EXCLUSIVE: When Karl Stefanovic is ready to move on from Today, Ben Fordham may well be the anointed one.
News boss Darren Wick is a believer in succession plans and describes Fordham as a smart operator, citing his recent interview with Michael Wolff -author of “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” who walked out on air- as evidence of his technique.
“He’s a clever interviewer. He cleverly walked this guy into a trap. He’s smart. He wasn’t trying to provoke him or get a reaction, but he stepped him through the trap,” said Wick.
“He’s been filling in regularly now, so we’ve got our structures right. Rather than throwing a person in and thinking ‘Could they be the next Karl? Could they be the next Lisa, the next Georgie?’ we clearly know what our structures are with everybody coming in.”
Today and Today Extra are now working to ensemble strategies which Wick believes are clearer to audiences.
“Deb Knight stepped in at a horrific time but she’s in a great zone. When Sonia is away, when Georgie is away Deb steps in. When Karl or David are away Ben steps in. So we have really clear lines.
“The audience knows everyone’s face. That’s always been the strength of Nine. Where we have lost our way is …with something like that.
“Everyone knew there was a succession plan. Everybody knew who the newsreaders were, and who the second and third newsreader was. I think that’s really important for the audience. Because if we’re not settled there’s no way we will settle down with the audience.”
Wick assures that the return of Georgie Gardner to Today has been well-received by audiences, Stefanovic is more focussed (this interview was conducted before reports that a phone call was recorded) and that Fordham has also “reinvented” himself.
“There was a perception that it was a bit in-house between Karl & Ben, which we had to battle. But Ben is a guy who has his priorities well-balanced in life. He has a fantastic wife, 2 great kids and he’s much with how he manages his time now. And I think that is reflective on air,” he continues.
“Today has a good feel about it. Georgie & Karl are settling in really well. We’ve had a few changes behind the scenes, with a restructuring of producers. But it feels like it is in the right place at the moment. Everybody is just focussed on doing a good show.
“The tone about Georgie is that they love her”
“The tone about Georgie is that they (viewers) love her. Women find her genuine, she tells it like it is. We’ve started a new segment in the last half hour which is going harder. But rather than have a bunch of blokes sitting around wondering what do women want to watch, hey Sherlock Holmes, why not get women to produce the segment?
“Karl is very focussed this year and very much with the show, so that helps. The ensemble is working well.”
The ratings battle with Sunrise remains, as it does in primetime news. While Nine News has strength on the East Coast the gaps are larger in Seven strongholds, Adelaide & Perth.
“I’m fairly confident about where we are this year. Our news on the East Coast is performing well. Adelaide has closed the margin and I really like what’s happening over there. It has a good feel about it. Perth with Michael Thomson as the new reader has been getting good numbers.
“Certainly having Married at First Sight on the schedule doesn’t hurt. I take those wins as they come along, but it’s also a great chance to showcase our bulletin.
“Seven in the news market has been able to dominate in Perth. They’ve pretty much dominated Perth as a town forever.”
“The Chase was very dominant”
Seven’s introduction of The Chase may have toppled Hot Seat, but while Wick’s focus is on the endgame that leads into 6pm, the overall battle is better since Hot Seat extended to one hour.
“The one-hour has helped us a lot, especially on the East Coast. Before that Sydney & Melbourne (bulletins) were getting blown away by the lead-in from Seven. So the fact our news won against that two years ago, was a pretty big achievement. Last year the lead-in for both shows were pretty level. Sometimes they are ahead of us, sometime we’re ahead of them in Sydney & Melbourne. Wherever we are pretty close we tend to get away with a pretty solid win, that reassures me we have a strong news brand still,” he explains.
“When The Chase started and Hot Seat was 35 minutes, The Chase was very dominant. Now with the format change and they are both one hour, it’s levelled out a bit.
“It’s a tough lead-in for us in Adelaide and Perth so we struggle a bit there. But on the East Coast generally we are pretty close.”
‘Wickie’ as he is commonly known at Nine is widely regarded as a calming influence in a sometimes-torrid department of breaking news, rolling deadlines, exclusives and fraying tempers. There was no greater test of wills than during 2016’s 60 Minutes debacle in Lebanon, where he jumped on a plane to Beirut.
“All that was just about getting the guys out,” he recalls.
“I spent a lot of time on the phone to Beirut every night after that, for months. We still had a lot of work to do.”
A self-confessed news-junkie, I ask what he watches to wind down?
“I’m not into Netflix but my daughter is. I like Ray Donovan, and I have watched The Walking Dead from the start. I watch Live Sport if there is something I want to see,” he says.
“I’ve watched Married at First Sight with my daughter. Once it catches you, you’ve got to watch it!”
“With News you get more bang for your buck”
What about the myth that News is cheap to produce? Is that why we see so much if it?
“It’s not that cheap, trust me, with my budgets!” he laughs.
“News is a controllable cost. We own our news teams, we own everything. But if you buy something like The Voice, or Sports rights, it isn’t a controllable cost.
“The days of the Midday shows, unless there is a sponsor to subsidise the whole thing, I think are gone. So with News you get more bang for your buck and you can stretch it through the day.
“From my point of view it’s not a bad thing. I like it. And people watch it. It tends to be an older audience through the daytime.
“I think News has become what Radio once was. It’s background. Some people will fully engage with it.
“I have it on all the time but News is my life. I’m not normal by any sense of the word!”
“Our motto is First on Nine but I would rather we were right every time”
But with so much News on air, mistakes can happen. ‘Wickie’ addresses recent graphics bungles and typos, admitting they need to do better.
“We live in a world where if there is a mistake it is automatically put out on Twitter and it is amplified. Once upon a time we didn’t have that. But look, we shouldn’t be making any mistakes. But realistically we are 10.5hrs of Live content a day. The staff are working at an incredible pace, and we have a lot of young staff,” he concedes.
“So it’s a constant process for us of monitoring, training, and drilling it into everybody.
“Yes we want the news up there but with the graphics sometimes we need to take it a little bit slower. Our motto is First on Nine but I would rather we were right every time. Or both.”
On the question of gratuitous footage, where road accidents are played successively in brief reports, Wick agrees on a need to strike the right balance.
“I think we have to be really careful about that,” he acknowledges.
“At the end of the day we’re a news service so we’ve got to tell people the news. But we have to give them a balanced diet as well. If it’s just crash after crash you think ‘Life’s hard enough, it’s too much and I don’t want to see that sort of thing.’
“Everything has to be about how does it relate to the broader audience and what’s the relevance to them? We are a television medium, and good pictures always capture the eye. But it is critical for us to ruthlessly monitor and assess ourselves on balance and tone.”
“I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
With six years heading up Nine’s news and current affairs, Wick hasn’t made any decisions about how long he sees himself in the role. But Nine will doubtless be hoping it isn’t any time soon.
“If I’m sitting in this role on 5-7 year’s time and we are having this conversation it’s not necessarily a great thing for me.
“But I’m not one of those people with a 5 year plan.
“I haven’t come through the business world, so you tend to react and live day to day. I haven’t thought that far ahead. It could be years away, it could be 10 minutes away in this game.”