People in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs are notorious for not wanting to cross the bridge, or wanting Eddie McGuire, as Kerry Packer learned this week.

Investors in Kerry Packer’s PBL have again typically missed the major story. It’s not the ‘will he or won’t he pull the plug’ on the bid for Burswood Casino, or last week’s management restructure and John Alexander’s alarming flight back to Park Street. No, in the midst of the deepest problems in the key Nine Network for a decade.

Kerry Packer has no one who can fix the problem for him and the company. He is bereft of television programming and managerial talent at a time when he desperately needs it. And no one is more responsible for this situation than Kerry Packer himself.

That’s why he went to Channel Nine last week. Why he was driven from Park Street, across the Harbour Bridge to Willoughby where he proceeded, in his own, sweet and gentle way, tried to find out just what was happening and what was being proposed to fix the problem.
Eddie McGuire, a Packer favourite from Melbourne was dropped into the solution, a cut down Who Wants To Be a Millionaire at 5.30pm to try and stop the rot.

The rot worsened, Eddie-mini-Millionaire lasting just five days as its national audience fell to where The Price is Right was yanked and switched to 5pm a week earlier. No matter that a 41 year old mother of three, the last contestant in the mini-millionaire was left in limbo, without a question asked and Eddie telling her and us that he’d be back Monday.

He will at 8.30pm and the last of the episodes of the experiment at 5.30, which will probably rate its socks off. But Nine and Kerry Packer have been left in the lurch, an unaccustomed position, while the Seven Network has a major scalp to gloat about.

And it also left Packer without a go-to man in Television. That act of crossing the harbour to go to Nine showed how bereft he is of TV management talent. When David Leckie, John Stephens and Peter Meakin were the top trio at Nine, Packer would pick up the phone and bark at them from Bellevue Hill or Park Street, or wherever he was.

He may have spoken loudly, sworn, ordered or commanded, but he knew at the other end of the phone there was someone there who knew what he was talking about, who could deflect some of the madder suggestions, and take on board the Packer orders, work on them and produce a solution that worked and was acceptable.

But Packer sacked Leckie just after New Years Day three and a half years ago, sooled John Alexander on to Peter Meakin, forcing him to walk the plank, and caused chief programmer, John Stephens, who was off contract, to bolt to Seven for safety after seeing what had happened to Leckie, and the sort of manager Alexander was.

Now there’s no one to bark to. David Gyngell is untried. Jim Rudder, Peter Meakin’s replacement, is also untried. Michael Healy, the head programmer is the last of the Nine veterans left, and needs more support. That Packer didn’t send John Alexander across the bridge to stir up the troops at Willoughby speaks volumes for Packer’s assessment of Alexander’s ability to inspire creative solutions to difficult problems in TV, and to his ability as a problem solver in what is still the business closest to Packer’s heart.

In fact John Alexander’s two and a half years running PBL Media and effectively the Nine Network is the problem, but he was only doing His Master’s Work.

Alexander may have got ACP Magazines humming, Rowen Craigie certainly has Crown humming, but Kerry Packer loves being Number One, being the leading network, especially in news and current affairs brings him prestige, power and clout. But that’s being challenged by a strangely two-faced Seven. Crisp programming and well produced programs from 5.30pm to 7.30pm most nights, and then a collection of odds and sods that don’t rate for the rest of the night.

Seven certainly is fighting well above its weight and getting victories in the most important slots. But seeing Nine is doing so well in the mid-to-late evenings, it can’t do anything elsewhere in the schedule to divert Seven’s attention.

Most of the damage is being done in Sydney and it’s led some in the industry to wonder if Packer has lost it this time around and to ask whether he is still as interested in the business as in the past. After all, its been his desire to shake-up Nine, to make it ‘younger’ and to wrest control from Leckie and Meakin, that has driven his quest for change with John Alexander, consultants AT Kearney and Peter Yates being his agents.

And it has all backfired on him, very quickly in the space of the last six weeks. He certainly remains interested and so long as his health holds up, Kerry Packer intends being the defacto chairman and driving force of PBL.

Also unsighted is son James, who is chairman of PBL. His attention is probably more on whether PBL will extend its bid for Burswood. That decision has to be revealed on Monday. It will probably be extended simply to give Park Street more time to work out whether Burswood is worth it.

But equally, it could be dropped to give the Packers more time to fix the problems in television. Nine lost a lot of ground to Seven this week with the decision to start, then axe the cut down version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Nine’s loss of viewers actually accelerated from Monday evening, when Eddie McGuire appeared at 5.30pm, again with the losses greatest in Sydney.

This culminated with the miserable performance in Sydney on Thursday when both the News and ACA finish out of the top ten for the first time in most people’s memory.

That Seven’s Deal or No Deal, the 5.30pm opposition to Eddie’s mini-Millionaire, finished in the top ten programs nationally and in Sydney two nights a row is simply amazing. It actually built viewers on some nights. For some TV veterans it recalls the days of when Ten’s Perfect Match ruled at 5.30pm.

In the end the then Nine boss, Sam Chisholm (still an influence behind the scenes with Park Street and John Alexander) bought Greg Evans, the host of Perfect Match. He did nothing at Nine, but more importantly, Perfect Match, Ten’s news (which was at 6pm in those days in the late 80s) and Ten itself lost momentum and allowed Nine to regain its perch.

That is always an option here. But who at Seven to buy and seduce with whispers of fame and bigger fortune at Nine? No one at Willoughby has the clout Leckie and Meakin had. John Alexander can’t handle it. Chisholm can as an intermediary. But the final decision will have to be made by Kerry Packer.

That’s why all those investors concentrating on Burswood, should be looking at the management situation at PBL and the problems at Nine. That’s a far greater problem, especially if Kerry Packer’s health takes another turn for the worse.

Peter Fray

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