Investors need to know Ten has game plan and can stick to it

COME Thursday morning when Ten's relatively new chief executive, James Warburton, makes his first truly public outing to the media and analysts, he will be forgiven for feeling a bit nervous.

COME Thursday morning when Ten's relatively new chief executive, James Warburton, makes his first truly public outing to the media and analysts, he will be forgiven for feeling a bit nervous.

Investors who over the past year have seen the share price tumble from $1.40 to about 80? today will be asking: What went wrong and, more importantly, how can it be fixed?

The bad news from the results was largely dealt with in a trading update earlier this year when the company announced earnings and net profits for the half-year to February would be down by about 40 per cent.

It was a searing baptism of fire for Warburton, who had only been in the job six weeks, but who could quite rightly claim, should he choose to do so, that this all happened before his arrival.

But investors will want to look forward and specifically at the trading outlook for the TV ad market, in particular the metropolitan market that makes up 90 per cent of Ten's earnings. Questions will inevitably be asked about what Ten would do if it sold its outdoor ad business, Eye Corp, which CBA is valuing at $122 million. Then pay down its $400 million debt or, as some are speculating, use the money to buy the non-executive chairman, Lachlan Murdoch's, 50 per cent stake in radio business DMG Radio, which operates the Nova and Classic Rock brands?

They will also want to know more about what Mr Warburton plans to do to shore-up his schedule, and stop the drift of viewers away from its primary channel that has lost more viewers than its rivals year on year. Total prime-time audiences on Ten have shrunk by 7 per cent while Nine is flat and Seven is up 14 per cent.

After a year of uncertainty, which included the departure of its chief executive and the arrival of heavyweight investors such as Lachlan Murdoch, James Packer and Gina Rinehart, they are looking for signs the company has a plan and will stick to it.

Mat Baxter, the chief executive of the media buying company Universal McCann says he wants to see more "consistency" from Ten. Deep troughs and high peaks in ratings make it harder for him to convince his clients to put their money into Ten.

"There's enough volatility in the TV ad market already. Ratings are much more volatile than they were five years ago so they [Ten] need to give people the confidence that they can deliver consistency," he says.

That is something that has hardly been Ten's hallmark of late. Its failed foray into news and current affairs - spearheaded by George Negus - and its decision to switch the focus for its digital channel ONE away from sports to a more general-interest channel for 25- to 54-year-old men smacked of strategy on the run, observers say. The costly flop of The Renovators, its answer to The Block, did little to restore confidence.

"They need to be clear about what they stand for and then stick with it. To ride any criticism and be confident about it," says Mr Baxter, who like many in the media buying community want to see a stronger Ten and Nine counter the dominance of Seven in the $3 billion TV ad market.

And while Masterchef is likely to be a ratings banker (its start date has not been confirmed but is thought to be early May) and will bring in at least $60 million in revenue, investors will want to know what else Mr Warburton is doing to shore-up the schedule, win back viewers and ultimately a greater share of the ad market. Ten's share of TV dollars booked through the main agencies is lagging at 25 per cent, compared with Nine at 33 per cent and Seven at 40 per cent.

But Steve Allen, of media strategists Fusion Strategy, questions Ten's decision to increase the number of hours Masterchef is throwing at its fourth series. Mr Allen predicts Masterchef's slate will be more than 100 hours, making it 2? times that of Seven's My Kitchen Rules, which capitalised on the fact it had a clear run in the cooking reality show genre so far this year.

"There's just too much of it. They are only going to be driving the audience down," predicts Mr Allen, who believes last season's contestants and the prominence of hosts George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan put viewers off. The audience declined by 15 per cent on the 2010 outing.

Mr Allen also points out that at 7pm, Masterchef will be up against Nine's The Block, making competition for followers of reality shows even harder, when it could have kept The 7pm Project as a counter-programming ploy. It has been extended to an hour and moved to 6pm to help consolidate its early evening audience as a lead in to prime time.

That ploy has been successful with early-evening audiences up by double digits, albeit climbing out of the trench of its news and current affairs experiment. That and its prime-time Sunday schedule, where it put New Girl, Homeland, Modern Family and, for a while, Young Talent Time, back-to-back was one of the few bright spots in Ten's schedule.

After years of dominating the younger TV audience - this was the channel that brought us The Simpsons and Big Brother - Ten has broadened its target demographic from 16 to 39 to 18 to 49. That, say analysts, has proven to be a hard furrow to plough as inevitably it means Ten strays into Seven and Nine's territory of 25-to-54 year olds. "There's a world of difference between the viewing habits of someone in their lateish 30s to someone in their late 40s," says one rival TV executive.

Competition for younger eyeballs is intense with myriad new channels competing for their attention, not least those offered by its rivals' digital channels 7Mate and Nine's Go! as well as its own Eleven.

A media analyst for Fat Prophets, Greg Fraser, believes Ten should return to when it focused on a younger audience, providing the network with a distinct point of difference to rivals. To do that it needs to make its programming on its primary channel more "unique and distinguishable" from them, something it has yet to pull off across the board, he says.

Post-Easter, Ten has a number of new programs; a new series of Offspring, the new American drama Touch, with Kiefer Sutherland, and the new local series Bikie Wars: Brothers in Arms, The Living Room, Being Lara Bingle and The Shire. Rivals question how Ten can successfully promote these shows when the audience on its main channel is down. Inevitably it will have to spend more on marketing to bring new or lapsed viewers to the channel. But, as they will no doubt be asking, will that be enough?

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