Aussie networks jockey for position

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SYDNEY -- With the end of the Australian TV ratings year approaching this weekend, the top commercial free-to-air networks unveiled their 2008 program schedules this week in anticipation of annual advertising rate negotiations.

With a 29% share of Australia's seven million TV households, Kerry Stokes' Seven Network was the No. 1-rated network in 2007, rising to the top for the first time in more than 10 years, knocking the once dominant Nine Network from its perch.

Public broadcaster the Australian Broadcasting Corp. made the strongest ratings gains of any network, rising 4.3% to grab a 16.6% share, while the Special Broadcasting Service had a share of 5.5%.

Nine's 26.9% audience share, its lowest in three decades, was the result of a 10.7% year-to-year drop in audience.

Unveiling Nine's 2008 program lineup Wednesday, recently re-hired CEO David Gyngell said, "By my standards as CEO, and by our standards at Nine, 2007 hasn't been our greatest year. It's simply a reality which we must first accept and then set right."

Nine will try to build up ratings and revenue with 30 new programs, including five new Australian dramas led by Melbourne-based underworld drama, "Underbelly."

While several overseas dramas show promise, Gyngell noted that the latest crop of U.S. dramas was not as strong as he would like.

"Pushing Daisies" and "Cashmere Mafia" will be Nine's headliners alongside "Chuck," "Big Shots," "Canterbury's Law" and U.K. dramas "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" and "Rock Rivals," while "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" is Gyngell's personal favorite.

Gyngell said that 13 new factual programs also will launch in 2008 including "The Irwin Family's Australia Zoo," from the makers of "Crocodile Hunter," and the controversial BBC series "Monarchy." Additionally, eight new gameshows -- including local version of the "Power of Ten" and hit Japanese format "Hole In The Wall" -- will join the slate.

The third place Ten Network captured a 21.9% audience share and finished right behind Seven in its target 18-49 year old demographic. Seven had a commercial network share of 35.4% in the 18-49's while Ten's share of that group was 34.7%.

The youth-focused Ten network will rely on what its calls "event television" as the cornerstone for its new season lineup.

The Australian version of "So You Think You Can Dance" will launch in February, alongside Season 3 of "The Biggest Loser," "Big Brother 8," and "Australian Idol 6."

Ten chief programming officer David Mott said that programming from new output deals with Fox and CBS Paramount, will "give us more flexibility and power in our schedule next year," the U.S. writers strike notwithstanding.

New U.S. dramas that will debut on the schedule during the year include "Unhitched" and "Swingtown," while "Numbers," "Californication," "Life," "Supernatural," "House and "NCIS" will return.

Ten CEO Grant Blackley said that the network will aim to beat this year's record audience share in the 18-49 and 16-39 demographics.

The Seven Network is reportedly seeking an ad rate increase of 8% based on its strong performance this year, which saw it finish with nine of the top 10 most-watched regular programs, all locally-produced. Seven also is expecting a ratings bonanza next year as it is the official broadcaster of the Beijing Olympics.

All networks enjoyed strong audiences for their local programs in 2007. Seven's "Kath and Kim" topped the rating charts as the most-watched regular program for the year with an average weekly audience of 2.13 million, while Ten's improv comedy series "Thank God You're Here" was second with an average of 1.86 million viewers. Factual series "The Force," on Seven, which follows the day-to-day activities of a state police force came in third with 1.85 million viewers, and "Border Security" drew 1.83 million viewers a week. Season six of "Dancing With the Stars" on Seven rounded out the top five programs with 1.82 million viewers.

The top-rated imported program was the third season of "House," at No. 13 with 1.48 million weekly viewers, while "Grey's Anatomy" on Seven ranked No. 16 with 1.45 million viewers a week.

The top rated event for the year overall was the Australian Football League Grand Final, which aired to 2.56 million viewers on Ten, while the men's final of the Australian Open grand slam tennis tournament was the second- highest watched program of the year with 2.442 million viewers.
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