Clinging to the remnants of youth

NEXT year Network Ten turns 49.

In demographic terms that puts Australia's youngest commercial TV network at the upper limit of its target audience: 18- to 49-year-olds. As birthdays go, it is less than ideally timed. And there is little to celebrate. Off the back of a change of management and the network's worst performance in years, a series of programming blunders has forced Ten to its knees.

Some of Ten's woes are environmental and its rivals, particularly Channel Nine, are not immune to the effects of a weak economy and softening revenue streams. But Ten is a commercial network that, only five years ago, chalked up $1 billion in revenue and more than $250 million in net profit. The network that once made more profit than its two commercial rivals combined is now a shadow of its former self.

On a single-channel basis, Ten is on track to lose to ABC1 for a sixth consecutive week. It has also lost more than 25 consecutive ratings days. Ten has slipped to fourth place on the ratings ladder and shows no signs of immediate recovery.

Ten's performance this year has been its worst in recent memory, and its post-Olympic schedule now sits in tatters following flat launches for a series of key shows, including Everybody Dance Now, I Will Survive and Don't Tell the Bride.

Those failures culminated in the decision by Ten management to remove the network's respected programming chief, David Mott. A week later they removed the head of publicity. Neither move mounts a particularly convincing case that Ten has a clear strategy for recovery.

Despite recent missteps, Mott has experience that was almost unrivalled in Australian television and the hits to his name - Australian Idol, MasterChef Australia, The Biggest Loser and Big Brother - historically have been among Ten's strongest brands.

With Mott out, attention has turned to management - chairman Lachlan Murdoch and chief executive James Warburton - and the market is looking for signs they can arrest Ten's sharp and worrying decline.

While we wait, however, Ten faces a perfect storm of cost and revenue pressures. Its advertisers will be looking for a reduction in the network's rate card (the base advertising rates they pay for 30-second commercial slots). Those negotiations are to begin soon and Ten, with a diminished audience, is not entering with a firm footing.

The second issue, which threatens to eat more significantly into its bottom line, is an impending negotiation with regional broadcaster Southern Cross Austereo over how much it pays to retransmit Ten's programming on regional channels. The existing 10-year agreement expires next year.

The prevailing feeling in the industry is that Ten's management has made several major strategic blunders in the past 18 months, notably a bad play for NRL rights at the expense of AFL, the net result of which is that Ten is now without a major sport in its schedule.

They were also unsuccessful in bidding for The Voice - a logical acquisition given Ten's history with Australian Idol - and allowed another network to revive one of Ten's iconic shows, Big Brother. The NRL, The Voice and Big Brother all now belong to Nine, and it is perhaps no surprise that Nine's fortunes have been resurgent while Ten's have declined. In that sense, television ratings are a zero-sum game: every failure is the price paid for someone else's victory.

Less clear is the way forward. Sacking a programmer does little but create market unease. History notes, for example, that neither Channel Seven nor Nine sacked its programmers when programming woes gnawed into ratings. The result is that a nine-month recovery could now take up to two or three years.

Ten is also suffering an identity crisis. Its strategy of targeting a younger demographic than its commercial rivals made sense when there were only five channels but no longer works in a multichannel environment, where Nine's GO!, Ten's own Eleven and pay TV channels such as Arena and Fox8 compete for the same viewers. In response it decided to grow up, but that strategy was arrested by a change of management and since then Ten has been plagued by stunning inconsistency.

The message Ten is trying to send the market is that it is focused on an under-50 audience, but recent recruitments - a 52-year-old host for Breakfast and a 52-year-old right-wing commentator for a Sunday-morning panel show - do not deliver on that promise.

Ten's strategy for the rest of the year is to ''fast-track'' US content, including some of the best US programs on Australian television, such as Homeland, The Good Wife and Modern Family. Beyond that, nothing is clear, although Ten has historically taken the lead over Seven and Nine in launching its schedule to the market.

Ten's annual ''upfront'' (the term the US TV industry uses for the annual events where networks unveil their schedules, which Ten has co-opted in recent years) will be pivotal to the network's future.

When Ten first launched, on Saturday August 1, 1964, it was born into a world where television had the freedom to take risks, and for most of Ten's life, risk-taking has been its calling card. Shows such as Number 96, The Mike Walsh Show, Prisoner, Big Brother and The 7PM Project were bold gambles. Ten was the first network to invest in a 45-minute news service in the 1960s and the first to back blue-chip mini-series such as The Dismissal, Bodyline and Bangkok Hilton.

More recently, Ten embarked on an ambitious plan to take its news and current affairs upmarket. The new management halted that plan, fearful it would damage the network in the long-term. In hindsight, more likely the act of constantly trying to reposition the network in the market has made a greater contribution to dislocating Ten from its core audience.

These days, commercial networks are flanked by the double threat of falling revenue and debt management, which makes them naturally risk-averse. Even Nine, with its ratings bonanza this year, still has a financial knife at its throat.

Ten's world came crashing down in 1990 when a similar perfect storm sent the network hurtling into receivership. When it emerged it was reborn as ''the entertainment network'', with a renewed focus and a clear strategy. Within a handful of years it was the envy of its rivals.

If that teaches us anything, it is that from the darkest moments can come renewal. Ten is down, but it is not yet out.

Ten's Strategy For Recovery

■ Fast-tracking US content, including HomelandGleeModern FamilyNCISHawaii Five-O,The Good WifeNew GirlNCIS: Los Angeles and Law & Order: SVU. Ten has not yet announced airdates or how soon it will air episodes after the US.

■ Appointing a new programmer, most likely Beverley McGarvey, who is contracted to Ten. There has been persistent speculation that either Foxtel's director of television, Brian Walsh, or Channel Seven breakfast producer Adam Boland were candidates for the gig.

■ Resolving its breakfast strategy, either by revamping Breakfast to deliver on its unfulfilled promise of providing an alternative to Channel Nine and Seven's offerings, or simply axing the program altogether.

■ The eagerly awaited Julian Assange telemovie, Underground: The Julian Assange Story, starring Rachel Griffiths and Anthony LaPaglia. It screened at the Montreal Film Festival to rave reviews.

■ Reef Doctors, a new Australian drama starring Lisa McCune as a doctor based in remote northern Australia. Ten had planned to air it this year but has delayed it until early 2013.

■ Elementary, a new series that updates the Sherlock Holmes detective stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the present day. Starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson, it launches in the US on September 27.

■ The New Normal, a new series from Glee creator Ryan Murphy about a gay couple who embark on creating a family with a surrogate mother. It launched in the US on September 11.

■ Ben and Kate, a new series about a brother and sister who are opposites: he's a dreamer and she is a single mother trying to make ends meet. The series stars Dakota Johnson and Nat Faxon. It launches in the US on September 25.

■ Vegas, a new series starring Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis and set in Las Vegas in the 1960s. Quaid plays the sheriff and Chiklis is a Chicago mobster who moves to the city. It launches in the US on September 25.

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