End comes quickly at the bottom of media pile

It's no coincidence two of Australia's media executives, Ten Network's James Warburton and APN's Brett Chenoweth, have lost their jobs in as many weeks.

It's no coincidence two of Australia's media executives, Ten Network's James Warburton and APN's Brett Chenoweth, have lost their jobs in as many weeks.

When times are tough, cracks are exposed. Both companies' results have been disappointing and their prospects for improvement equally uncertain.

Both are the runts of the litter in their respective mediums - Ten in television and APN in print. The swiftness with which management were dealt with had everything to do with the fact both are controlled by a small number of major shareholders with their own agendas.

Changing management did not need to be workshopped among a broad group of shareholders.

Lachlan Murdoch determined the fate of Warburton and the Irish businessman Denis O'Brien, who controls APN through a large holding in Independent News & Media, iced Chenoweth.

Chenoweth and the independents on his board wanted to raise money and O'Brien didn't want to throw any more pennies into the tin - nor did the second largest shareholder, the fund manager Allan Gray.

O'Brien can make at least one claim in his defence - he inherited the APN chief executive.

Murdoch, by contrast, hand-selected Warburton but gave him only a year to resuscitate the troubled network.

He had one stab at a schedule of programs for which he can be held responsible. But it wasn't long enough and we will never know if it would have succeeded with more time.

This is not to say Warburton made no mistakes - he did. The first was the wrong team. His selection for head of sales had to be replaced, his key program executive was shunted, and on Monday, the marketing boss was shown the door.

But Warburton's biggest mistake was leaving Seven, where he was being groomed to replace the then-head of television, David Leckie. Had he been less impatient he might be running the top-rated network. Leckie has moved on to a new role in the Seven parent company, with plenty of title but not a lot of job.

For a while at least, the job of running Seven West Media has been done by the former oil company executive Don Voelte.

Strategically, Seven and Ten have plenty to answer for. Seven fought hard through the courts to stop Warburton joining Ten - but history suggests he was never a threat.

The legal battle served no real purpose although it titillated with some embarrassing vignettes that exposed the not-so-handsome underbelly of Seven's management politics.

Seven has continued to prosper and, to the extent that its supremacy is being challenged, it is by the newly capitalised Nine under the command of David Gyngell.

Ten remains at the bottom of the pile and, once again, it is the chairman, Murdoch, who has taken the running on management - drawing from the upper ranks of his father's company, News Corp, to fill the hole.

Ten's freshly minted chief executive, Hamish McLennan, has an impressive CV but one not that dissimilar to Warburton's - other than the possibly significant fact that McLennan has no television experience. Warburton does have television experience, but not in programming - he joined from the sales department. So both lack a critical asset that Leckie unarguably has in spades.

Where Warburton's brief was to cut costs and regain Ten's youth audience advantage, McLennan is talking about focusing on a broader (and therefore older) demographic.

This has traditionally been the battleground of Seven and Nine. Their strategies were all about a share of the shopping basket - getting to those viewers who made the day-to-day buying decisions.

Ten diverged from the pack in the days when the network was controlled by the Canadian media company Canwest by occupying a youth demo that was happy with the right mix of edgy reality/comedy and repeats.

This was carried on by later managements until a few years back, when its program relationships changed and the world moved on.

The management response, under the then chief executive Grant Blackley, was to move Ten into an older demographic and seize a broader audience. It was expensive and mostly unsuccessful.

Murdoch, in partnership with James Packer, took control of Ten about two years ago in an attempt to revive the network, cut costs and recapture the youth audience.

It hasn't worked.

The new strategy being promoted by McLennan sounds eerily like that employed by Blackley.

The rationale in moving towards older viewers is that the youth market has been fragmented by the introduction of digital channels and the internet generally.

The success of any of these strategies comes down to execution - and over the past five years or more, the succession of chief executives have failed in this regard.

Packer, Murdoch and another wealthy (and supportive) shareholder, Gina Rinehart, are all underwater on their media investments.

Packer doesn't sit on the Ten board any longer but clearly supports Murdoch.

Warburton is not in a position to tell his side of the story or argue his position. He knew last year that his role as head of Ten was tenuous. But, as part of his severance deal, he has agreed to keep silent and watch from the sidelines until January, when his no-compete runs out.

This is his second round of gardening leave in two years. To quote Elvis Costello, it's "a good year for the roses".

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