The extent of Eddie McGuire’s powerlessness at Nine has been underlined by a bit of information about how Nine handles new program ideas – Eddie has little input into the process. He may be told or see a list with ideas but the decisions are not made at Willoughby. The once all-powerful Monday morning management meetings are now irrelevant.

All program ideas are submitted to Nine’s chief programmer, Michael Healy. He discusses the ideas with internal and external producers and then has to fill out some paperwork which is sent to the Park Street HQ of PBL Media where those experienced TV executives Ian Law (CEO of PBL Media), John Alexander, (executive chairman of the company and CEO of PBL) and Pat O’Sullivan, the chief financial officer become involved. Chris Anderson, the Deputy Executive Chairman of PBL is also involved – having run TVNZ 15 years or so ago, Anderson sees himself as an experienced TV executive.

Healy and his staff have had to set out in the paperwork the following information: the name of the program, its storyline, the audience demographic it is targeting, the cost per episode, expectations of “incremental” revenue the program will bring in and the ratings it will get. This is obviously what Alexander and his boss James Packer believe is “programming for profit”.

In fact it sounds more like fortune telling and takes no account of the successful track record of internal and external producers and story ideas. “Incremental” revenue is the real doozy. That apparently means the producers, Nine programmers and anyone else with an idea have to look at ways a program idea can be used to make money elsewhere – websites, Ninemsn, at ACP Magazines, perhaps in the gaming area. It’s as realistic as any other piece of psychic mumbo jumbo.

The success of a program has to be foretold before it’s made and shown on air: quite amazing.

So it’s no wonder that the program making and commissioning process at Nine is slow and unresponsive at times: it’s not for the want of Healy and others being there to make decisions. The hold-ups are at Park Street where a group of highly paid executives with no TV experience are making the decisions, along with a collection of business analysts and others who also have little understanding of the medium, costs and the way revenue can be built.

And now there are reports coming out of the independent producing community that Nine is trying to bash down program costs. Under the scale allowed by the regulator, ACMA (it’s the old ABA scale), Australian drama has a minimum cost per hour of around $320,000.

All this is becoming well known in the TV industry and why the likes of Brian Walsh at Foxtel rejected attempts to lure him across. In typical PBL style, the promise is lots of money, the reality is no power and a treacherous climate of second guessing and hindsight management.

Because Ian Law, John Alexander and others know so little about TV and costs and the way successful programs can be made cheaply and used to maximise profits across the network, they have tried to protect their ignorance by reducing the process to paperwork which can be held and checked and used against someone when a program fails, as many do. It breeds a culture of fear and doesn’t make good TV.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey