Has private equity group CVC realised the error of its way in spending almost $4 billion buying control of the Nine Network from James Packer? Is it now trying to spend its way out of trouble?

Despite jumping the Seven Network and pushing to the top of the ratings tree so far in 2008, Nine is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a week in trying to get exclusive interviews for A Current Affair and 60 Minutes and on programs like the Schapelle Corby documentary, The Hidden Truth.

It paid a rumoured $100,000 for last night’s interview with former Belinda Neal staffer, Melissa Batten; it has paid at least $20,000 to agent Max Markson for an interview with Melbourne criminal figure Mick Gatto and paid an estimated $170,000 for the recent interview with personality Tania Zaetta on those discredited s-x-with-the-troops claims.

It is an old Nine Network tactic of trying to buy your way out of a problem. Kerry Packer did it when the network was profitable. Now, it’s profitless and paying the interest on the billions of dollars in debt taken on to finance the Packer buyout.

Nine’s ratings from 7pm have been fine. Its 6pm to 7pm ratings for the News and A Current Affair however have been weak to embarrassing and the new management team of John Westacott and Ian Cook in Sydney have had no idea how to stop the momentum that Seven has been getting from its News and Today Tonight.

Seven’s news ratings at 6pm have lifted in recent weeks, despite Nine starting the Million Dollar Wheel of Fortune at 5.30pm to give it a better lead-in. That has failed, just like all other 5.30pm initiatives since The Price Is Right died in 2004-05.

So Nine has gone for the chequebook, aided by some easy publicity for some of its coups in News Ltd tabloid The Daily Telegraph. Today the Tele has several pages of publicity about poor Schapelle Corby and the fallout from the doco, plus a follow-up to last night’s interview with the Neal staff on ACA.

In terms of getting more viewers it bombed and bombed badly. Today Tonight won easily and took all five metro markets last night: it had an interview with Gangland lawyer Zarah Garde-Wilson. TT ran that interview for all of its broadcast in Melbourne last night and for a good 15 minutes in Sydney.

Nationally Today Tonight averaged 1.533 million viewers and finished 3rd: A Current Affair averaged 1.299 million, slightly higher than a normal Monday night, but not as high as the 1.429 million Eddie McGuire got on the holiday Monday night a fortnight ago with his (paid)Roberta Williams interview. In Sydney TT won with 438,000 viewers to 378,000 for ACA; in Melbourne TT was watched by an average 444,000, ACA, 419,000.

Of the buy-ins the best deal was for the Corby doco from filmmaker Janine Hosking. It averaged 1.612 million over the two hours on Sunday night and is on for three hours from 8.30pm tonight on Nine. Sunday’s installment was a genuine piece of news making and entertaining (gripping in places as the full horror of Ms Corby’s problem emerged and the failure of her family to fully appreciate her predicament became apparent).

Seven had been sniffing around this one as well.

The interview with Ms Batten last night was news-making, but the fact that it was paid for muddies the value of the information presented — as is the case with most bought-for interviews of this kind. Paying for programs like the Corby doco on the other hand is not problematic — that was a simple programming deal.

Crikey approached John Westacott for comment this morning. He had not replied by our deadline.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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