Channel Seven has appointed a tabloid current affairs veteran to run Today Tonight next year in what signals an escalation of the war with Nine’s A Current Affair.

“Game on” is a cliche beloved of sporting commentators these days that in a match or a game involving two opponents that suddenly becomes close, or the winning margin narrows as the team behind makes up ground on the stronger, more fancied opponent.

For all of this year the Seven Network had tried to push the idea that the game is well and truly on in news and current affairs, with Seven News and Today Tonight closing the gap on Nine News and A Current Affair.

In the months leading up to the Olympics, that indeed was the case as the audiences of Seven’s programs rose and those of Nine’s duo shrank. Seven won 11 weeks in a row in the news and current affairs slots in Sydney, where the gap had narrowed. In fact some weeks it was Nine shouting ‘game on’ as they made up ground on Seven.

But the Olympics short circuited Seven’s rebound, allowing Nine to move back in front and for Seven to return to its ‘battler’ image in that vital 6pm to 7pm slots.

Nationally it was all Nine, thanks to strong showings in the five major metro markets. And apart from the occasional success in Sydney(sometimes one a week), that’s the way it was till this week when for some reason Seven went past Nine in Sydney on three nights, and nationally on two in the 6.30pm battle between TT and ACA. Nine still lead the pack nationally at 6pm, but Seven had closed the gap in its best performance in this area since the games ended in late August. Last week it led Nine at 6.30pm in Sydney and nationally.

And then on Friday we had this announcement. From Seven’s point of view it’s really “game on” next year. Neil Mooney a mate of Peter Meakin, Seven’s News and Current Affairs boss, was joining TT as the national executive producer from late November.

Craig McPherson, the EP of the past three years, continues up till the end of official ratings in the last week on November, working with Mooney who then takes the reins and will work at refining his approach over the summer season, which ends in the first week of February.

Mooney has been at Seven since the start of the year as this announcement shows He has been involved with TT from Melbourne and this will enable him to hit the ground running and start his changes straight away in December.

Don’t expect much in the way of change. Mooney is like Meakin, a tabloid operator from way back, but with the brains and zest to be EP of Sunday and Business Sunday in the early 90’s after Ian Frykberg left Nine and went to work for Rupert Murdoch at Sky in London.

Mooney has also worked at 60 Minutes and ran ACA. He knows Nine heavyweights like John Westacott (and they do not like each other) who oversees 60 Minutes and ACA. He and Ray Martin had a rough relationship when running ACA and both did not see eye to eye on story idea and selection.

Mooney can be formula driven and has a book of stories, when they went to air and the ratings they achieved Mooney worked at 60 Minutes as a senior producer. He has also been EP of TT and was the manager of QTQ 9 at Nine for three years until sacked a year ago in October 2003 by David Gyngell, the CEO of Nine. He had reportedly been appointed to QTQ by Kerry Packer.

Despite being at HSV 7 in Melbourne for all of this year, there’s not been the same rebound in the ratings of Seven News and TT in that market as there has in Sydney. In fact for Seven, Melbourne is something of a laggard, like Brisbane (although TT is a bit more competitive in Queensland).

Audiences in both cities seem more ‘rusted’ on to Nine than Seven, especially in Melbourne where Seven’s abandonment of Melbourne in the late 80s under the Fairfax regime is still remembered. Nine sources, of course, were not complementary about Mooney’s return. The formulaic approach has got a lot of mention from Willoughby.

But the bad mouthing is understandable because they know Mooney is not a lightweight. He joins Meakin, Melbourne (HSV 7) manager, Ian Johnson, Sydney newsreader, Ian Ross, reporter Anna Coren, indirectly finance commentator, Michael Pascoe and programming bosss John Stephens, in jumping from Nine to Seven in the wake of David Leckie’s sacking by Kerry packer in early 2002 and his recruiting by Kerry Stokes last year.

Despite what Nine might say, the 6.30pm current affairs slot between Seven and Nine will be a rough battleground next year. The enmity and relationships between Mooney and Meakin on the one hand, and the people they used to either command or work with at Nine, means this will be no easy battle.

It will be emotionally charged, with lots of Italian suppositories tossed around. “Game on” indeed.