Saving Nine: Gyngell promises win

Plethora of new programs follows brutal ratings year for Aussie net

New Nine Network Australia CEO David Gyngell is going into 2008 with AUS$100 million ($87 million) worth of new programming designed to make Nine competitive again after a disastrous 2007 that saw rival Seven Network pummel the former market leader in ratings and revenue share.

Gyngell aims "to return the network to the profitable position of pre-eminence in Australian television," he told advertisers and media at the network's 2008 programming launch last month. To do that, Nine will launch 30-40 shows to Australian TV audiences next year, the bulk of which will be locally produced dramas and factual programming (HR 11/30).

With local series "Underbelly" and "Canal Road," U.S. series "Pushing Daisies" and "Cashmere Mafia," factual programs "Search and Rescue," "The Irwin Family's Australia Zoo" and "Monarchy" and entertainment series "The Power of 10" and "Hole in the Wall," Gyngell is aiming to lift Nine's 33% revenue share of Australia's AUS$2.8 billion ($2.4 billion) a year metropolitan TV ad market.

But after a ratings win for 2007, analysts are predicting that Kerry Stokes' Seven will maintain its dominance, forecasting that Seven's ad revenue share for the second half of 2007 will rise to 40%. In the first half, Seven's share rose to 39.2% while Nine's slumped to 32.7%, according to figures from Free TV Australia.

The renewed battle between Nine and Seven will be just one aspect of what's promising to be a bumper year for the Australian TV sector.

Pay network Foxtel and Nine will join commercial rivals Ten and Seven in launching high-def channels; TiVo is set to launch in the first quarter here via its partnership with Seven; and a free-to-air kids channel is planned for launch by pubcaster ABC. Elsewhere, a business news channel to be launched by Sky News Australia follows this month's premiere of the premium drama channel Showcase by Showtime Australia. Indeed, the pay sector continues to enjoy strong growth, now counting more than 2 million subscribers and more than 66% of time spent viewing in pay TV households, while free-to-air TV viewing fell 4% overall here in 2007.

All that activity is underscored by the continued success of Australian programming.

In 2007, a batch of locally produced comedies pulled audiences in excess of 2 million for ABC and Seven, led by Seven's sitcom "Kath and Kim," the top-rated regular show on Australian television in 2007.

But for every silver lining, there's a cloud. As audiences lap up local programming, the key shows that led to Australian programs ratings dominance in 2007 will be absent from TV screens in 2008.

"Kath and Kim" executive producer Rick McKenna said this month that the show's creators, Jane Turner and Gina Riley, are undecided on whether to produce another series while they are in development on a U.S. version of the show for NBC.

Another ratings winner, the political satire series "The Chaser's War on Everything," won't return to ABC next year, with producers to tour the country with a live show based on the TV series instead. Production company Working Dog, which makes the improv comedy series "Thank God You're Here" for Network Ten, has yet to confirm whether it will make a fourth series in 2008, and comedian Chris Lilley hasn't said whether a second series of ABC teen mockumentary "Summer Heights High" is in the cards.

The hole presented by a dearth of quality comedy is expected to be filled by more Australian dramas, with Seven's "City Homicide" commissioned for a second 22-episode season and the new series "Packed to the Rafters," joining the schedule, while Nine has commissioned a second season of the drama "Sea Patrol" and will air the underworld drama "Underbelly" in February.

The local production sector is riding the wave of popularity of Australian dramas and comedies. According to the Australian Film Commission's annual National Production Survey released this month, Aussie and co-production TV drama increased over the previous year in expenditure — AUS$253 million ($220 million), up from AUS$205 million ($178 million) — and hours made — 615, up from 583 hours in the previous year.