Digital helps bump pay TV Down Under

Foxtel Digital launch leads to subscription surge

SYDNEY Pay TV penetration is rising after several stagnant years Down Under, while daytime ratings for pay channels in connected homes have hit record highs.

The catalyst for the surge in subscriptions was the March 14 launches of Foxtel Digital and regional satcaster Austar Digital.

“More than 180,000 Australian homes have subscribed to Foxtel Digital in just over a month of sales activity,” says Foxtel spokesman Mark Furness. “This is well ahead of Foxtel targets. Over 50,000 homes are installed with Foxtel Digital and well over 10,000 are being installed each week.”

Foxtel’s analog channels had slightly more than 1 million subs, and pay TV penetration has languished at 22% of homes. Foxtel CEO Kim Williams has predicted penetration will hit 35%-40% by 2008.

Pay channels’ total share of daytime viewing in connected homes rocketed to a record 70.1% in the week ending April 17. That equated to a 56.3 share in connected homes, the third highest ever, behind its 57.6 peak in early 2003 and 56.9 last December.

It translates to a 20.7 share of all metro homes — higher than any terrestrial web.

Foxtel execs believe the upswing is due to the hefty digital marketing and publicity campaign and the inclusion of the popular Fox (Australian Rules) Footy channel in the basic package.

And it follows a wealth of marathon programming over Easter that featured “Frasier” on TV1, “Friends” and “Six Feet Under” on Arena, “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and “Blackadder” on the Comedy Channel and British cop show “The Bill” on UKTV.

In the Easter week, retro-entertainment channel TV1 posted a 4.6, its highest ever share, and a number of channels reached more homes than ever before, including Fox Footy (1.2 million), Hallmark (1 million), History (1.4 million) and Music Max (1.3 million).

Easter and the following week are unofficial ratings periods when the terrestrials rest some of their regular programming. But Furness believes subscription TV is on track to maintain its share of more than 50% of viewing in pay homes for five consecutive months, which would be unprecedented in the nine years since the introduction of feevee.

He quotes research that shows the average time spent viewing subscription TV rose by 18% from 2001-2003, while time spent viewing free-to-air fell by 7%.

The Ten network has been dismissive of the payboxes, pointing out pay TV’s share of primetime viewing in all TV homes fell slightly to 9.5% in the first six weeks of the survey period this year, excluding Easter, while the free-to-air webs’ share rose marginally to 88%.

“The commercial networks always want to ignore daytime, Easter and so on,” Furness responds. “Our strong Easter results demonstrate that people want to, and do, watch TV any time, any day.”

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