Oz webs slug it out

Nine, Seven, Ten fight fierce numbers game

SYDNEY — Competition among the three terrestrial Oz webs has been the most brutal in recent memory as Seven launched a slew of U.S. and homegrown shows in an effort to reach younger demos, while Nine and Ten responded vigorously to protect their turf.

But little has changed. The upshot is that Nine is still No. 1 overall and Ten is still tops in primetime (which it defines as 6-10:30 p.m.) in its targeted 16-39 group. And while Seven gained viewers under 25, it shed a lot of older folk.

The battle rolls on. Nine unleashed the second season of reality skein “The Block” April 18, and Ten will uncork the fourth season of “Big Brother” May 2. Nine is ushering in U.S. hit “The Apprentice” this month and will produce an Oz version after it finds a suitable counterpart to Donald Trump.

Execs are hoping to avoid the casualties incurred in the first eight-week sweeps, which ended April 3. Ten yanked “The Resort” (a renovation show set on a tropical island) after it struggled against Nine’s “Without a Trace.” Seven had to move talent quest “Popstars Live” to Saturday nights after it sputtered on Sundays. And Ten got low numbers for “The Hot House” (which has 14 couples competing to build a home, with pairs progressively being eliminated).

Nine director of programming Michael Healy believes some reality shows haven’t worked because they lacked a strong difference. He’s now reluctant to buy formats on paper, preferring to wait to see completed episodes.

“All Stars Survivor” on Nine has bucked the downward trend for reality shows. Also, the net is co-producing with the U.K.’s RDF Media and ITV “Holiday Showdown,” in which an Aussie family and an English one visit each other’s holiday spots. Also, Nine is making an Oz version of “Wife Swap” with RDF.

Healy still has the problem of how to replace “Friends,” but he thinks WB’s “Joey” might be a good candidate.

Ten general manager of network programming David Mott senses viewers are thirsting for nonscripted programs that are less angst-driven and more uplifting and fun. He bought Oz rights to Danish format “Spoofed,” in which contestants try to dupe friends and family into believing outrageous tales.

“Given the extremely tough environment, we’re very comfortable with our performance,” Mott says. “Ten is more than 3% ahead (of last year) in 25-54, 2% up in total viewing, and Seven has only managed gains in 16-24 where Ten remains the clear leader.”

Last month, Ten renewed its output deals with Universal and Paramount through the end of 2008; both extensions were driven by series that are performing strongly Down Under including U’s “Law & Order” franchise and Par’s “Charmed” and “Becker.” It also picked up the latter’s upcoming “Navy NCIS.”

Meanwhile, Seven director of programming and production Tim Worner acknowledges the web has lost older viewers. “We’re on a journey to drastically alter our audience profile, and we’ve made an encouraging start,” he says. “No one here is under any illusions about how long that will take or how difficult it will be.”

Worner agrees viewers were swamped with reality fare this year. “There is some re-evaluation of development slates,” he notes.

All webs are benefiting from the booming TV ad sales market, underpinned by a strong Oz economy that grew by 4% last year — the biggest rise of any developed nation. Some analysts forecast TV blurb sales this year will jump by as much as 9% to A$3.06 billion ($2.3 billion).