Saturday 31 March 2012

Yes, Channel 5 sucks - but that's not why it's losing viewers

Yesterday, The Straits Times Life section did a hatchet job... I mean a big story on how Channel 5 is losing viewers: “Daily viewership figure has been dropping, with viewers complaining about lack of good content.”

As someone who has worked on shows for Channel 5 since 1994, I would like to share my reaction to the article.

That Channel 5 is losing viewers is old news. This has been has been happening since the mid-90s. Long gone are the heady days of Under One Roof's first season.

The media environment has changed drastically, from the introduction of cable TV to broadband to Singtel mioTV.

While the housewives will continue to watch Channel 8, the tech-savvy English-language entertainment consumers have moved on from Channel 5.

So the content isn't the problem. The medium is the problem.

The Noose is considered a success, but it has fewer viewers than the last show I produced for Channel 5 in 2007, the comedy Maggi & Me, which was cancelled because of “low ratings”.

I’m told by a MediaCorper that the drama Point Of Entry, which was heavily criticised in the article, actually has more viewers than The Noose.

While the dramas The Pupil and Fighting Spiders were widely praised, the viewerships for the latest seasons of both these shows were very low.

So this idea that the channel is losing viewers because of the lack of “quality” programmes is fallacious since the perceived “quality” programmes often have fewer viewers than the shows people claim to hate.

It's not dissimilar to the movie industry where the critical favourites are seldom the big money makers. Everyone agrees the Transformers movies sucked, but everyone watched them.

Also, Channel 8 viewers complain about Channel 8 shows all the time as well. Yet, its viewership is rising.

If “quality” equals high viewership, then the one-time Arts Central would’ve been the highest rated TV channel in Singapore. And it wasn’t.

I mean how many people actually watched The Million Dollar Job on Okto last Sunday? Or even knew about it?

So the irony is that the more so-called “quality” shows they try to produce, the more viewers they're likely to lose.

Not that I’m suggesting MediaCorp should be producing more crappy shows, of course. MediaCorp is going to do that anyway. But these “crappy” shows may have more viewers than you imagine.

One man's crap is another man's art.

I would also like to point out that the well-regarded dramas, The Pupil and Fighting Spiders, were produced by independent production companies.

Whereas the series that is so bad that it was compared to VR Man, Point Of Entry, is produced in-house by MediaCorp.

So was VR Man, by the way.

But let me tell you VR Man at the time still had more viewers than any show on Channel 5 today!

(Full disclosure: I was part of MediaCorp's in-house production team, but I never worked on VR Man, although I witnessed its painful development.)

But even within MediaCorp, perception trumps actual numbers.

The only numbers that MediaCorp really cares about are those with a dollar sign in front.

Instead of an article about Channel 5 losing viewers, I would be more interested in one about how much money the channel is making - or losing. But those numbers are harder to come by.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but a show with fewer viewers can make more money than one with more viewers. Go ahead, read that again.

If the Government wants to pay MediaCorp half a million dollars to produce and air a series about Total Defence that no one is going to watch, MediaCorp is not going to say no. The show is already profitable before airtime sales.

In the article, there is this one line I think is very significant: “MediaCorp receives government funding.”

More specifically, many of these local shows on Channel 5 - good, bad and low-rated - are at least partially funded by MDA through grants or other means.

Why do you think the MDA logo shows up in the end credits of Point Of Entry?

We may not be paying for the TV licence anymore, but we’re still paying taxes.

I would like to see a public list that shows all the programmes that get money from MDA and how much each one gets.

The economics of Channel 5 has become such that it's increasingly unlikely for a local show to get a green light unless it has some government funding and/or sponsorship.

My point is that if you think Channel 5 sucks and you’re not going to watch it, well, too bad because you’re paying for it anyway.

Another perennial complaint about the channel is the re-running of old movies. This complaint is older than the movies Channel 5 is re-running.

I’ve addressed this issue before. The trouble is there are enough people watching these old movies to justify the low cost the channel pays for them.

But not enough people to justify airing more newer, costlier movies.

It's a vicious circle. As more and more viewers abandon Channel 5, it makes less and less economic sense to spend more money on improving the content.

Those viewers are gone for good.

UPDATE: This is Channel 5's rather feeble and intentionally tone-deaf response to The Straits Times article:

We refer to the article Do You Really Want To Come Home To 5? (Life!, March 30). Here are some additional insights.

Based on Kantar Media surveys, the daily TV Audience Measurement system used by the industry, Channel 5’s primetime daily reach over the past two years has been stable.

Viewers are also consuming our content online. Current average monthly video views on’s Catch-Up TV for local programmes is 65 per cent higher than last year.

Primetime viewership among younger demographics, aged four to 24, has increased.

As a national broadcaster, we reach out to a wide audience base comprising different races and cultures. Channel 5 is committed to bringing to viewers strong local content that is relevant and engaging.

The consistently high ratings of Point Of Entry and We Are Singaporeans show that such content resonates with our viewers.

Factual content that reflects topical social issues are also a priority for the channel.

Ninety per cent of the Channel 5 primetime slate is fresh content. Returning movie titles are carefully planned and aired with a reasonable period between the two telecasts.

The biggest single challenge facing Channel 5 in obtaining quality international content is the intense programming rights competition. Despite this, the channel is firmly committed to scouring international markets for quality content, ensuring that Channel 5 gets a well-rounded slate of good programmes with wide appeal.

Kim Wong-Nathan
Vice-President, Channel 5 Network Programming & Promotions, MediaCorp

UPDATE UPDATE: Playing with numbers: So is Ch 5 viewership up or down?

2013 UPDATE: Top 10 Channel 5 series of 2013