CHANNEL TEN has lost its sixth consecutive week of ratings against the ABC's flagship channel ABC1, compounding a growing perception that Ten is now Australia's ''fourth'' network.
The youngest of the three commercial networks has traditionally placed third behind channels Seven and Nine.
But a series of disastrous program launches, a dependence on younger viewers despite the fragmentation of younger demographics by digital and pay channels and a general malaise in the TV economy have coalesced to form a perfect storm around Ten.
Last week Ten lost to the ABC by more than 3 percentage points: Ten drew only a 10.3 per cent share, compared to the ABC's 13.5 per cent.
Not only was it Ten's sixth consecutive loss to Aunty on an individual channel basis, but its fifth loss on a multichannel (Ten, Eleven and One versus the ABC channels) basis.
It is also nearly the same margin between long-time rivals Seven and Nine.
Seven won last week's ratings with 24.9 per cent of audience share, fuelled by a great performance from The X Factor. Nine was second with 20.4 per cent.
There is significant pressure on Ten to lift its performance, as it goes into two sensitive negotiations almost simultaneously, both of which may affect its bottom line.
The first is with its advertisers, to finalise a rate card for next year, that is, the base advertising rates paid to Ten for a 30-second commercial slot.
The second is with Southern Cross Austereo, to renegotiate its 10-year contract to retransmit Ten's content on Southern Cross's regional TV network.
In both cases, Ten will face pressure to take a hit because of shrinking audience volumes. In the prevailing TV economy that is something a commercial network can ill afford to do.
Audience analysis compiled by Credit Suisse and published by the Herald last week described Ten's performance as its worst since ''the turn of the century''.
While the thrust of that data - that a non-Olympic broadcaster was beaten by two Olympic broadcasters during the Games - was self-evident, it did reveal one compelling detail: Ten's lost ground against the Olympics was far greater than Seven's.
That would suggest Ten's viewers do not feel as compelled to stay on the channel as the audience of either of its rivals, a situation which leaves Ten vulnerable to tectonic shifts in audience activity.
In revenue terms the impact is difficult to measure, as commercial networks sell advertising in demographic segments, not in the ''all people'' terms with which ratings are generally reported by the media. It does, however, contribute to a growing perception that Ten's brand has been significantly damaged, and that the road to recovery will be far longer than previously thought.
Ten's response to its own programming vacuum is to fast-track existing US programs, including Glee and Modern Family, and to launch one new US show, the comedy Ben and Kate. It will also screen the highly anticipated telemovie, Underground: The Julian Assange Story.