If you owned a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week rugby league television channel, what would you do with it?
Fill it with classic matches? Replays of the round just gone?
A few shows with match analysis, reviewing plays, critical moments and the tactical moves by coaches or players that won or lost a game?
A couple of ‘different approach to the footy’ jokey shows thrown in for some variety?
Remember The Footy Show on Channel Nine? There’s a reason it’s not around any more. Fewer and fewer people watched because they got sick of a show that by its end had almost nothing to do with rugby league.
So it was pretty odd to see Fox League announce their 2020 NRL channel line-up last week, with a whopping 2.5 hours of original content scheduled each day outside of match broadcasts.
Fox League made it clear they wouldn’t be taking the game too seriously in 2020 by quietly cutting League Life from the schedule, the one show that at least tried to bring a different, deeper perspective for the viewer than shouting old men and “ho-ho, you blokes” former players.
Now former hosts Yvonne Sampson, Lara Pitt, Jess Yates and Hannah Hollis are heading up Fox’s live broadcasts and we are told League Life stories are going to be scattered across the gameday coverage.
Andrew Voss’s show The Fan got another season, which is good. The show is an upbeat look at the game and the people in and around it, but it’s only 30 minutes in a week.
So we’re stuck with the usual jokey couch banter from the usual faces and the usual low-brow interviews cracking more in-jokes than a high school reunion.
What should be the flagship show for the network is NRL 360. I really used to enjoy watching NRL 360. Now it’s the complete opposite of what it used to be.
For some reason NRL 360 screens at 6:30pm, but fans aren’t missing much, as what used to be a reasonably insightful hour of rugby league chat has turned into Daily Telegraph crisis merchants breathlessly trying to reheat their stale crud from that morning’s papers.
If you miss the 6:30pm live show, don’t worry, because NRL 360 will be replayed at least twice more that night.
With the original content done and dusted by 8pm every night, just when most people are starting to settle in front of the tube for a couple of hours, it’s a pretty ordinary offering.
There’s almost zero appetite for a meaningful look at the game outside of the live offerings. Reports over the weekend said there was no deal with Fox for Cooper Cronk, who is able to deliver a fantastic tactical breakdown of play in simple terms – like Matty Johns can too – and the schedule has just one hour per week of ‘analysis’ in the form of the Big League Wrap show.
Hopefully Cronk gets sorted for a contract and can give some insight during the match broadcasts.
Saying all of that, I do understand part of this. For decades rugby league’s coverage has leant towards the irreverent, the piss-take, not taking itself too seriously.
To this, The Late Show with Matty Johns on a Sunday night has rated pretty well and can be pretty funny.
But there’s a limit to how much value you can get out of lame jokes, and there’s a large section of the league crowd out there who want something different.
Cost-cutting by Fox Sports and its owner Foxtel is obviously going to take a big toll on sports league incomes across all codes.
We’ve already seen the brutal public negotiation games between Fox Sports and Rugby Australia, which included the demise of Nick McArdle and Drew Mitchell, two respected members of the rugby coverage.
Setting aside sports like rugby and football, Fox is deeply tied up in the $1.8 billion NRL rights deal, is on the hook for a big piece of the AFL’s $2.5 billion rights deal and a chunk of the new $1.18 billion cricket rights deal as well. Kayo costs a reported $100 million to run. That’s a lot of cash tied up for a few more years.
The cost-cutting is happening for a reason. Foxtel, Fox Sports’s parent company, is in big trouble, posting a $417 million loss for the 2018 calendar year. You can’t manage that and keep forking out hundreds of millions for sports rights at the same time.
While the exclusive sports platform Kayo rocketed along to just over 400,000 subscribers, it has come back ever so slightly to around 370,000.
There’s going to be a lot more being removed from sports broadcasts before anything gets put in.
The Daily Telegraph, whose treatment of the NRL is one of rugby league’s biggest problems, saw a 15.5 per cent decrease in their audience across the print, online and app offerings from December 2018 to December 2019, as reported by Roy Morgan Research. These figures make it even more ridiculous that Fox League relies on the Telegraph’s stable to fill their shows.
If there’s one glimmer of hope among all this bad news for Fox, it’s that the actual NRL season hasn’t started yet. Rugby league is the driver for a lot of people to subscribe for Foxtel or Kayo or read the Daily Telegraph, so subscription numbers might well bump slightly again.
A trend is a trend, though, and it’s more than likely people have had enough of the same faces spouting the same predictable garbage.
So what to do with Fox League? It seems Fox are content to run it down to barebones and just worry about the live games, which bring the ratings and usually the subscribers. Does that need to have a dedicated channel?
What’s the point of pumping money into a 24-hour NRL channel if outside of the games there’s only endless replays of the daily content, a video of a podcast people have already downloaded for free, no serious analysis at all and an unhealthy obsession with low-rating crisis merchants screeching at each other?
If the intention is to keep the channel going in 2021, maybe it’s worth trying something new, like proper game analysis and less nuffy comedy. What’s the worst that can happen?