For many years Network Ten’s news offering has been dismissed as a poorer cousin to the brash, high-profile Seven and Nine news portfolios. While Seven and Nine throw money into resources and promotion, each of them keen to get an edge over the other while almost mimicking each other, Ten has kept a somewhat more modest profile – largely due to staying out of the traditional 6-7pm news hour, keeping a lower profile in the competitive breakfast timeslot, and reducing its weekend news output largely to ‘national’ Sydney-based bulletins. And, when a major news story would be breaking or there is an election to cover, chances are it would be Seven, Nine or ABC that would pull all stops to cover it live, while Ten maintained its long-held mantra of providing an alternative option for viewers.
There have been exceptions to the rule, of course. It was Ten News that first broke the news to Australians of the September 11 attacks in the US and, like its rivals, maintained a level of continuous news coverage in the days that followed. The network maintained its serious Sunday morning Meet The Press interview program despite it sitting awkwardly amongst children’s programs and Video Hits, and while Nine replaced the serious Sunday with the more casual Weekend Today and Seven expanded its chummy Sunrise to the timeslot. Ten has also maintained its 10.30pm Late News while both Seven and Nine abandoned their late night news programs. And while the 5.00pm bulletin was avoiding the prime-time battle, it gradually built up its audience to the point where it dominated that hour, despite the high-profile late-afternoon game show battles between Seven and Nine, and both networks launching their own 4.30pm national news bulletins.
But, as time progressed, it became apparent that Ten was perhaps tiring of having the lesser of the three commercial networks’ news profiles and the impact of not having a News presence at 6.00pm. The network was seeing its viewing numbers drop dramatically at 6.00pm after Ten News has signed off, while Seven and Nine’s 6.00pm bulletins continued to sit at the top of the nightly ratings reports, with The Simpsons and Neighbours – while they might have represented a sound viewing alternative in the 6.00pm hour many years ago – clearly no longer attracting the numbers they once did. There were reports in 2009 that Ten was considering the idea of expanding the 5.00pm bulletin to 90 minutes – thirty years after it led the way as a network with the one-hour newscast as opposed to the traditional half-hour format.
Then, last year, Ten announced its bold move. The network was bumping The Simpsons and Neighbours from their long-held timeslots to its new digital channel, Eleven. This one-hour gap in the schedule was now going to be filled by two additional news programs – one national and one local – to sit between Ten News and The 7PM Project. Ten also announced plans to reinstate state-based weekend news bulletins at 6.00pm. It marks the first major shake-up of commercial television news coverage since Ten moved its evening bulletin to 5.00pm almost twenty years ago.
In implementing this expanded news profile, Ten – a network not often known for lavish spending – was investing big money, reported to be $20 million, in infrastructure and hiring new staff, most notably the signing up of veteran journalist and presenter George Negus. With a journalistic background dating back to This Day Tonight and the founding days of 60 Minutes and Foreign Correspondent, and more recently as host of SBS’ Dateline, Negus presents a credible identity. His more recent appearances as a weekly commentator on The 7PM Project have also endeared him to the network and its viewers. Ten’s new venture also gained credibility with the signing of former ABC journalist Chris Masters as a consultant to the network.
With the expenditure and high-profile signings, it was clear that this news revamp was going to be far more than just splashing a coat of paint on the news desk or changing the logo on the network’s car fleet – this was going to be a serious shake-up of the evening news and giving viewers a decent alternative to the lookalike news and current affairs programs of Seven and Nine. For the first time in over twenty years, Ten was now gearing up to take on its two commercial rivals – who have cosily had the 6.00pm hour all to themselves for too long – in a big way.
So, after months of waiting and speculation – some of the latter prompted by James Packer’s surprise investment in the Ten Network with media discussing his rumoured plans to tear down the news revamp – Ten’s ‘news evolution’ finally comes to fruition tomorrow (Monday) evening.
Essentially, the ‘First at Five’ Ten News remains intact but there are some changes in personnel and production. The Adelaide newscast now moves back to being produced entirely from Adelaide – after being largely based at Ten’s Melbourne studio for several years – and follows the return of the Perth newscast to the Perth-based studios in 2008.
The Adelaide 5.00pm bulletin is now being fronted by Belinda Heggen, replacing George Donikian and Rebecca Morse, while the Perth bulletin is now read by former ABC journalist Craig Smart, replacing Narelda Jacobs. Donikian now replaces Mal Walden at the Melbourne 5.00pm newsdesk, sitting alongside Helen Kapalos. The significance of the Greek heritage of both Donikian and Kapalos (pictured) in presenting the news together in the largest Greek city outside of Greece has not gone unnoticed. ”It’s not just revolutionary, this is the first in the world,” Donikian told Melbourne-based Greek newspaper Neos Kosmos.
Walden, Morse and Jacobs now move to presenting the new 6.30pm Evening News in their respective capital cities – providing a local news-based alternative to the tabloid offerings from Seven and Nine in that timeslot.
Former Late News presenter Sandra Sully (pictured) will be reading the Sydney-based Evening News bulletin, and Brisbane newsreader Bill McDonald will be presenting Brisbane’s Evening News as well as co-anchoring the local 5.00pm bulletin with Georgie Lewis.
Bill Woods and Deborah Knight will continue to present the 5.00pm Ten News in Sydney.
The 6.00pm timeslot now becomes home to 6PM With George Negus – a national program offering an in-depth analysis of the news. As well as being hosted by the experienced and popular Negus, 6PM also boasts a strong line-up of journalists including Hugh Riminton, formerly of the Nine Network and CNN, and Hamish Macdonald, an Australian journalist formerly working in the United Kingdom and also a former correspondent for the Al Jazeera English channel.
With Ten’s new intentions, and the recent arrival of ABC News 24 as Australia’s first free-to-air dedicated news channel, if Seven and Nine are panicking at the prospect of the intense competition they are not showing any signs of it. It appears to be ‘business as usual’ for the two top-rating networks, with little changing in their portfolio of news and current affairs programs.
According to Seven’s Melbourne newsreader Peter Mitchell: “Nothing changes for us,” he told the Herald Sun. “We know what we’ve got to do. We’ve always prided ourselves on being local.” – a swipe at 6PM’s national focus.
Nine’s Brisbane news director Lee Anderson, talking to the Courier Mail, questions Ten’s ability to cover the big local stories on the back of its stilted response to coverage of the Queensland flood crisis: “When Brisbane faced its biggest natural disaster Ten obviously found it difficult to cover the emergency effectively, so I hope for them this will mean their network bosses start to take local operation seriously.”
Seven’s Brisbane news director Rob Raschke was a little more flippant in his comments, labelling Negus as ‘a worthy successor to Homer Simpson’.
“And, like Homer, his focus won’t be on Queensland,” Raschke told the Courier Mail.
It appears that Ten’s rivals are quick to criticise the national focus of 6PM while failing to acknowledge Ten’s local approach at 5.00pm and 6.30pm against their own national programs.
But Ten and Negus (pictured with Melbourne newsreader Walden) have no illusions that the new line-up will be an instant hit with viewers. News viewing habits are well-entrenched and rarely turnaround to a new competitor in an instant. But the network has shown with The 7PM Project that it has the ability to be patient and to persevere with a new venture even if it doesn’t pay immediate dividends.
Ten News, 6PM With George Negus, Evening News, The 7PM Project. Weeknights, from 5.00pm, starting 24 January. Network Ten, Southern Cross Ten, Tasmanian Digital Television, Darwin Digital Television, Ten Mildura, Ten West.