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Revenues up, but the future is still bleak for Ten

Curtains for Ten? Ratings have gone from bad to worse over the last year, and the network now trails even the ABC. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Ten Network has delivered a significantly narrowed first-half loss, with revenue up 4.4% to A$315 million, and a net loss after tax of $8 million. This compares with a loss of of $243 million in the corresponding first half.

The result was slightly stronger than forecast, with both revenues and ratings boosted over the Australian summer by the success of the Big Bash League cricket competition and Sochi Winter Olympic Games. However, the network told shareholders the advertising market remained “short” with advertisers reluctant to commit to long-term campaigns.

While the Big Bash gave Ten its best summer ratings since 2008, overall Ten had a terrible ratings year in 2013, and the way things are going, 2014 may be the same.

Is anybody there?

A little over 20 years ago, The Late Show made fun of the ABC’s lack of popularity with a big show tune, referencing Channel Nine’s famous slogan “Still Number One”.

The Late Show: Still Number Four (ABC)

While it’s still funny today, it’s also officially out of date, because the title of number four belongs very much to Ten. And while SBS isn’t exactly knocking on the door, things are looking grim.

The ABC, across its four channels, gets approximately 15% of all free-to-air viewership; Ten only gets around 13%.

Last year I outlined some of the reasons for Network Ten’s massive ratings decline over the past decade. Among them was the undercutting of its “counter-programming” strategy in a multi-channel environment, its increasingly undefined brand, and its reliance on big investments in reality formats like The Bachelor and The Renovators.

But there was, at that time, some optimism. The new morning shows Wake Up and Studio 10 had just commenced, and many at the network hoped they would kick start a larger turnaround in its fortunes. There was also great expectation that their coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi would give other programs this year a lift.

But, it hasn’t happened.

Although Studio 10 has fared slightly better, Wake Up has struggled badly to find an audience, and simply hasn’t got the new “edge” in the breakfast TV market that its creator was essentially hired to find. The creative mind behind both shows has left television altogether (for very good reason, as viewers of Australian Story discovered last month).

Other shows that the network had hyped have also performed terribly in the ratings. Monday night’s finale of Secrets and Lies had just 409,000 viewers – about the same number as when it started back in March. Returning drama Puberty Blues has not done as well as the first series, while The Biggest Loser has lost every weeknight to Seven’s My Kitchen Rules and Nine’s The Block.

An empty (program) slate

Could things get any worse? Absolutely.

It’s extremely hard to turn television ratings around, once they’ve built up momentum in a certain direction. If they’re on the up, chances are they’ll keep going up. And, by the same token, if they’re on the slide, they’ll probably keep sliding. They’re either a vicious or virtuous circle.

Most worryingly for Ten, there’s nothing in the near future with the potential to turn its fortunes around. Masterchef is returning, but it simply is not going to be the ratings powerhouse that it was in 2009 and 2010.

That raises a second big question. What will turn things around?

One solution might come in the form of a takeover by News Corp Australia. Lachlan Murdoch, who was recently anointed as the man who will eventually succeed his father as CEO, only departed Ten, where he was chairman, last month.

And, to a company with enough money, Ten might soon look like a great investment. Meanwhile, television is still a lucrative and heavily-protected industry in Australia, thanks to anti-siphoning legislation, and the well-known fact that the government is not going to give out a new television broadcasting licence in the foreseeable future.

A buyout might give Ten the breathing space it so desperately needs to rebrand and reinvigorate. How it might look and perform after such an exercise, however, is anyone’s guess.

A takeover by News Corp Australia probably can’t happen until further changes are made to the current media ownership laws. The federal government has signalled its intent in that space, but hasn’t taken any real action yet. So, in the meantime, what can Ten do?

Back to reality

Firstly, it has to stop going back to dry wells. There may still be some life left in Masterchef, but Ten is also banking on The Bachelor and Recipe to Riches — two shows which had mediocre showings (at best) in 2013.

Reality formats like these rarely build audiences over time. Generally speaking, they start strong, but then people tire of them, and the ratings drop off. The failed return this year of So You Think You Can Dance (following on as it did from Everybody Dance Now) should be evidence of that.

Secondly, it has to start taking more risks. Being in an incredibly tough position reduces the danger associated with trying new things. The Project is a great example of taking a different approach, and it has been one of the few highlights for the network over recent years.

An injection of new talent into the management structure may be required to achieve that, but Ten simply can’t continue to repeat the same mistakes and expect to pull out of its downward spiral.

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