Free TV was considered a dinosaur. The Matildas have changed how we think about it

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The ascent of the Matildas through the World Cup gave us many things. One was the warm feeling of the country coming together, transfixed by the plucky team’s progress. In an era defined by division and fragmentation in a range of areas, including the TV landscape, such unity had become a foreign feeling and it was a welcome one. It felt as if the nation gathered around a milestone event and then decamped to that metaphorical watercooler to share the excitement.

Another takeaway was the astronomical ratings as an 89.8 per cent share of the commercial broadcast audience tuned in for Australia’s semi-finals clash against England. An astonishing 7.13 million people watched it on Seven and 7Plus, and that estimate doesn’t include clubs, pubs and other public spaces, or those who turned to Optus Sport.

Matildas fans watch the game against Sweden the at Tumbalong Park live site in Sydney.Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

The figures predictably dropped for Australia’s clash against Sweden in the battle for third place, although the average audience of 3.38 million is substantial and significant: any sporting-code honcho or TV exec would be chuffed if their finals notched up such numbers. The gripping grand final between England and Spain capped off a stellar week for women’s sport and soccer with just over 3 million.

Woven into the victories of that week was the affirmation of the power, reach and accessibility of free TV. Over the past decade, a pervasive view of free-to-air (FTA) telly, almost a default position, has been to dismiss it as being a dinosaur, a relic of a bygone age. It’s been narrowly regarded as a creature inevitably doomed to extinction as an onslaught of bright and shiny new subscription services captured our devotion and our dollars. Yet that admittedly extraordinary week saw a demonstration of its fundamental role and value. Or, to repurpose the famed Mark Twain quote, illustrated that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

For years – and not without justification – free-to-air’s “heritage” channels have been dismissed as bland, boring, risk-averse and incredibly unfashionable. In that period, prime-time, commercial free-to-air TV in Australia has become the almost-exclusive domain of reality contests, which roll out with something akin to clockwork precision: if it’s May, it must be MasterChef; in August, make way for The Block. Etcetera.

Meanwhile, the 6pm news services from Nine and Seven that share the prime-time zone are regularly the most-watched programs in the country, attracting a combined audience of more than 2 million nationally. Add in the ABC’s 7pm bulletin and it comes in just under 3 million, which is not a number to be easily disregarded. While many people no longer regard a fixed nightly news service as part of their daily viewing diet, many still do. And while those numbers have been dwindling over the years, they’re hardly insignificant.

The World Cup illustrated that when there’s a major event the nation returns to that foundation. Granted, it was an extraordinary event, turbo-charged by a collection of contributing factors: the talented local team; the irresistible drama of its progress, including the injury of the captain and star player; the fact that the tournament was played on home turf. While nothing beyond Cathy Freeman’s 2000 Sydney Olympics run comes close to those numbers, the only contenders to possibly attain such heady heights would also be in the sporting arena: AFL or NRL finals, Australian Open Tennis finals – depending on who’s playing – and the Olympics Games, especially when the Aussies are viable medal prospects. Beyond the sporting realm, the only occasions that might get within a bull’s roar would be royal weddings and funerals. Once upon a time, a MasterChef finale hit those heights, but not anymore.

Fans celebrate a Matildas goal at Tumbalong Park on August 16. Credit: Dion Georgopoulos

Interestingly, as free TV demonstrates how it can rally from the grave to which it’s been erroneously consigned, the forces that precipitated its decline find themselves enduring their own upheavals, ructions that some might not survive. The past year has brought the painful discovery that the streamers’ business model, built on the shaky premise of continued rapid growth, is unsustainable.

The streaming services arrived looking like the long-awaited alternative to the irritations of free TV. These welcome disrupters, with their promise of entire seasons of shows available ad-free and on demand, were eagerly embraced. Oh, the glorious sense of freedom for viewers.

Reliant on subscribers for revenue, rather than advertisers, the streamers took risks, happily courting niche audiences. They spent big and produced a torrent of content. It included a lot of junk, but also some gems that wouldn’t have seen the light of day in the old world: say, The Bear, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, Minx and No Activity, to name a few.

Following the avid expansion of the early days has come a reckoning as they reign in spending; cutting staff, culling libraries, cancelling commissions. Then there’s the ongoing strike by America’s writers’ and actors’ unions, which in notable part is about how these businesses pay for their essential contributions, the argument being that they don’t pay nearly enough to the majority of providers.

Arriving in Australia in 2015, Netflix led the streamers’ charge, but things have changed in the intervening years. The global behemoth that initially enjoyed a monopoly now exists in a field crowded with competitors. And, ironically, some of the former disrupters are gradually adopting the practices they once scorned: dropping episodes in weekly instalments instead of complete seasons; charging subscribers extra if they want to avoid ads.

It’s not exactly that everything old is new again, but the landscape is volatile. What World Cup finals week persuasively suggests is that, whatever the future holds, there’s still life left in free TV. Only a fool or a foolhardy rival would ignore its staying power. The world has changed, but some things remain the same.

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