The real story out of the mid-year TV ratings isn’t so much the closing of the gap on a weaker Seven by a stronger Nine, which happened, but the continual looting of the Ten audience by Seven and Nine, while SBS has edged up slightly and the ABC is doing OK, not worse as some recent commentaries have claimed.

In fact, the loss of share by Ten is an indictment on the management of the network by Lachlan Murdoch, in his time as interim CEO in 2011. He is now chairman of the company and still hasn’t accepted responsibility for the network’s very weak ratings, revenue and earnings showing this year. It hasn’t all been the fault of the weak revenue position of the industry.

Murdoch not only put in place or signed off on all the changes at Ten, which have seen its share of viewing (and advertising drop sharply), but he personally head-hunted CEO James Warburton from Seven, a move that upset Seven and its owner, Kerry Stokes, to the point where Seven sued and forced Ten to keep Warburton away from management roles until the start of this yeas, instead of starting him around September of 2011. That meant Warburton had no real influence on the first-half performance of Ten and has only started having a major say with programming such as The Shire, which starts tonight, re-signing Offspring for two more series, plus the weak Being Lara Bingle and a couple of reality series due to appear later in the year.

Ten’s total audience share (including One and Eleven, the two digital channels) fell to 19.9% in the first half of 2012 ratings (which ended on Saturday night), from 21.9% in the first half of 2011. Nine’s jumped to 27.9% from 25.9%, while Seven’s fell to 30.4% from 31.1%. Ten’s fall will be reflected in an expected fall in the network’s share of first-half advertising (the data is out in about a month). The ABC’s was up to 16.3% from 15.6%, and SBS’ share edged up to 5.5% from 5.4%.

Looking at the main channel performance (which is still the centre of TV rating battles), Seven’s share fell to 23.1% from 23.3%. Nine’s jumped from 19.1% to 21.6%, but Ten’s sank to 14.1% from 16.6%. ABC 1 was steady on 12.3% and SBS One edged up to 4.7% from 4.6%. The 10 digital channels FTA share of primetime viewing edged up to 24.1% from 24.0%.

Thanks to The Voice and The Block, Nine has lifted its share of the major demos, 16-39, 18-49 and 25-54s. But MasterChef is a shadow of its 2011 performance so far this year. Seven has seen weaker than expected outcomes for Dancing With The Stars and Australia’s Got Talent, both of which were swamped by The Voice, lost ground with viewers and then couldn’t rebuild their audiences once The Voice and then The Block had finished (in the case of Talent, which holds its grand final on Wednesday night, with the winner’s announced a week later, when MasterChef climaxes). Ten has moved the MasterChef climax from Sunday night to try and give it a bigger share of the week. Offsetting that is the fact that Wednesday night’s are weaker than Sunday nights.

But there is a final measure of performance that allows us to work out who the strong are among the three commercial networks. Ten moved first to raise more capital from shareholders, with the $200 million issue a couple of months ago, while revealing nasty falls in revenues and profits as the impact of the Lachlan Murdoch leadership of the network was revealed (And the lack of any positive impact from the quartet of billionaires in the share register in Murdoch, James Packer, Gina Rinehart and Bruce Gordon, who controls WIN, Nine’s major regional and metro affiliate).

Seven West Media this morning revealed a $440 million capital issue and updated investors as to how it went financially in the 2011-12 financial year, which ended on June 30. The issue will be made at $1.32, a big discount to the $1.62 share price last Friday. Seven had slightly better news of its trading performance though, telling the market:

“On April 24, 2012, Seven West Media announced revised earnings guidance for Earnings Before Interest and Taxes (EBIT) for the full year to 30 June 2012 in the range of $460 million to $470 million. Since April, the wider advertising market has remained subdued and Seven West Media expects these market conditions to continue in the near term. Notwithstanding these market conditions, Seven West Media now expects its full year 2012 underlying operating EBIT to be approximately $473 million, slightly above the previous range (subject to any year-end audit adjustments including, but not limited to, non-cash impairment.

“Seven West Media has strong earnings and margins and is trading well within the covenant levels of its senior facilities. However, given the continued weakness in the wider advertising market and broader global economic volatility, Seven West Media announces an underwritten equity raising of approximately $440 million. The proceeds of the equity raising will be used to pay down debt.”

So Seven (like Ten) is being ultra cautious and attacking its debt (although Ten will use some of its money to fund new programming, such as The Shire).

No no such freedom for the Nine Network. Its owner, Nine Entertainment Co, is heading towards bankruptcy later this year if its owner, CVC, the private equity group, can’t strike a deal on its recapitalisation. That has proven to be impossible so far because of the amount involved, about $2.8 billion.

So while Ten and Seven West appear weak and have been forced to raise capital to lower debt and maintain reserves, Nine, which certainly lifted its first-half performance, can’t capitalise on that because of the enormity of its debt burden.

And its no use the print media at Fairfax and News Ltd jeering at the capital-raising moves by Seven and Ten, and at Nine’s predicament. Fairfax Media is staggering, and would raise hundreds of millions of fresh capital if it had a strong enough share price. And News Ltd is in effect being bailed out by parent News Corp by way of the split in the company into the entertainment and publishing/payTV (Foxtel) businesses. The bailout is coming via an injection of cash and a clean-up of asset values by News Corp to right size the publishing business’s asset values, which are now heavily over-valued given the downturn in the outlook for print.  As well, News Corp is leaving the Foxtel and Fox Sports (and Sky TV in NZ) in the publishing business to give it a source of consistent earnings, instead of shuffling them into the entertainment business. That is also tipped to be the vehicle for the Murdoch family to keep a foot on as their power base in future years, once the entertainment business breaks free.