Imitation is always the sincerest form of flattery in commercial TV and Nine CEO David Gyngell practiced it last night with a vengeance with the launch of the struggling network’s 2008 schedule.

Between 30 and 40 new or returning programs local and international, from Britain, Japan (a format) and the US. No producer has been left untouched by Nine in its desire to find a hit or three to take on Seven and Ten in 2009.

Nine’s slump in viewing levels, along with those for Ten, has helped drop free to air viewing levels that seem to have been picked up by Foxtel, which is no longer part of the Nine empire.

Mr Gyngell was realistic, as he lifted the strategy former Nine boss David Leckie when he kicked off his time at the Seven Network in 2003; and what father, Bruce Gyngell, did decades ago when he went to Seven from Nine and kick-started the then slumbering Seven into a competitive position.

There’s no other way to do it, and it has to be done and Nine will be supported because media buying groups will give Nine revenue and a small rate rise to keep it viable and a counter balance to Seven and Ten.

Seven has developed a touch of the Nine culture in demanding big rate rises and a take it or leave it attitude; so some media buyers will deliberately push revenue Nine’s (and Ten’s) way to make the point to Seven to pull its head in.

Even if Nine’s ratings again fall next year (as they could very well do, such is the confusion in its message at the moment that will only be sorted out by viewers as the year passes) the network will generate a revenue share better than its audience share.

And, even if Seven reaches a revenue share of 40% this half (which is very possible), and higher than its commercial audience share of just over 37%, it won’t top that and will be hard -pressed to match it next year. Many of Seven’s hits are mature and will need recycling, freshening up or junking next year.

As well, it has developed a surprise weakness in parts of the 6pm to 7pm news and current affairs hour (especially in Melbourne and Brisbane) which it has to fix up otherwise it will let Nine back into the game.

But Gyngell and Nine’s owners, CVC, and WIN still have a significant problem to resolve: what they want Nine to be in the minds and eyeballs of viewers.

Next year they will be told to “love Nine”, then young males will be stimulated by marketing, on air promos and other methods to watch a violent series called Underbelly, which is all about the gangland wars in Melbourne.

Female viewers will be excluded to an extent, although they will get programs like Cashmere Mafia, the last series of McLeod’s Daughters and Farmer Wants a Wife.

Seven and Ten will be skewing as hard as they can towards female viewers because they remain the best group of viewers to market to. Young males like sport, CSI/City Homicide type programs (as do over 50 viewers). They are low value viewers; females and grocery buyers (mainly females) are high value targets for advertisers.

Nine has a strongly male culture on and off screen. Underbelly will add to that next year and success in the ratings with it won’t mean success in re-positioning Nine. The return of Wide World of Sports on the weekends will also skew towards young males.

Nine needs a 5.30pm lead-in better than Antiques Roadshow to get viewers warmed up for the news where there’s an opportunity to capitalise on that sudden weakness in Melbourne and Brisbane in the Seven News and Today Tonight.

Young Doctors could fit the bill: it’s a re-make of an oldie, it could work, but have we moved past that to the likes of Grey’s Anatomy on Seven or House on Ten? Seven has All Saints which is more drama than soap.

For two years or more it has ignored its skewing towards the over 50s and the way Seven and Ten let them go there. It was the only growth audience for Nine and now it wants to skew back towards the younger part of the 25 to 54 group.

Ten and Seven are hammering away in 16 to 39s and 18 to 49s, with Seven also pushing deeper into 25 to 54.

Just look at the figures for the year so far in All people, 16 to 39 and 25 to 54. Nine is down in all three demos its key 25 to 54 it has lost 12.77% of the audience in zone 1 prime time from 6 pm to 10.30pm (that’s for all five networks). In 16 to 39s it’s down more than 14.5% and in all people it’s down 8.95%.

Any improvements on those figures in 2008 and 2009 will be a small win or three for Nine and Gyngell. But he knows advertisers will keep Nine in the game to keep Ten and Seven honest.