The contracting market for TV advertising has made this year’s ratings battle between Seven, Nine and Ten the toughest in years as the networks fight for a share of a pie that will shrink by up to 5%, or $145 million, this year as the economic slowdown gathers pace.

Faced with losing millions of dollars a month, senior executives and owners know there will be no second chances for their network: the programs and the scheduling must be spot on first up.

According to figures from Fusion Strategy, Ten lost $73 million in revenue in the second half of last year, Nine $25 million, while Seven added $14 million, thanks to the Olympics and the AFL Grand Final.

This year there’s no games to save Seven in the back half and Ten has the AFL Grand Final, but Ten and Nine will be the networks most exposed to the sliding ad market, especially if they struggle in the ratings.

Seven has decided to attack from the start, unlike last year when it started slowly because it had the Olympics and a solid roster of new programs for the back half of the year, putting its strong schedule from the closing weeks of 2008 into its starting line-up while making a couple of strategic shifts to accommodate a new Sunday night approach of its own and to meet Nine’s new Underbelly series on Monday nights.

Nine is using the similar line-up to last year: a mixture of Underbelly, One Day Cricket (against New Zealand!) and new programs to try and fight off Seven and Ten.

Ten is using The Biggest Loser and So You Think You Can Dance Australia to spearhead its starting line-up.

Seven and Nine have moved programs around without regard to viewers (City Homicide switching to Sundays from Mondays is a prime example) and no doubt other changes will happen quickly.

Watch for programs that don’t perform quickly to be given even less of a chance to stay in schedules. It will be brutal, because the networks know they will have to spend more money to maintain share in a shrinking advertising market. That’s why the possibility of more cost cuts and some dramatic corporate moves can’t be dismissed this year.

Already the 2009 ratings battle, starting Sunday February 8, has started to resemble trench warfare, complete with phony schedules and claim and counter claim of nervous opponents. Nine has led the way, playing ducks and drakes with its starting schedule in an elaborate cloak and dagger operation.

The Network released incomplete and false programming schedules to newspapers last week, leading to blank spaces in the Daily Telegraph’s weekly TV guide this week at 8.30pm next Monday and Tuesday for Nine as the network attempted to keep its opponents guessing.

The Telegraph guide had a deadline of the previous Friday (it was published in Wednesday’s paper). On Wednesday afternoon, Nine issued its real schedule showing 8.30pm Monday filled by a poor movie — Terminator 3.

Meanwhile, Nine has been claiming that the other networks had delayed release of their schedules to see what Nine did with Underbelly. In fact Ten released its first-up schedule at the start of January, Seven’s was out last week, while Nine’s firmed up ‘final’ starting line-up didn’t emerge until Wednesday afternoon.

Seven has shifted some of its favourites around to meet Nine’s challenge: Border Security has been shifted to Sunday nights at 7.30pm, from the same slot on Monday nights. It will sit after Seven’s new current affairs program that is designed to drain viewers from Nine’s 60 Minutes at 7.30pm. A new program called Triple Zero Heroes will run at 8pm on Seven against the second half of 60 Minutes.

Tuesday is the best night of the week for Seven with Animal Rescue, Find My Family, Packed To The Rafters and a revamped All Saints at 9.30pm. Seven has also rushed a series called The Gangs Of Australia to the starting line-up to try and spoil the audience for Nine’s centrepiece for the year, the “prequel’ of Underbelly. Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities starts on Monday February 9 at 8.30pm with a two hour ep (just as Underbelly did) and then continues for 11 weeks. 

Stand by for complaints about the s-x and violence at 8.30pm, all designed to generate more publicity and attract viewers. It’s a cynical game.

Seven’s City Homicide shifts from 8.30pm Mondays, (where it would have been hit by Nine’s Underbelly), to Sunday nights in the same slot where it will run up against CSI from mid-February onwards.

The December half ad revenue figures suggest a reason for Nine’s odd behaviour: it shed millions of dollars in revenue in the back half of last year when it was claiming to be the Number 1 network in the key 25 to 54 age group. Nine’s spin was: if you take out the Olympics, its share rose to 33% in the second half, which is ‘on track’. The fact remains that its ad revenues fell $25 million, according to yesterday’s figures.

The 5.3% fall in the second half took the industry by surprise: without the Olympics in August, the drop would have been 8% and the Seven Network would have been in trouble, just as Nine and Ten were.

Peter Fray

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