Ten's 'Dance Australia' hits high note

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SYDNEY -- There's new fuel to the traditional rivalry between the Seven and Nine networks, following Seven's comprehensive ratings win for the first time in several decades last year. In a bid to reinvigorate its schedule, Nine is planning to launch no less than 30-40 new programs, with CEO David Gyngell saying recently that 2008 will be a year of "restructure and development."

Nine's new roster of programs includes topline Australian dramas "Underbelly," "Sea Patrol" and "Canal Road"; several new game shows, including "Hole in the Wall" and "Power of 10"; and factual series like "RFDS" and "Animal Emergency."

They'll go up against Seven shows like "The Force" and "Border Security," the new drama "Packed to the Rafters" and, of course, Seven's coverage of the Beijing Olympics. Despite a concerted effort from the No. 2 network, Seven is expected to widen its lead over Nine this year largely thanks to its games broadcasts.

Sporting events aside, Australian audiences are enjoying local fare over imported programs -- with factual programs, local versions of U.S. and U.K. entertainment formats, and Australian dramas the most popular genres.

But the early success story for 2007 is the youth-targeted Network Ten show "So You Think You Can Dance Australia," which is averaging more than 1.5 million viewers as the top-rated program on Sundays. Ten is hoping its aging franchises "Big Brother" and "Australian Idol" will pull similar audiences later in the year. Elsewhere, Nine is having considerable success with spiky U.K. chef Gordon Ramsay, whose "Kitchen Nightmares" series is proving a surprise hit for the network in its first free-to-air screenings here.

And while the traditionally ferocious ratings battle is in full swing, broadcasters here are laying down their plans for digital and multichannel broadcasting. Seven and Ten launched high-def channels in December, with Nine HD set to air last month. Meanwhile, pay net Foxtel is readying a midyear eight-channel HD service launch, with BBC HD as the centerpiece.

However, network execs now say they are focused on plans to launch new standard-definition channels in January 2009, growing the free-to-air TV universe in Australia from five key channels to 15. To coincide with those '09 launches, the networks are negotiating to create a FreeView style service, while separately Seven is moving ahead with plans to launch TiVo here. Those moves come as audiences continue to drift to pay TV, which over the recent summer reached a record 2.2 million subscribers and hit ratings shares in excess of 60% in pay TV homes.
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