Nine ducks bouncer from Ten
Cricket is now the game where everyone wins a prize. Nine Network's prize is winning the rights to broadcast most of the major matches. Ten gets the prize of not having to pay $500 million over five years to broadcast most big matches, and Cricket Australia is the biggest winner because it gets to pocket the half a billion dollars.
This only goes to prove how valuable exclusive A-grade sports programs are to television networks as they fiercely compete for ratings in a media market labouring in a harsh advertising environment.
Ten is miffed at even the suggestion that losing out to Nine and forcing it to pay a hefty fee for the cricket was a consolation prize. And we will never be sure what Ten's new boss Hamish McLennan's real agenda was.
If he was trying to monster Nine into paying more, he is clearly both a clever strategist and a consummate gambler.
Had Ten landed the cricket and a $500 million bill, it would have - at first glance - wiped out the majority of the company's profit.
But Ten would also have been counting on picking up additional advertising revenue from broadcasting the matches and mitigating some of the cost.
Ten maintains it always knew wedging itself between Nine and its cricket heritage would be almost impossible.
Under normal circumstances that would be a fair assessment. But Nine's current circumstances are anything but normal. Its chief executive David Gyngell has television in his blood and would have always fought hard to keep a major programming plank like cricket.
But this organisation is now majority owned by hedge fund lenders, who are watching the returns from every dollar spent and are short-term investors (having been recently converted from being Nine's lenders) in search of a well-priced exit.
All power to Gyngell in getting them over the line to support this apparently extravagant investment in ratings.
To be fair, Nine is already paying for the cricket (although only half as much) and will be attempting to recoup some of the price from its network affiliates.
The bottom line is that Nine can afford to pay the extra thanks to its recent recapitalisation and it can probably not afford to allow Seven to steal any more of its ratings lead.
Nine has been nibbling at Seven's supremacy for a year or so and while it is not close to pushing Seven off its perch, it has made some inroads.
Taking Nine to market in a float would have been a harder sell without the cricket.
Thus Ten may have been able to guess Nine management's desires but not its shareholders' views with any certainty.
Ten's stated rationale when it bid for the cricket was that it would have attracted an audience that was not typical to the network.
(As far as this deal goes, Ten still gets a little and far cheaper piece of the pie, which is the Big Bash games it will take from Fox Sports.)
Meanwhile, it demonstrates that Ten is back in the programming game. McLennan has already said he wants to skew the demographic into a slightly more mature segment - not just the young but the young at heart. Maybe he is a subscriber to the view that 50 is the new 40.
At the very least, taking a punt on programming is a shot in the arm for Ten, which needs to do something radical to arrest the spiral of falling ratings leading to falling advertising. The network is now operating with next to no debt, so has a bit of room to invest in programming, and we will now wait to see whether it tries a similar move against Seven to nab the tennis.
McLennan said at the release of Ten's dismal half-year results in April that the company was clearing the decks and preparing for the future. The management of Ten is focused on maintaining strict cost disciplines while stabilising revenue and improving the ratings performance. This will take time and we probably won't see much evidence of progress at the next profit result later in the year.
Nine, meanwhile, has apparently not only convinced its owners to raid the piggy bank for the cricket but also to buy Adelaide's Nine affiliate from WIN's Bruce Gordon and take an option on the Perth station.
Under the current 75 per cent audience reach rules Nine could pick up Adelaide, but Gyngell would need to convince Tony Abbott of the benefits of relaxing the rules in order to exercise the Perth option. To date, Abbott has shown little appetite for doing so, given the move is deeply unpopular with his National Party colleagues.
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