How’s this for a cracking inside view on the way Australian television has treated the biggest story in years? And read to the bottom for a strong response from Seven’s Sydney news director, Chris Willis.

The Tsunami disaster television coverage has been dominated by heavyweight Nine and, to a lesser degree, the ABC – with the big industry story being the abject failure of Seven.

Nine has reacted with more resources and more airtime than any for the biggest tragedy of the new century. Its slick coverage using seasoned correspondents has rated through the roof. Fine work and initiative in the first days by ABC correspondents in Asia has been tarnished by the national broadcaster, yet again, failing to alter or adapt its schedule to meet its remit.

No Lateline, no proper midday news, no special morning bulletins , no specials at all, have sold ABC TV viewers short. It has been left to the Nine Network to inform Australians across the day and night with its regular news programs, extra updates and even Today and Nightline weekend specials on News Year Day Saturday and Sunday.

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But at least Auntie is delivering a very good 7pm bulletin which this week has finished a regular second to National Nine News and ahead of third-placed Ten News.

Seven has been rating a dismal fourth – last – on this story, its nightly audience often doubled by Nine’s blockbuster figures in Sydney and Melbourne and comprehesively thumped elsewhere. Even Ten’s news at the earlier 5pm slot (with fewer total viewers watching TV) has been up to 100,000 ahead of Seven in the top markets.

Nine has nudged over 500,000 in Sydney (Seven in 200,000s) and 600,000s in Melbourne (200,000s for Seven). Its Nightline has also posted major figures during the week.

Nationally it’s been a Nine slaughter, with pretty solid figures from the ABC then Ten.

Continuing the trend of last year, Seven has failed to react and deploy for crucial events. Remember Beslan when they didn’t get there at all and were embarrassed by Nine’s Michael Usher anchoring bulletins from the school tragedy scene? Similar for Arafat’s funeral and don’t forget they were out-thought and gunned by non rights holders Nine, ABC and Ten at the Athens Olympics they “owned” and made only a token effort on the most reported and arguably most important US elections in history.

Seven news and current affairs staff reportedly are furious with their boss Peter Meakin for failing to get them out of the blocks, preferring instead to rely on an Adelaide reporter on holidays and another from Melbourne who was on deck. Where were their senior reporters including Chris Reason and Adrian Brown? The word is their pleas to be deployed were spurned by Meakin, who refused to come off his holidays for the biggest news event since he joined Seven from Nine. The highly professsional Brown is talking privately of walking after being left the missing-in-action Asia correspondent on the ultimate Asia story. Tradesman Sydney reporter Phil Black eventually lobbed in Sri Lanka on what’s thought to be his first ever foreign assignment.

Claire Brady and Jessica Adamson have toiled honestly for Seven but lack the authority and standing with network audiences.

Nine meantime has had Mark Burrows (Phuket), Simon Bouda (Sri Lanka) and Brett Mcleod (Aceh) – all seasoned foreign correspondents from bureau postings and numerous overseas assignments – plus the veterans Brad Schmitt (Phuket) and Scott Bevan (Aceh) on the ground. Christine Spiteri has popped up in Colombo and from Nine promos overnight , it seems even Ray Martin has ditched his holidays and has arrived in Aceh to help fill the voracious extra scheduling on Nine.

Nine CEO David Gyngell and his News Director Max Uechtritz have obviously decided that if ever there was a story worth investing in it was this one.They even squeezed in a Nightline special between the 9pm and midnight fireworks on New Year’s Eve and had nearly 500,000 viewers in Sydney alone. Insiders say both Gyngell and Uechtritz jettisoned holidays to oversee the coverage with Mary Davison and News EP Anthony Flannery piloting the production desk , and that stand-in summer ACA executive producer Ben Hawke also has been indefatigable , roping in Tom Krause from Sunday to help batter Seven’s Today Tonight.

Simon Bouda’s reports have been used on American ABC’s Good Morning America and another ACA reporter Scott Bevan has been seen regularly leading the CBS evening news with his live two-ways. Another ACA story, involving a dreadful “Sophie’s Choice” of an Australian mother electing to save her baby over her five-year-old (all ends well) ran on GMA and hence around the world.

It is interesting to see Nine interchanging its News and ACA reporters and apparently sharing resources and Sunday mingling with ACA, a sign that the ridiculous internecine animosities of the past are receding.

Nine’s weekend Today and Nightline specials have upped the ante on all the other networks including the ABC, where Television Director Sandra Levy again has failed to recognise the public broadcaster’s charter in providing comprehensive news and current affairs – and Managing Director Russell Balding again impotent, sitting on his hands unwilling or unable to intervene.

If one of history’s great calamities – and probably the biggest loss of Australian lives in peacetime – isn’t enough to shake Levy from her chronic anti-news disdain to provide a proper service to Australians, then nothing will.

Luckily ABC Radio still has AM , The World Today and PM and regular news during summer and their listeners have been treated to very strong coverage from the News and current affairs stable.

All this shouldn’t detract from the excellence of people like Jakarta-based Tim Palmer, who hopped straight on a plane to Banda Aceh last Sunday and was the only Australian and world presence for some days. Palmer has been a credit to the ABC along with Peter Lloyd (down from Bangkok to Phuket) and Geoff Thompson (Delhi to Sri Lanka).

Nine doesn’t have the Asia bureau infrastructure of the ABC but swiftly flew Schmitt (Phuket) and Bouda (Sri Lanka) into place to match Lloyd and Thompson and were crossing live to them to introduce and back-announce their own packages. Early in the week they added Asia reporter Burrows in Phuket, Nina Stevens went to the Maldives then eventually Mcleod arrived in Aceh . The slickly-produced Nine bulletins and ACA have been a treat with the correspondents’ packages, live reports and inter-bulletin throws. Ditto for ACA and Nightline. The ABC was a little slower to reinforce their first trio but added craftsman Phil Williams from London and finally has moved Shane McLeod across from PNG to Aceh.

As usual the first in-field ABC correspondents also filed for radio, which tends to blunt them a little for value-adding to their televison contributions.Vice versa for radio.

But somewhere, ABC’s Walkley-winning host Tony Jones must be pulling out his grey curly locks with Lateline on a break until February. This event is made for Jones and Lateline but the ABC schedulers haven’t done the bleeding obvious and asked News to bring him back early. The midday news show is also on a break and Auntie’s been running its under-staffed (and junior) Asia-Pacific TV news service in that slot instead. If Levy and Balding had done their job and provided time slots then top news anchors Ian Henderson (Melbourne) and Juanita Phillips (Sydney) could have been pulled off leave – maybe even Kerry O’Brien as well.

It’s all very well ABC dominating radio but they’ve got to compete across the schedule n the most powerful medium of all -TV – as that’s where their numbers are.

Ten never really tries to match the heavies but still managed to get their most senior reporter John Hill and Anthony Pudney into Phuket. Sky also has sent top dog David Spiers for his usual efficient, effective anchoring (Phuket) but has relied mainly on Nine and British packages for its bread and butter.

You couldn’t really expect Seven to send TodayTonight’s Naomi Robson – functionally an announcer with little real field experience – into Aceh to match Ray Martin but you’d have thought Adrian Brown or Chris Reason – both capable presenters as well as reporters – could have been jabbed with cholera injections and sent packing. Even Canberra’s Geoff Parry and Mark Riley should have been considered. Parry’s an Asia regular from way back. He, Reason and Brown are their three best.

The credibility of Seven – when any reasonable judge would have guessed the extent of the story and the Australian toll at least by Tuesday or Wednesday – perhaps has been irreparably dented by this experience. Certainly Peter Meakin would have dreamt of a better start to the year after Seven’s often overstated 2004 mid-year “revival” of Seven in Sydney crashed and burned after the Olympics.

But it’s the Seven stations’ staff in Melbourne and Brisbane – and, according to Seven tom-tom drums, privately their respective State news directors Steve Carey and Rob Rashcke – who’re scathing about the inaction from Sydney. Already under the gun by Nine in those States, they’ve seen their ratings head dramatically south. EP Craig McPherson at TT also has been muttering into his beer. Summer TT with Anna Coren was actually knocking over ACA (Helen Dalley) on many nights but is now that’s heavily reversed. Having your news audience doubled by your arch rival ain’t fun. Nor being creamed by Ten! There’s a new saying around Seven News .. “and the Lord said come fourth” with an unprintable reference to “Lord” Meakin.

Maybe all this will convince Sydney newsreader Ian Ross – already peeved at the way things are going at Seven – to do what his heart and body wants anyway, finally retire to the Gold Coast rather than return for more punishment. Ross is the only State Seven anchor who had some success last year – mind you, only for 12 weeks – before Nine reasserted its ratings in Sydney.

The deep, deep mail at Seven is that Pete Meakin is tired of it all anyway and was going to wind up later this year and retire to the Ryde RSL pokies after handing over to headkicking TT uberproducer Neil Mooney.

Maybe that’ll come earlier than expected.

PS Seven today (Sunday) is trying to scramble Anna Coren to Phuket to host TT. Still doesn’t make up for the failure to send its top reporters Brown, Reason, Parry, Riley and co. Meantime Ray Martin has bobbed up in Nine’s Test cricket coverage today with a extended live cross from Aceh, so the promo was right. Martin said these were the most incredible scenes he’d witnessed in forty years of journalism.

A strong response from the Seven bunker

Seven’s news director in Sydney Chris Willis writes:

It’s normally not my practice to respond to anonymous poison pen letters. But your column of January 2 – Seven’s Ratings Tsunami – was so far wide of the mark it deserves some comment.

It was an insult to all 7 News staff who have worked tirelessly and professionally in the worst conditions.

All our people on the front line and at home have performed magnificently and continue to do so.

We reacted quickly to the disaster, even though initially we had no idea of it’s magnitude. Our first crew was dispatched within hours of the story breaking and within 2 days we had experienced reporters, camera operators and editors in place in Aceh, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

It is true that 2 of our senior staff were unable to be part of the first wave – one because of family reasons and the other because logistics made it impossible. However, they are both in Asia now – and have been since late last week.

I have also spoken to my colleagues in Melbourne and Brisbane – Steve Carey and Rob Raschke – who are amazed at your claims concerning them. They are far from scathing about our coverage. In fact they are full of praise. If you doubt my words, please ring them.

(Incidentally, you are wrong about our coverage of Yasser Arafat death and the funeral). Our reporter Adrian Brown covered Arafat’s hospitalization in Paris and then went to Palestine to cover Arafat’s funeral.

And two final points about Peter Meakin. Point 1: He was in the Sydney newsroom in the week between Christmas and New Year, directing operations. Point 2: Your comments about his leadership are just stupid. I have been involved at a senior level in news in the Seven Network for 15 years. I have never known such unity, determination and clarity of purpose across the news division in all states as there is now under his direction.

Chris Willis
Director of News, Sydney