The Nine Network’s latest attempt to save its Sydney 6pm news was detailed in a memo last Thursday from Mark Calvert, the Network’s news boss:

Dear Team

We’re about to embark on an exciting period of development in the Sydney newsroom: more people, more resources, more output.

Next month, we’ll re-launch the 6pm News, with a brand new set in Studio One. This will be a bigger, better home for Pete, Fergo, Kenny and Jaynie. And it’ll have more impact on the viewers at home, helping to re-establish our 6pm as the must-see news bulletin of the day.

Then, in June, we’ll launch a brand new network programme. This Afternoon will be an hour-long mix of news and current affairs, airing weekdays at 4.30pm.

Hosted by, amongst others, Fergo, it’ll hit the big stories hard. It will also look for fresh angles on topical issues, dig deeper into how those issues affect Australian families, and have some fun with stuff.

To produce the programme, we’re putting together a new team, led by Craig Sullivan. This Afternoon will have dedicated reporters, led by Peter Harvey. And it will be a showcase for the creativity of some great cameraman, picture editors and graphic designers.

It’s not often we get to launch a brand new show. So this is a great vote of confidence in you all. It also means we get to play our part in refreshing the afternoon schedule on Nine. Along with a new gameshow, which goes to air each weekday at 5.30pm from April 20th, we can hope for a much healthier lead-in to 6pm.

To support all this, we’ll soon start using our new edit and playout system. Not only will this revolutionise our production process, it will also give us much more creative firepower. We’re investing in the building, too. By the end of the year, we’ll have a new newsroom, and be joined by our colleagues from Today and ACA.

Driving all of this will be YOU. Your talent, your experience, your energy and your ideas are the lifeblood of Nine News. A newsroom is — or should be — a forum for discussion and debate. A cauldron of ideas. And home to occasional outbreaks of craziness.

So, starting today, let’s share more of those ideas. Let’s debate what we do, and how we do it. Let’s argue about stories. How we treat them. Where we run them.

You all have a stake in what we do. And I promise you this: nobody will be criticised, ever, for having an idea.

We’ve already begun to bring in more of our own stories. We need to build on this. Increasingly, in this multi-media, news-soaked world, a premium will be placed on original content. So, as well as serving up the big news stories of the day, we have to work harder to tell our viewers something they haven’t already heard, to show them something they haven’t already seen.

Over the next few weeks, Wicky and I will be speaking with you all about the future of Nine News, and we’re very keen to hear your thoughts.

In the meantime, please feel free to ask any questions.

And keep those ideas coming.

Mark

Mark Calvert
Network Director of News

Calvert has his work cut out for him. Last night Seven News beat Nine News nationally by over 560,000 viewers, 1.719 million to 1.179 million. In Sydney Seven beat Nine by a record 189,000 (last Wednesday it was 180,000), 507,000 to 318,000. Now Darren Wick, the man chosen to replace Ian Cook as Sydney News Director, is being asked to revitalise the Sydney News for Nine, something he couldn’t do at A Current Affair where he failed to halt the slide in ratings and viewer numbers. Before that he failed to halt the slide at the Today show, where Seven’s Sunrise easily accounted for him and Today.

The person chosen to run A Current Affair, Grant Williams, is a former policeman who was running ACA‘s Melbourne office. It did better in Melbourne than did the program in Sydney, but that is as much to do with the program’s stronger identification with Melbourne now that host Tracy Grimshaw is residing there. Williams, along with Wick, has presided over the slump in ACA ratings last year and this year. Today Tonight on Seven won last night easily, beating ACA by 450,000 viewers nationally, 1.527 million viewers to 1.077 million.

But those responsible for this continuing failure remain there: the Peter Overton decision was ham-fisted. The revamp Mark Calvert talks about in his memo should have accompanied the change in hosts to give the changes a huge publicity boost and momentum.

Calvert had a hand in the appointment of Peter Overton to read the Sydney 6pm News (or rather the flicking of Mark Ferguson to weekends). But John Westacott was the driver. It was his last significant decision in the news area. It is a move that hasn’t worked, so Nine has got rid of Ian Cook who was hired by Westacott in 2007, shortly before Gyngell returned like a prodigal son. Gyngell was not amused at Cook’s appointment, or that of Westacott before his return to Nine.

Nine’s News has lost to Seven’s 6pm news in Sydney by record margins that have increased this year several times. Today Tonight is beating ACA by huge margins. Nine is more competitive in Melbourne and Brisbane, as is ACA, but Seven still wins most nights and wins the weeks.

The revamp should have accompanied the debut next week of the new Eddie Maguire hosted half hour reworked version of Who wants To be A Millionaire. That way any new viewers (and there will be some at first), would have been encouraged to hang around. Instead it will be dissipated on the sadness that is now the Nine News.

Seven is making it tougher for Eddie by doubling the number of $200,000 winning cards on Deal or No Deal to two from next Monday night. Another battle of the balance sheets, but Seven has the deeper pockets.

The way Nine is blowing revenue and resources on the 4.30pm to 6.30pm is strange. It should really be spent on the 6pm to 7pm slots to start with. After all, ACA is the big loser from Calvert’s memo. Apart from a new boss, there’s no mention of any move to tart up the program or to try and tackle its inherent problems.

There’s a strong feeling that if Nine fixes the lead in and then the 6pm News, ACA‘s woes will be resolved. They won’t. ACA showed two weeks ago that if it gets good interviews and uses Tracy Grimshaw smartly, solid ratings can flow. That was her interview with Simon Cowley, the swimmer hit by Nick D’Arcy. That rated more than 1.2 million viewers. It sank over the rest of the week because there was no thought or no follow up with similar good ideas or stories.

That the changes to Nine’s most pressing problem was announced by Mr Calvert says a lot about the relative standing of Mr Westacott. That nothing was said about ACA reinforces that perception.

There is one good point from the Calvert memo: he promises that no one will be criticised for tossing up a new idea or suggestion. It has been a hallmark of Nine management, especially in the newsroom, in the past two years or so, to have ideas from staff bagged and people insulted and humiliated. Hopefully Mr Calvert means what he says.

Nine is spending money hand over fist, enjoying its 18 month free interest period from its increasingly worried banks. Nine is well into another $20 million of cost cuts because of the collapse in ad rates and revenues. It has had to give up ground on cost and revenue sharing with WIN, its affiliate in regional areas, which will provide half of Nine’s gross profit. This new spending on news has been signed off on by Mr Gyngell, his PBL Media boss, Ian Law and CVC. It is the last throw by Nine to staunch a black hole.

If this revamp of the Sydney news fails to move audiences by the end of 2009, then there will be more changes and memos issued. Before then there will be at least two more significant changes, plus a turnover of people on the Nine production desk in Sydney (which essentially runs large slabs of the News in Melbourne and Brisbane, and underwrites WIN’s bulletins in Adelaide and Perth).

Peter Meakin, Seven’s boss of News and Current Affairs, and before than, Nine’s boss, had the best comment late last week. He thought Nine shouldn’t make any more changes to the 6pm reader in Sydney now that Overton was there. He said stability for viewers was very important. He is right for both Nine and Seven.

For Nine, leaving Overton there and making changes around him provides the chance to make up ground. For Seven, it provides the change to maintain its lead over Nine. I wonder where Meakin’s comments were really aimed at. And Meakin is making sure Nine knows that he is talking to Tom Malone, head of Nine’s Today, which is making up ground on Seven’s Sunrise. I wouldn’t be surprised if Malone jumps, if Adam Boland, the current wonder kid, tries to walk and is tucked away in a nice job in Kerry Stokes’ Shanghai TV and media business.

Peter Fray

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