De Mol digs in at Dutch web

Talpa misses first year aud targets

LONDON — Dutch reality TV tycoon John de Mol’s first broadcasting venture, Talpa, has just turned one-year-old but birthday festivities were low-key as the web struggles to meet its audience targets.

“There was a small party for our employees,” says Talpa spokesman Thomas Notermans.

Talpa is de Mol’s most public project since he quit Endemol, the production giant he co-founded and that created “Big Brother.”

The channel, which broadcasts from 6 p.m. to midnight, joined nine other free-to-air channels in Holland’s crowded TV market last August.

The namesake venture (Mol means mole in Dutch — talpa is Latin for mole) garnered a promising 19% audience share in its first weekend.

In its first month, it hit international and local headlines due to a series of wacky reality TV pilots, such as “I Want Your Child… and Nothing Else!” in which male contestants competed to donate sperm, and prompted a national morality debate when a heavily pregnant contestant entered the “Big Brother” house.

A year later, aud share has sunk to 7%-8% rather than the 10% promised to advertisers.

In a study by Dutch pollster TNS NIPO, 69% of respondents said they would not miss Talpa if it went off the air. Only 1% called it their favorite channel.

“It hasn’t scored badly for a new channel but because John de Mol invested so much money we expected more,” comments Maud Effting, media correspondent at Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant.

Prior to Talpa’s launch, de Mol shook up Dutch broadcasting by poaching household names such as talkshow hosts Barend & Van Dorp from RTL and satirical TV anchor Jack Spijkerman from pubcaster Vara as well as the Dutch Premier League soccer highlights from Netherlands 2.

Many of these former success stories have seen their ratings dip on Talpa.

“De Mol bought all the successes of the other channels and put them together, but it hasn’t worked yet,” says Effting. “Last year was a bit of a mess. It’s got family programs combined with niche programs. There was no target viewer.”

Notermans concedes the channel has not done as well as expected.

“The market is very competitive here. It’s very crowded,” he says. “We didn’t hit our 10% target but for a new station 8% is not a bad result. We’re not satisfied but we’re not unhappy either,” he says.

Indeed, far from being disheartened, Talpa is pushing on with plans for a second channel, but hasn’t yet set a start date.

“If you look at the Dutch TV landscape, the public broadcasters have three stations and the two commercial ones have three as well. If we want to be a real alternative for advertisers we have to offer them something similar,” Notermans explains.

The TV station, he also points out, is just one part of de Mol’s embryonic conglom Talpa Media alongside radio station Radio 538, a content developer, a music publisher and a digital division aimed at developing cross-media operations.

“The radio stations and TV channels are a shop window for anything else we might want to sell to a greater public or offer to advertisers in the future,” says Notermans.

Beyond this Dutch-focused business, de Mol has also extended his reach abroad through telco-media-technology fund Cyrte that he set up earlier this year in co-operation with private merchant bank NIBC.

Earlier this month, the fund acquired 7% of Shed, the U.K. production company behind “Footballers’ Wives,” and also upped de Mol’s stake in “Wife Swap” makers RDF to 16%.

However, his reported attempts to acquire the rights to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” have been thwarted by Dutch interactive entertainment firm 2waytraffic, set up by former Endemol execs Kees Abrahams, Unico Glorie and Taco Ketelaar. It is expected to close a deal with U.K. owners Celador shortly.

Back in the Netherlands, Talpa has just kicked off its fall season.

The schedule has been tweaked to give each evening a theme. Monday, for example, is devoted to reality TV shows such as “Big Brother” and “Expedition Robinson.”

The channel has also added more soccer, having recently acquired rights to the highlights of German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish league matches.

It is also gearing up for the October launch of its reality show “The Golden Cage” in which contestants will compete to remain in a luxury villa. The game relies on group dynamics rather than viewers’ votes to oust housemates and has no finish date — contestants could stay in the villa for years.

Bolstered by start-of-season soccer highlights and the opening night of “Big Brother 7,” Talpa looked back on track Aug. 20, attracting 19% of the audience, but as the week progressed ratings slumped to below 8%.

“They need a program that is really new and interesting — something that is really different,” says Effting.

Talpa execs are hoping the “Golden Cage” fits that bill.

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