Series ends in America don’t necessarily mean the end for Australian television networks, but for Nine it’s going to be a problem, eventually, as Terry Television explains in this excellent insider analysis from the recent PBL management love-in at Crown Casino.

As senior management from all parts of Kerry Packer’s PBL gathered at Crown Casino this weekend for the annual new financial year seminar, one issue that should have been on their minds probably never made it past the blackjack tables.

Years ago Nine had first crack at Seinfeld, couldn’t understand it (this is under David Leckie) and couldn’t make it work (just like they couldn’t make Rove McManus work for them). Both Seinfeld and Rove slipped through their fingers to move to the Ten Network, where fame and fortune awaited.

Rove is Gold Logie material now and Seinfeld ended up being a ratings bonanza for Channel Ten in Australia and NBC in America. The final episode was among the best watched programs here and in the US. But since its departure four years ago, Ten has struggled at 7pm weeknights and NBC hasn’t topped the US ratings until the last couple of weeks.

That’s when Friends and then Frasier both ended with final programs that dragged in the viewers. Around 52 million for the glam six friends. That gave NBC a winning week in the May sweeps, the occasional month long ratings period in US television that is so important for setting advertising rates for the networks and the various programs.

For the CBS network the final program of the current series of Survivor boosted ratings and did very well for Nine in Australia.
There are three major country wide sweep months in the US and the rates they set in about 200 TV markets are paid for the period up till the next sweep period. It’s much more cutthroat than the Australian method which runs from the first week of February to the last week of November, with only school holidays off. Even then they count, the ratings are collected and pored over. But that’s when viewers see repeats.

Frasier ended this week in the US with an hour long episode, just as the Nine Network started repeating the series, again. The Frasier finale gave NBC another strong week, and the possibility of yet another spinoff (Cheers to Frasier to?). Now NBC faces the problem, what next after Friends and Frasier? While at CBS it’s not such a problem because Mark Burnett will simply whip up another Survivor series somewhere in the world.

For the Nine Network, it’s a similar sort of worry to that at NBC, although Frasier will go on until the end of the year and Survivor will return at some distant date, Friends won’t except on repeats. But having seen series after series, viewers are becoming a little jaundiced.

It’s a problem for 2005 for Nine. Frasier and Friends in repeat will still get viewers, but Nine only has to look at the way Seinfeld gradually faded for Ten to know what is ahead for its two super series. Friends constantly wins the 7.30pm slot Mondays and delivers viewers to Malcolm in the Middle and then Millionaire.

But this year the process has been kicked off by Frasier at 7pm which has gradually built numbers and damaged Seven’s Home and Away and anything Ten can rustle up while the ABC news continues to rate well.

Some nights Frasier has done almost as well as Nine News at 6pm and better than A Current Affair, with viewers turning on for the news, switching when Ray comes on with ACA and then coming back to Nine at 7pm. It’s something Nine hasn’t experienced for quite a while, an outright winner at 7 pm. Not since the heyday of Sale of the Century with Tony Barber.

This extends from Monday to Friday, ensuring Nine starts the post 6-7 news and current affairs hour in far better shape than Seven or Ten. But what to do now? Other series will come along, but in the meantime ratings have to be maintained until the next ‘best’ thing is discovered.

Whether this sort of forward thinking was done in Melbourne last weekend at the annual PBL Senior Managers talkfest, is another thing.
Despite the fright last Sunday night when beaten for the first time in ages by Seven, Nine is on track to win the year. The Olympics will do well for Seven, but that will be as good as it gets for Kerry Stokes’ Network.

The PBL talkfest was held at Crown Casino in Melbourne after being held last year at Ellerston, Kerry Packer’s huge polo-based property at Scone, in the Hunter Valley. It was a chance for non-Nine executives to meet Max Uechtritz, the newly installed news director at Nine in Sydney, and also to talk to Jim Rudder, the Network’s News and Current Affairs boss about his ideas.

Emphasising the close links between Packerdom, the National Rugby League and the Eastern Suburbs Rugby League club, Phil Gould gave another ‘inspirational’ speech to the PBL troops.

For people outside NSW and southern Queensland, it’s a case of Phil who? Well, Gould oversees the coaching effort at Easts, where Nine and PBL media deputy CEO, David Gyngell, is a board member and a key supporter. Gould is also the coach of the NSW rugby league state of origin side. The first of the games is on May 26 and will be another ratings winner for Nine. Gould addressed the PBL players two years ago when they last met at Crown.

Nine’s 6pm news and ACA have done well in the past fortnight after being pushed by Seven in the first 15 weeks of ratings. Today however remains wounded by the surge of Seven’s Sunrise. Today is where a lot of indecision was seen early in the year and there continues to be technical hitches. That’s understandable in a live show like Today but it wasn’t as common a few years ago.

No doubt a change of personnel at the front of Today is high on the agenda, as are the plans for more magazines. ACP executives are talking a lot to Woolworths these days, so something may come of that.

But dominating at Crown was the further push into casinos with the $1.40 a share bid for Burswood by PBL. There’s a way to go on that one but James Packer, in a rare interview just over a week ago, made it clear gambling was the future for now, with television and magazines barely mentioned in his West Australian appearance.

But the problem for PBL and Nine is the rapidly approaching decision for John Alexander and David Gyngell. What do they chose to fill the slots that will be vacated by Friends and Frasier and slot in between series of Survivor? These will be important programming decisions.

The Charlie Sheen sitcom Two and a Half Men at 8pm on Mondays isn’t Friends or Malcolm in the Middle quality. After the second series of The Block and its production, you’d have to question the programming touch of Nine. The Block was supposed to be the ratings winner for Nine this year. It won’t. In Nine terms it will be the bomb. Hence running it twice a week, with the Tuesday night broadcast filling the slot left by the ending of Survivor for this series.

While James Packer and others talked about the important of gaming to PBL in future years at Crown last weekend, Nine executives know that they must engage in a gamble of their own in the coming year that’s of greater importance to the long term supremacy of the Network than anything at a roulette table.

Peter Fray

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