Everyone in TVland is watching the Seven Network to see what it does to its 6pm Sydney newsreader’s job. The defection of This Afternoon‘s Mark Ferguson from Nine to Seven captured the headlines on Friday and Saturday, but that’s not the real story.

It’s a multi-million dollar gamble by Seven and comes at a time when those sorts of punts are the last thing a revenue and profits challenged network (even if it’s the best performing and best placed financially) wants to make. But it has to, and it has to get the decision right. Wrong will mean failure, or death by a million dollars or more.

If Seven fluffs the transition from newsreader Ian Ross to someone else, Nine could easily fight its way back at 6pm, just as Seven eventually overtook Nine after it made wrong decisions about the replacements for Brian Henderson seven years ago, and then compounded that error with a series of high level blunders driven by James Packer, David Gyngell and John Alexander that allowed Seven back in the game.

Gyngell hasn’t stopped making blunders, judging by the statement he issued Friday after Ferguson said no and signed with Seven. The claim that a salary cut was “generous” was amazing; especially from a man who is part of the ownership group at Nine and benefits from every salary cut.

First off, watch the Nine Network’s faltering program, THISafternoon, at 4.30pm today to see if Mark Ferguson appears.

If he does, then Nine CEO David Gyngell has no idea and has completely lost the plot after trying to sign Ferguson to a reduced contract.

Ferguson is signed to Nine until October; if he appears on Nine until then, it will be a blunder as it will remind viewers of where he’s going. The tactical strategy in TV is never to advertise your opposition, and by leaving Ferguson on air in Sydney, Nine would be reminding viewers what Seven is getting.

I would say Gyngell will quickly understand that, if he hasn’t been told already. Despite claims that he is an intuitive TV executive (the latest from two senior buying group executives), the intuitive TV boss would have taken Ferguson off air Friday and send him on gardening leave until his contract is up, or leaked the fact that that was happening over the weekend. It wasn’t, so watch at 4.30pm (you may be among the handful who do).

But Gyngell has the easy option: Seven now has the tough one and it comes at a time when the Network’s CEO, David Leckie, is in ill health and looking tired and run down, according to colleagues.

The importance of the next few months to Seven cannot be underestimated.

Chris Bath would be the logical successor to Ian Ross. She’s reading three nights a week and has been in the wings for three years. Ian Ross is contracted through to 2010, but is retiring at the end of this year. He is approaching 70 and wants to enjoy life on the Gold Coast.

But Chris Bath isn’t the logical successor; nothing has been decided and there’s a senior figure in Seven’s Sydney newsroom pushing for Ferguson and Chris Bath to host a double header from next year.

Seven’s News and Current Affairs boss, Peter Meakin, has an open mind on Chris Bath and on the idea of a double header. It will be a decision that will be debated for the next few months, but it will start coming together by early November. Seven will decide by the end of that month ahead of the break because it will have to build a new set for Sydney if it does.

However, a double header increases costs and lowers the participation and identification of the audience with the news broadcast. It’s used for hour-long programs, such as Ten’s News At Five and used in other centres, such as Nine News in Brisbane. That’s a branch office.

Eventually it will be up to Meakin, Leckie and Seven’s head of programming, Tim Worner, to make a decision, which Kerry Stokes, the real controller of Seven will sign off on.

Meakin was not a big fan of Mark Ferguson in the past, but has warmed to him. Meakin likes the idea of putting Ferguson up against Overton at 6pm in Sydney next year, but that would be an enormous blow to Chris Bath and might alienate viewers who have grown to like her newsreading.

However, should Seven keep Sunday Night in the schedule next year, there’s an option she can be switched full time to (or even allowed to keep her weekend newsreading). There is nothing wrong with Sunday Night that a full-time commitments and a few more dollars wouldn’t fix. It is also a Network role, which does have a higher profile.

But the real game is in Sydney and the importance of the Sydney 6pm newsreaders gig can’t be underestimated. Those outside TV and the ad industry don’t understand that importance.

It leads off prime time seven nights a week in the biggest media market in the country where around 37% of all TV ad dollars are spent. And billions more in newspaper, magazines, radio and online.

It is the most influential market in the country. Supremacy at 6pm means the lead at 6.30pm when Today Tonight and A Current Affair go head to head. It can help set up the night, but just as important is the boost to morale among employees and management from having a winning news. Success breeds confidence and success.

Just look at the way Nine has fallen away after it lost its 6 to 7pm supremacy over Seven, and the way Seven has soared. Seven has had a lot of help from the old management at Nine, but in the end the people in the various jobs have to deliver.

And Sydney is also important. It’s where David Leckie and Peter Meakin and others at Seven (and formerly at Nine) had their first and biggest successes. Sydney is where the networks are based and where the big media groups, many big advertisers and the money industry is predominantly based.

If Seven stumbles in replacing Ian Ross, or makes the wrong decision (that is, one not supported by viewers by the middle of 2010), then it will be big news and management will be under pressure to cut their losses and ‘do something’.

Seven has had the patina of a winner now since 2005-2006. A wrong decision would put a bit of rust on that reputational shine and start the chat that Seven ‘has lost its way’ and ‘Leckie and Meakin are past it’. A decision backed by viewers would add to the reputation and bury David Gyngell at Nine even more deeply in his rhetoric.

But don’t think that the coming decision at Seven will be one that will be taken lightly. It will be among the biggest calls of Peter Meakin and David Leckie’s careers, not to mention the fortunes of Kerry Stokes and his American co-owners of Seven, KKR. That’s why David Leckie’s current bout of poor health has people worried.