the sudden drop in viewing figures causes panic among the television channels

Traditional viewing figures that suddenly lose their appeal, barely programsthat reach a million viewers and a sharp increase in postponed viewing. Thestart of the new television season is causing chaos in the viewing figures.

Pieter DumonSaturday September 24, 202210:51

It was a bit of a shock at the Medialaan when the viewing figures fell intothe mailbox on Tuesday 6 September. The night before, they had officiallykicked off the new television season at VTM, with ratings hit ‘Blind married’as the absolute spearhead. The program was given a makeover and seemed poisedto become one of the mainstays of the channel, just like in previous years.But the viewers apparently thought otherwise. The first episode of the TVversion of Tinder could only captivate 393,000 viewers. By comparison, thefirst episode of the previous season was still good for more than 800,000viewers.

A one-time miscalculation, you may think. With a program that, without thebroadcasters even noticing, has passed its expiration date. But also in thedays that follow, the bizarre viewing figures continue to roll in. Forexample, the first episode of ‘De Schaal van Pascale’, which the channelexpected a lot from, has to manage with 180,000 viewers. ‘Dear viewers’remains at 210,000 viewers and ‘Lego Masters’, which is already due for thesecond episode on Saturday September 10, can only tempt 170,000 viewers. Thata new program like that of Pascale Naessens doesn’t work, you can always.But that just about every title sees its viewers halve is unprecedented.

It is not only at VTM that people look at the figures with increasingastonishment. At SBS, the company above the Play channels, they are throwing’The smartest person in the world’ into the fray this fall. With 732,000viewers, the first episode – on Monday 5 September – does a lot better thancompetitor ‘Blind married’, the program remains well below the level of lastyear. Then the first episode was good for just over a million viewers. Thefirst episode of the Sunday evening program ‘Klopjacht’ was good for 262,000live viewers. Just under a year ago, there were 474,000 before the kick-off ofthe first season.

At the VRT, the damage still appears to be minor. With the fiction series’Chantal’, the public broadcaster has the only program that can appeal to morethan a million viewers live. However, the figures on Reyerslaan are also lowerthan normal. The daily soap opera ‘Thuis’, for example, which in normal timesvery regularly reaches the milestone of 1 million live viewers, failed to doso this autumn. The crowd puller ‘Down the Road’, good for an average of1,604,000 viewers last season, also reached the million mark in recent weeks.* live viewers * not.

The first episode of ‘I Can See Your Voice’ had to make do with 382,000 liveviewers.Image DPG Media

World Cup football

The search for an explanation for the bizarre figures leads strangely enoughto the World Cup. An event that will only be launched on November 20, butalready has an influence on the viewing figures of the past few weeks. That’show it is. Normally such a World Cup is played in the summer, at a time whentelevision channels invest less in their broadcasting schedules anyway. Afterall, not only are fewer people in front of the television, advertisers also donot roll out major campaigns during the summer months. The fact that thechannel that is allowed to broadcast the World Cup attracts the majority ofviewers during that limited television period is therefore no problem for theassembled competition.

Now that’s something different. November and December are important televisionmonths in which channels traditionally show off their large viewing figures.But they are in danger of being blown away this year by the football violence.So the broadcasters started puzzling. At Play4, this led to the decision todrop ‘The smartest person in the world’ in the schedule at the beginning ofSeptember. A lot earlier than in previous years, when the program only came onthe screen in mid-October. In this way, the winner is already known the momentthe World Cup erupts.

Because the other channels also use the same logic, there is an oversupply.Monday evening is the best example of this. “There you have three programswith the potential to hit the million mark with ‘The Smartest Man’, ‘MarriedBlindly’ and ‘Down the Road’,” he said. Lotte Vermeir , net manager of Oneand Canvas. ‘The result is an enormous fragmentation of the viewing audienceand figures for each of those programs are lower than we are used to.’Annick Bongers , program director at the Play channels sees anothereffect. ‘The programs that do hold up are all great titles. Only so-calledmust-see television remains. Smaller programs are irrevocably excluded.’

This oversupply also encourages delayed viewing. A phenomenon that has neverbeen completely gone this fall. ‘Delayed viewing has of course been on therise for some time’, says Maarten Janssen , channel manager at the VTMchannels. ‘But corona has put that growth on hold for two years.’ The globalpandemic and the accompanying lockdowns gave traditional television viewing amajor boost: because there was hardly anything else to do, people sat quietlyin front of the TV at night. Now that that is gone, viewers seem to beconsuming their favorite programs more than ever before.

Down the Road.  Image ©VRT

Down the Road.Image © VRT

The numbers say it all. For example, the most-watched episode of ‘Down theRoad’ was good for 967,000 viewers. Those are people who either watched theprogram live, or caught up with it at a later time that same evening. If youlook at the numbers for that same episode seven days later, you come up *1,257,000 viewers out. 290,000 fans of *Dieter Coppens hisprogram was therefore postponed. The same calculation exercise also revivesthe figures for ‘Blind Married’. The 393,000 viewers who were in the viewingfigures after the first episode have now become 660,000. If you also add theviewers who watched the program via the online platform VTM GO, you arrive at717,000 viewers. And then there’s ‘The smartest person’. Although no episodehas more than 1 million viewers live, the program is now tapping an average of1,090,000 viewers per episode.

Climate change

And we haven’t even talked about the weather yet. Climate change also affectsthe traditional channels at the start of the television season, as it turnsout. ‘The weather has been very good for a long time,’ says Janssen. ‘Thenpeople are simply less inclined to sit in front of the TV in the evening.’ Ifyou then – as this year – immediately throw in almost all major titles at thebeginning of September, it is logical that the figures they achieve are lower.But with autumn finally approaching, that problem will solve itself, Janssenthinks. ‘You can already notice that in the viewing volumes. The first episodeof ‘I Can See Your Voice’, for example, had to make do with 382,000 liveviewers. Last Friday there were already 575,000.’

According to the Center for Information on the Media (CIM), it is not only thelong, warm summer that is playing tricks on the channels. “It is a challengefor broadcasters every year to reconnect with their viewership after thesummer,” says Sofie Rutgeerts. ‘With a growing range of channels andstreaming services, that challenge is only getting bigger.’

'The smartest person in the world'.  ImageSBS

‘The smartest person in the world’.Image SBS

They don’t seem to worry much about the erratic viewing figures at thosechannels. Just about everyone points out that when you take the delayedviewing into account, the figures are in line with expectations. ‘We are alsodoing well in terms of market share,’ adds Janssen. ‘We are currently at 26percent for this autumn, which is barely a fraction less than last year.’ Thisdoes not mean that there is overall satisfaction with the live figures. Theylike to see all broadcasters like to be jacked up a bit. ‘You want to have theprogram in your schedule that will be discussed the next day,’ says Janssen.’A title like ‘The Masked Singer’, for example, only works because Flanderslooks at it en masse at the same time and guesses the identity of the singers.Spread those viewers out over a whole week and the effect of such a program ismuch less.’

Commercial break

Their market model will also not be under pressure due to the lower livefigures, according to the commercial channels. After all, with delayedviewing, it is impossible to fast-forward through commercial breaks, whichensures that – unlike in the past – those viewers also get to see thecommercial breaks. ‘There is indeed no problem for those who watch delayedprograms on the TV screen’, confirms Bernard Cools chief intelligenceofficer at Space media agency, which sells advertising space.

‘But when those viewers make the switch to online platforms such as VTM GO,VRT Max or Go Play, it becomes a different story. Viewers will also seeadvertising there, but the online measurement methods are completely differentfrom those for television, which makes it very difficult for advertisers toknow exactly how many people they have reached with their campaign.’ Moreover,the Flemish commercial channels have to deal with international competitorsonline. Cools: ‘You come up against a platform like YouTube. And streamingservices such as Netflix or Disney+ are also working on an advertising model.That will only make it more difficult.’

Luc Suykens , CEO of the Union of Belgian Advertisers (UBA), sees yetanother problem. ‘Advertisers aim for reach, they want as many people aspossible to see their commercials. Television is the ideal medium for this. Itoffers a large range at a relatively low cost. But when there are fewer peoplein front of the screen, that model comes under pressure.’ Simply put, with aprogram with a million viewers you only need one spot to reach them all. Ifonly 250,000 viewers are watching, you need four spots for that same reach.Only the advertising space is limited. ‘That ensures that the price for thosespots skyrockets’, says Suykens. “Certainly in times of economic crisis, thiscan lead to advertisers looking for alternatives.”

It won’t get that far, if we are to believe broadcasters. “Due to acombination of circumstances, we are now seeing exceptional figures,” saysVermeir. “But this is not the new normal. In December and January, when thedays are shorter and darker, there will be more people watching anyway.”Janssen is also convinced of this. ‘Due to the shifts in broadcastingschedules and the large supply, people don’t know what to watch first. Butthis is certainly not how we will watch TV from now on. Soon the viewer willfind his way back to those pleasant moments together in front of the TV.’