When the Australian subscription TV service Foxtel debuted in 1995, it brought viewers an unprecedented amount of choice. It partnered with leading global brands to offer a diverse lineup of channels. It also secured rights to major sports and began investing in original productions. Subscribers have especially appreciated Foxtel’s vast range of programming since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Viewership has increased significantly across all of the service’s platforms.
Brian Walsh was part of the management team that launched Foxtel. Through the years, he has overseen acquisitions and the launch of entertainment channels. Today he is executive director of television. As Foxtel celebrates its 25th anniversary, and Walsh himself celebrates 25 years with the company, he talks to World Screen about offering subscribers the finest programming from around the world as well as high-quality Australian stories, providing the best content available, all in one place and at the best value.
WS: Over the years, what has Foxtel meant to its subscribers, and what have they come to expect from it?
WALSH: First, since its beginning, it has come to mean greater choice than ever before. Foxtel has unlocked a huge program supply of international content across a number of genres that audiences in Australia otherwise would not have necessarily benefited from. Second, we’ve had a very strong charter of producing and commissioning local content across lifestyle, factual, drama and, of course, sports, which is one of the great drivers of pay-TV businesses globally. That’s certainly been the case here for Foxtel; it’s been an industry leader in delivering Australian sports to customers.
Our customers are enjoying Foxtel more than ever. We’ve tracked the changes in how viewers consume content, and we’re constantly improving our service to ensure they get the most value out of their subscription. Foxtel GO on mobile lets customers take their viewing experiences on smartphones, tablets and laptops when they are on the move. We have also dramatically increased our on-demand library, which means that rather than watching our scheduled shows, customers can binge on a host of complete seasons of the best drama, lifestyle and comedy programs. And we’re [at the forefront] of Australia’s Ultra HD channels, with the Foxtel Movies Ultra HD and Foxtel Sports Ultra HD services. We are continually evolving and reinventing the product to keep ahead of the technology curve and [to improve] the portability and mobility of video, which is what customers are demanding these days.
WS: Has viewership increased since the outbreak of the coronavirus?
WALSH: Absolutely and significantly. Since the COVID-19 lockdown in Australia in March, linear viewing for the Foxtel platform is up 15 percent and Foxtel networks are up 20 percent. Foxtel GO and Foxtel Now are up a whopping 83 percent and VOD is up 65 percent, largely driven by movies and drama. Unsurprisingly, our major news service, Sky News, is up 40 percent!
WS: Foxtel launched FOX-branded channels at the end of 2019. What was the motivation behind that decision?
WALSH: There is so much content available now and it’s becoming a very crowded and cluttered marketplace, so brands now are more critical than ever. Here in Australia, we’ve had the launch of Disney+ and Apple TV+, of course Netflix and Amazon Prime, so we made a marketing and brand decision to embrace the fact that we are the home of FOX. Movies continue to be a strategically important part of the Foxtel offering, and we have further increased our commitment to the genre by introducing the Lifetime Movie Network. Almost none of the titles have been seen in this market, so this is a fresh innovation for our subscribers.
WS: Lifestyle programming also does very well with your viewers. Have you refreshed that channel lineup as well?
WALSH: Yes, it won’t come as any surprise that Australians love their homes. We have such a vast mass of earth that is surrounded by sea. Australians hug the coastline and are very proud of their homes. Sadly, many Australians in our rural communities have had homes destroyed or severely damaged by bushfires, so it’s given us a sobering reminder that this year, in particular, we will need to review our approach to our local property series. Our viewers love food and well-being and are very healthy and food-conscious. In the last year, we appointed a new head of our lifestyle brands, Wendy Moore, who comes from magazines and knows the Australian female voice and the lifestyle voice. We’ve recently revamped our lifestyle offering. I have to say, aside from Game of Thrones, the most-watched shows on the Foxtel platform were all lifestyle shows, headed by Selling Houses Australia and Love It or List It Australia. The surprise hit of the last five years is a format we picked up out of the U.K. called Gogglebox.
WS: Tell us about the importance of telling Australian stories.
WALSH: It’s important for Australian viewers because Australians are very proud of their identity and are still somewhat discovering who they are as a people. We are a multicultural nation. We have people here from many different parts of the world, and the Australian identity is constantly being reshaped. It’s imperative, as a primary broadcaster, that we reflect the changing face of Australia and we tell Australian stories in our local voices. Customers respond to that. They love the international content that we get from HBO and FX and the BBC, but the shows that perform best down here are those local stories. Of course, we have an industry that has produced some of the most acclaimed storytellers in the world, on and off camera. We have a robust production community that is producing television for all the local commercial networks and Foxtel. We believe at Foxtel that Australian content, particularly drama, is a key differentiator between us and our global competitors, like Netflix, Amazon and Disney+. They won’t be embracing Australian stories in the same way that we, as an Australian company, can. I’m very proud of our slate. We have a rich offering of local drama that has been recognized through many avenues, including the most prestigious: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who have generously awarded and applauded Australian dramas for the last ten years.
WS: How did the coronavirus pandemic impact production and development?
WALSH: We have been somewhat fortunate. A number of productions were hit during the first lockdown, but as Australia responded quickly to the pandemic, the authorities have allowed for some television shows to continue filming. We have continued shooting our acclaimed prison drama Wentworth and kept up preproduction of some other titles. I tip my hat to the extraordinary team at Fremantle, who managed a large team of actors and production personnel to keep the cameras rolling on Wentworth. You can imagine the challenges of ensuring that cast members practice “social distancing” in a show set in a correctional center!
WS: Across many different genres, imported programming is a mainstay of what Foxtel offers its customers.
WALSH: Australia is one of those rare English-language markets where viewers embrace content from Britain and the U.S. in equal measure. Australians love content from both sides of the Atlantic, and international programming has always performed incredibly well down here. So, for us, the completeness of the Foxtel offering is to have the best of Australian locally commissioned shows and then to have the pick of the international suppliers. With HBO and the BBC, we have the two principal premium drama suppliers from both sides of the Atlantic. Australians have taken to what’s on offer, particularly from those two suppliers, but also from [the Hollywood] studios. All of the shows that perform well globally, you’ll see at the top of the viewing lists here.
WS: With many U.S. series delayed, how have you been filling gaps in your schedules?
WALSH: So far, so good. There have been no significant gaps to speak of as yet. We’ve managed to skillfully reassemble the programming grids to ensure that there has been fresh content coming through on a regular basis. I think the real challenge will be early next year. We are addressing what we believe will be a shortfall with more acquisitions from indie suppliers, and relying on our principal providers, who themselves are challenged in their respective markets. We are well stocked with a solid bank of both local and international content, but 2021 will be the challenge, I think.
WS: Tell us about the Foxtel Experience.
WALSH: We launched it in November when we launched the new FOX-branded channels. Part of our commitment to customers is to provide the best content available, all in one place and at the best value. While we continue to strengthen our broadcast service, we also recognize that more and more of our customers are turning to streaming our content on demand. The new Foxtel Experience is designed to simplify the discovery and streaming of our huge range of sports, movies and drama, while aggregating content from other providers, like Netflix, for instance. On the Foxtel Experience, you have the ease and simplicity of seeing any Netflix show, or any show provided by our domestic networks, ABC iview or SBS On Demand. Plus, we’re in discussions with other global streaming companies about coming on to the new Foxtel box. Being the principal aggregator in this market is imperative for our success. We want to be the place that customers can go to for ease of discovery, no matter which supplier we are talking about.
WS: Is simplicity of message and clarity in explaining what Foxtel has to offer becoming more important nowadays?
WALSH: Absolutely. If there is one thing we want people to remember about Foxtel, it’s that it’s the best of television all in one place. Australians are being bombarded with messaging about new streaming services. To know that with one subscription they can get all the best shows, all in one place and with the ease of navigation, is a very strong proposition.
WS: Do you believe, as I do, that there is room for linear channels, streaming services and on-demand?
WALSH: Absolutely! It’s folly to suggest that linear television is dead. That’s proven in this market, where resoundingly our customers are telling us that they want both. I think it’s dependent on the genre. For those customers who want curation, they know when they go to a channel destination the sort of programming they are going to get. And they leave it up to the programmers to curate a schedule that they believe will work for customers. And then, when people want a good drama to watch or binge, they will go to on-demand. And they’ll do that for movies. Any successful pay-television business has to offer both. You have to offer curated channels, with clear navigation posts that tell people what’s on at 10 p.m. And you have to have a vast on-demand library of movies or dramas they can surf and offer them an unbelievable [array] of content from which to choose. Linear television is absolutely not dead.