Channel Nine’s dominance in news and current affairs is under
pressure, so the Network has called on Eddie McGuire to stop the rot.

Last week it was The Price is Right with Larry Emdur being
boosted to an hour, this week, its Eddie McGuire and Who Wants to be A
Millionaire which is being recruited to try and arrest the accelerating
slump in the Nine Network’s ratings in the key 6-7pm slot Monday to
Friday.

It’s as though the inexperienced Nine
management team have opted to use one of its lifelines in Millionaire
to try and repel the emerging challenge from Seven, especially in
Sydney where the damage has been greatest.

The
network will run a new version of Millionaire with the possibility of a
million dollars being won each night, plus a home viewer prize of
$10,000 a night. And The Price is Right gets a prize boost with up to
$250,000 in cash being offered each week, besides the prize packages.

Which
leads to the question, why didn’t they simply boost Larry Emdur’s play
money and save on Eddie’s new show and its potential million dollar
liability each night. The answer is that its a new management team at
Nine, with John Alexander and David Gyngell from the school that if you
are going to try and buy viewers, then spend big and pay the bills
later.

This comes at a time when Alexander,
Gyngell and News Director, Jim Rudder have been cheese paring costs and
trimming back the London Bureau as part of an attempt to close a $5
million to $6 million shortfall in the news and current affairs budget.

With
one lucky week of Millionaire, that black hole doubles. Sometimes you
have to wonder about the amount of grey matter in the heads of TV
executives. But when you’ve got Kerry Packer yelling at you down the
phone or from across a desk, then spending a million here and a million
there seems an easy way out.

Millionaire and
Eddie have been doing well this year, consistently being one of the top
three programs nationally on Monday nights. This week it was number one
with 1.614 million viewers, but in its desperation to stop the rot,
Nine has to be careful not to dilute the Millionaire impact at 8.30pm
Mondays. If Seven programs cleverely it could win that slot, and the
night if the Nine gamble fails at 5.30pm.

Its a
dramatic escalating of the stakes and shows how desperate Nine’s team
is to stop the rot and prevent the old Nine management team at Seven,
David Leckie, Peter Meakin and John Stephens, from a satisfying and
morale-boosting win.

Anyway, Nine might be winning
the prime time nationally and on most nights in Sydney but in the head
to head battle between the 6pm news and the 6.30pm current affairs
programs Today Tonight and A Current Affair, it’s a much closer battle.

Last
week in Sydney Seven did Nine comprehensively at 6pm and 6.30 pm.The
margin was extended Monday night, forcing Nine’s surprise schedule
change late Tuesday afternoon.

Last Thursday in
the Media Section of The Australian the Price is Right’s extension to
an hour was revealed in an interview with Jim Rudder, Nine Network’s
News and Current Affairs director and his Sydney boss, Max Uechtritz,
the recent buy from the ABC. This was supposed to be a trial for a week
later this month and the news came amid comments from Rudder dismissing
Seven’s improvement, blaming it on a better lead-in program. Now its
all about lead-in programs from 5-6pm.

Even if Nine
manages to halt the slide, its costs will have risen sharply, meaning
that either it will be paid for by lower profits, hidden somewhere and
amortised, or cuts will be made elsewhere, affecting morale and
revenues.

The complete revamp of the 5-6pm slot
for Nine sees The Price is Right at 5pm and the new version of Who
Wants to be a Millionaire at 5.30pm Monday to Friday to try and counter
the ratings boost from Seven’s Deal or No Deal and its super money
offer late in the last quarter hour.

Crikey reported last week (click here)
that Rudder’s hints and comments indicated that Nine had blinked in the
battle with Seven.The latest news means that the leading Network is now
in full damage control and flailing about trying to protect its rating
jewels, the News and ACA.

While it was another
winning night for Nine on Monday night the network again lost the real
battle, the 6-7pm slot in Sydney.Besides losing the news in Sydney,
Today Tonight again easily beat A Current Affair nationally, and in
Sydney. The battle for supremacy in the 6-7pm hour, especially in
Sydney, has emerged as the most interesting development in recent weeks
in TV land.

While who wants to be a Millionaire was
top show in Sydney with half a million viewers, Seven’s Home and A Way
was second on 480,541, thanks to the strong performances of the Seven
News, 445,455 people and Today Tonight, 465,339.

There
was a definite turn-on from Seven News to TT and then Home and Away.
While for Nine News there was a small turn-off of 5,000 viewers to ACA
(the smallest for several nights) and then to Frasier at 7pm. Not good
news for advertisers.

Nine News was ninth, an
unaccustomed position with 405,201 people, 40,000 viewers behind Seven.
A Current Affair finished tenth, also a position that won’t please,
with just under 400,000 viewers.

But Nine’s
repeat of Friends and the new episode of Two and a Half Men helped the
Network to win Sydney with a 28.7% share to Seven’s 25.2 and Ten’s
24.5. National Nine finished with a 28.7% share again with Seven and
Ten tying on 25.1.

Nationally Millionaire was top
with 1.61 million viewers, National Nine News was second 1.60 million
viewers, thanks to strong efforts in Melbourne and Brisbane, but Today
Tonight finished third with 1.553 million viewers, 70,000 ahead of ACA.
Seven News finished 50,000 viewers short of Nine news in another solid
effort.

It’s the battle of cheque books now. Kerry Packer’s is bigger, but he hates spending his own money. Now, who can he get to pay?

Peter Fray

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