There’s a lot happening in TV land and our man has pulled it all together in this summary of the action so far this year, particularly the major problems faced by Nine.

So after the first two weeks of official ratings and Seven’s sneaky warm up week, are we any wiser about the course of commercial TV ratings in 2005? Certainly it’s one week all after Nine lost the second week last week.

But on a deeper level, the biggest news is that Nine stalwart, A Current Affair with Ray Martin is in terrible trouble. Tens of thousand of viewers are switching off Nine after good performances by National Nine News in most markets (but not Sydney) when Ray and ACA appear.

So will Ray Martin follow Jim Waley out the door to greener pastures elsewhere in the Network or even away from the Network, as Waley is apparently now doing?

The pressure for change at ACA is growing. After the first two weeks of official ratings, Seven’s Today Tonight has outgunned Ray Martin and ACA, so anything is possible at the struggling Nine Network.

After all Jim Waley was replaced on the basis of better figures than ACA and Ray Martin are now getting in Sydney and Nationally (Waley just read the 6pm news in Sydney).

Since Ray Martin returned at the start of ratings two weeks ago, its been downhill, culminating in the lowest audience for months on Friday night, around 853,000 viewers and Number 15 slot in the list of the most popular network programs.

Today Tonight was at Number one with more than 1.223 million viewers, around 370,000 viewers higher than ACA, the biggest margin so far. The size of the gap has been widening over the past two weeks to Friday night’s chasm, in TV viewing terms.

In Sydney ACA was a staggering 128,000 viewers behind TT. The extent of the problem can be seen from Nine News’ performance which is still sort of solid, except in Sydney.

On Friday night it was the second most watched program across the country (but not in Sydney where Seven beat it for the third night in six and the 10th time in two weeks). Just over 1.173 million people watched Nine News, but a massive 320,000 people turned off Nine from the News through ACA.

That’s a quarter of Nine’s average audience and that’s the problem for Nine. It’s commercially bad for there to be such a big turnoff. Advertisers hate it!

That upsets the Network’s ratings strategies for later in the night and means Seven quite often wins from 6.30 pm through the night or to 8.30pm and remains competitive throughout.

Nine has argued that it is about the lead-in programs at 5.30pm and to a lesser extent at 6pm. But not at 6.30pm where Ray Martin and ACA are just uncompetitive at the moment and no amount of spin or promotion seems able to change current viewing patterns.

Perhaps something more drastic than the pretty sets, colours and soft music of Peter Faiman’s revamp of the ACA look will be needed to break through to viewers.

But such a dramatic move as changing presenter might not work. The replacement of Jim Waley at the 6pm News in Sydney has done nothing for Nine’s news ratings in that city and it’s the one place apart from Perth where Seven is really made ground.

Nine can talk all it likes about the huge audiences Seven’s “juggernauts”, Desperate Housewives and Lost are garnering each week, but its the weak or collapsing audience numbers of Nine’s ratings stalwarts, and Seven’s broad improved performance, that’s the real story in TV ratings so far this year.

While Seven’s big two, Desperate Housewives and Lost have done really well, comments in the SMH by Nine’s Director of Corporate Affairs, David Hurley, attributing Seven’s gains to these two ‘juggernauts” were accurate, but also wide of the mark.

“Hurley says the network knows it has a fight on its hands, particularly with Seven’s two American successes. ‘We’re dealing with juggernauts and we’ve got to be realistic about that. It would be great if we had them but we don’t.’ He says Nine’s ‘confident hope is that we’re starting to get cranked up’ for a reversal of fortunes.”

It’s not that Nine hasn’t had US-sourced hits through production deals. Look at CSI, ER, Cold Case and Without a Trace. Likewise Ten with the Law and Order series

What is clear is that Seven’s mid-ranking programs are doing much better than Nine’s so far this year. Dancing With The Stars, My Restaurant Rules, The Amazing Race, Home and Away, Today Tonight, Border Security, Blue Heelers, All Saints, to name a few are all doing their bit, either winning share or taking viewers away from Nine and Ten.

Nine’s so-called locomotives from last year, CSI, Cold Case and Third Watch are slowing, marking time or are being used as ratings fodder by Nine to try and stop or slow Seven’s charge.

Meanwhile, Ten is suffering some weakness, especially with two new programs X-Factor, which is stationary at the moment and needs traction with viewers and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s Australian version. It is looking terminal, like Nine’s Starstruck! How many more repeats of The Simpsons do we have to watch? Oh, as many repeats of Frasier on Nine and MASH on Seven (it has already been around on Ten!).

Ten’s X Factor may be slow to gain ground, but at least it is not going backwards like Nine’s Starstruck. And Seven is giving Ten a battle in the 16-to-39 age group, more than was thought late last year. Seven won that age group last week, Nine was second and Ten was third.

Nine is competitive really on only two or three nights a week. Sometimes Sunday’s part of Monday, Wednesdays and sometimes Fridays and maybe part of Saturday.

But networks need more than high ratings programs to win. Seven has Today Tonight blitzing A Current Affair. Home and Away has recovered audience share and now easily wins the 7pm slot each night. Seven News is more competitive across the network and especially in Sydney.

Nine News has lost audience, as has ACA. Seven News and TT have gained viewers. Nine’s switching of programs around, doubling up episodes of ER and Third Watch or CSI upsets viewers because other programs are pulled from the schedule without warning.

Rather than leave programs in a spot and allow trends to develop, Nine has gone for the defensive blitz. That’s okay if you have support, but so far nothing much from Nine is gaining traction.

Starstruck, the expensive light variety program whose parents are now being denied around Nine (but consist of David Mitchell, Glenn Pallister, Andrew Backwell and Michael Healey) is the first casualty. Only nine programs were commissioned and being switched to the low viewing 7.30pm slot on Saturday night is like a long slow walk to the firing squad!

Nine has also spent a lot of money revamping the Today Show, for no gain so far but Today is small beer though compared to the problems at 6pm to 7pm, especially in Sydney and especially at 6.30pm with ACA.

Seven does have a problem late in the evening, from 10pm onwards. Nine has recognised that and the doubling up of programs late into the evening and coding them into Oztam as one program (ER on Thursday night for example) is an attempt to take share from Seven later in the night and do better overall.

But these are programming tactics, not strategies or solutions. The latter are thin on the ground at Willoughby and around Park Street and the PBL headquarters where the real culprit works.

John Alexander, the former head of Nine and PBL Media, was the person who set in train the changes and lack of risk-taking that now characterises the Nine Network.

His neutering of the Willoughby machine will go down as one of the less successful media strategies seen in Australia, and to think Kerry Packer has lauded him as one of the best media managers he has come across.

Based on his time at ACP there’s some truth in that Packer comment, apocryphal or not. Based on his time at Nine and PBL Media from the start of 2002 to the middle of 2004, there’s no basis.

He’s the dead hand that’s throttled the Nine machine and allowed Seven, helped by two ‘juggernauts’, back into the TV game after several years of self-inflicted incompetence.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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