The demise of Spartan is a sign that Seven may be losing the ratings war to Nine
Unfortunately for Channel Seven, Australian Spartan didn't prove to be the hardy combatant or "blockbuster event" it had been hoping for. The physical-challenge contest, whose creation was inspired by Nine's breakout success last year with Australian Ninja Warrior, has become the first casualty of the 2018 ratings war.
After only two outings, and with the loss of nearly 300,000 viewers between them, Spartan was dumped from its showcase Sunday night slot. It will now display its Tilting Bridge in the twilight zone of the Easter non-ratings period.
A Ninja clone, Spartan was catapulted into Seven's schedule to exploit the appetite for high-energy contests before Nine's hit returns. It features the trademark Seven tweaks: rather than competing individually, the players appear in state-based teams, in the hope that viewers will barrack for their home sides. It's the same strategy that Seven deployed when it endeavoured to capture some of the MasterChef magic with My Kitchen Rules.
The failure of Spartan might not figure prominently when reflections on the ratings year are compiled in November. But strategically, this early scalp is significant and arguably a sign of what lies ahead.
The battle between Seven and Nine is one of the most fierce and enduring rivalries in Australian television. For decades from the late '70s, Nine was the dominant network and Seven the resentful runner-up. Nine was The One, home to TV's biggest stars, popular home-grown variety shows and top-rating imports. The US output deals brought the network reliable drawcards including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Two and a Half Men.
Nine's long run ended as Seven built its own stable of stars, developed local productions and was boosted by its US output deals (Desperate Housewives, Lost). For the past 11 years, Seven's been on top.
But in 2017, its lead started to look shaky. Once an unassailable powerhouse in the early stages of the ratings year, MKR faltered, its average figures dipping to their lowest in eight seasons. While Seven performed well with Wanted and Little Big Shots, it was disappointed by Hoges: The Paul Hogan Story, persisted with House Rules – the dullest of the reality-TV tentpoles, which is really saying something – and served up two of the worst shows of the year in Cannonball and Yummy Mummies. Seven's primary channel, nudged over the line by the surprise success of The Good Doctor, ultimately recorded the slimmest of wins (0.1 per cent) for the year.
Meanwhile, Nine was showing signs of resurgence. It nurtured Married at First Sight to develop the beast that it is today. MAFS debuted with a six-episode test run in 2015, purporting to be a community-spirited social experiment that aimed to assist lonely hearts to find true love and life partners. "It's more like an SBS documentary," explained the network's then-head of programming.
No one's making such claims now. Over the seasons, Nine has given us more of what we've regrettably responded to, vigorously ramping up the salacious stuff and casting accordingly. Today, MAFS is about sex, humiliation and betrayal. It features all-in dinners spiked with conflict and titillation, and drunken boys' nights where wife-swapping is proposed. And the changes have paid off: this year it toppled MKR.
Nine has also taken risks (Here Come the Habibs!) and backed some winners, such as True Story With Hamish and Andy, This Time Next Year and Doctor Doctor. Handily, last year's 13th season of The Block proved a resounding winner.
On the basis of what the networks touted at their Upfronts, 2018 will again be a tight battle, though Seven's slate suggests a dearth of innovation. There's more House Rules (yawn), a singing contest, a dancing contest and a biopic starring Delta Goodrem as Olivia Newton John that's been gathering dust since Hoges failed to dazzle.
The planned telemovies of The Doctor Blake Mysteries are unlikely to proceed, though there is a clone of The Apprentice called The Mentor, starring Mark Bouris from The Apprentice. And First Wives Club, in which women seeking a second chance at love are coached by a dating expert. Oh yes, and returns for The Wall and Instant Hotel. Woo hoo. Only an interview show hosted by Andrew Denton, the crime drama Australian Gangster and the true-crime series, Undercurrent, about a controversial Tasmanian murder case, suggest anything to get excited about.
Meanwhile Nine is set to revive Talkin' 'bout My Generation, offer more Ninja, Hamish and Andy, and Doctor Doctor, and screen a season of The Block based at St Kilda's Gatwick Hotel, which is likely to build on last year's strong base.
It's early days, but the collapse of Spartan, coupled with Seven's slate, suggest that the network will really have a fight on its hands to retain the winning position it's held for more than a decade.