Opinion

Who Killed Channel Ten?

The first rule of media agencies is that you never talk about the poor performance of a TV network.

They do too much business together to risk the relationship.

But behind the scenes, the drums have been beating about Ten long before the arrival – and tonight’s sudden departure – of James Warburton.

I remember chatting to the boss of a top ten media agency three or four years ago, just after the launch of Freeview.

His prediction was that the arrival of the secondary channels was going to screw Ten. Previously Seven and Nine had done battle for middle Australia while Ten came a profitable third by controlling costs and targeting an ad-friendly younger demographic with the likes of The Simpsons and Neighbours.

But once the digital channels came along, the rival networks could begin to squeeze Ten. Sure enough, that’s what Nine’s Go and Seven’s Mate have been doing. This week we saw SBS2 announce its plan to do the same.

But for a while, I thought the media agency boss was mistaken. Along came MasterChef, bravely launched by then programming boss David Mott. Suddenly the network wasn’t just competitive in 16-39 and 18-49; it was getting wins in all people too.

The network began to change strategy – investing in beefing up its news output and commissioning big shows such as The Renovators.

But the revenue wasn’t keeping up with the increased spend, not least because the media downturn was beginning to bite.

New shareholder Lachlan Murdoch shot CEO Grant Blackley and announced he’d be bringing in his man, the well respected James Warburton, from Seven.

It became something of a debacle when Seven went to court and Warburton was forced into lengthy gardening leave, meaning Murdoch had to babysit the company while “Mr Ambitious” stayed at home.

By the time Warburton arrived, the pattern was set. The Renovators had been an expensive failure, and Masterchef wasn’t delivering the same ratings magic as before.

Warburton made an early blunder, bringing in Mike Morrison as his sales chief.

This week another one of these nothing-on-the-record media agency bosses told me how unimpressed he had been. Morrison may have  been a smart strategist, but he wouldn’t shut up and listen for two minutes to his customer, I was told. By contrast Seven’s sales boss Kurt Burnette is “a quiet guy who listens and tries to understand what you need”, the agency boss said. He put Nine’s Peter Wiltshire in a similar category.

After less than six months, Morrison was gone. Warburton moved to steady the ship by bringing in former PHD CEO Barry O’Brien. The avuncular O’Brien, well liked in the industry, called in some favours and kept the network in the fight – or as well as he could given the declining ratings.

Mott also got the bullet as the network coped with the humiliating failure of Everybody Dance Now – presented by Murdoch’s wife Sarah. I Will Survive, a show inspired by drag queen movie Priscilla Queen of the Desert also failed to connect, despite being a well made show.

Being Lara Bingle and The Shire drew headlines and initial ratings but quickly faded.

The Circle got the chop after failing to get ad support. The backlash to Yumi Stynes’ comments about soldier Ben Roberts-Smith didn’t help its commercial situation.

The Paul Henry-hosted Breakfast suffered diabolical ratings, including a zero rating in Melbourne for parts of its first day on air. (Declaration of interest: I was an occasional guest on the show). It was axed too.

If you were to write a book about the worst year in a network’s life, this would be it. Who Killed Channel Nine has nothing on 2012.

This year, things started a fractionally more brightly. Masterchef: The Professionals went to air well before the ratings season began. Initially it started brightly (deservedly so: it’s a well made, entertaining show). But once Seven’s My Kitchen Rules launched, Masterchef was blown out of the water, not least because MKR was better marketed and better promoted.

Then came the new series of Can Of Worms, debuting with just 351,000 viewers, down in Everybody Dance Now territory.

But the big test – and I admit, I didn’t realise how big – came on Wednesday night of this week, with the debut of Ten’s new drama Mr And Mrs Murder.

In what is (with that huge benefit of hindsight) a foolish piece of programming, Mr And Mrs Murder was given Glee as a lead-in. Glee rated an awful 269,000. We’ve still not been able to find a weekday primetime network show that has ever delivered a worse number. It robbed Mr And Mrs Murder of what could have been a far bigger win.

And now Warburton has in turn been fired.

That’s fair enough. As the boss, you get a big pay packet for taking responsibility,whether it is your fault or not. But he will, I’m sure, make a swift return to the media world. Nobody I’ve come across doubts he was an excellent head of sales for Seven, or before that boss of media agency UM. I bet he’s already had offers.

hamish mclennanSo what does the arrival of Hamish McLennan mean?

Questions are going to be asked. If bringing in a CEO with no program-making experience didn’t work, why bring in somebody with no TV experience whatsoever?

And while McLennan rose smoothly to the top of Y&R locally, his successor in the CEO of Y&R Brands role Nigel Marsh did not inherit a healthy operation. Management revolving doors, the death of The Campaign Palace and last week’s messy court case with Paul Fishlock all occurred after McLennan left,  but saw roots in earlier management decisions.

So why appoint him? Well, he is close to the Murdochs. Most recently he was in (from the outside) a nebulous local role for News Corporation.

And here comes my conspiracy theory. Under the current media ownership laws, News Corporation would struggle to make the case to buy Ten while it also owns 50% of (and has management control of) pay TV operation Foxtel through its local arm News Limited.

But… News Corporation is being split into two companies – new News Corp which will hold its old school publishing assets such as its newspapers. And Fox Group which will hold its TV interests.

Except in Australia, where Foxtel will remain part of News Limited, which will be held by News Corp. So I wonder if the separate Fox Group could buy Ten and put it with its global TV and argue that the ownership is separate.

McLennan would certainly be a good man to have at the helm for that.

First though, he’s got a bigger problem.

How the hell will he get Australians to start watching Ten again?

Tim Burrowes

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