How TV turned itself into a big event

Reports of the death of the ‘watercooler effect’ are greatly exaggerated.

The strangest thing about The Voice and My Kitchen Rules was not Delta’s shoulder
pads, Joel Madden’s hair or watching wannabe chef Dan Mulheron say with a
straight face: “I get excited anytime there’s a mention of sausage.” It was not scat
music or the use of “confit” as a verb (as in “I had better start confitting that duck”).
Nor Ben Lee telling a singer to “get freaky in your own planet”. No, the strangest
thing is that we were watching at all, in such numbers.

Last Sunday night, an estimated 2.95 million people tuned in to see the MKR winner
crowned on Channel Seven, while 1.97 million watched musical battles on Nine’s The
Voice. It was the biggest night of television viewing this year.

Not so long ago, some pundits predicted the rise of digital TV and on-demand
devices would supplant such mass viewing events. The TV audience would fragment
via a multitude of channels and technologies. And yet, last Sunday night just under 5
million homes were tuned in to one of two commercial channels – which equates to
roughly half the households in Australia. Many viewers chatted about what they were
watching in real time via social media and the next day with friends and colleagues.

Reports of the death of the “watercooler effect” – programs with such mass appeal
they become the topic of conversation in the office or home – appear to have been
greatly exaggerated. “We still have a human and social need for some kind of media
that allows us to gather,” says media professor Catharine Lumby, of Macquarie
University. “We see that with sporting events that are broadcast, we see that with the
Olympic Games. There are certain moments in media that bring most people
together and families look for those things.”

What has changed is what we watch together. Watercooler-type conversations once
dominated by dramas and comedies such as Melrose Place or Friends are
increasingly turned on by so-called “event TV”: reality shows that run from the
inspirational (MasterChef) to the idiotic (Celebrity Splash). ”If you flashback to a few
years ago we were all watching Friends and Desperate Housewives and Grey’s
Anatomy but they have all died off now. It is mostly now about Australia and about
reality,” says TV Week editor Emma Nolan. “After the heyday of Big Brother and
Australian Idol, everyone was saying reality TV is dead but it never happened.
MasterChef was just around the corner, rating millions, followed by My Kitchen
Rules then the bonanza that is The Voice.”

An estimated 3.7 million Australians tuned in to the July 2009 final of Network
Ten’s MasterChef – about three-quarters of that night’s total TV audience. ”It was a
new format that felt fresh, where the whole family sits down and watches together,”
Nolan says. Ratings for the cooking show’s latest season fell victim to other event-TV
offerings – MKR and Channel Nine’s The Block.

Such programs have managed to corral a large audience through ”the illusion of
liveness”, says Sue Turnbull, professor in media studies at the University of
Wollongong. ”The arrival of reality television means we have to keep watching TV
every day because of the notion it is unfolding in real time, no matter how false that
is.” In most cases it is an illusion. The crowning of the MKR winner was filmed last
December but producers cut two possible outcomes, so not even the teams in the
final knew the result until Sunday.

Many viewers now watch TV dramas via downloads or DVD boxsets. But canny
networks have countered the threat of fragmentation by creating local reality TV

shows many viewers feel compelled to watch as they go to air. Seven’s director of
programming, Angus Ross, says predictions of the demise of watercooler shows was
driven in part by the ailing ratings of US imports, such as the CSI franchise
and Desperate Housewives. ”The way you counter fragmentation is producing
quality programming that viewers want to watch.”

For the commercial networks that has meant reality shows strip-screened in prime
time several nights a week. ”The first or only time you can see those is on the network
that is broadcasting them,” Ross says. ”We view them like a sporting contest. You
pick the team you like and cheer for them, and over multi nights you build that

The spread of social media tools, such as Twitter, has enhanced the appeal of event-
TV, Ross argues. ”A lot of the watercooler talk is happening now as you watch the
show. That also forces people to watch the shows live to feel part of that conversation
but also to avoid any spoilers.”

Networks have sought to keep viewers together by offering online platforms – such as
Seven’s Fango or zeebox on Ten and Foxtel – which encourage them to chat and
interact while they are watching. ”Now we can second-screen and share our thoughts
on Twitter while the show is on air,” says David Knox, of website TV Tonight. ”Shows
like Q&A and My Kitchen Rules provoke social media. Even Offspring triggers huge
online conversations.”

Dr Lumby says fragmentation has brought a ”new energy” to programming. “If we go
back two decades, getting a slice of the audience was easy peasy. Today’s audience is
incredibly fragmented into age groups, demographics and gender, so the shows that
really draw the crowd are the ones that cross boundaries and speak across a broad
group of people,” she says.

”Everyone has some kind of interest in a show that has a narrative, end game or
competition to it. That’s why those programs come into their own because they are
one of the few spaces in media where people from a whole range of age groups can
actually connect.”

Which is not to say we are returning to an era of entire families sitting around the
box after dinner. Fragmentation, at the very least, has lowered the bar of what is
considered worthy of a watercooler-type conversation. ”Anything over a million is
pretty good these days because television has diversified so much,” Nolan says.

Peter Munro – SMH – May 4, 2013

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