It’s been done with little fanfare, but for a couple of weeks now, both Channel Nine and Seven have significantly upped the hours of news they’re beaming into Australian homes.

The centerpiece of this news push is the expanded hour-long bulletin both stations are now airing at 6-7pm. Not since Ten hired George Negus in 2010 to expand its news coverage — an experiment ultimately abandoned in the face of poor ratings — has Australian commercial television invested so much in its news divisions.

Channel Nine is spending an extra $100 million, to be used over two to three years. Crikey understands Seven’s investment is a fraction of that — something like 10% of the figure over two to three years — but it will still add an extra 27 journalists to its 400-person metro and regional news teams, as well as absorbing the several dozen journalists who were working on Today Tonight into the general news team after the show was axed along the east coast (Channel Nine still airs A Current Affair after the news).

Expanding the news is an expensive proposition, says CCZ Statton Equities’ Roger Colman. “But fundamentally, it’s what people reliably want,” he told Crikey. “People watch the news. It’s pretty safe stuff.”

Journalist Jill Singer was the first host of Today Tonight when it launched in 1995 and tells Crikey its axing along the east coast is no great loss. She’s thrilled those resources are now going into news, for which there’s always been a huge appetite. When Today Tonight and A Current Affair were rating better, they were the focus, she adds. As those shows faltered, the investment went back into news. “News programs have never been as toxic and on-the-nose as those current affairs programs,” she said. “You could view this as about regaining credibility.”

So, what are people watching exactly? Channel Nine began its news revolution in early January, while Channel Seven only began its hour-long bulletins three weeks ago. While it’s still early days, Crikey asked media monitoring firm iSentia to send us the transcripts of all Seven and Nine news bulletins from yesterday and, for comparison, Ten’s output.

In Sydney alone, Channel Nine aired five hours of scripted news (the figure goes up to 10 hours if you count breakfast shows and hourly news bulletins — in 2009 it was around six hours in total a day). Channel Seven aired four hours of scripted news (five if you count the 7pm bulletin on SevenTWO), while Ten aired two (its Late News has made way for the Olympics this month).

The bulletins were standard fare. The format of the stories hasn’t shifted significantly, with Seven, Nine and Ten all sticking to the standard one- to three-minute story length for now. Nine, which aired the most news, used some of the time for unscripted segments like “The Chat Room” on Nine News Now, featuring 4BC breakfast host Ian Skippen and ACA reporter Elise Elliot chatting about household finances, dobbing in ho0n children and the rise of “food porn”.

There was a rather intriguing segment at 4.11pm on Nine Afternoon News about how “Qantas and Arnotts have helped Winton residents reunite with loved ones”. It wasn’t marked as an ad, but the vision for the three-minute segment was provided by QantasLink and Tim Tams. On Friday, television blog TV Tonight ran a piece querying a curiously branded segment that aired in some form on all three commercial networks last week about footy team Port Power being hypnotised, with Energy Australia and Power TV watermarks on the footage. Nine and Ten told the website they sourced the footage from YouTube, but the incident does raise the question: more time for the news does mean more time you can fill with branded content.

“What’s undeniably happening is that Seven and Nine are simply airing far more stories than time-constrained Ten.”

What’s undeniably happening is that Seven and Nine are simply airing far more stories than time-constrained Ten. There’s a few more international stories than you would expect thrown into the mix, and on the scripted programs at least, the news is mostly hard with little discernible fluff.

According to Seven and Nine, the reason for the longer news is simple: it was for the ratings. Channel Seven — which has trailed Nine at 6pm nationally in Sydney and Melbourne for some time — went with the longer bulletin after a trial in early 2013 yielded strong audiences. Nine got the hint and switched to the extended format after its hour-long bushfire bulletins rated well.

Nine’s director of news and current affairs Darren Wicks was tied up and couldn’t talk to Crikey. His counterpart at Seven, Rob Raschke, says the doubling of news content at his station is an exciting development, not only because it allows him to hire more journalists in a difficult economy for the industry, but also because it allows his news teams to tell more stories.

“What it does allow us to do is gives us more flexibility in terms of the breadth of content,” he told Crikey. “On a big news day with a big breaking story, you can devote a lot more time or resources to that story. It does give you that flexibility to throw more resources at things and tell a story more comprehensively.”

Has it placed Seven’s journos under the pump? The company is hiring two dozen or so more, but it’s a lot of time to fill.

Raschke said that isn’t a problem: “Ask the dozen people producing a half-hour bulletin and they’ll tell you the most difficult thing is the decision about what to leave out. There’s a lot of deserving material that doesn’t get to air. So this gives us the ability to run longer content, and also foreign and interstate content, that wouldn’t have always made the bulletin.”

Unlike Ten’s all-too-brief dalliance with more news, Raschke says his station’s commitment is long-term. “Its importance is understood. This isn’t something we dip our toe into and then retreat from,” he said.

Regardless, it’s hard to see the investment surviving if audiences aren’t interested. So far, they’re buying it. Nine News at 6pm and 6.30pm (they split the hour for ratings purposes) are performing strongly, with only a slight drop-off in the second half. But ACA has been a victim; it’s now regularly beaten at 7pm by Home and Away on Seven.

For Seven — desperate to reclaim early evening supremacy and boost its prime-time line-up — Raschke says it’s still too early to tell, but the figures with an extra half-hour of evening news have risen. “There’s a long way to go with this, but there’s definite signs of improvement,” he said.

Peter Fray

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