Nine executives held an emergency meeting Friday morning to discuss the
Network’s bad showing Thursday night.

CEO, David Gyngell convened a meeting of
programming and production executives on the third floor at Willoughby
after Nine finished third behind Ten and a rampant Seven Network, whose
second US program,
Lost, turned into the network’s second blockbuster of the week.

The meeting came 12 hours after what will turn out to be the
most important week in TV this year and possibly the most important night after
the debut of Lost on Thursday night.

I know people will argue it’s only a week or a night, but as
in so many things in life momentum, when it is matched with skill, cleverness
and some tenacity, changes the dynamics in business, sport and politics.

So too in TV, especially commercial
television in Australia.

But no TV Network in Australia has premiered two new
programs in a week to audiences well in excess of an average of 2.3 million
viewers!

Of course they won’t keep those figures, but Desperate
Housewives
and Lost will provide a base for Seven to
build a much more confident assault on Nine and Ten this year.

Seven has forced Nine and Ten on the defensive,
comprehensively shredded one of Nine’s ratings
powerhouses last night (ER), introduced two of the highest rating shows for years into the
minds of viewers (and they did it late last
year with the local Dancing with the Stars) and finally given CEO David Leckie (and other former Nine staffers now at Seven), the
chance for a last laugh at their old employers at Willoughby.

Hence the top level meeting at Nine
on Friday morning. Heads of the various ‘genres’
such as Stuart Clark, Glenn Pallister and programmers,
led by Michael Healy also attended.

We can expect some quick changes in line-up in the next day
or so as a result of the meeting.

Seven started this with a gamble by bringing its premiers of
Lost, Desperate Housewives and others forward a week to get some momentum from
the Australian Open tennis.

That was decided in advance of the tennis but accelerated as
the performances of Lleyton Hewitt and Alicia Molik built interest and momentum among viewers, allowing
the promotional efforts to be stepped up.

That Lleyton Hewitt played in the
final on Sunday night was luck. But it also meant a mega-sized audience of
more than four million people for the game and more than 3.8 million for the
entire broadcast.

No doubt the Packer pets in the media at The Australian
Financial Review
, in the various gossip columnists at Fairfax and News Ltd will
be out with their tales and slants on Seven’s performance, as will Nine’s own
in house spinners.

But inside the Green Zone on the third floor at Willoughby today it’s
proving to be a Black Friday. Miserable in fact.
There’s no real reason to smile, not even after Starstruck.
No doubt the hot line from Park
Street, Bellevue
Hill or Rushcutters
Bay has been running hot.

Nine was thumped into third place behind Seven
and Ten on Thursday night.

That is the big story of the week. Nine might have expected
a pounding on Monday night with the start of Desperate Housewives. And it made
a fair effort of going up against it with the new variety show Starstruck and the return of Cold Case, the big imported
series of last year. That was reflected in the closeness of the result on the
night, Seven with a 32.7% share and Nine with 28.9%.

But nothing would have prepared them for the absolute hiding
they took last night. Nine pushed ER back on air to match Seven’s
programming, and found this traditional Thursday night ratings winners belted.
ER finished 16th nationally with less than a million viewers (It
didn’t help having a Ray Martin special on Bronte the Anorexia girl, as a
lead-in)

As a result Seven won Thursday night with a higher share
than Monday, 34.6%, Ten was second with 24.3% and Nine third with 21.3%.

That’s a very unaccustomed place for Nine and will set off
some changes, even though the Network will argue that its performance will
be stronger next week when all its first line programs are back in the schedule (such as Getaway on Thursdays. But that was looking
tired late last year and is supposed to have been freshened up over the break
with new look and presenters)

But even before Lost had gone to air, Nine
was changing its scheduling.

Nine blinked Thursday for example and moved its
variety karaoke program, Starstruck to Tuesday nights
at 7.30pm to blunt the launch of the Seven Network’s 2004 hit, Dancing with the Stars.

Nine has spent the past week or so promoting Starstruck for Monday night of this week, when it attracted
just under 1.6 million viewers.

Nine claims it was always going to go up against Dancing
with the Stars
but after looking at the demographics for Starstruck,
Nine apparently believes it would have a better chance as a ‘stopper’ program
against Dancing with the Stars than against the second episode of the weekly
version of Ten’s X-Factor. The demographics are apparently similar,
skewing to a slightly older audience with women viewers as Dancing and the
approach is the corny, folksy approach that Seven has
used on its program.

Talk that the move is to frustrate or upset Dancing host,
Daryl Somers, a former long time Nine star, is a bit
wide of the mark. Talk though of splitting the audience is more accurate and an
admission that Starstruck is not good enough for
anything but a ‘stopper’ program. That doesn’t mean a long life on the screen!

Nine claims Starstruck was on
Monday night next week because of the possibility of a third One Day
International final on Tuesday night and it was always programmed for a stopper
role against Dancing with the Stars.

If that was the case, why not drop it in subject to the ODI
being played? Why also slot in new episodes of CSI and Third Watch on Tuesday
night (after the Renovate or Detonate pilot special) if the cricket might
happen?

A touch of confusion inside the
Green Zone, perhaps?

Certainly we can expect signs of action ASAP.

So, in the past there have been multi-million dollar
bribes. Bingo or some derivative with News Ltd papers around the nation or
perhaps a richer version of Millionaire on Monday night?

All is possible with the deep pockets of Park Street.

But spending that sort of money will come at a cost
elsewhere and later in the year because Nine has to
make budgets or beat them.

The $25 million man’s package requires that.

Unfortunately for PBL and Nine no one, except Kerry Packer
(and to a lesser extent, Michael Healy, the Nine programmer) has had any
experience in handling this sort of situation.

PBL CEO, John Alexander has never had to face up to an
intensely competitive situation with hundreds of millions of dollars riding on
decisions as ephemeral as programming timeslots on Monday, Sunday or Thursday
nights and committing huge amounts of money to defend market share and
position.

But you can bet that from now on the game has gotten much
tougher than anyone though.

Seven is genuinely surprised at the extent of their success.
They knew Lost and Desperate Housewives would be successful, but not to the
extent they were.

The task for them is to hold the interest among viewers.

But Seven has changed things and
put pressure on its competitors, something it has been unable to do for years. The premiere for Lost has changed the nature of TV in this
country, possibly for most of this year. Enough to give Seven real
hopes of perhaps winning the ratings battle this year.

>The danger for Nine is that while fending off Seven’s comeback, Ten might blindside
them with its ratings giants, X-Factor, Big Brother and the Idol series.

The danger for Ten on the other
hand, is that Desperate Housewives and Lost will strip valuable 16 to 39 age
group viewers from its audience base.

On the demographics of both programs this week, the surprise
for Housewives its the strong audience (50% or more) in
the under 39 age groups. Lost also got 50% plus share across all demographics.

If that continues, Ten also
faces problems.

Peter Fray

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