The flagship bulletins of the TV networks are thriving, but challenges remain.
IT SEEMS Australian TV viewers just can't break their news habit.
Despite pundits' predictions that the information age, with its onslaught of continuous news, real-time feeds and video-rich newspaper websites would make the nightly bulletin obsolete, there is no evidence of that having yet happened.
With the exception of Channel Seven, whose national figures have been dragged down by a sharp dip in its Melbourne ratings, and the barely rating SBS World News, the flagship bulletins of the commercial networks, as well as the ABC, have increased their audiences this year.
Indeed, Channel Nine's 6pm bulletin in Sydney and Melbourne attracts almost the same number of viewers in 2012 as it did five years ago, while ABC1's 7pm News in Melbourne is at its highest since 2009. Even the struggling Channel Ten is averaging 691,000 to date for its Monday-to-Friday editions of News at Five - an audience number that it would kill for in its post-7pm offerings.
What's more, the overall decline in audiences tuning into the main news bulletin - 5pm on Ten, 6pm on Seven and Nine and 7pm on ABC1 - during the past decade is smaller than the overall decline in main-channel viewing.
These days, it's commonplace for the key nightly bulletin to deliver a network its largest audience of the day. It's a trend that surprises many in the industry.
''There are still people, older people I have to admit, for whom a 6pm bulletin is almost a religious experience,'' says Peter Meakin, the veteran news executive who oversaw Nine's decades-long domination of commercial news, and is now Seven's national news director.
''It is amazing that many, many days, the No.1 program of the night will be Seven News. The consistency of performance at a network level is remarkable.''
All the more remarkable, as Meakin points out, is that once the bulletin sat in ''solitary magnificence''. It anchored the nightly schedule at a time when morning shows, current-affairs shows, The Project and so on, weren't in the schedule and replicating much of what the nightly news does.
''Now, we and Nine generate about 30 or 40 times the news and current-affairs content we did in the early days, and most of it works. It's viable programming, it's local, and if you do it well it builds audience loyalty.''
That the audience for the flagship bulletins skews to an ''older'' audience is an understatement. About half the audience is over 50. On a typical recent weeknight, 40-pluses accounted for 78 per cent, 76 per cent and 74 per cent, respectively, of Seven, Nine and Ten's main bulletins.
Historically, however, that's always been the case. Home life, marriage and child raising, media analyst Steve Allen says, are the catalysts for people becoming news devotees.
If anything, it seems that new media, continuous news and social media such as Facebook and Twitter seem to be helping the nightly bulletins' resurgence.
''There's demand for
information all through the day,'' Nine's national news director, Darren Wick, says. ''[The] 6pm [bulletin] is still a record of the day where everything is summed up. It's still a chance for people to sit down, take it in and assess the day. I think people need that handbrake on the day.''
''When you look at the 6pm bulletin on its own,'' Meakin says, ''it's really the only vehicle in each state for local news … you get locally prioritised news, national news, international news, weather and sport. It's a fairly digestible package. Trying to hunt that information on various websites would be fairly labour- and time- intensive. I think that's appealing, particularly for the older audience.''
Still, insiders say that if both Seven and Nine had their choice, their showpiece news bulletin would move from 6 to 7pm. This would help reduce the average age of the audience and increase the audience size.
Channel Nine managing director Jeff Browne confirmed this last year. However, Browne said it was doubtful this shift would occur any time soon, as neither network was likely to ''blink first''.
One rumour that has circulated this year is Seven's plan to axe its tabloid current-affairs show Today Tonight and host an hour of news coverage from 6pm-7pm.
''Love them or hate them, Today Tonight and A Current Affair are popular programs,'' Meakin says.
''They are usually in the top 10 every night, sometimes the top five. I think the 6.30 programs have to evolve. We can't keep serving up the same meal year after year. We have to be more inventive, more adventurous maybe, and I think you'll see that on Seven and Nine.'' The ratings stability of the network's nightly news bulletins are all the more intriguing when you compare the local market with its American counterparts. In the US, the nightly news bulletins have been in steep decline for the past decade. And they are viewed as almost quaint dinosaurs by US media observers. The top-rating US nightly news, NBC News, hosted by Brian Williams, is down by about 11 per cent in the crucial 25-54 category this year. Its arch-rival in the US, ABC, is down by about 8 per cent.
Habit and trust are key factors in the institution's survival, says Anthony Flannery, director of Ten news, but he believes many in the industry forget that TV is a visual medium.
''There was a trend some years ago with bloggers and claims that the sky was going to fall in, but my view and that of many others is that viewers want professional journalists, reporters, camera operators out there gathering information. The danger we have with a lot of so-called new media is that there is a lot of agenda-driven articles masquerading as news.''
Stability is one of the key attributes of the bulletin, as the ABC and SBS discovered when they changed the line-ups of their nightly news and current-affairs bulletins several years ago.
Change, Wick says, has to be managed slowly and carefully. ''One of the things I've tried to break down here at Nine is that in the Sydney and Melbourne market we're still living in the shadow of the Brian Henderson and Brian Naylor days. That was a terrific time, a terrific era, but it's gone now and we can't rely on what was built up.''
It is for this reason that many are shocked by Ten's decision to cut loose Melbourne newsreader Helen Kapalos and revert to a single-anchor format around the country for its state-based editions.
''Ten has killed the golden goose, and dead geese find it hard to perform,'' Meakin says when asked about the rival broadcaster's decision.
Flannery insists that ''science rather than butchery'' is behind the decision to make all Ten's bulletins single-presenter.
''We're in the process now of restructuring and future-proofing our news operations. We still have more than adequate resources to cover the stories that count in each of our markets, we are fully committed to localism.''
He says that by centralising production operations, Ten will be able to improve the quality of its national, interstate and international coverage.
Flannery insists that Ten will not shift its bulletin from 5pm or reduce it to a traditional half hour. The 5pm slot is a ''position of strength'', he says.
''[The one-hour format] allows us to cover stories the opposition can't. I've read comments that our localism will suffer because of our restructuring. It won't; we'll still do more than our competition.''
He contends that the double-header format was strong in the 1980s. ''We believe we have strong reporters around the country who we cross to, they can value add from the field rather than being studio based.''
Flannery says that the recently launched Late News, which is hosted most nights by Hamish MacDonald and is the only such late-night offering outside of the ABC's Lateline, is ''one of the success stories of the year''.
While its ratings remain modest with a year-to-date average of 177,000, audiences for recent episodes nudged and exceeded 220,000 across five cities.
Interestingly, the ABC is soon to launch a 5.30pm national news bulletin to air weekdays on ABC1. It will compete directly with Ten and put yet more pressure on the network as it sheds journalists and anchors around the country.
Alan Sunderland, head of policy and staff development at ABC News, says there is little evidence that ABC News 24, which launched in mid-2010, has cannibalised the audience for the flagship 7pm bulletin. ''Australians who have access to continuous news still look for key bulletins at certain times of the day that bring information together, explain it and contextualise it, and provide a strong editorial focus on the issues of relevance to them.''
In Melbourne, Nine News has won every week of the survey year so far, with an average audience of 374,000. By contrast, the average audience for ABC1's 7pm News is 319,000, Seven News is 307,000 and Ten's News at Five is 195,000.
Nine News also dominates the Sydney market, with an average audience in the survey year to date of 341,000 viewers. It has an impressive 33 wins to Seven's four in the timeslot. With Seven averaging 312,000, the ABC 266,000 and Ten 194,000, its lead is smaller in Sydney than in Melbourne.
So important is winning Melbourne to these arch-rivals, in recent times Nine has quietly taken a targeted approach here to its news brand. It does this by analysing in which suburbs its news ratings are weakest and implementing a localised marketing strategy in that area that includes advertising in local media and shopping malls as well as sponsoring community events. It appears to be paying dividends.
Another strong suit is clearly Nine's anchor Peter Hitchener. The veteran will celebrate his 40th year in television in 2013. And, Green Guide can reveal, he has signed a new deal with the network to continue reading the news next year.
Former Herald Sun editor Simon Pristel recently took over the Melbourne news room. While Seven News will win nationally this year and Meakin says he is pleased with the performance, there is a caveat: ''We still have major issues in Melbourne,'' he notes.
With Andrew Murfett