Ten is boosting costs by $20 million a year and employing 100 extra people around the country to produce two new early evening news and current affairs programs.

It is the biggest expansion in news and current affairs in Australian commercial TV for over a decade and comes after years of cuts by Seven and Nine in particular which killed off bulletins and programs and cleaned out newsrooms (in the case of Nine).

Ten’s spending comes after the ABC spent an estimated $20 million or more building its News 24 network which has been launched satisfactorily.

The network has taken the opportunity of the announcement of the third digital channel, called ELEVEN, to reveal the changes as they involve two of the network’s stalwarts: the endless repeats of The Simpsons at 6pm and Neighbours. Both are being shifted to provide the audience anchor (Ten hopes) for ELEVEN from early next year.

It is a high risk strategy because Ten will have two and a half hours of news and current affairs programs from the 5pm to 7.30pm. Ten’s existing (and timeslot-winning) 5pm bulletin will remain; The Simpsons repeats are being shuffled off the main channel, as is Neighbours, thereby ending a 25-year association with Ten’s most watched channel.

They will be replaced by two programs: a “new half-hour national news-based program at 6pm weeknights targeting viewers seeking a smarter, more informed, considered and insightful approach to the stories, issues, events and news-makers of the day”, as CEO Grant Blackley described it. Then, “…at 6.30pm weeknights and at 6pm weekends, Ten will present a half-hour locally-presented and produced news service in all markets, focusing on the key issues in each state, whilst continuing to break news and further develop the leading national and international news stories of the day”.

The 7PM Project will continue to anchor that timeslot where it has built an audience of over 900,000 on some nights (especially Monday through Wednesday) and over 800,000 on other nights.

Said Blackley: “This is a big commitment to news involving the employment of 100 additional staff, from leading reporters to expert camera crews, operators for new and efficient digital transfer technology, and an increased international presence bringing news from the key territories around the globe — notably Europe, the United States and Asia. This will ensure Ten has the people and technical resources to bring breaking and major news events to all Australians as they happen.”

The changes will start from early 2011, and Ten grandly described its new channel as the “…unrivalled destination for fun and bold programming” with particular appeal to the ‘distinctly youthful’ market. Seven announced last week its third digital channel, the male-skewing 7Mate. Ten will go into partnership with CBS, the big US TV network, in the new channel.

ELEVEN, like GO on Nine and to a more limited extent 7TWO, will become repeat HQ and a place where some of the current duds from the US can now be shown without costing the network viewers, ratings and revenue. Just look at some of the names trotted out in the press release this morning: Futurama, The Cleveland Show, Supernatural, Stargate, Dexter, Smallville, The Office, Nurse Jackie, 90210 and more. All moderate performers or straight-out flops (Dexter, Nurse Jackie, Futurama).

Plus blasts from the past: “ELEVEN will be able to draw upon more than 70,000 hours of content from CBS’s vast program library, including Everybody Loves Raymond, Sex and the City, JAG, Frasier, Judging Amy, Happy Days and MacGyver. Frasier is current screening on Nine’s GO. Nine has that via an agreement with Warner Brothers, the producers, which also covers a lot of other programs currently seen on GO.

Just why the network wants to make the changes and join Seven and Nine in the traditional news and current affairs hour is a mystery. News generally skews old and although The 7PM Project has a younger audience than does A Current Affair or Today Tonight and the 7 pm ABC News, the question is whether younger viewers want more at that time of night.

Ten should do something completely different and aim at its 16 to 39 and 18 to 49 heartland. It already has attracted their attention in current affairs with the Project, which is doing very well and making life tougher for Nine and Seven in the younger demos from 7 to 7.30pm.

Today Tonight on Seven and A Current Affair on Nine are consumer-based programs chasing each other’s tails. At least the 7PM Project looked at what is happening in Canberra and covered the rescue of the copper miners in Chile which involves an Australian company and people.

At the moment Ten is showing fresh episodes of The Simpsons on Wednesday nights from 7.30pm. Last night that averaged 877,000 people while the 6pm repeat averaged 659,000.

Another statement from Ten revealed why it could afford to lift spending by $20 million a year. Compared with a year ago when the network was worried about its survival, the loot is rolling in. With five days to go to the end of the network’s financial year on August 31, it revealed group earnings before interest tax and depreciation and amortisation (the standard measure in TV) were up 37%, driven by a 35% rise in TV (which saw a 12% revenue leap).

That 36% rise in earnings in Ten’s TV business is equal to a rise of around $52 million on the $142 million for the depressed 2009 year. Now Ten says it will use much of that increase to expand its news and current affairs business (and that $20 million dollars is each year). Let’s hope there’s not another crunch and slowdown.