It has not been an easy road, but on Monday commercial television’s top current affairs executive, Peter Meakin, will finally get his feet under the desk at beleaguered Network Ten.
Ten will likely be Meakin’s final port of call after celebrated stints at Seven and Nine (twice). After he has had time to get his favoured Range Rover a parking spot in Ten’s garage at Pyrmont, in Sydney’s inner west, Meakin will face problems all over the schedule, from the troubled Wake Up breakfast program (pictured) to the re-jigged Eyewitness News and The Project.
Paving the way was last Friday’s resignation of Anthony Flannery, the former head of news and current affairs who was Meakin’s predecessor and former colleague at Nine, ending months of speculation about how the two men could jointly run the newsroom.
Meakin’s appointment as executive director of news and current affairs was announced by Ten chief executive Hamish McLennan in August. It was blunt. Flannery would report to Meakin, no longer directly to McLennan. The announcement was apparently a complete surprise to Flannery and blindsided journos at both Ten and Seven, where Meakin had reigned for a decade, helping lift the network to ratings supremacy over his old Nine network.
Though Meakin was restrained on gardening leave for six months, the groundwork began straight away. A new broom swept through Ten’s news and current affairs division. Flannery continued to turn up to work, implementing budget cuts and helping to relaunch Eyewitness News, but was hardly consulted as a string of Meakin appointments was announced. John Choueifate — known around the industry as “Choof” — the former Nine newsroom executive who had been running Today Tonight, replaced Ten’s Sydney news director Paul Patrick, who left “to pursue opportunities” and is now at Nine. Seven and Nine veteran Steve Wood was brought in as EP of the troubled Wake Up breakfast program, replacing wunderkind Adam Boland, formerly EP of Seven’s Sunrise and a Meakin favourite, who imploded spectacularly just days after the November launch, going on indefinite leave after a breakdown and finally resigning in January. (Boland begged to be released from his contract, and reports yesterday of a $1.2 million payout from Ten are believed to be completely inaccurate.)
Wake Up co-host Natasha Exelby was an early casualty, dropped from Wake Up after just three weeks, and speculation is now rife that presenter Matt Doran could be about to replace James Mathison. Mike Munro, who last worked at Seven’s Sunday Night program, joined Ten as weekend presenter of Eyewitness News, and Hugh Riminton was announced as presenter of the late bulletin, leaving in limbo Hermione Kitson (who did not speak with Crikey) and raising questions about the future plans for star Sandra Sully, who hosts the successful Sydney edition of Eyewitness News.
Legally, Ten has sailed close to the wind. Crikey understands that Flannery engaged lawyer John Laxon to handle his negotiations with Ten in the lead-up to his resignation. Laxon, who declined to comment for this story, was the lawyer who represented former Nine Network news and current affairs chief Mark Llewellyn in 2006 (now running Sunday Night, and increasingly influential in news and current affairs), after then-CEO Eddie McGuire replaced him with former Bulletin editor Garry Linnell (now at Fairfax Media). Llewellyn, whose case was settled with a confidential payment believed to be in the vicinity of a million dollars, prepared a sensational affidavit detailing conversations with McGuire — including the sacking or “boning” of Today co-host Jessica Rowe. Ten’s current in-house counsel, Stuart Thomas, was at Nine at the time.
Ten itself has been burned before by the courts’ determination to uphold contracts, including the bitter battle over former CEO James Warburton, who was poached from Channel 7 by Lachlan Murdoch in March 2011, but had to serve out over 10 months’ gardening leave after Justice Michael Pembroke ruled partly in Seven’s favour.
McLennan, who took over from Warburton last February, was himself caught up in a legal dispute when he was global chairman and chief executive of Young and Rubicam. Last May the ad agency was ordered to pay $268,259 in damages to Paul Fishlock, the chairman, executive creative director of its subsidiary Campaign Palace, who successfully sued for repudiation of his contract when Reed Collins was appointed national chief creative officer in early 2011, effectively assuming full control of the agency’s creative business.
“… it will take something out of the box — the kind of positive surprise the network used to deliver — to bring audiences back to Ten, and that’s not on the horizon.”
Exelby and Patrick both declined to speak to Crikey. Exelby, who is represented by Mark Klemmens at Profile Talent Management, is still on the payroll but remains in a standoff with Ten more than 10 weeks after she was axed.
The sense of mounting costs and casualties from McLennan’s back-to-the-future news and current affairs revolution will no doubt subside if the Meakin experiment is a success. But what will success look like? It is highly unlikely Meakin can do for Ten what he did for Seven and Nine — indeed there is a view that is the last thing he should try to do. Meakin declined to speak to Crikey.
Media buyer Steve Allen of Fusion Strategy says despite the long lead time since Meakin’s appointment was announced, it is not at all clear what his strategy is going to be, or how it fits into the bigger picture for Ten, whose biggest challenge is from 7.30pm onward — prime-time drama, entertainment and reality programming.
Allen says it will take something out of the box — the kind of positive surprise the network used to deliver — to bring audiences back to Ten, and that’s not on the horizon. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games have done better than anyone thought, but there is no guarantee those viewers will stick around once the skis are put away.
Allen says Ten is “not remotely out of the woods”. “Any time we analyse what Ten might do, we run into the problem, that Seven and Nine are not going to vacate any timeslot,” he said.
Hiring Meakin is “smart stuff”: “The problem they’ve had is they haven’t felt confident they’ve had an architect in there.”
At the same time, there is no way Ten can go head-to-head against Seven and Nine, particularly in news and current affairs, where its 5pm news bulletin has been entrenched for decades.
“The last thing they should do right now is make a wholesale change to their News and current affairs line-up,” Allen said. “The biggest two or three shareholders [besides billionaires Lachlan Murdoch, James Packer, Gina Rinehart and Bruce Gordon] would go berserk.”
Wake Up remains problematic — ratings are stuck below expectations, and the clock is ticking; there are rumours that key advertisers including Inner Health and McDonald’s were promised an audience of 50,000 to 60,000 viewers. Despite having its best week so far this week, Wake Up is still short of expectations, averaging 30,000 to 40,000 viewers a morning since it launched. The problems continue into the Studio 10 morning program, which has been been better than Wake Up but is still short of expectations. Advertorials on Studio 10 are apparently selling for as little as $3000 — whereas at rival morning programs on Nine or Seven they might go for $10,000.
Meakin is known to be unhappy with the performance of Ten’s The Project from 6.30 to 7.30pm, feeling it has become flat and complacent and has lost the edginess it had when it started several years ago. Compounding problems for the program was Ten’s decision to expand it to an hour, which has diluted its approach. It was expanded when Ten axed its brief flirtation with news and current affairs from 6 to 7pm. Interestingly, Ten this week started coding (for ratings purposes) The Project into two half-hour blocks at 6.30 and 7pm, whereas previously it had been coded for the full hour. The new coding separates the first and second half hours of the program and shows the weakness at 6.30pm and a stronger performance at 7pm. Expect that to be the guide as to change at The Project.
Allen said Meakin’s task this year will be tweaking the existing line-up: “If news and The Project could lift ratings by 5-10% I’d say that’d be fantastic.” But he says Meakin’s real focus will be longer term.
“I think it will be more about 2015. He’ll have some good ideas. There is nothing but upside. But Meakin needs to deliver. If he goes in there swinging a bat, all hell will break loose,” he said.