Seven renews fight for Nine's ratings crown

SYDNEY — The Aussie terrestrial webs have begun their pre-ratings posturing ahead of the start of the ratings period on Feb. 11 — but does Kerry Stokes’ Seven have what it takes to end Nine’s two-decade winning streak?

Nine Network, owned by James Packer’s Publishing and Broadcast just managed to hold on to the 2006 ratings crown after its toughest battle yet with Seven Network, which grabbed more of the advertising coin.

And pundits are once again predicting this to be the year Nine’s crown will fall.

For the past three years, Seven has had the pick of hit Stateside fare, thanks to its output deal with Buena Vista Intl. Television, which has delivered “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

This year, the output Gods are smiling again and the web has landed “Ugly Betty” and NBC’s frosh hit “Heroes.”

It has also been the frontrunner of a trend to launch hit skeins ahead of official ratings season, building up auds before the tally starts.

Seven bowed “Heroes” and “Housewives” early, but “Betty” is the ace up its sleeve, and it has yet to get a slot on the 2007 sked.

Seven is coy about whether it will snatch the No. 1 spot this year, instead choosing to point to its strengths.

“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves just yet. We’re targeting further growth in our key demographics and we’re launching a number of promising new series,” Seven’s Simon Francis says. “We go into the new television season leading in breakfast television and news and public affairs, and moving in on Nine, which is defending a 0.1% margin in primetime.”

Seven also backs up its Stateside hits with local factual skein “Border Security” and the return of celeb reality skein “Dancing With the Stars.” Auds for the show have eased in recent outings but “Dancing” has a strong cast for its sixth go-around including high-profile Seven recruit Jamie Durie.

Web also has the rights to ratings-grabber Australian Football League and new quizzer “The Rich List,” which drew 1.5 million last week against strong opposition from Steve Irwin’s final docu “Ocean’s Deadliest” on Nine.

In contrast, Nine’s output deals have not done as well. A number of its Stateside skeins, like CBS’ “Smith” and “The Nine” and Fox’s “Justice,” were cancelled midseason, and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” is critically hailed but faltering.

But Nine is never out of the race. Last week it had one of its strongest Mondays in months, with the bow of Endemol quizzer “1 vs. 100″ (1.9 million aud) hosted by Eddie McGuire, back in front of the cameras for the first time since giving up “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” to become Nine’s topper.

In sports, Nine holds the rights to the cricket, which is ratings gold Down Under.

Meanwhile, CanWest’s Network Ten, which targets the younger 18-49 demo, has also caught the “early” bug, launching its strip success “The Biggest Loser” and boffo Stateside hit “House” ahead of the start of the ratings season.

Beverley McGarvey, head of programming for Ten, says its big guns remain the reality trio, “Loser,” “Big Brother” and “Australian Idol.”

“As has been shown overseas, these formats can be reinvigorated every season,” McGarvey says.

At the start of 2006, “Idol” appeared to be in a tailspin, but some tweaks saw last year’s edition perform strongly.

She also nominates the “Law & Order” franchise and “NCIS” as solid performers, and says the web has high hopes for its quizzer entry “The Con Test.” “It doesn’t have the sentimental element of ’1 vs 100′ or ‘Rich List’; it’s a bit cooler,” she says.

Ten will also start to see content from its new deal with 20th Century Fox Television begin to flow toward the end of the year.

But the web to beat figures to be Seven, and its aggressive rollout is backed up but the web’s strategy.

“Go early, go hard and then keep going for 44 weeks,” says Francis. “We’ll be relentless.”

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