The end comes quickly at bottom of TV pile

IT'S no coincidence that 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 that 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 are equally uncertain. Both are the runts of the litter in their respective mediums. The swift way they 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 was not something that needed 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 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, and neither did the second-largest shareholder, the fund manager Allan Gray. O'Brien can at least make one claim in his defence - he inherited the APN chief executive. Murdoch, by contrast, hand-selected Warburton but has given him only a year to resuscitate the troubled network.

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

This is not to say that Warburton didn't make 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 successful top-rated network today. Leckie has moved on to a new role in the Seven parent company, and has plenty of title but not a lot of job.

For a while at least the job running Seven West has been plugged by former oil company executive Don Voelte. Strategically, both Seven and Ten have plenty to answer for. Seven fought hard through the courts to stop Warburton from joining Ten - but history now suggests that he was never a threat.

The legal battle served no real purpose, beyond titillating with some embarrassing vignettes Seven's management politics.

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

Ten's new chief executive, Hamish McLennan, has an impressive CV but one that is not so dissimilar to that of Warburton - 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. Thus both are lacking a critical asset which Leckie has in spades.

Where Warburton's brief was to cut costs and attempt to regain Ten's previous youth audience advantage, McLennan is now talking about focusing on a broader [and therefore older] demographic. This has long been the battleground of Seven and Nine. Their strategies were all about share of shopping basket - attracting viewers who make the day-to-day buying decisions.

Ten broke away from the pack in the days when it was controlled by Canadian media company Canwest, by occupying a youth demographic that was happy with the right mix of edgy reality/comedy and repeats. This was carried on by subsequent managements until a few years back when its program relationships changed and the world moved on.

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

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 by 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 has failed in this regard.

In the meantime James Packer, Murdoch and another wealthy [and supportive] shareholder, Gina Rinehart, are all under water on their media investments. Packer doesn't sit on the Ten board any longer but clearly supports Murdoch.

For Warburton 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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