2008 will go down in the annals of Australian TV as the year that was just that little bit better than 2009 — because next year is when the money crunch hits.

I’m sorry to say that the programming with take a backseat at times to the speculation about the financial strength of the three commercial networks, while the money to be received by the ABC and SBS in their new triennial funding packages will make them the places to work in ’09.

Pay TV should just keep its head down and watch the poor publicity generated from the three free-to-air commercial networks.

That said, Foxtel won’t escape the impact of the crunch, despite claims that the subscription income makes it recession proof to a degree. That’s not the experience in the US where Viacom (MTV) has sacked 7% of its workforce and more and more cable content suppliers and operators are laying off staff as subscription income falls.

Besides, Foxtel is being run as a cash cow for its shareholders who will have taken over $50 million out this year in dividends as it borrowed more from the banks. It wanted to do a big refinancing to pay more dividends to greedy Telstra, James Packer’s Consolidated Media and News Ltd but the banks said ‘no, it will cost’. They will say ‘no’ again next year because debt really isn’t fashionable, even for banks with lots of money to spend, as Australian banks have.

TV is facing little or no ad rate increase next year, falling advertising volumes (some of Ten’s ad breaks in the past week have had few paying ads), a pressing need for more programming, rising costs and departing viewers.

As the money slips away, don’t expect 2009 to be an improvement on 2008 and so far as programming is concerned. There don’t look to be any standouts.

Nine and Ten are investing heavily in new programming — Nine to replace 2008’s failures and the departed, especially Gordon Ramsey who was flogged to death. Two And A Half Men won’t be the force it was simply because we’ve seen all the eps made, so far, and are will be seeing them again through summer.

Ten has to replace Big Brother, so we will get MasterChef. It’s a rip off of a UK format seen here on pay TV. Don’t hold your breath.

Ten says it wants us to have escapist programming for 2009 because times will be tough. But will that mean viewers escape Ten’s offerings? Ten’s ownership is up in the air because its Canadian parent CanWest is a media zombie, one of the walking indebted. TV CEO Grant Blackley’s absence from this week’s Ten AGM in Sydney was certainly a eyebrow raiser, especially with his Canadian masters here.

Ten’s not boasting about its TV rates for 2009.

Nine needs the make money now that it has stabilised its ratings performance. Unfortunately, that won’t happen next year; earnings will be down on this year, as they will for its stablemate, ACP Magazines. It’s why PBL Media went cap in hand to the banks offering more money from owner, CVC, in exchange for a relaxation of the limits on profits. PBL Media wants the be able to earn less in 2009 and not bust the bank. Merrill Lynch reckons it will be fine in 2009. In 2010 it may go close to busting the bank, again.

Nine CEO David Gyngell says the network is going for warm, fuzzy programs where people help people and are nice to one another. That’s not original, it’s a reaction to the incredible success Seven has had with Packed To The Rafters and Find My Family on Tuesday nights (both started after the Olympics).

The days when Nine pioneered successful forms of TV programming that became the norm for the industry are long gone: it is a reactive, short-term focussed business, debt ladened and totally dependant on outside producers to bring it ideas. Andrew Denton’s team is pitching a new program next year, as is Fremantle Media. A new drama, perhaps? It won’t be a gameshow — they are passé and Temptation will die when summer ratings conclude.

The warm and fuzzies have been working for over a year now, especially on the ABC where the likes of Australian Story and Enough Rope trusted viewers to make their own minds up. Nine’s RPA has built its reputation on trust (and the current Nine management has taken years to understand that). But does this mean we will have seen the end of stupid lifestyle competitions like The Chopping Block? Nope, David Gyngell is bringing back The Block.

An Underbelly prequel isn’t warm and fuzzy and it will be interesting to see how Nine handles an original drama idea and one not based on an already strongly established storyline as Underbelly was. If Canal Road and The Strip are any guide, the new Underbelly will be fraught with danger. Patrol Boat returns, thanks to government (taxpaper) money.

Seven will be under pressure too. Earnings this half are already known to be down 50% and in the slow second half Seven will battle to keep in the black as ad volumes sag. But at least Seven has the ratings firepower. After its post-Olympics performance this year when it blitzed Nine and Ten, Seven is set to do much better.

The most interesting new program on TV will be Seven’s new Sunday evening current affairs program that is promised to be not as lightweight as Nine’s 60 Minutes, or as turgid as the ABC’s Four Corners. That might be a big ask, but at least Seven is having a go.

Sunday night will be the night for magazine-style current affairs programs with George Negus’ Dateline moving there on SBS. There is a hole at 8.30pm. if The ABC can do well with the stolid Midsomer Murders at 8.30pm, a Sunday Dateline should work.

Seven will exert influence depending on where it places three programs — Dancing With The Stars (it should go back to Sundays at 7.30pm where it worked in the back half of this year), Kath and Kim (still coming, Sunday nights?) and Thank God You’re Here (Sundays at 7.30pm after the current affairs program?). If Seven does this it will win or break-even every Sunday night, move in front on Mondays and consolidate Tuesdays and Wednesdays and win most weeks in the AFL season with the Friday night football, if it hasn’t triumphed already.

Nine will have to fix its lagging news and current affairs performance. The fact that it is thinking Eddie McGuire might be the key to that improvement shows the network is bereft of ideas. Eddie won’t rate in Sydney or Brisbane, he will to a degree in Melbourne. On the basis of one average week at A Current Affair, Nine thinks Eddie has pulling power, but over that week his audience fell and Today Tonight easily fought off the $5 million man, which is probably the real reason why Eddie is in the frame for a 5.30pm program hosting.

Nine has had the hide to spin that TT’s Matt White isn’t doing well in Sydney when last time I looked ACA was bombing each night in the biggest TV market in the country, dragged down by the slumping 6pm news. Who will it be at 6pm on Nine in Sydney next year — Mark Ferguson, the incumbent and Dave Gyngell’s man; Peter Overton, John Westacott’s bloke or Michael Usher, reading over summer and Ian Cook’s nominee? But nothing will save Nine’s 6pm Sydney until the content and the mindset of the blokes who run it change.

Tracy Grimshaw has battled manfully again this year, but she needs either a holiday, or help from management by changing the production team. Her problem is that she’s doing the program from Melbourne and remote hostings and management do not work.

In mornings, Nine’s Today had its best year in the last five, but Seven’s Sunrise seems to have extended its lead in recent weeks and Today hasn’t gained much. Gyngell has devoted a lot of resources to Today to try and take Sunrise (as Seven under Leckie did with Sunrise taking Today), but unless there’s a big change in viewer habits lurking out there in 2009, Today will again run second to Sunrise next year.

Ten is cutting costs in news, installing Bill Woods as the 5pm Sydney host, which won’t change the hour-long news program’s broad appeal. I know it’s summer, but Ten beating Nine News in Sydney last week was a big deal. It’s all about momentum and team spirit. There’s none of that at Nine between 6pm and 7 pm and until that changes, the network has no chance of moving past Seven for the crown.

All three networks will end 2009 with financial results no better — and probably worse — than 2008’s.

Sometime in the next few months control of Southern Star will finally change hands as Fairfax sells. Endemol is the most logical buyer, but there’s been little logic in this saga.

So what were my highlights for the year?

The departure of Andrew Denton for the delights of the producer’s chair was the biggest change in Australian TV and next year he will be the biggest loss. But we will have The Gruen Transfer to thank him for again.

Inspector Rex returned from beyond the grave to be re-located to Rome. Sigh (and I’m a cat man, but it is a simple, charming program that doesn’t tax the brain).

And speaking of her: Underbelly was wonderful TV. Vince Colosimo was the actor of the year for that and Kath Stewart was not far behind.

Packed To The Rafters on Seven was best drama, Find My Family on Seven, the best reality program.

Four Corners was close to the best current affairs program, but a couple of slack and poorly made reports let it down. 7.30 Report was solid, but Q&A on the ABC was tops (hopefully at 9.35pm Mondays next year … 32 eps will be made compared with 20 this year). And the departed Sunday program, especially the Ross Coulthart reports. Insight on SBS was an honourable mention and tried harder to explain Australian society and ideas than anything on commercial TV.

My favourite program of the year? The Elizabeth David doco that aired in January on the ABC. An amazingly talented, passionate and amazing person, she gave us our modern interest in food, especially Mediterranean food. The likes of Graham Kerr, Jamie Oliver, Margaret Fulton and Nigella Lawson owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Ms David, who was a risk taker at a time when risk taking was very much un-British.

And, finally a message for the rest of the industry from the performance of the ABC and SBS. Both had their best years, highest ratings and solid overall programming. Viewers responded. Allied with the ABC’s mastery of the digital world, it is streets ahead of any other network and stands to exploit Freeview (which starts next year) far more effectively than Nine, Seven or Ten will.

But the most important event anywhere in the TV world next week will start on January 15 at noon in Hawaii and then continue from midnight on February 17 across the rest of the US.

Hawaiian TV will go fully HD, a month later on February 17 all full-power television stations in the United States will stop broadcasting in analog and switch to 100% digital. It promises to provide a clearer picture and more programming options and will free up the airwaves for use by emergency responders.

It could either be a giant f*ck-up or a masterstroke and our regulators and the local industry are watching closely. This could be fun.