There has got to be some rule about last minute programming changes.
When I say last minute, I mean those that affect programming within a few days or even up to a week from the day the programming change or amendment is issued.
Three recent examples of last minute programming changes come to mind that emphasise why there needs to be a rule in place to govern them.
1. Last week. GO decides to completely change their Thursday night line up. They do so on the Wednesday. The new changes mean that two episodes of Big Bang Theory air from 7.30 and a movie from 8.30. Programming replaced includes a repeats of Wipeout USA and Seinfeld, as well as first run Nikita at 9.30. At the same time, GO changes Friday night to include four episodes of The Big Bang Theory. No reason for the changes, other than to use Big Bang to help lift ratings for GO. EPGs were updated in time.
2. Last Friday, around 3pm. Seven issues an amendment that sees new travel show High Road, Low Road replaced with episode of Medical Emergency. The change takes effect immediately, meaning that High Road, Low Road for the following Saturday Dec 4, 7pm, was not to air. The EPGs for Seven Sydney and Prime Newcastle were updated, but the EPG that Foxtel had for Seven was not. Confusion reigns amongst viewers as to what will be on Seven at 7pm that night.
3. Today. Cricket finishes early. So Nine restores normal programming. Fair enough – there should always be back up programming when live sport like cricket cannot be shown. BUT – the normal programming also included the next episode of Days of Our Lives. The next episode was not due to air until the next day – tomorrow. Fans of the show (and fans of Days can be fanatical!) would not possibly have known that the episode would have been on today unless they were already watching the cricket on Nine and saw that it finished early.
Many fans of Days of Our Lives who may record it while they are at work will be surprised to see, that when they watch the episode tomorrow, they will have completely missed one – because they would NOT HAVE KNOWN one was aired instead of the cricket. How possibly would they be able to find out?
At least fans of The View and Ellen get them on GEM (or Pay TV) – but putting an episode of a serial soapie on without fans knowing is crazy. Surely Nine could have put something else at 2pm? It’s just for one day. Maybe a fan of the show can tell us what they think of Nine airing the next episode rather than waiting for when it was scheduled.
In all of these example, users of printed TV guides would have been left in the dark completely.
So here are some rules I have though of that should govern last minute programming changes.
No programming changes should ever be made for less than 7 days in advance without good reason. Allowable reasons for last minute programming changes include:
1. Live sport finishes late. All subsequent programming should then play as close to its scheduled time as possible. If the sport overrun completely takes over the full length of a show that was to follow, then that show just is not seen at all.
2. Live sport finishes early or is not played: There has to be back up programming available – but the back up programming should not include a first run serialised show where viewers who are not aware of the sport not being shown will miss out on an episode and therefore potentially important parts of the plot. Back up programming should be chosen in such a way that those unaware are not missing out on anything significant. Also – if live sport finishes early, subsquent programming CANNOT be allowed to start ealry. FIll in programming must be inserted.
3. Big news day / extended news: Same rules for late running sport in point 1.
4. Big news day – Special: Networks are able to air a special at the last minute based on the events of the day should the importance warrant it. Examples include the recent royal wedding announcement, natural disaster specials and the like. The special should replace the program scheduled at the time it goes to air, while all other programming remains at its normal time.
5. Tributes. Often when a well known actor passes away, networks will opt to show tribute movies or specials. This is both fair enough and expected by the audience. Leslie Nielsen, of course, is a recent example of this.
6. Sudden removal of offensive program. A network may opt to remove a program at the last minute if it is deemed unsuitable to air or offensive. Although – these sorts of decisions should be made well before the seven day no change deadline.
7. Technical issues. In this day and age, technical issues hardly ever prevent programming going to air, but in the event issues arise, networks have to adjust around them accordingly. But they also should inform viewers as to what has happened using announcements or on screen messages. This seems to have happened to Gem the other day with an episode of Law and Order becoming a different episode ten minutes in.
8. Any subsequent programming that may be affected by the above points – such as serialised programs – is allowed to be adjusted accordingly. Sometimes, double episodes of a nightly show may air the next day following a big news day that prevented an episode from being aired. Often happens with Home and Away on Seven due to AFL games or extended news coverage.
Adherence to these sorts of guidelines would reduce viewer confusion and help stable programming schedules to be maintained. Viewers would not feel like they are being hard done by as a result of changes. The majority of last minute changes are for the sole purpose of trying to improve ratings. While share holders and advertisers may understand and accept that point, the average viewer does not – and at the end of the day, it is these very viewers that watch TV and chose to spend money with advertisers they are introduced to. Make too many changes, mess too much with the viewers, and they will start tuning out.
TV is like any business – the viewers are the customers that drive their income via ratings and advertisers paying for time based on those ratings. Once you lose a viewer or customer, it is very, very hard to get them back. In an era where we have more TV and entertainment options than ever before – shouldn’t there be more consideration for the viewer now? Not less?