Oz math: Seven more than Nine

Revamped upstart giving perennial Aussie TV leader early fight

The official Australian TV ratings season is just three weeks old, but already at least one trend is emerging: that longtime market leader the Nine Network might have to rethink its marketing catch phrase, "Still the One," by year's end.

Big-ticket U.S. dramas and Australian light entertainment and factual shows are fueling the Seven Network, which easily won the first three weeks of the year in what observers are calling the fiercest ratings battle in the Australian TV industry's 50-year history.

Seven leads the pack with a 29.9% share in the five capital city markets, 2.4 ratings points ahead of the Nine Network, which has a 27.5% share. Network Ten, which has broadened its target audience this year to take in the 18-49 demographic, has an all-people share of 20.9%, while public broadcasters the ABC and SBS are at 16.4% and 5.3%, respectively.

Seven has been buoyed this year by a major revamp of its Sunday night lineup, dubbed "Beautiful Sunday," which includes "Australia's Got Talent," "Ugly Betty" and "Grey's Anatomy," after following the lead established several years ago by Ten, which ditched Sunday night movies in favor of light entertainment and first-run U.S. dramas.

"Betty" has proven to be the top-rated show in recent weeks, debuting to more than 2 million viewers two weeks ago and holding at more than 1.8 million since.

Add to that other regular Seven programs — including "Desperate Housewives," "Dancing With the Stars," its factual 2006 hit "Border Security" and the Aussie drama "All Saints" — and it's easy to see why analysts are talking victory for Seven this year based on the depth and breadth of its programming.

That's without a key ingredient in Seven's arsenal: its share of the games it will air each week in the Australian Football League that it scored under a record AUS$780 million ($600 million), five-year deal it shares with Ten and pay TV operator Foxtel.

Goldman Sachs JB Were media analyst Christian Guerra said in February that "the return of the AFL in combination with a solid schedule of local and overseas programming should be enough to propel Seven ahead of the Nine Network in 2007." He added, "Nine may struggle with its core schedule during 2007" given that five of Nine's top U.S. series prospects were canceled at midseason.

But while Seven has the pick of the programming, industry watchers haven't written off Nine.

Steve Allen, managing director of media buyer Fusion Strategy, also has tipped Seven to win the year but said "it won't be a whitewash." Nine people are "tenacious fighters," he said. Allen points to the poor ratings for a former Seven hit, "Lost," on Thursday nights, which is being beaten by Nine's 12-year-old program "RPA," a fly-on-the-wall look at the workings of Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. The show is one of Nine's top-rated programs and airs to 1.5 million viewers a week.

While Seven and Ten have the AFL, Nine has a large and loyal audience for its rugby league coverage as well as its top-rated entertainment-based AFL programs. It also is invested heavily in a new local daytime show, "The Catch Up," loosely based on "The View," in a bid to woo more female viewers, while the "CSI" franchise remains strong.

One of the keys for Nine, Allen said, will be what it can pick up at the upcoming MIPTV market and L.A. Screenings.

"Nine will have to decide what they'll need for the next six months. They don't have the luxury of holding on to programs until the run to the end of the ratings year in early December," he said, adding that if Nine "gets clobbered in the ratings now, its revenue will be clobbered in the second half of the year." That's a position it can't afford after it suffered an AUS$71 million ($55 million) revenue slide last year.

With more than AUS$3 billion ($2.34 billion) in TV advertising at stake, every year is said to be more competitive than the last. And this year looks to be more so than ever.