The Seven Network has happily fanned the flames of speculation about its early-evening line-up — to permanently ditch tabloid TV stalwart Today Tonight in favour of an hour-long news bulletin — by crowing about the ratings success of its temporary news block against Channel Nine.

But the bubble burst last night: Seven was beaten by Nine’s news and A Current Affair. And that came on the first relatively “normal” news and current affairs night in nearly a month, with no bushfires, floods and, crucially, tennis. Viewers gave Seven a big thumbs down.

Nine’s news averaged 1.181 million viewers across the five metro markets while Seven averaged 1.138 million — boosted by wins in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. Seven lost the key markets of Sydney and Melbourne — the latter by an embarrassingly large 184,000 viewers.

Seven’s problem isn’t the under-performance of Today Tonight; it’s the poor showing of Seven’s 6pm news in Sydney (although that may be steadying) and especially in Melbourne. Since a revamp in the middle of last year Seven News Melbourne has lost over 20% of its audience. That has pulled down Today Tonight and it was on display for all to see last night.

ACA averaged 1.078 million viewers last night; the second half of Seven’s news special averaged 1.026 million viewers. Seven won in Sydney, Adelaide and Perth; ACA won Brisbane and thrashed Seven by 175,000 viewers in Melbourne, which again underlines the real problem for Seven.

If Seven merges Today Tonight into a hour of news and current affairs — as Fairfax strongly suggested yesterday — it’s a tacit admission it can’t fix the problem the network inflicted on itself by appointing former Herald Sun editor Simon Pristel as Melbourne news director.

It also confirms that, only weeks after former news and current affairs tsar Peter Meakin stepped down, management has no clear strategy in place. Meakin vociferously opposed such as move when he was in the chair as did former CEO David Leckie. Last September Meakin told The Daily Telegraph ditching TT would be “the biggest free kick we could give our opposition. Bear in mind that this is a national program that invariably wins its timeslot. Why would we want to change that?”

The move also raises questions about why Seven recruited Helen Kapalos late last year to front TT and send former TT EP Neil Money back to Melbourne as current affairs director. Kapalos is not a happy camper, in spite of what might be said.

The official line from Seven is: “The 6pm news bulletin has been extended to one hour over recent weeks on the east coast given significant news stories such as the bushfires and the floods — and it has included feature-length stories from the Today Tonight team. That remains the case. Going forward we will look to maintain some flexibility within the hour of news and public affairs.”

Nine news and current affairs director Darren Wick told Crikey Nine is sticking with the traditional news and current affairs formula: “They’re the ones who lost last year; we’re the ones who won. That’s why they’re making desperate moves.”

Last night, in the important lead-in slot of 5.30, Nine’s Hot Seat with Eddie McGuire won with 554,000 viewers compared to Seven’s Deal or No Deal with Andrew O’Keefe. That poor showing won’t be changed by axing TT either.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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