The Foxtel subscription TV platform used to roll out new channels regularly to refresh its platform and broaden its content offering. Not so much these days.
The growing SVOD options have seen Foxtel alter its strategy to focus more on key quality content, including lots of drama, plus live sports.
Possibly the only major channel launch we will see this year arrives this month – Fox League, the new home of NRL – which is set to commence live programming on February 27.
The Fox Sports offering is the single biggest drawcard for subscription TV audiences and last year the combined Fox Sports offering accounted for up to 12% of all viewing in a week across the platform – including the time spent viewing the re-transmitted FTA networks.
Fox Sports CEO Patrick Delany told Mediaweek he thinks their two dedicated football channels – Fox Footy and Fox League – could account for as much as 8% of all viewing on the Foxtel platform at times during 2017.
At the channel launch this week at the Birchgrove Oval in Sydney’s inner west, the birthplace of Rugby League, Delany repeated several times: “We want to honour the past and own the future.”
Speaking to Mediaweek after the launch, Delany said: “The thing we learnt initially with Fox Footy was that you can do all you want with a specialist channel, but if you don’t have all the live sports rights then it doesn’t all work. When we got all the games live at Fox Footy we built the shows and hired the personalities and now it is one of the world’s best sports brands. The net promoter scores for Fox Footy are off the page.
“We resisted launching Fox League until we got every game live. We used last year when we first had every game live as a way to bed down the commentary team and we got [head of live sport] Steve Crawley on board to get everything ready for 2017.
“We have also used that 12 months to make a mind shift internally as to what we needed to do to refresh our NRL coverage and build the new channel.”
Fox Sports did external research and undertook internal soul searching. “We looked at what we were good at and what we were bad at. We heard how League fans feel about us and how they felt about being a League supporter.
“What overwhelmingly came back was that they already saw us as being young, progressive and innovative. They told us they wanted us to be a little warmer and to get a little more emotionally attached to the sport.”
But Delany said the biggest takeaway was perhaps how League fans felt about their sport. “There wasn’t the sense that someone was the champion of League – a media outlet that celebrated the sport. The central theme of this channel is to champion and celebrate Rugby League.
“To be able to do that, you need to have every game live which we have got. You then have to do justice to every game live with the best pre- and post-game shows and half time with the best people.
“Yvonne Sampson was an x-factor we were missing, a very professional host.
“Matty Johns is fantastic and very funny and can host his own show. He will accompany Yvonne perfectly. She is great at that, is a wonderful host and she will complement people like Matt Shirvington and all of our fantastic callers.”
There is no longer a Monday night game, but Delany notes they have been more than compensated with the revised draw – a double header on Friday, a triple header on Saturday and a double header on Sunday. “These are outcomes we don’t have in any other sport.
“In sports TV we look for programming flows and we try to create them. To have this sort of result is great.”
Fox Sports diversity
Delany: “Women will play a major role this year on live games and shows. There will be a very big female focus and it is not token at all. All of our broadcasters have earned their stripes.
“And look at this talent pool: Yvonne Sampson (Thursday Night League and Super Saturday + League Life), Jess Yates (Sunday Ticket + League Life), Lara Pitt (Saturday, Sunday Ticket + Monday Nights with Matty Johns and League Life), Megan Barnard (Friday Night Footy), Hannah Hollis (game day boundary duties + League Life), Tara Rushton (League 13-to-1).
“We will have a first – a show with an all female panel that will only talk about Rugby League – League Life. These women are very accomplished broadcasters and have been working in and around the sport. I have seen the pilot and it is a very strong show. It gives a female perspective of the big issues in the sport and it will be very compelling.”
Fox Sports has been at the forefront of hiring female sports broadcasters and reporters. “We hired female newsreaders for Fox Sports News and they were very ambitious and very bright. We then started using them on the sidelines for The Big Bash League and later on all of our shows.”
Another key show will also be something no broadcaster has done yet. “We have a new show we are calling Queenslanders Only. It has a full Queensland panel and it will only talk about Queensland. It will be broadcast Australia-wide in a primetime slot. Subjects will be the Titans, the Cowboys and the Broncos and there will only be Queensland guests.
“This is a big part of Fox Sports saying, ‘We care about Queensland.’ We have every Queensland game and we will be going hard for those viewers.”
The Fox Sports promise to honour the past is in the form of a new show hosted by Tim Sheridan called League Legends with 26 episodes, one for every round. He will honour the giants and legends of the game.
Delany is excited about all the new programming, but he wanted to make sure we covered the three new sports tonight shows. “Monday Night with Matty Jones is now 7.30pm. It is family oriented and is a review show.
“We have an adult version of the Matty Johns show which comes after Thursday night football now called The Late Show with Matty Johns. Make sure the kids are in bed before that comes on.
“The Professor (James Rochford) now has his own show on Friday nights called The Professor’s Second Year Syndrome. Also on the show are Brett Finch and from the Triple M Grill Team Chris Page. It is very experimental, but it is the sort of thing cable broadcasters can do. My instruction to the team was to go for it and entertain people watching after the game on Thursday and Friday nights.
“Sunday and Monday nights are very family oriented as are all of our live sports broadcasts.”
Making the numbers work
With a massive investment in extra programming and a big increase in rights fees come the start of the 2018 season, how does Fox Sports make it work financially?
“This is the big push for Foxtel,” said Delany. “We have found that dedicated channels – whether they be pop-up channels like our Bathurst channel or Fox Footy – really grab the public’s imagination when you do them well. We know that Fox League will be a better way to promote our NRL coverage and will get huge traction.”
Fox Sports relies heavily on word of mouth which remains an effective way of promotion. Delany reminded us that last year the biggest audience for an NRL game was over 500,000. “That is a lot of people talking about you.
“We know the new channel will pull in more subscribers and it makes more sense of the very valuable rights we have.”
Top photo: Matty Johns with his Monday night team [L-R] Gorden Tallis, Lara Pitt, Matty Bryan Fletcher and Nathan Hindmarsh