A Current Affair and Today Tonight are bleeding each
other dry in their relentless race for top ratings, but are they doing
more damage to their programs than a night or two of good ratings is
worth?
There’s a touch of irony in the tit-for-tat comments from tabloid TV’s serial offenders in The Australian‘s Media section story on chequebook journalism today:

Cheques out in TV networks’ ratings war

It’s a bit rich for Seven news and current affairs director Peter
Meakin (formerly at Nine) and John Westacott, the executive producer of
Nine’s 60 Minutes and A Current Affair to cast stones at each other and it’s bit rich for either to express any
sort of indignant comment about how the other practices the ‘art’ of
paying for a story and not paying for it.

The presence of magazine operations in the PBL and Seven camps enables
synergies to be worked out regarding payments. The money is paid
by a related women’s magazine, such as New Idea or Women’s Weekly and no money actually cross the palms of those in ACA, Today Tonight or 60 Minutes, enabling looks of innocence and aggrieved cries of, “who, me?”

Well, yes the chequebooks might very well be out (now just what did John Alexander mean about going up market in ACA, 60 Minutes
and the like and getting all serious, trying to find the old days?),
but they’ve always been out, waiting to be filled in. That’s how
managers like Harry M Miller and John Fordham have operated for
years. It’s bread and butter work and a host of other urgers and
coat tuggers have now tuned in to the lurk. Even the people in the
stories themselves hunt for managers or ask for money before telling
their stories.

The stations and media executives don’t much like it, as you can see
from the comments of Meakin and Westacott (who used to liase about the
sharing of stories between 60 Minutes and ACA in deals
with people like Miller). These managers and others are driving up the
prices, and as a duopoly, Nine and Seven don’t like it!

One side of the argument is valid: that the extra payments doesn’t add
anything except to make the managers richer. But the other says
Nine and Seven and their magazine arms only have themselves to blame,
and they can’t go around whingeing to print journalists.

The networks and the magazines have created the problem, and if people
are now out there taking financial advantage of their crassness and
greed to lock up good stories, then well and good. The cliché is
“Being Hoist on Your Own Petard”.

But it’s especially noticeable now because of the closeness of the battle between TT on Seven and ACA on Nine. And there was ACA host Ray Martin fretting and agonising in print in The Australian‘s
Media section last week about going down market. And there was
the writer of the story, Amanda Meade, using the phrase “tawdry
tabloidism” (when her paper’s publisher News Ltd has all those
tabloids) and how ACA wouldn’t be following TT down that path.

And there in the Media section today was “tawdry tabloidism” in its full glory.

What’s making this all especially delicious of course are the
personalities involved. Peter Meakin, formerly at Nine. When he
departed, effectively pushed out by that well-known TV executive, John
Alexander, Meakin left a hole so large that Nine has struggled to fill
it. Jim Rudder was tried and found wanting. (Nine rudderless, I
believe was the headline in The Australian‘s Media section, which about summed up his impact on Nine).

Last year John Westacott bid for power, with an agenda of chasing more news stories and being on the pace at ACA. That was the recipe he used to win oversight of ACA and add it to 60 Minutes. That has now failed and ACA has backed off and gone more tabloid and less “newsy”, hence stories of frustrations and worries about ACA‘s performance.

Meakin’s spot is effectively empty, although David Gyngell is the
person Westacott and other EP’s, Max Uechtritz and John Lyons, report
to.

Then there’s the piquancy of the relationship between Meakin and
Westacott. Not quite Felix and Oscar, nor Master and Commander, nor a
meeting of equals. Westie, as he is known around Nine, has had a
chequered career at Nine, at least twice in the past dozen years he has
tried to bolt to Seven in oddly shaped deals that didn’t happen in the
end.

And for the best part of ten years Meakin was the overlord at Nine,
dispensing wisdom, justice and the Nine way of life to all in sundry in
news and current affairs, including Westie.

So having the two going head to head, with the added touch of Neil Mooney, former ACA chief, Sunday executive producer, Nine Brisbane boss (and 60 Minutes producer), is fascinating.

Like Meakin, Mooney was forced out of the Nine structure last year by the Gyngell-Alexander duo. Mooney is now at TT with
his famed list of the top 150 stories plotted against ratings when the
ideas previously went to air. It’s making life a misery for
Gyngell, Westacott, Martin and the spaced-out team at ACA, who are struggling.

It is the result of the interference of John Alexander in many cases,
to a lesser extent rudder and Gyngell last year, and of course Kerry
Packer, who if he didn’t want these changes to happen, wouldn’t have
allowed them.

The irony is that what is being done to ACA (and to Nine News,
especially in Sydney) is what Nine under Meakin, Mooney and others did
to Seven and Ten over the years. Full on ruthless, fierce
competition. It’s just countering the impact needs nerves of
steel and a very tough hide and lots of patience, especially from a
hand wringing host!

Peter Fray

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