James Warburton had barely warmed his new seat at Ten Network before launching a pre-emptive programming strike this week. The strategy appears as much about defence as it is about offence.
Warburton, after six months of 'gardening leave' thanks to the successful legal action by his former employer, Seven Network, has hit the ground running with a re-making of its schedule that includes a restructuring of its new programming to allow it to air its franchise reality programming at 7pm.
Warburton also announced that Ten’s new line-up will be aired from 22 January – three weeks before the official start of the ratings season.
While in some respects the changes to the news programming represent an acknowledgement that Ten’s various attempts to put a dent in the dominance of those segments by the rival Seven and Nine networks have failed, they also mark a return to the old, and commercially successful, Ten strategy of counter-programming.
More particularly, with Ten executives talking about settings agendas and "taking Nine on," the re-making of the key evening line-up and the decision to launch Ten’s season early appears to be a response to what happened last year, when Nine virtually destroyed the program Ten hoped would create a new blockbuster franchise, The Renovators, by reprising The Block.
Nine reworked The Block’s format by cleverly incorporating some of the ingredients that have made Ten’s Masterchef so successful – and which Ten had woven into The Renovators. It then launched it ahead of The Renovators, which was never able the wrest back any momentum or audience.
Warburton would be conscious that Nine now plans to attack another of his franchise programs, The Biggest Loser, by launching its own weight-loss reality program, Excess Baggage, which is expected to start in the 7pm time-slot.
By revamping his news program schedule and moving The Project to the 6pm slot, Warburton will be able to line up The Biggest Loser directly against the Nine counterpart, rather than giving it first go at the audience for that kind of programming.
It also means Ten will no longer try to compete directly against the traditional news and current affairs programming of Seven and Nine, with The Project’s mixture of newsbites and comedy aimed at the kind of younger audience on which Ten’s original period of commercial success – a period when it was a distant third in the ratings but in relative terms the most profitable network – was built.
Ten’s programming, of course, was locked in by Lachlan Murdoch, who acted as chief executive while Ten waited for Warburton to arrive. It won’t be until next season that Warburton has an opportunity to properly direct the network’s content strategies.
Murdoch does, however, appear to have given him some quite solid material to work with, including the attempt to create yet another new franchise with the return of a reconstructed Young Talent Time, which Warburton has coupled with new episodes of the popular Modern Family and the debut of the US drama series Homeland to create what Ten hopes will be a very strong Sunday night schedule.
What’s particularly interesting about Ten and Nine’s preoccupation with each other is that they appear to have accepted that Seven will remain dominant. Seven’s sole ownership of the free-to-air rights for AFL football should help underwrite its market-leading position, and the disproportionate revenue share that attracts.
If they program too directly against each other, however, there is potentially a risk that they fragment the audiences for their strongest programming and gift Seven an even stronger position.
Both Ten and Nine are hampered by their financial positions. Murdoch took an axe to Ten’s costs because they were exploding even as its revenues were sagging, while Nine carries a massive and destabilising burden of private equity-inspired debt and has no option but to focus on maximising its cash flows and profitability to keep the hedge funds now circling it at bay.
Seven’s David Leckie, now within sight of the end of what has been a remarkably successful era for the network he rebuilt, will be very keen to maintain Seven’s dominance and won’t be unhappy to see them directing their efforts against each other.
Adding to the pressure on Warburton and his counterpart at Nine, David Gyngell, to compete and perform this year and to maximise the ratings and the profitability of their 2012 schedules are the recessed conditions in advertising markets.
Ten’s register and its board are studded with impatient heavyweight individuals and much of Nine’s debt is in the hands of the hedge funds trying to force Nine’s owner, private equity form CVC, into giving them ownership and control. A poor ratings year for either network could have significant consequences.