2013 is fast becoming the Seven Network’s annus horribilis.
Sure it started strong with the best results My Kitchen Rules has seen in its five year life, and a lot of its other programming continues to deliver strongly, despite the feeling some shows feel decidedly out of place (Mrs Brown’s Boys anyone?). There have been some significant missteps this year that are proving to be the most bruising the network has seen in years.
The ability to claim ratings supremacy does strange things to television network executives and only moreso when the figures get tight. There’s a lot to be gained for a network to be able to claim they’re the number one news service or most watched in something. Seven have held the lead at breakfast, 6pm News and primetime TV almost exclusively for the five years prior to 2011 – and that was realistically a two horse race between them and Nine who had been relegated to a distant second place. Then two years ago Nine started to claw back with their News picking up, the smart pick-up of new formats like The Voice, rolling the dice on localised drama with House Husbands and the rebirthing of some shows that may not have needed it (like Big Brother).
Seven still triumphed but Nine were making headway. It’s almost a mixture of self-sabotage and natural attrition that has seen all this happen in the last 12 months (and if they don’t stop the rot it’ll be their demise)…
The debacle of the east coast 6pm News – Nine News in Melbourne and Sydney have been very, very strong over the last 24 plus months. Seven have only dominated nationally thanks to strong figures in Adelaide & Perth (where the WIN owned Nine struggle consistently) and in Brisbane Rod Young & Kay McGrath had ensconced themselves as the News team without par. A sudden change of News Directors in Melbourne has had the opposite effect to that desired and since Peter Overton took the lead in Sydney they’ve been untouchable, no matter what Seven throw at them.
Brisbane seemed to be a lynch pin in Seven’s strategy – and then they go and change reading teams in a very clunky fashion. Former Ten Brisbane newsanchor Bill McDonald & weekend Seven newsreader Sharyn Ghidella are promoted to the lead roles with the incumbents Young/McGrath pushed to the new weekend (Fri/Sat) slot. For no reason other than change. Since then, the Nine Brisbane team of Andrew Lofthouse and Melissa Downes have been making serious inroads – no longer just winning the occasional night but now winning weeks and helping Nine to national wins where previously there was naught. It wasn’t helped by the whispered reinvention of Seven’s 6:30pm offering either.
The Today Tonight disaster – No matter what you think of the public affairs offerings at 6:30pm weeknights they’re big business and experience the best lead-in on offer on a daily basis. Winning this slot is another feather in the network’s cap to crow about and only adds to the momentum experienced when on a winning high. In late November 2012 a press release came out from the Seven bunker stating host Matthew White was making the choice to step down from the east coast Today Tonight hosting role to pursue other “live TV opportunities” (code for we’re dumping him but keeping him with the network). This was indeed the strangest of moves as a White-hosted TT was consistently leading the 6:30pm race and, on the whole, he was an inoffensive host for what could mostly be quite offensive.
So who was to fill the host spot? Kylie Gillies had quite literally stood-in and seemed the natural replacement though that would mean Larry Emdur breaking in a new co-host for the successful Morning Show. There was LOTS of talk that TT would vanish and instead the 6pm New offering for Seven would become an hour long program with TT-style stories interspersed with actual news, and it was even trialled during the pre-ratings bonanza that is the Australian Open in January, only fuelling the suggestion that new National News Director Rob Raschke (formerly Brissy News head) was seeking to make positive changes and mark his territory early. In the end it was a Seven exec who choked and deemed the changes too radical – TT must remain. And yet it still needed a host.
With Ten shedding talent left right and centre the pick up of Helen Kapalos from Ten Melbourne seemed right and the next word was Seven would go back to localised shows using common resources and stories. Kapalos for Melbourne, Bill Woods for Sydney and Bill McDonald for Brisbane (this before his announcement as news anchor). Instead another presto-change-o took place with the rumour proving to be partially true. Kapalos would host Melbourne and Sydney “local” versions and Sharyn Ghidella would get the call up to host the Brisbane offering as well as stepping up to the weekday News desk. It was a PR disaster and still hasn’t settled for the network four months on.
The brekky competition gets closer – The gloss as somewhat worn off Sunrise. Nine’s The Today Show is closer than it has been in a decade, and given the roll the home of the dots is experiencing in other areas it may be the last bastion of Seven’s success… until the man who made the monster Adam Boland unleashes his new Breakfast program over on Ten where he’s now the Director of Morning Television. He knows their strengths and weaknesses and was watching in the wings for the last two years inside Seven. There’s no guarantee whatever Breakfast v2.0 looks like on Ten will be a success but it’s already got good bones and that’s to the detriment of the show that reinvented brekky TV and currently retains a diminishing lead.
Celebrity Splash bombs – When word got out that Seven were picking up this format we were right to be scared. Ill-conceived and ill-advised they pushed on and after what looking to be buoyant figures for the first episode (of five – definitely trying to minimize any possible damage) the viewers fell away. It was mere seconds of actual action with hours of build up and post-dive analysis that didn’t warrant it. Absolutely it was fun and given Seven did it the show drew easily 200,000-300,000 more viewers per episode than the format would have on any other free to air network. The bottom line is dropping the second semi-final and screening the the grand final at the “prime” time of 8:45pm Thursday cut out the shows key demo – families and kids. Don’t even start with the on again/off again, live/not live shemozzle that the filming was for the contestants and production crew. Running this out of the My Kitchen Rules final and delaying the start of their next big reality tilt might have been the breath of air they thought they needed between the two shows… or it may have just been suicide.
The demolition of House Rules – When two shows on rival networks line up against each other like House Rules and The Block are doing right now there is always going to be a casualty… and rarely is it the established, seasoned favourite. The new reality renovation format premiered barely above 800,000 across the five capital cities (total people) and has slid night on night. It started with figures lower than The Renovators, Excess Baggage and Brynne: My Bedazzled Life. Then someone decided “I know how we can fix this! Let’s put our big reveal up against the first live night of The Voice!”.
The comparisons to The Block are far too easily made (not just that it’s about renovation either) and it just feels too muddled – too many reality show notes are attempted and none of them are knocked out of the park. Seven are yet to reveal their hand as to the fate of House Rules; in fact they’ve been suspiciously silent as to the show’s fate. It’s a big money risk and loss if they decide to take it off air and it leaves a massive hole in their schedule to fill with… who knows.
These are all merely symptoms of a bigger problem in Stokes’s Castle. Success breeds success until you think you can do no wrong and then… you’re no longer number one. The rot has set in and Seven needs to be smarter with its programming and purchasing and not just the reactive beast they’ve become. They’ve been slow to embrace technology (Plus7 app is long overdue and their catch up website is a nightmare) and even slower to blood new talent in their extremely limited light entertainment schedule (Slide Show isn’t going to make it any better). One can only feed the populous the same mush over and over and have them coming back for more. There’s more too with their drama schedule softening and the big dollar US shows not really delivering for them as they have in the past.
If only they had another Lost and Desperate Housewives waiting in the wings…