Interesting story today in the Sydney Morning Herald about the decision by Channel Seven to synchronise its broadcast of two high-rating shows – Heroes and Prison Break – with that of their US TV premiere.

The stated objective of this move was to reduce the loss of audiences to DVD and (I suspect, more importantly) file download services.

The network’s programming director, Tim Worner, was quoted as saying: “There has been a thunderous demand online for this.”

He is absolutely right, but I wonder if the move isn’t already too late.

Broadcast TV has long taken its key audiences for granted. It has allowed commercialism to steadily erode the relationships it had built with its audiences.

Devoted fans of top-rating shows were regularly treated with contempt. Stations would frequently re-jig timeslots. Scheduled broadcast times were often ignored to cater for over-runs by “live” shows, which many read as an attempt to foil viewer’s preference to ‘time shift’ their favourite shows using PVRs.

The biggest insult, however, was the practice adopted by several stations of refusing to program episodes of their higher rating shows against a superior offering on another channel. Stations would often program a repeat of an episode against a major ‘live’ event or program launch, and hold over the next sequential episode in the current series until the following week, when it would have a clearer run.

Undoubtedly there are very sound financial justifications for doing this (specifically, avoiding the cost of any “make good” advertising that has to be given to major advertisers/sponsors if the show fails to rate adequately). Yet, as has since become clear, these short term, financially-driven decisions created long-term financial pain.

Few television viewers feel compelled to offer loyalty to TV stations. Those who are able to avoid the tyranny of broadcast scheduling – by purchasing entire series on DVD, timeshifting or simply downloading illicit copies via P2P exchanges – will often do so without compunction.

It didn’t have to come to this. The attractant of broadcast TV was “free” entertainment. You have to be doing something incredibly wrong when consumers are motivated to spend both time and money to find an alternative to a “free” product.

Can the erosion of free-to-air audiences be halted? Absolutely. Channel 7’s decision to reduce it dependence on artificial ‘windowing’ of TV broadcast schedules is certainly a good first step. It should now look at what it can do to tap into the passions of its most dedicated viewers, by adopting ‘viewership loyalty reward’ schemes similar to those of overseas broadcasters, increase audience participation (and audience-to-audience interaction) initiatives, and enable viewer word-of-mouth promotion.

It should also significantly expand its offerings of TV shows for sale (via iTunes or other services), to cater to the growing market of consumers with the preference to watch TV show episodes that way.

Given Channel 7’s decision to spearhead the launch of MyTiVo in Australia, it clearly has decided to hedge its bets on whether its strategy for retaining live audience share will be successful.