The Seven Network has won the metro TV ratings battle for the third year running, but Network Ten boasted it was the biggest winner with the best increase in audience and the highest rating TV events of the year, MasterChef Australia and the AFL grand final (which Seven gets next year).

With the official ratings season now wrapped up for the year, Seven was the clear winner in metro markets, scoring the highest audience share across the board, with or without the digital channels included.

In regional areas, a slightly different result, with Nine’s NBN and the affiliated WIN group winning the ratings battle by the narrowest of margins: 27.4% to 27.3% for Prime/7 Queensland, Southern Cross (Ten) on 20.9%, the ABC on 17.7% and SBS on 7.2%.

The networks disagree about using multi-channel figures in metro markets, with Nine and Ten keen to use them because it improves their figures, but Seven won with them included, and won without them. Nine and Ten did better in a couple of demographics, only after including their digital shares. Ten for example said it won “the year in prime-time in 16-39 and under 50s”.

If Ten and Nine are serious about combining the figures, then can they explain how viewers can watch two channels at once. And, if Nine and Ten are serious, they won’t moan (as they do) when pay-TV, especially Foxtel, aggregates all its channels into one audience and share figure and compares it the FTA primary channels.

Nine and Ten would then not object to the pay-TV claim that it was the the top-rating broadcaster.

“Subscription TV was the number one choice for TV viewing around Australia with 22.4% of all metropolitan viewing between 6am and midnight, 21.4% of all regional viewing and 58.2% of all viewing in subscription TV homes. Even when the 2009 summer period is excluded (i.e. looking at weeks 7-48 only), STV was a clear winner,” claimed a report from the sector this morning.

That might be so, but ratings are based on 6pm to 10.30pm and 6pm to midnight and there pay-TV finishes fourth or fifth, battling with the ABC on most nights. But pay-TV’s metro audiences has fallen since Nine’s GO, and then 7TWO started, joining ONE, ABC 2 and SBS TWO.

But the FTA networks do have something to boast about with their digital channels. All five do a lot better than many pay-TV channels and the big three, Nine’s GO, 7TWO and Ten’s ONE, outrate their pay-TV competition. That’s something pay-TV doesn’t talk about these days except to disparage the offerings. In fact, in their short time on air, the five FTA digital channels averaged 6.2% by the end of ratings, which is approaching half the primetime share of pay-TV.

Excluding the multichannels, Seven finished the year with a 28.8% share (28.5% in 2008), followed by Nine with 26.8% (27.3% in 2008), Ten with 22.2% (20.7%), ABC on 16.4% (17.4%) and SBS with 5.8% (5.6%).

Seven and Ten pointed out the year-to-year changes yesterday in their end of season statement (Ten’s actually screamed). Nine was silent on its fall.

Seven is claiming wins in all the major demographics

“We have more total viewers, 18-49s and 25-54s in primetime than anyone else. And while we love our new channel, 7TWO, we don’t need to add in its expanding audience to make up a story on how well Seven is going,” Seven said.

“Seven wins in primetime in total viewers, 18-49s and 25-54s – whether it’s 6pm- 10:30pm or 6pm-midnight and whether or not you include or exclude Easter.”

Network Ten scored the most-watched event, thanks to MasterChef Australia, with a record-breaking 3.725 million Australians watching Julie Goodwin crowned the winner.

Ten also scored big with the AFL grand final, with more than 2.8 million tuning in in the five metro markets.

The next most watched event of the year was the Melbourne Cup on Seven (2.67 million), followed by the premiere episode of the second series of gangland crime drama Underbelly (2.58 million)

The rugby league grand final, on the Nine Network, drew 2.582 million viewers. But add in the regional markets and more viewers watched the NRL grand final than watched the AFL.

Seven was No.1  for news and public affairs — with Seven News and Today Tonight dominating Nine News and A Current Affair for the fifth consecutive year, especially in Sydney and Brisbane. It was closer in Melbourne.

Sunday Night was the standout: its first full year saw it topple 60 Minutes, whose audience slumped badly, especially from September onwards.

Seven was No.1 for breakfast television — with Sunrise leading Today for the sixth consecutive year, but that gap narrowed again this year by a substantial margin year with Today beating Sunrise several times during the year, the first wins for six years.

The ABC couldn’t compete with the commercial networks but did rake in many viewers with the British detective drama Midsomer Murders on Sunday and Friday nights.

Australian programs (led by Packed To The Rafters) dominated the most watched lists for the year. Only 11 of the top 100 highest-rating series were British and 18 were American (seven of which comprised four different time slot showings of Nine’s Two And A Half Men and three for Ten’s NCIS). At one stage Nine showed Two And A Half Men nine times in a week, such were the holes in its lacklustre schedule. This program was very popular in Melbourne.

Seven’s head of programming, Tim Worner, said in a statement the network was looking to local content to build themselves further next year.

“It’s great to win again and it’s a great reward for the group’s hard work but we’re not wasting time doing cartwheels in the carpark,” Worner said.

Not a mention about the weak Thursday nights in winter when Nine won regularly with the AFL Footy Show. That’s why Seven really wants to buy Matthew Johns services, and why Ten has appeared late in the scene. Could Johns allow Ten to rest Idol for a refresh?

Nor a mention of finding a local drama replacement for All Saints. As we have just seen, Australians prefer local dramas over imports.

Nine says it is confident of increasing its audience next year with shows such as Top Gear, which was pinched from SBS, regular Hey Hey It’s Saturday specials, US sci-fi series V, its Winter Olympics coverage from February and digital station Go!

“It’s been a strong year for Nine where we’ve put more bricks in the wall. We’ve now got the structure from which we’ll grow in 2010 with the best slate we’ve enjoyed for years,” Nine chief executive David Gyngell said.

That’s what he said last year. Not a mention of the third series of Underbelly or Nine’s flop, 60 Minutes, or its underperforming News and Current Affair hour from 6-7pm. The collapse in 60 Minutes‘ audience is the biggest problem facing Nine next year. Solving that will allow the network to start each week more confidently, rather than in second place as it did from October onwards,

Ten will be again counting on MasterChef, with a junior version also added into the mix, the Commonwealth Games and its digital sports channel ONE. Programming head, David Mott:

TEN’s 2009 line-up has delivered in spades, providing some of the year’s most memorable TV moments and significantly expanding the network’s audience profile. We have cemented our position as the clear leader in 16-39 and daytime and we end the year as the only network with year-on-year gains in our total people share and audience.

Not a mention of Idol’s late flop. And Celebrity MasterChef hardly set the audience on fire, Junior will be more of the same, The biggest problem for Ten has protecting the strong audiences for the main MasterChef. It won’t drag the viewers in as it did last year., Reality programs always peak and fade very early in their lives.

And did we mention failures? Australia’s Perfect Couple on Nine, the Spearman Experiment (rip-off more likely) on Ten, Double Take and TV Burp on Seven?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey