Australian Broadcasters in Legal Battle Over Poaching of Programming Executive

Lachlan Murdoch's Network Ten says it will continue legal action to enforce its hiring of Stephens.

John Stephens, one of the country’s most experienced programmers, was to join Lachlan Murdoch’s Network Ten in June, but now he says he wants to stay at top-rated Seven Network.

Australian commercial TV networks Seven and Ten are in a legal dispute over Ten’s poaching of programming expert John Stephens from a consultant role at Seven.

Following action at the NSW Supreme Court Monday, where Ten Network, the third best-rated network in Australia, tried to get an injunction to stop Stephens from reneging on his new contract to join the company, Seven said Tuesday that Stephens has decided to remain in his role at the country's top-rated network.

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“Key programming executive John Stephens has decided to remain at the Seven Network, despite Network Ten’s public announcement on March 7 that he would be joining Ten,” a statement from Seven said.

It added that Australian Supreme Court Justice Paul Brereton yesterday refused Ten’s application for a temporary injunction against Seven and Stephens, and ordered Ten to pay Seven and Stephens’ legal costs.

But Ten -- whose executive chairman is Lachlan Murdoch -- says it will continue with legal action to enforce its hiring of Stephens, and that the matter is still before the courts.

“John Stephens remains under a contract with Network Ten, which is continuing and has not been terminated. Under that contract, he commences with Network Ten on June 9, 2014,” a statement from Ten said.

Network Ten claims that Seven Network has induced breach of, and interfered with, that contract, and those proceedings remain before the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

The action is the third time in as many years that the rival networks have been involved in legal action surrounding the poaching of top-level executives. The latest action came after Ten announced on March 7 that Stephens would join Ten in the newly created role of director of scheduling and acquisitions, working with programming chief Beverly McGarvey.

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Fairfax Media is reporting that Seven West Media chief executive Tim Worner, Seven chairman Kerry Stokes and former network boss David Leckie all persuaded Stephens, well known throughout the industry as “Stevo,” not to leave.

Stephens is arguably the most experienced and successful programmer in Australian commercial television. He led both the Nine and Seven networks to the top of the ratings over the course of his 40-year career.

Ten has been struggling to hold double-digit shares in the ratings and has sunk to record lows since the new TV ratings season launched in February, despite high-profile and quality programs in its schedule including new drama Secrets & Lies, the return of the popular drama Puberty Blues and a revamped So You Think You Can Dance, starring Paula Abdul.

Stephens’ hiring was meant to address the slip. 

At the time of Ten’s announcement, CEO Hamish McLennan said: “John is one of the most experienced and successful television programming executives in Australia, with a local and international reputation second to none. He is a critically important addition to our management team. His appointment underlines our commitment to hiring industry-best talent as we work on our turnaround strategy."

In 2011, Ten hired Seven's director of sales James Warburton as its CEO. Seven went to court and was successful in applying a non-compete clause, forcing Warburton to delay joining Ten by ten months. A year later Warburton was fired from Ten.

Ten also hired Seven’s former head of news and current affairs Peter Meakin last year, and Seven again moved to enforce its non-compete clause in Meakin’s contract. Meakin was forced to take six months of “leave" before he started at Ten last month.