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Oz networks maneuver for upcoming season

Seven, Nine, Ten prep for fierce contest in February

SYDNEY — Shareholders who turned up for the Seven network’s annual general meeting earlier this month witnessed a rare utterance from the chairman of a public company: a mea culpa.

Kerry Stokes, who owns 43% of the company, apologized for an anticipated 20% dip in profits that he blamed on the web’s ratings. “We were not competitive in programming over the past 12 months,” he conceded.

Stokes’ admission signaled a renewed determination by Seven to lift its game next year, heralding a fierce contest among Seven, Ten and Nine when the survey begins in February.

Ten aimed to steal a match on its rivals by unfurling its 2005 lineup for an audience of around 400 media buyers and press at the Sydney Opera House Nov. 21. The web ALSO ran promos for some of those shows that night during the finale of “Australian Idol.”

Four days earlier, Seven announced it had hired an agency to focus on in its “brand positioning” and the upcoming TV season.

Nine, the year’s emphatic ratings victor, which lost only two weeks during the summer Olympics, has no plans for a formal launch.

“We will let the schedule and promos speak for themselves,” says Nine’s director of programming Michael Healy. While Healy understands his competitors’ desire to talk up their 2005 initiatives in front of shareholders and viewers, he can’t resist taking a jab. “We’re a bit cynical about their promises because they often fail to live up to them,” he opines.

And Healy sees no lasting value in Ten’s Nov. 21 hoopla, reasoning, “I don’t think audiences will retain that (information) through next February.”

Ten looks likely to finish the 2004 survey, which ends Nov. 27, by beating Seven in the coveted 25-54 demo in prime-time, for the first time.

“We capitalized on Seven’s (programming) mistakes, which I am sure they will correct next year,” says David Mott, Ten’s general manager of network programming.

As for 2005, Mott says, “I am sure (the competition) will be just as aggressive.”

Ten is unveiling “The X Factor,” based on the U.K. show, chronicling the search for Australia’s best singer or group; an Oz version of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”; and more helpings of “Australian Idol” and “Big Brother.”

Among the new U.S. series coming to Ten are “Law & Order: Trial by Jury,” “Blind Justice,” “Medical Investigation,” “Medium,” “Battlestar Galactica” and the follow-up to “The 4400.”

Nine is bullish about its new U.S. offerings including “CSI: NY,” “Eyes,” sitcoms “Joey,” “Listen Up” and “Center of the Universe” and new episodes of bona fide 2004 hit “Cold Case.”

Putting more store than ever on local programming, Nine will usher in “Starstruck,” a talent quest in which folks will dress up as their idols, plus the third season of popular reality show “The Block” and other nonfiction programs being developed inhouse but which are under wraps for now.

Seven is counting on frosh series “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Boston Legal,” plus returning shows such as “Las Vegas” and “My Wife and Kids.”

This year its Oz offerings “My Restaurant Rules,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “Forensic Investigators” and “Border Security” all fared well, and they will be back in ’05.

Seven aims to plug a weakness in Aussie drama with two newbies, “Campus” (a co-production with the U.K.’s Channel 4, which looks at a bunch of students at a South Coast university) and “Last Man Standing” (following three guys and their relationships with females).

“We’ve seen a situation in the U.S. where the networks have found themselves in closer proximity than in recent years,” says Seven’s director of programming and production Tim Worner. “While it isn’t exactly hand-to-hand combat (here), it certainly makes it more interesting.”

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