Alas, poor George, I knew him well. But if Network Ten dumps his ailing news show, 6PM with George Negus, the affable TV host is likely to have a fat contract to break his fall. Word on the grapevine says it locks him in for three years. Let’s hope the staff are similarly protected.

This morning it was business as usual at the Pyrmont studios, and Negus himself was said to be ‘relaxed and not alarmed’. But it may not stay that way for long.

Axing George and the rest of Ten’s $20 million news-and-current-affairs experiment is one of the things James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch have been busting to do since they bought into the network last October. And on the latest ratings it’s hard to argue with them.

“News was always going to be a risky strategy,” says one ex-Ten insider, “but now we’ll never know whether it could have worked. They bad mouthed it so much before the start that it never had much of a chance.”

First step towards the scaffold came yesterday with the dismissal of CEO Grant Blackley who had been in the top job for just two months. It was Blackley — as head of TV — who championed the new news programs and masterminded the migration of Neighbours and The Simpsons to Eleven.

Second step will be an immediate ‘strategic review’ to cut costs and boost Ten’s profits, which are down despite a boom in TV advertising.

Blackley’s sacking was a unanimous board decision, according to Ten’s chairman, Brian Long, but you can bet Packdoch (or is it Murder?) were pushing for it.

After all, it was Packer who refused to work with Ten’s last CEO, Nick Falloon, who walked the plank in December after steering the network for eight years. (It was also Packer who sacked Falloon from Channel Nine in 2001 for opposing him over One.Tel). And it’s Murdoch who now has the top job at Ten while they search for someone who knows how to run a TV station.

But don’t expect the changes to be confined to news. The bigger game may be elsewhere.

“The key question is ‘What’s Packer and Murdoch’s agenda?’” says one well-placed observer. “I assume it is to close down One HD because it helps them financially with Fox Sports. In fact I’m certain of it.”

This observer claims competition from One HD, which shows free sport round-the-clock, has hurt Fox Sports, which is owned by James Packer’s Consolidated Media Holdings and the Murdochs’ News Ltd (of which Lachlan is still a director): “It’s been a pain in the neck for them.”

In a perfect world, one might expect the ACCC (and perhaps Ten’s board) to take a dim view of getting rid of One HD. But we’ll have to see what happens.

And in the meantime, it will be just like Happy Families. There’s James and Lachlan, who are best mates from One.Tel, plus Chairman Long who is an old chum of Kerry Packer’s, and Gina Rinehart who bought into Ten because of her admiration for James. And then there’s another billionaire, Bruce Gordon, who’s also rubbed along well with the Packers in the past.

Meanwhile, Ten’s most valued supplier is a Murdoch (or Murdochs) in the shape of TV production company Shine, which has just signed a new $150 million deal with Ten to produce a new series of Masterchef. Shine was started by Elisabeth Murdoch, who sold out this week to her dad’s News Corporation for $670 million.

Dizzying, isn’t it? Who said the family business is dead?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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