When you look at what Lachlan Murdoch and James Packer have achieved at the youthful Ten Network, it’s hard not to let one’s mind drift back to One.Tel, where the dynamic duo lost almost $1 billion of their families’ money in Jodee Rich’s mobile phone company in 2001.

But the big difference this time around is that Lachlan has actually been running the show for much of the time, and it is his own money, rather than his dad’s, going down the gurgler.

On our back-of-the-envelope calculations, Rupert’s eldest boy has lost at least $110 million of the near $150 million he has put in since late 2010. Which is somewhat ironic, considering James is said to have cut his old pal in on the Ten deal to make up for what happened at One.Tel more than a decade ago.

So whose fault is it this time, or is it just bad luck to have bought a free-to-air TV network at a bad time? Whatever the answer, Ten is looking more and more like a train crash.

Since Lachlan and James bought their 18.8% stake in October 2010, Ten’s share price has fallen by roughly 80% (from $1.45 to $0.28), while the network’s TV profits have dropped by more than half (from $193 million to $82 million). Meanwhile, earnings per share have disappeared altogether, plunging from 9 cents in 2010 to -0.9 cents in 2012. And this, remember, is the network Packer and Murdoch claimed was being so badly run it could easily be transformed.

But even worse than this financial f-ck-up is the fact that at least 160 people have lost their jobs (or soon will) and the entire survival of the network is now said to be at risk. TV experts, including Laurence Freedman, who made a fortune from Ten in the 1990s when he helped rescue it from bankruptcy, suggest Australia may no longer have room for a third commercial network. Freedman tweeted this week: “Ten Network has now fired dozens of newsroom staff. Soon to return to profits by showing station logo plus ads… Have lost the plot.”

The latest round of cuts at the station — which saw newsreaders like Ron Wilson, Helen Kapalos and Bill Woods marched off the job — is believed to be targeting almost 100 people.  But the bad news is that even these won’t get Ten back on track, because even at the rate of $100,000 per person it would only save $10 million a year. Ten’s problems are far bigger than that.

Ten’s basic difficulty is that its programs aren’t rating. So it can’t sell ads, and revenues are in free fall. According to Ten’s latest accounts, TV revenues in the year to August 31, 2012 were around $120 million lower (or roughly 15%) than in the previous 12 months. Meanwhile, savage cost cutting only managed to claw back $43 million in savings.

And there may be worse to come. The revenue drop in the second half of the year was sharper than in the first, and Ten’s ratings are even lower than they were last year. According to a recent report from the media analysts at RBS Morgans — who rate Ten shares a “sell” even at the current price — the network’s share of the commercial TV audience is running at 24.7% this year, down from 27.9% in 2011. But in the nine weeks following the Olympics (up to mid-October) it was tracking way down at 21%.

Worse still, in six of the last seven Oztam surveys, Ten has come fourth in the TV race, behind our public broadcaster, the ABC.

“With a market value of under $400 million, Ten looks ripe for the picking, if you believe that a third commercial TV network in Australia could be viable.”

Little surprise, then, that RBS Morgans predicted Ten’s revenue will fall by a further 4% in 2013 (around $30 million) “with risk to the downside”. That would take another 300 staff cuts to balance it up.

It’s all such a far cry from the beginning of 2011, when James Packer told Ten’s board of directors that their company could be making another $100 million profit a year if it followed his and Lachlan’s back-to-basics strategy. This involved making it a low-cost network that targeted the youth market again.

Since then, the network’s entire top management team has been boned, including chairman Nick Falloon, CEO Grant Blackley, chief programmer David Mott, sports supremo David White, news boss Jim Carroll, CFO John Kelly and COO Kerry Kingston, who were obviously blamed for doing such a “bad” job in the past (when the share price and profits were so much higher). The cost of getting rid of this hugely experienced bunch appears to have been almost $10 million in severance payments.

In their place — for 10 months, while new CEO James Warburton was banned by the Supreme Court from taking up his position — Lachlan Murdoch steered the network himself and picked up $260,000 a month in management fees.

What have shareholders got in return? With all its old managers gone, Ten has gone back to targeting the 16-39 demographic, which most pundits now believe is too narrow to sustain a commercial network, in the face of hot competition from pay TV, digital channels, the internet and mobile devices.

Ten has also dumped the AFL, one of its biggest ratings winners, repurchased MasterChef from the Murdochs’ Shine production company at three times its original cost, and made a series of poor program decisions, such as the ill-fated and expensive Breakfast show, fronted by the appalling Paul Henry (a personal choice of Lachlan’s), the fast-flopping Everybody Dance Now, hosted by Lachlan’s wife Sarah and axed after a few episodes, and the dire The Shire, which was also a ratings disaster.

Back in April, when Ten’s half-yearly results were published, the company headlined its announcement to the market with “Ten’s turnaround continues”. In its latest glossy 68-page annual review for 2012, Lachlan follows up by telling Ten’s long-suffering shareholders: “There is no question that Ten Network Holdings enters 2013 as a different company than it was just 12 short months ago.”

It’s hard not to disagree, because the share price back then was still close to $1 and the company appeared to have a decent future. Now it’s looking like a basket case.

With a market value of under $400 million, Ten looks ripe for the picking, if you believe that a third commercial TV network in Australia could be viable.

Ex-Ten insiders and ex-News Ltd heavies have long believed the network could end up as part of the Murdoch family empire — with Lachlan running it. We’re not so sure about that, but we will be watching this space. And if Rupert does want it, it’s certainly going cheap.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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