CRICKET was the rock on which Kerry Packer built his Nine television empire. Incoming Ten Network boss Hamish McLennan has confirmed he will bid to take the broadcasting rights to the sport, worth more than $400 million over the next five years.
Mr McLennan, who starts at the network next month, said "cricket is the next cab off the rank" in terms of his strategy. Ten will also bid for the broadcasting rights to the Australian Open tennis, which are held by Channel Seven.
By bidding for cricket, the new CEO hopes to attract a "broader audience" for Ten. It will also create a bidding war with Nine and Seven that will be much welcomed by Cricket Australia. With Nine's contract expired, the cricket body is hoping to get $100 million a year over five years.
One source said Ten could jointly bid with Fox Sports for the rights, which include Test matches, one-day matches, Sheffield Shield matches and the Big Bash.
Mr McLennan declined to say how the TV network would fund the bid, but said Ten had low debt and a strong balance sheet. "It is widely accepted that sport should be critical to programming," he said. "How we bid for any programming is a confidential nature. The board and shareholders are supportive of rebuilding our schedule."
Channel Nine has a clause set in its contract that gives it the right to match the highest offer.
Mr McLennan flies back to New York this week - where he will meet his former boss at News Corp, Rupert Murdoch - before starting at Ten in March.
News Ltd on Monday battled speculation - ranging from the investment community to Federal Parliament - that Mr McLennan's appointment meant that News had a "strategic interest" in Ten. Mr McLennan is a former News executive and advertising agency executive, and will also remain as chairman of the News Corp-controlled online real estate interest REA Group.
Brokers CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets speculated that the move was a precursor to a possible bid by News for Ten, while Greens leader Christine Milne asked Communications Minister Senator Conroy if the government was concerned that Ten's Sunday political program Meet the Press had been "contracted out to News Ltd".
The debate highlighted the influence the Murdoch family has over Ten.
"News Ltd has no plans to acquire Channel Ten," a News Ltd spokesman said in a statement.
After James Warburton's sacking from Ten on Friday, chief marketing officer Tony McMaster followed his former boss out the door on Monday. Ten confirmed Mr McMaster - who had been appointed in March - had left the company, but would not comment on speculation that other senior managers would follow.
"We don't comment on speculation," a Ten spokesman said.
Mr McLennan confirmed Ten's programming schedule would be reviewed and he said he would look at opportunities to reinvigorate some of the network's flagship programs, including MasterChef, which have been falling in the ratings.
On Monday Ten shares finished up 2¢, or 6.78 per cent, at 31.5¢. It was the third-best performing stock on the S&P/ASX 200 Index, after Mr McLennan shelled out about $1 million to buy 3.13 million shares in the company.