The battle has been joined. After ignoring Seven's news and current affairs challenge, first detailed by Crikey in April, Nine has reacted and Terry Television explains why. The Seven Network's 6pm news reader, Ian Ross was planning a two week break in the middle of June. A short rest was needed after what's been a tough year so far since joining Seven from the out to pasture team of Nine where they like to 'warehouse' unused talent. And it has been an exhausting, but satisfying experience as slowly but surely Seven, with a gang of recycled Nine people, has slowly closed the gap on the market-leading Nine News in Sydney.

And elsewhere in the vital 6 to 7pm slot, it had been a similar story, small gains in the news, even in Melbourne and Brisbane where Nine does very well and supporting the national performance against the underperforming head office in Sydney.

And at 6.30pm, with a more local approach to current affairs Today Tonight has made bigger and more rapid gains as the program caught and then surpassed the once dominant A Current Affair on Nine. But for Ian Ross, the break was much anticipated. Anna Coren, another Nine refugee, was slated to fill in for the two weeks and raise her profile.

But no more. Suddenly, in the past fortnight, it's been 'game on' to use a current football cliché. There was a sense of blood in the water as Nine dithered in denial. Nine, and its Monday to Friday news in Sydney was leaking viewers at a faster and faster rate. ACA was bleeding badly.

And, then, last week, victory for Ian Ross. Suddenly for Seven's news chief Peter Meakin and CEO David Leckie, keeping Ian Ross on air, in front of the camera and pressuring Nine in Sydney, became more vital than a well-earned break.

So Ian Ross stays and Anna Coren continues on Today Tonight. A good move, given the problems that hit Nine on Monday night of this week. Victory for Seven in the 6.30pm slot nationally and in Sydney. A big win in Sydney against the Nine news which slumped dramatically to only 405,000 viewers, ACA fell under the 400,000 mark. Terminal news.

Twenty four hours later, Nine moves, the image of denial; portrayed the previous week by News and Current Affairs boss Jim Rudder, thrust aside as the market leader reveals a new strategy. Millionaire Millionaire.

The once market leader in Sydney looks to a Melbourne personality, Mr Collingwood, Eddie McGuire, to get them out of the hole they have built for themselves in the country's most important media market and in the most important ratings slot. Dramatic stuff.

The new Millionaire at 5.30pm with more money than sense on offer. The Price is Right moved to 5pm, with a sharp boost in money. Typically, Nine shows its colours and its determination to fight Seven to a standstill and win.

As Crikey remarked on Monday, when you are winning the six to seven slot, its the news content that wins, when you are losing, it's a poor lead-in. Nine is still looking elsewhere for the fix than in the content and the on air appearance of the news and ACA. And yet the News and ACA were both given big makeovers at the start of the year by Rudder and a team of consultants he brought in from his days at Sky TV News in London.

Today Show was also revamped, and that has failed to stop the drift of viewers to Seven's Sunrise. So with Nine attacking the Seven rebound through the lead-in and not making changes at 6pm or 6.30, what exactly is going on? What has happened to force Ian Ross to remain in the chair at Epping and try and force home the advantage?

Well on Monday night:
  • Deal or No Deal averaged just on one million viewers. The Price is Right, 606,000
  • Seven News at 6pm averaged 1.551 million, Nine averaged 1.601 million
  • At 6.30pm Today Tonight averaged 1.553 million viewers, ACA 1.484 million
  • At 7pm Frasier on Nine averaged 1.405 million, Home and Away 1.504 million
So what does all this mean? Well, yes Nine does have a poor lead-in The Price is Right, but still a million viewers tuned to the Nine News nationally at 6pm, compared to around half a million for Seven's news.

That's still a powerful turn-on and a very strong selling point to advertisers, whatever the fall in viewer numbers for Nine. That there is a fall off in viewers for News, ACA and then Frasier, with a pick up later in the Nine as quality comedies and dramas appear, shows the problems are more with the content in the 6m to 7pm slot. The lead-in, while a worry, is the problem.

You can see the understanding at Nine of the problem. For the first time in ages there's now a plug for ACA with Ray Martin at the end of the news in Sydney, a move to try and hold viewers. But in the current situation is probably more a reminder to them to switch channels.

Seven has a turn-on from 6 to 7pm and into Home and Away, only for a turn-off to appear as the poorer quality mid-evening programs start appearing which remain the biggest problem for Leckie and Seven. Looking at Sydney on Monday night and Deal or No deal delivers Seven news a good start that lasts for the next hour and a half. The Price is Right is light on in delivering viewers to Nine's news, but it's not as much as Nine management would have you believe.

But it is worse than in Melbourne and Brisbane, which are performing strongly, offsetting the fall in Sydney. In that respect Nine's move is solely aimed at arresting the slide in Sydney, so a network-wide solution is imposed on the schedule to try and stop the rot in Sydney. Which is understandable, given the importance of the Sydney market in terms of revenue and prestige.

For the Nine management team of John Alexander, David Gyngell, Jim Rudder and programmer, Michael Healy, losing consistently in Sydney under the noses of the Packers and PBL head office at Park Street, won't be good for long term survival.

The 'old team' of Leckie, Meakin and John Stephens, had helped lift the Network back from the slump when People Meters were introduced. They successfully blunted any challenge and drove Seven and Ten backwards. Not the new team, hence the 'throw money at the problem' solution.

Sydney newspapers learned to their cost the stupidity of going down that route in the circulation wars of the 90s when Sunday started being the battleground, and News kept it going during the week, only to can the offer when the cost got to high.

But sense prevailed and a comfortable duopoly closed in on Sydney newspaper readers. Not so television, which one of the most competitive markets in the country.

And finally, there's a lesson for Nine in the US experience of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

It was the making of the ABC Network in the US, but after a while viewers tired of the program and started turning off because of over exposure. And no amount of specials and the like could re-invigorate it. ABC's ratings slumped and it fell to a distant third behind NBC and CBS.

The danger for Nine could be heading down that route and ruining a ratings winner on Monday nights with a stop gap solution to the weakness in news on Monday to Friday evenings.

Nine can't justify the extra costs of running Millionaire five nights a week and effectively boosting its exposure from one hour to three and a half hours a week. There are big costs and big risks. All Seven has to do is to wait patiently and continue attacking.

It's a bit like guerrilla warfare in TV land. And there are no holidays, except for those hosts who are suddenly retired. There is more to emerge in this battle before it's over.