Foxtel, like most media businesses, find itself enjoying near record audiences, but massive challenges, as COVID-19 impacts business models the world over.
“It’s times like this that people rely on entertainment to get them through. Look at the staggering numbers of people watching television,” Foxtel’s executive director – television Brian Walsh told Mediaweek.
Like most of the rest of Foxtel, Walsh is working from home, enjoying the fewer physical interruptions, yet juggling plenty of phone calls and video meetings.
Speaking about audiences consuming Foxtel product, Walsh mentioned last week’s ratings for Gogglebox which did 200,000 on Foxtel’s Lifestyle channel. Another big crowd – 184,000 – tuned in to Selling Houses Australia. “The numbers for Sky News are also through the roof,” he said.
“People are also sampling our on demand offering like we have never seen before. People are simply consuming a lot of television. The pop-up channel for 007 did huge numbers – there have been solid numbers across all channels and our VOD service.
“Because people are sampling so much I am hoping they will be discovering shows they haven’t seen before when they simply didn’t have the time.”
Although the audience numbers good, as part of the Foxtel leadership team, Walsh is working on the challenges facing the platform. “The business is under stress. Live sport is the primary driver of subscription uptake and when there is no live sport, it has a significant commercial impact. We have to navigate our way through this – I am confident we will, but is putting a big strain on the business.”
When asked if consumers would see a different Foxtel emerge post COVID-19, Walsh replied: “I think we were going to close the year out a different Foxtel anyway. We were always planning to launch a new streaming product in the first half of 2020 and we are still on track to do that.”
Foxtel is not ready to reveal a name, an exact launch date or the price point, but The AFR has reported the new entertainment streaming product could be called Binge.
Foxtel CEO Patrick Delany, Walsh and their teams have been working on the new streaming product for some time. They have been careful not to overhype it before ensuring it would work before the much-anticipated launch. That time is now close.
“The uptake of the new entertainment product will be significant because people are looking for entertainment alternatives. People who may not have considered Foxtel previously will have a new proposition to consider and we are confident it will be well received.
“All the technical infrastructure is built off the back of Kayo. When you think of all the technical innovations Kayo offers, they will also be offered in the new entertainment product.”
As well as the entertainment equivalent of Kayo attracting new Foxtel subscribers, Walsh is confident many of the existing customers will stay on.
Non-sport TV programming is now a very crowded space with 21 FTA linear TV channels plus a number of streaming services that grow monthly. Does that make it harder for Foxtel to compete?
Walsh: “In the scripted area that is very true with more being made giving people more choices than ever. We have always acknowledged we can’t have everything, so our objective is to have the best of scripted. That is why our relationships with HBO, FX and BBC are very important to us.
“There is great content on Netflix, great content on Amazon, great shows on Apple and Stan. Everyone has great shows, but it is the additional layers that Foxtel has that make us a different consideration. There is no one that has the aspirational lifestyle content that Foxtel enjoys and no one that has the kind of content that channels like History, Discovery and Crime + Investigation have. There is no one with the selection of movies that Foxtel has.”
Given that the Australian-made shows on Lifestyle pull the single biggest audiences, is that an area Foxtel should be exploiting more? “Our focus is clearly getting live sport back on the platform, but secondary to that is ensuring our current providers of scripted content remain with Foxtel. Another is to further invest in lifestyle content and build that portfolio.”
Walsh noted that Foxtel lifestyle content was very different to free-to-air offerings. “We are not in the business of competition reality, we are in the business of entertaining, informing and inspiring. We do that across property and across food.”
Expect to see Foxtel exploring other areas of lifestyle content it hasn’t covered in depth before. Walsh said those areas would include wellness – good health, self-sufficiency, relationships and emotional wellbeing. “The development work we are doing while in lockdown is along those lines. We are looking at formats we have never considered before. Helping people get back on their feet is very important. One of the projects we are doing with Scott Pape will explore that. How can people rebuild their lives after unemployment?”
Foxtel subscribers might well be asking what has happened to the drama output after last year’s brilliant Lambs of God. There doesn’t seem to be too much on the horizon. “We have taken some time to consider what our drama slate would like moving forward,” responded Walsh.
“What is a priority for us is to establish some returning dramas. We will still be in the business of event television, but again what distinguishes us from our paid streaming competitors is having familiar dramas that can return in multiple seasons. In the past we were looking at noisy event series. While that still remains in our planning, we recognise we have never really found a replacement for A Place to Call Home and also for Wentworth which is working its way to a conclusion.”
Walsh and his Foxtel team has been working with Australian production houses to find at least two returning dramas as soon as possible. He didn’t want to divulge any more detail at this stage, but Walsh admitted to Mediaweek they are close.
“We have scripts and once we have emerged out of all of this, I am confident one of the properties will be very relevant to the times we are going through. The writers involved have used this opportunity to refine the narrative so that it is more reflective of how Australia deals with COVID-19. It is a multi-generational family drama.”