If Channel Nine were Still The One, its surf-loving boss David Gyngell would be much higher up our power list than he is. He’s smart, savvy, calls all the shots and has an unerring instinct for what works on television, just as his famous father Bruce once did.
But despite his undoubted talents, Nine is getting thumped by arch rival Seven, which for the last eight years has been run by the same team — led by David Leckie — that made Kerry Packer’s TV stations No. 1 for two decades.
This year, Seven has won the ratings 40 weeks out of 40, topped the TV news charts for the sixth year in a row and scooped up almost 40% of the available ad revenue. What’s more, Leckie is bragging it will do it all again in 2012.
But that’s not Gyngell’s only worry. He also has to deal with a mountain of debt, which was dumped on his doorstep in 2006 when best mate James Packer sold Nine for $5.5 billion to the private equity geniuses at CVC. Rumour is that the network may now be gobbled up by a couple of US hedge funds who bought some of that debt on the cheap. The other likely outcome, according to Seven’s owner Kerry Stokes, is that the banks will move in.
This morning, when The Power Index called him, Gyngell was in back-to-back talks with those very same bankers.
Whatever the wash up, the purse strings look set to tighten further, despite Nine Entertainment Co. notching a $400 million profit last year before interest and tax.
The outlook is no brighter over at ACP Magazines — publishers of the Australian Women’s Weekly and Woman’s Day — which Gyngell also oversees, because they’re making far less money and facing real challenges from digital media.
Yet Gyngell remains Mr Cool. Last month he told the Australian Financial Review: “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out Channel Nine will still be going to air in one year, two years, three years time, no matter who are the owners. My role will be to ensure I protect those businesses to the best of my ability.”
And protect it he has. When Gyngell was brought back to run the place in 2007, two years after walking out on the Packers, morale was at rock bottom. Nine had chewed through five managing directors, five heads of news and five heads of news and current affairs in five years, and had cut staff and programmes to the bone. But it was not just that the knife had been used; it was the manner in which it had been done.
People who had been loyal to the network for years, like newsreader Jim Waley, were told to pack their bags and leave, and sue if they wanted a payout. Jessica Rowe was famously “boned” by Eddie McGuire, along with the creators of The Block, a huge ratings success. The boss of 60 Minutes, Mark Llewellyn (now running Seven’s Sunday Night), had also been shafted, setting off an avalanche of bad publicity.
And that summary tells only one tenth of the story, without even touching the year in which Sam Chisholm ruled the roost.
So, there was plenty of damage for Gyngell to repair. And he has done well. His first fix was to rehire The Block’s creators, Julian Cress and David Barbour, who had been working with him at Granada in Los Angeles. Their revamped program topped the ratings this year, with its finale pulling in 3.4 million viewers. Two other episodes made it into Australia’s 2011 top 20.
His next trick was to make people feel safe again. Gyngell is one of those rare creatures, a TV boss you can trust. He’s a decent, generous man who treats people well but also speaks his mind. And there aren’t many of those in the industry.
Today, the bottom line is sport is doing well, and news is clawing its way back into contention: the 6pm news knocked Seven off its perch in Sydney this year, while Today edged out Sunrise in both Sydney and Melbourne.
Drama is also a bright spot, although the latest incarnation of Underbelly put fewer bums on seats than before, and won little or no critical acclaim.
But Gyngell hasn’t brought back the glory days. In the immortal words of McGuire, who ran Nine before him: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” And the network is still coming second.
There is also little else to be proud of. Nine News lacks the authority it had in the 1980s and 1990s; 60 Minutes and A Current Affair are a shadow of their former selves; and the network no longer has a monopoly of sports coverage, as it did in Kerry’s day. It is also losing its audience to digital channels (including its own), which show warmed-up repeats of American shows.