for as long as they have. Thank goodness for their regional operation.
But at least they still had a number one breakfast show in Kyle & Jackie O. Until they didn’t. Sandilands took the offer of a short, two-year renewal as a signal that it was time to look for another berth. And he found one over at Australian Radio Network.
ARN’s CEO Ciaran Davis and programming boss Duncan Campbell took the giant risk of signing the duo, and rebooting Mix as Kiis FM. It paid off.
On a slightly smaller scale, they later pulled off a second coup by bringing in British presenter Christian O’Connell for what is now Melbourne’s top rating breakfast show on Gold 104.3.
Again, it came only after SCA allowed O’Connell to slip through its fingers.
In his memoir, which was published earlier this year, O’Connell reveals that once he had his heart set on Australia, his friend Andy Lee introduced him to SCA.
But when the SCA executive met with O’Connell at a radio conference in Europe, he told the DJ that Australian audiences would hate his British voice, and passed. Although O’Connell did not name names, the only SCA executive who spoke at that conference was Mike Fitzpatrick.
Instead, O’Connell is now smashing both of the SCA breakfast shows in Melbourne.
The most high profile humiliations for SCA have come with the 2Day FM breakfast in Sydney, with failure after failure since the departure of Sandilands and Henderson. There’s a point where one has to conclude that the problem does not lie with the on air talent.
Not all the blame lies with Fordham either though. Colleagues have a great deal of time for her as a decent person, in what can often be an industry that rewards bad behaviour. She only returned as head of the Hit Network in 2016. It was in trouble before she got there, and she wasn’t able to turn things around.
Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick comes across in interviews as a blokey, intimidating personification of Triple M and the radio industry more widely.
There are few obvious signs that SCA has learned anything in particular from its failures with the Sydney breakfast show. They haven’t been brave failures based on a calculated risk where something could be learned and built upon.
Pairing Rove McManus with reality TV contestant Sam Frost exposed her lack of radio skills. The promising Dan Debuf and Maz Compton were similarly thrown to the wolves before they were ready. The hiring and subsequent meltdown of Em Rusciano looked similarly wild.
And now comes the trio of Dave Hughes, Ed Kavalee and soon-to-be right wing Sky News pundit Erin Molan for a low effort show which gives the impression that those making it are going through the motions.
While part of the problem is simply the strength of the Kyle & Jackie O Show on Kiis, a wider problem is the positioning of the Hit network in the radio market. The format may be past its use by date.
Nova Entertainment found success by hiring programmer Paul Jackson out of the UK to reformat the failing Classic Rock, and create the brand new (for Australia) soft contemporary format of Smooth FM.
ARN found similar success by reformatting Mix as Kiis.
And back in the day, DMG pulled off the same trick by launching Nova as a station that peeled off ABC triple J listeners by playing a mix of new music along with pop and rock.
SCA needs similarly radical thinking, possibly from an outsider, but I’m not sure it yet has the appetite for it.
One dilemma for SCA had been that while 2Day FM was flailing, Fox FM was doing okay. That made a full-on network reformat a much harder call. But with most Hit stations now struggling, the window for a more radical move is perhaps open.
The fact that B105 and SAFM have both dropped the Hit branding and returned to their heritage names suggests less commitment to the current format, and perhaps a move to whatever works locally.
But the question is whether somebody else will beat them to it in Sydney.
ARN has a third dog in the fight in western Sydney with The Edge. And the signs are that it is heading for a radical remix of its format in the new year.
Last week, industry publication The Music wrote:
“There are rumblings that at least one radio group has acknowledged the swing back to new music, with ARN’s The Edge currently on a hiring spree for an expected re-launch in 2022... Hiring ex-FBI manager Emily Copeland as their new GM in August, the station has been slowly boosting its staff and farewelled their long-term breakfast team Mike E and Emma last week.
“No announcement has been made, but one thing is certain, the radio landscape in 2022 is in for a shakeup like we’ve not seen for a long time.”
Copeland reposted those two paragraphs to her own LinkedIn feed a few days ago, so I think we can take it as read that if there was a gap for 2Day to champion new music, it’s about to get crowded.
Not that things have been much better over at Triple M Sydney. To lose Lawrence Mooney not even half way through his breakfast contract was a bad look for Fitzpatrick.
It’s not clear what the company is thinking about Fitzpatrick’s future role. He could yet get the top role. He’s been with Triple M for most of his career, and head of content since 2014. If they give him the gig, it will be a strong signal that SCA is not yet in the market for a fresh approach.
Shortly before sending this email, SCA sent the following statement:
SCA Chief Content Officer Dave Cameron:
“SCA today confirmed changes to its Content Leadership Team and structure.
“In 2022 SCA will take a highly localised programming approach which will deliver increased autonomy and responsibility to its Metro Content Directors on the ground in each market to program their stations for success.
“To lead this approach, SCA will appoint a brand agnostic Head of Metro Content early in the new year, which aligns to its regional structural change earlier this year that saw Blair Woodcock appointed as SCA’s Head of Content - Regional. The new Metro role will sit across both networks and work closely with local Content Directors.
“This change means that SCA will no longer have separate, brand-aligned Heads of Network moving forward, thereby impacting both the Head of Hit Network (Gemma Fordham) and Head of Triple M Network (Mike Fitzpatrick) roles.
“Gemma Fordham has made the decision to leave SCA to enjoy an extended break with her family.
“After returning to SCA six years ago, Gemma Fordham has led the Hit Network through several major brand changes in Adelaide, Brisbane and the Gold Coast, a station realignment in Perth, continued the success of The Fox, and has built and developed several new shows and talent across the country including creating the hugely successful Carrie and Tommy show which has become SCA’s next legacy Drive show. She has also led the charge with developing the next wave of great content directors coming through the Hit Network, as well as creating many of Hit’s big national moments including Spicy Meatballs, and more recently giving away a million dollars with Alphabucks.
“SCA wishes Gemma all the best and thanks her for the significant contribution to Hit content over many years.”
Nine’s NRL deal - an expensive status quo
There was nothing surprising about Nine’s pre-Christmas announcement this week that it has retained its NRL rights for another five years. It was Nine’s to lose.
It maintains the status quo with Nine holding NRL as its winter sport and tennis in the summer, while Seven holds AFL in the winter and cricket in the summer.
The price is one that gives both sides something. NRL is able to tell its stakeholders that it has got the price back up to pre-Covid levels.
Nine can boast of three more games per year because of the expansion of the league from 16 to 17 teams. And the price of $115m per year plus $15m in contra is close enough to what the market was expecting that the share price barely moved in either direction.
Given that the risk of overpaying is outweighed by the risk of losing a code to a rival, it always seemed likely to go this way.
The deal runs until the end of the 2027 season, which will also align with the end of Foxtel’s pay TV deal with NRL.
By then, the landscape will be entirely different. The anti-siphoning legislation to protect free-to-air sport should have been updated (although it always takes longer than expected), the streaming market will have matured a little, and the prospect of an all-or-nothing blockbuster deal from Nine and its streaming service Stan, or one of its rivals, will be a real possibility.
Now, the only major rights deal remaining in play is the summer Olympics, which is Seven’s to lose.
As always, please do let me know what you think to firstname.lastname@example.org or via the comment button.
Time to let you go about your Wednesday. Have a great day.
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