It was a bit of a shock at the Medialaan when the viewing figures fell into the mailbox on Tuesday 6 September. The night before, they had officially kicked off the new television season at VTM, with ratings hit ‘Blind married’ as the absolute spearhead. The program was given a makeover and seemed poised to become one of the mainstays of the channel, just like in previous years. But the viewers apparently thought otherwise. The first episode of the TV version of Tinder could only captivate 393,000 viewers. By comparison, the first episode of the previous season was still good for more than 800,000 viewers.
A one-time miscalculation, you may think. With a program that, without the broadcasters even noticing, has passed its expiration date. But also in the days that follow, the bizarre viewing figures continue to roll in. For example, the first episode of ‘De Schaal van Pascale’, which the channel expected 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 the second episode on Saturday September 10, can only tempt 170,000 viewers. That a 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 increasing astonishment. At SBS, the company above the Play channels, they are throwing ‘The smartest person in the world’ into the fray this fall. With 732,000 viewers, the first episode – on Monday 5 September – does a lot better than competitor ‘Blind married’, the program remains well below the level of last year. Then the first episode was good for just over a million viewers. The first episode of the Sunday evening program ‘Klopjacht’ was good for 262,000 live viewers. Just under a year ago, there were 474,000 before the kick-off of the 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 more than a million viewers live. However, the figures on Reyerslaan are also lower than normal. The daily soap opera ‘Thuis’, for example, which in normal times very regularly reaches the milestone of 1 million live viewers, failed to do so this autumn. The crowd puller ‘Down the Road’, good for an average of 1,604,000 viewers last season, also reached the million mark in recent weeks. live viewers not.
World Cup football
The search for an explanation for the bizarre figures leads strangely enough to the World Cup. An event that will only be launched on November 20, but already has an influence on the viewing figures of the past few weeks. That’s how it is. Normally such a World Cup is played in the summer, at a time when television channels invest less in their broadcasting schedules anyway. After all, not only are fewer people in front of the television, advertisers also do not roll out major campaigns during the summer months. The fact that the channel that is allowed to broadcast the World Cup attracts the majority of viewers during that limited television period is therefore no problem for the assembled competition.
Now that’s something different. November and December are important television months 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 to drop ‘The smartest person in the world’ in the schedule at the beginning of September. A lot earlier than in previous years, when the program only came on the screen in mid-October. In this way, the winner is already known the moment the 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 programs with the potential to hit the million mark with ‘The Smartest Man’, ‘Married Blindly’ and ‘Down the Road’,” he said. Lotte Vermeir, net manager of One and Canvas. ‘The result is an enormous fragmentation of the viewing audience and figures for each of those programs are lower than we are used to.’ Annick Bongers, program director at the Play channels sees another effect. ‘The programs that do hold up are all great titles. Only so-called must-see television remains. Smaller programs are irrevocably excluded.’
This oversupply also encourages delayed viewing. A phenomenon that has never been completely gone this fall. ‘Delayed viewing has of course been on the rise for some time’, says Maarten Janssen, channel manager at the VTM channels. ‘But corona has put that growth on hold for two years.’ The global pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns gave traditional television viewing a major boost: because there was hardly anything else to do, people sat quietly in front of the TV at night. Now that that is gone, viewers seem to be consuming their favorite programs more than ever before.
The numbers say it all. For example, the most-watched episode of ‘Down the Road’ was good for 967,000 viewers. Those are people who either watched the program live, or caught up with it at a later time that same evening. If you look at the numbers for that same episode seven days later, you come up 1,257,000 viewers out. 290,000 fans of Dieter Coppens his program was therefore postponed. The same calculation exercise also revives the figures for ‘Blind Married’. The 393,000 viewers who were in the viewing figures after the first episode have now become 660,000. If you also add the viewers who watched the program via the online platform VTM GO, you arrive at 717,000 viewers. And then there’s ‘The smartest person’. Although no episode has more than 1 million viewers live, the program is now tapping an average of 1,090,000 viewers per episode.
And we haven’t even talked about the weather yet. Climate change also affects the traditional channels at the start of the television season, as it turns out. ‘The weather has been very good for a long time,’ says Janssen. ‘Then people are simply less inclined to sit in front of the TV in the evening.’ If you then – as this year – immediately throw in almost all major titles at the beginning of September, it is logical that the figures they achieve are lower. But with autumn finally approaching, that problem will solve itself, Janssen thinks. ‘You can already notice that in the viewing volumes. The first episode of ‘I Can See Your Voice’, for example, had to make do with 382,000 live viewers. Last Friday there were already 575,000.’
According to the Center for Information on the Media (CIM), it is not only the long, warm summer that is playing tricks on the channels. “It is a challenge for broadcasters every year to reconnect with their viewership after the summer,” says Sofie Rutgeerts. ‘With a growing range of channels and streaming services, that challenge is only getting bigger.’
They don’t seem to worry much about the erratic viewing figures at those channels. Just about everyone points out that when you take the delayed viewing into account, the figures are in line with expectations. ‘We are also doing well in terms of market share,’ adds Janssen. ‘We are currently at 26 percent for this autumn, which is barely a fraction less than last year.’ This does not mean that there is overall satisfaction with the live figures. They like to see all broadcasters like to be jacked up a bit. ‘You want to have the program in your schedule that will be discussed the next day,’ says Janssen. ‘A title like ‘The Masked Singer’, for example, only works because Flanders looks 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 is much less.’
Their market model will also not be under pressure due to the lower live figures, according to the commercial channels. After all, with delayed viewing, it is impossible to fast-forward through commercial breaks, which ensures that – unlike in the past – those viewers also get to see the commercial breaks. ‘There is indeed no problem for those who watch delayed programs on the TV screen’, confirms Bernard Coolschief intelligence officer 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 see advertising there, but the online measurement methods are completely different from those for television, which makes it very difficult for advertisers to know exactly how many people they have reached with their campaign.’ Moreover, the Flemish commercial channels have to deal with international competitors online. Cools: ‘You come up against a platform like YouTube. And streaming services 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 yet another problem. ‘Advertisers aim for reach, they want as many people as possible to see their commercials. Television is the ideal medium for this. It offers a large range at a relatively low cost. But when there are fewer people in front of the screen, that model comes under pressure.’ Simply put, with a program with a million viewers you only need one spot to reach them all. If only 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 those spots skyrockets’, says Suykens. “Certainly in times of economic crisis, this can lead to advertisers looking for alternatives.”
It won’t get that far, if we are to believe broadcasters. “Due to a combination of circumstances, we are now seeing exceptional figures,” says Vermeir. “But this is not the new normal. In December and January, when the days are shorter and darker, there will be more people watching anyway.” Janssen is also convinced of this. ‘Due to the shifts in broadcasting schedules and the large supply, people don’t know what to watch first. But this is certainly not how we will watch TV from now on. Soon the viewer will find his way back to those pleasant moments together in front of the TV.’