Terry Television reports on the latest headlines in the Murdoch press about the Packer network.

The headline screamed Packer’s plan puts network stars on notice
and listed Ray Martin, Jim Waley, Jana Wendt and Don Burke as being
‘under threat’ in a shake up ‘secret plan’ to fix “sliding ratings”. The Sunday Telegraph
story claimed the secret plan was being considered and will be
implemented if Seven continues “to win the battle for the crucial
Sydney audience”.

But David Gyngell, the Nine Network CEO, denied that any changes were being planned and told The Sunday Telegraph that he had met each of the stars to tell them of his support.

“All
the news and current affairs hosts know they have my full support,”
Gyngell was quoted. But those with some memory remember that David
Gyngell “fully supported” Mike Munro only weeks before he was removed
as A Current Affair host in late 2002 and replaced a few
weeks later by Ray Martin. There is ‘support’ and “full support” and
what Mr Packer really wants, now!

Peter Overton would be
parachuted into ACA instead of Ray Martin, and Mark Ferguson into the
Sydney 6pm news to replace Jim Waley and Don Burke replaced by Jamie
Durie. Steve Liebmann is apparently immune from the changes after
agreeing to a one year contract last week before going on a week’s
break. According to the paper he will sign the contract next week.

But
despite reports coming from other networks that Waley and Martin would
be replaced after the Olympics as part of a plan to counter a hoped for
ratings push from Ten and Seven, The Sunday Telegraph said
these charges could happen next year. The ‘sources’ claimed that most
of the stars’ contracts are up at the end of this year.

Well here’s some facts for The Sunday Telegraph
to ponder. Both Jim Waley and Ray Martin’s contracts ARE not up at the
end of 2004, Ray Martin’s contract runs till the end of 2005, Jim Waley
for another two years at least. To get rid of both would require
substantial payments, either in compensation or non-compete clauses to
prevent them going to Seven (if they wanted to!).

Gyngell,
John Alexander and Jim Rudder (the former head of news and current
affairs) didn’t make a counter offer to Ian Ross when Seven came
calling in late 2003, and he ended up on Seven, hurting Nine. Kerry
Packer was upset (but then he could have rung Ian Ross and made an
offer, if he was on the ball!). Hence the deal with retired Melbourne
newsreader Brian Naylor as reported by the Herald Sun, a reputed $100,000 a year to do nothing, especially not front Seven’s News in Melbourne.

Secondly, the problem is in news and A Current Affair
in Sydney, and in ACA nationally. This is a development that’s emerged
in the past two months, but viewers have been dribbling away for
months. What we are talking about is Sydney, the most important market
in the country. Nine overall is underperforming in Sydney relative to
the performance of the company-owned stations in Brisbane and Melbourne.

The
news in both cities constantly win (in Melbourne its a shame not a
game, so wide is Nine’s margin). ACA occasionally loses or has narrow
wins, but Ray’s performance in both cities is better than in Sydney.

Don
Burke can replace Don Burke, if he wants to, because CTC Productions,
his company, sells the show to Nine. Nine has recently reaffirmed its
support for Burke, despite Jamie Durie’s success in The Block (not as good this year) and Backyard Blitz.
CTC is pitching ideas to other networks, like Southern Star
does.Backyard Blitz is a CTC product, Renovation Rescue was, but is now
back in house at Nine.

Nine would love to get its hands on
Backyard Blitz, but would have to pay too much to Burke, who, if he
felt was being shafted or replaced by Nine, would put a heavy price on
capitulation.

Meanwhile, The Sunday Telegraph and the
story’s authors were playing fast and loose with phrases like “sliding
ratings” without being specific. Yes, Nine’s news and ACA ratings in
Sydney are sliding, Seven’s news ratings are up, but Today Tonight is steady to a slight loss compared to a year ago.

Nine
still constantly wins the ratings week in week out, despite losing one
or two nights in some weeks. Last week Nine won overwhelmingly in every
market, even Perth where it usually runs second to Seven.

Despite
the weaker News and ACA figures in Sydney, Nine still wins the week
from Ten and Seven. Seven’s performance has worsened in the past month,
despite the better performance of the News and Today Tonight, and improvements by revamped All Saints and that old stager Blue Heelers.

This
is not to say that Kerry Packer won’t force changes on his godson David
Gyngell, but the present weaknesses in Nine’s ratings picture are a
direct result of actions since 2002 forced by Packer, Gyngell and to a
lesser extent, John Alexander (such as the appointment of Jim Rudder).

That
remains the real story. But newspapers in the News Ltd stable seem
unwilling to say that for fear of some else pointing out that their
owner is also ageing and showing some failings as well (Dick Gephardt
for VP!).

Finally, if you needed an indication of where the idea
came from, the last paragraph in the breathless story said it all.
“Seven’s director of Corporate Development, Simon Francis said
yesterday the network anticipated huge changes at Nine.”

Simon
Francis is the best operator in Australian media at the moment. He
drove Nine mad over the use of flak jackets by Jim Waley in Iraq
earlier this month, driving Gyngell and others to distraction. He is
merely doing to Nine what Nine operators have done to Seven and Ten for
years.

But no understanding of that in The Sunday Telegraph.
Crikey has reported on numerous occasions in recent months, that the
Murdoch press is the outlet chosen by people in Nine and other networks
to plant stories and undermine Nine people like Waley and Martin.

Stories about young women sending their “knickers to Mark Ferguson”, for example.

Peter Fray

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