Are we starting to see the slow decline of Nine or was Seven’s win last week just a blip? Terry Television explores the angles in what is shaping up to be a titanic television ratings battle in 2005..

After a lot of effort the Seven Network has finally taken a week of ratings from bitter rival Nine outside an Olympics Games for the first time since early 2001. Seven won Sydney, Adelaide and Perth to claim the week. It had won Sydney in the first week and lost nationally by a small margin.

Back in 2001, Seven won week three of ratings and went on to do well for the year, winning a further 12 further weeks in the first year of the new Oztam people meter-based ratings system that Nine rejected and argued over.

The new rating system, the fact that Nine split the AFL contract with Ten and gave up the finals, and the loss of share and advertising revenues cost Nine CEO at the time, David Leckie, his job.

Leckie was removed in early January 2002, from memory, called in from his holidays at Palm Beach in Sydney’s northern beach suburbs and fired by Kerry Packer at Park Street.

John Alexander was installed as head of PBL Media, Ian Johnson was summonsed from Melbourne to run the Nine Network and David Gyngell was made deputy CEO. Johnson left about a year later because he could not stomach some of the decisions being urged on him by Packer and Alexander.

Others in turn left or were removed and the long slide to last week was underway.

Nine programmer, John Stephens was poached by Seven, and left, News and Current Affairs boss, Peter Meakin was forced into leaving and went to Seven, as did quite a few others, including Ian Johnson, who now heads the Seven station in Melbourne (which still underperforms!)

Nine Brisbane manager and former producer, Neil Mooney was fired by Gyngell in 2003 and has ended up at Seven running Today Tonight (which is thrashing A Current Affair) and reporters and producers made their way across.

The irony is that in the years that followed 2001, Seven couldn’t build on those early gains and spent the next three years going backwards. Self-inflicted incompetence by Seven and its managers, clever programming from Nine, a reservoir of good programs bought in the Leckie years and clever TV makers who stayed.

But three years on is history repeating itself? Seven, now under David Leckie, beats Nine for the first time since 2001 across the network, led by a good win in the all-important Sydney market.

And figures out last week show that Nine’s share of the national TV advertising cake fell to a four year low in the last six months of 2004. The fact that Seven had the Olympics didn’t influence Nine as Ten’s share rose sharply. The overall market rose by more tha 10 per cent last year.

Revenge is supposed to be sweet, but the Sicilian proverb supposedly says its best ‘eaten cold’, and Crikey knows someone who has directly heard Kerry Stokes use the expression.

And that’s what Seven is doing. No boasting or grandiose claims, like there was last year, only to be forced to eat most of those comments when Nine ran away with the year.

Nine management is now led by David Gyngell, Kerry Packer’s godson. Will he follow the David Leckie route, out the door if the losses continue and advertising slows and costs rise, as they will? Just take the spending on the Today Show. Millions spent for no initial bounce.

Veteran newsreader Jim Waley removed from the Sydney 6 pm news, replaced by a younger man. Waley’s crime, getting viewing figures better than what Ferguson has been getting. Waley won more weeks last year than he lost!

Last week Seven won with a national network share of 30.4% to Nine on 28.5%, Ten on 20.9%, the ABC on 15.9% and SBS on 4.3%.

Seven won Sydney, Adelaide and Perth (where it had its biggest margin), while Nine won Melbourne and Brisbane. In Sydney Seven won 32.1% to 27.9%, a bigger margin than nationally.

Nine won Friday and Saturday nights and Seven finished much closer than a week ago. It was the second week that Seven has won the important Sydney market.

This week Nine rolls out its last major ratings giants for the time being in the shape of Survivor Palau at 7.30 pm on Tuesday night and CSI New York on the same night at 9.30 pm, right after the original CSI.

It should do well, but that’s not the answer. The more ingrained problem is what’s not happening to Nine’s existing fleet of programs. No traction, especially for Nine News and A Current Affair.

Last week Seven had the top three national programs in Lost, Desperate Housewives and Dancing with the Stars. Nine’s top program was the second celebrity edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Nine News. Long a contender for a top three place was 12th, ACA was 40th. Nine did have six of the top ten shows, Seven had four. But it wasn’t good enough for Nine.

Encouraging for Seven was that it won the 16-to-39, 18-to-49 and 25-to-54 demographics, so it was a solid, broadly based win.

So the question now is Seven capable of building on this gain over the rest of the year, or will history repeat itself for the network and see it snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

Stay tuned!

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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