Channel Nine dominance is slowly being eroded in the one TV genre that
gives it credibility – news and current affairs, while Seven is being
slaughtered in the evenings. Crikey’s Channel Changer reports on the
networks’ ratings black holes.
It’s the “night of nights” this Sunday for the wasteland Australians
call television. The Logies are on the Nine Network, which will be
preceeded by the 2004 premiere of the blockbusting reno series The
Block. Great times and ratings for Nine and misery for the others.

Well, yes and no. Certainly Sunday night will be Nine’s night, and the network’s spinners will go all out to let us know.

But they will be less than forthcoming about an emerging black hole in
the most important hour of the weekly prime time TV schedule, just as
the Seven Network is less than frank about its own black hole, which
have become one of the biggest stories in TV this year.

Each week when the Seven Network puts out its interpretation of the
previous week’s Oztam ratings, there’s a curious omission that sums up
where the Seven Network is at the moment, and the likely chances of its
recovery.

And, each week when the dominant Nine Network puts out its version of
yet another week of triumphs, it too skates over a problem area, one
that perhaps masks the biggest story so far this year in teleland.

And what are these ‘sins of omission’ and what is their import?

Well, the Seven Network breaks down its performance into various blocks
described as, alternatively, Early Morning, Morning, Afternoons, Early
Evenings and sometimes Late Nights.

These are based on bands of one to two hours, with the most important
being Early Evenings, from 5pm to 7.30 pm, when there’s news and
current affairs and soaps, in which Seven is doing OK. Seven then
highlights how it went in the Late Nights segment, from 10.30 pm to
1am.

Naturally, Seven’s performance is highlighted against Nine (in the
Early Mornings) or Nine and Ten in other slots. Mostly it’s not a bad
story to tell, especially with the improvements in Sunrise and in the
News and Today Tonight (more of which later).

But omitted is any discussion of Seven’s performance in the three hour
block, 7.30 pm to 10.30 pm. In fact it’s downright embarrassing. On
most nights Seven is a distant afterthought, third behind Nine and Ten,
sometimes fourth after the ABC.

And that’s the big problem for David Leckie and the programming guru,
John Stevens, who also came from Nine. He has no direct influence on
the schedule because sandwiched between the two, is Seven Veteran, Tim
Worner, the man left in place by Leckie after the takeover. Worner,
according to Seven Network insiders, is responsible for the push into
reality television that has basically stalled, hence Leckie’s remarks
last month that Seven would be heading towards “observational” series.

It’s the gap between 7.30pm and 10.30 pm where Seven has been dying
this year with its plethora of poor reality style programmes from here
and overseas and moderately performing dramas. Nine’s strength in
drama, mostly from the US, has been its ratings powerhouse this year.
It is three hours of failure, or at best three hours of
underperformance, with Leckie’s brave promise of ratings guarantees
during the 2004 ad rate negotiations, now a revenue liability.

Across at Nine the omission is a more complex one, based on a rightful
triumph across the schedule being used to underplay or omit discussion
of the most serious problem Nine has had for a while.

While the 7 pm to 10.30pm time slot for Nine is strong, the losses in
audience in the vital 6 pm to 7 pm has been glossed over by the
Network, while the disaster in the mornings with Today in the doldrums
against a rampant Sunrise on Seven, is barely acknowledged in a Monty
Pythonism way (Don’t Mention The Mornings).

Take the Today-Sunrise battle. For the past two weeks, the Seven press release had trumpeted “Sunrise defeats Today”.

Week 14, the week before Easter saw the Sunrise audience up 55% and the
Today audience down 24%. A week later and the Sunrise audience was up
10%, the Today audience on Nine was down 10%. From Nine, the response
has been muted.

And that’s not an improvement for Nine. A year ago the Koch factor was
starting to gather pace and the Sunrise audience figures are now being
compared to those boosted by his impact last year. It’s only the
comparative effect making Nine’s audience losses look better. Nine is
claiming solace in these but they can’t find anything to crow about,
Nine’s audience is off 100,000 viewers some mornings. This collapse in
the early moring audience for Nine has been highly damaging, leading to
longtime EP, Steve Wood being replaced by a younger Darren Wick, who
continues to struggle. Uncertainty about who would front Today and
technical problems over the Christmas-New Year and into the ratings
period haven’t helped Nine either.

But the real damage to Nine is happening in the News-A Current Affair
hour between 6 and 7 pm Monday to Friday. While the top rating
programme in the country is the Sunday 6pm News on Nine, the audience
figures (nationally) drop by around four to five hundred thousand
during the average of the weeknights. It is one of the great oddities
of television, but is not doing Mark Ferguson any harm in Sydney in his
ambition to replace Jim Waley as the main Network News anchor

Despite what Nine might claim there has been a leakage of audience to
Seven, as well as away from TV as a whole with total viewing numbers
off by around 8 per cent so far this year.

Nationally Seven News is up, Nine is down, while Today Tonight is
marking time or doing a fraction better, ACA is off
last year’s figures. The damage is happening in Sydney where in
week 15 (the week up to Easter), Today Tonight in Sydney was up 13%,
while ACA was down 7%.

Seven News in Sydney (where Ian Ross is the new reader) was up 9% last
week, while Nine was off 7%. And while Seven and Nine are sort of close
in Brisbane, Nine Melbourne is powering ahead, especially in the news.
The damage is happening in Sydney, which is the most important market
in television, besides the one where the owners (Packer and Stokes) can
easily tune in during the day.

But Nine insiders point to one other factor. The Today Show, News, ACA,
Sunday and Business Sunday is where the year-old regime of News and
Current Affairs boss, Jim Rudder, has been concentrated in re-design or
people changes.

Sunday and Business Sunday do not matter in ratings terms ( Sunday was the 151st top rating show last week for example).

It’s all about News, ACA, with the early morning (6am to 9am) a battle
because of the importance Kerry Packer places on the slot. He drove the
introduction of the Today Show (along with 60 Minutes and Sunday) in
the 1977-82 period. So the early morning matters internally at Nine and
at PBL.

Rudder’s renovations haven’t had the same impact on the programmes that
the Block has on Nine’s figures. In fact there’s no comparsion. Viewers
haven’t stayed with Today, News and ACA, but so far that hasn’t hurt
Nine later in the night because of Seven’s poor performance.
But Nine insiders point out the shows doing well in the three hours
from 7.30 are all relics of the Leckie regime at Nine. Friends, Malcolm
in the Middle, CSI, ER, the Footie Show (although it has lost viewers
so far in Sydney this year), McLeods Daughters and Backyard Blitz and
of course, 60 Minutes.

The Block, which starts this Sunday is the only success of the new regime at Nine, and it’s certainly been a ratings killer.

But it will be a nervous time at Nine from Sunday onwards. Will the
Block’s figures hold up compared to last year? Can it do to the other
Networks what it did last year? Ten has Big Brother, the other
proto-type reality programme starting sometime in the next six to eight
weeks, and Australian Idol later in the year. That 7.30 pm to
10.30 pm slot might still be owned by Nine, but ownership is going to
cost more in coming months.

But the hype and publicity around the Block, BB and Seven’s
struggles
will allow Nine to omit any discussion of the slow erosion in the one
TV genre that gives it credibility. Working to restore that situation
is the reality of television at Nine this year

Peter Fray

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