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.

Peter Fray

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