The Seven Network has won the first round of the 2005
ratings battle by forcing its commercial opponents, Nine and Ten to match it in
showing first run programs from next Monday, January 31.

Official ratings start on Sunday February 6 and that when Nine and Ten had been planning for kick off their ratings
assaults. But Seven jumped them and decided
to bounce off the men’s Open final next Sunday evening, the first night final
in the history of the Open.

It may only be a small tactical win, and it could be a very
rare win for the network this year (I doubt it) but
Seven showed rare enterprise in moving first.

Nine and Ten might argue that they planned to match Seven
and were just waiting, but both could’ve taken the front foot and revealed
their plans to go early to weaken Seven’s tactics.

But they have been made to look like followers, and not

The Australian Open tennis has been recording some of the
best audiences in years, with viewer numbers averaging well over a 1.2 million
for the past week at night and more for the big games involving Alicia Molik and Lleyton Hewitt and
figures almost as good for the Agassi-Federer match
on Tuesday night.

By a skilful use of the high-rating Australian Open and
other tennis tournaments over the last three weeks, Seven
has revealed firstly that its new programs, such as Desperate Housewives,
Lost and season returns of Blue Heelers, All Saints and Dancing with the Stars
would be returning in February.

This in contrast to the overkill Seven used to promote shows
in the last quarter of 2004 during the Olympics. That failed.

Nine matched it by starting to promote the return of some of
its high flyers, such as CSI, ER and the new
‘talent’ quest Starstruck and others in February. Then
Seven stepped up the pace in the first week of the
Open last week by revealing that many of its new programs would kick
off from January 31.

Within a couple of days Nine was revealing that Cold Case,
the new US show that was a big hit for the Network last year, would return
on Monday January 31 up against Desperate Housewives, and that Starstruck
would be also premiering next Monday evening.

Tuesday of this week the Ten Network revealed its hand with
a statement that started:

“2005 is here and TEN has never looked so hot. Seriously. From Monday 31 January, TEN launches into a new
season of bigness. We’ve got the best Television has to offer – and
we’re not afraid to use it!”

A bold statement, but one that could have been easily made a
week before when Seven’s promotions were stepping up and Nine was being vague
about when in February its new and returning programs would start appearing.

The big gun for Ten is the X-Factor and that starts February
6 and continues the next night, the same format as Australian Idol (Sunday/Monday).

Ten’s running a new Law and Order episode on Monday night
against Desperate Housewives-Cold Case in attempt to split the market, with a
reunion show of the old long running Nanny sitcom at 7.30pm.

That will be up against Starstruck
on Nine and the return of the Great Outdoors on Seven.

I hear that the response from Nine
in particular has made Seven programmers nervy and questioning of the strategy,
with the move by Nine to pit the strong Cold Case up against Desperate
producing some cries of anguish at Seven.

But that’s big time TV and that sort of response from Nine and Ten should have been expected, indeed it should
have been anticipated.

What is clear is that Nine will be under pressure as
well as it has a new Monday night line-up to replace Friends at 7.30pm, the
sitcom it ran after that (Malcolm in the Middle, now run off and burnt in
summer) and Millionaire. It will be returning later, but Nine
has to blunt the appeal of Desperate Housewives and try and get Starstruck into viewers’ minds.

Whether it is going to is another thing as the amount of
resources thrown at it, especially make up and others and the high stylised format of what is essentially a karaoke show, will
make for an expensive production.

The fate of both X Factor and Starstruck
will be known in the first couple of weeks. Either people will watch
from episodes one and two, or they will watch the first program and
start going
elsewhere because it is underwhelming.

Given the power of X-Factor and Ten’s skills in attacking
this genre and audience, you’d have to have a bet on Starstuck
fading because there is no compelling reason to watch it other than people made
up to look like Elton John, Elvis etc etc, compared
to the opposition on Ten and the viewing audiences familiarity with the format
(based on Idol).

The Desperate Housewives-Cold Case-Law and Order battle will
be the most important of the week followed by the Lost
battle on Thursday evenings.

Seven is placing a lot of hope on the housewives of Wisteria
Lane and the people in Lost. In fact you could argue that its entire ratings
strategy is built on both programs doing well, as they have in the US.

Monday and Thursday evenings have been weak nights for Seven, especially Thursdays. Anything lifting Seven’s
ratings or makes it compatible will be a win, but Desperate Housewives and Lost
both have to win their timeslots and win well to be considered successes.

Nine, by running Cold Case is weakening its Tuesday evening
line up, dominated as it is by CSI. Seven has put The Amazing Race (its only real success from Thursday nights, Seven’s
graveyard last year) into the 7.30pm slot on Tuesday nights.

That will make for a more competitive night that was Nine’s
most weeks last year until Dancing with the Stars
appeared and made Seven for more competitive on that night.

In effect the ratings are fought over five nights, from Sundays
to Thursdays. Friday and Saturdays are important, but with audiences down on
both nights commercial TV
tends to run a touch ‘dead’ on what it programs. Lots
of sport and lifestyle TV and dodgy US drama and police series.

The ABC does well because of clever programming on both nights, even
during official ratings.