SYDNEY — Nine’s 50th year could also be its toughest.

It’s looking at a dwindling share of Oz’s $A2.8 billion TV ad market and a fierce ratings battle with a Seven Network, which has been reinvigorated via its output deal with ABC/Disney, a news and current affairs sked that is growing in popularity.

But Nine also has a new, young topper in the form of former “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” host Eddie McGuire. At 41, he is already a veteran of 20-plus years in the TV biz and is a testament to the star-making power of Australia’s most-watched network.

“Nine has been the opinion maker for so many Australians for so many years it has created some of the biggest names in show business,” McGuire tells Variety. “Because it has been the No. 1 network for so long, it has been the place that the best talent wants to work, and that is one of the challenges going forward — to make sure that Nine is the epicenter for creative talent.”

But that dominant position — which Nine has held for the past two decades — is under threat from the Seven Network, which has won every week of the ratings year so far.

At its peak, local hoofer skein “Dancing With the Stars” delivered Seven its highest primetime aud ever, with a 40.8% share and the biggest lead it has ever held over Nine — 18.7 points — outside of the 2001 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney.

Seven also recently released strong half-year results with TV earnings up 49% to $A153 million ($104 million) — the first time it has made more money that Nine.

McGuire is not too proud to give credit where it is due, admitting that his rival’s strategy of loading the front of the year with all its hits –“Desperate Housewives”, “Lost”, “Prison Break” and “Dancing” — has given it a lead, as well as some very positive column inches in the press, but a similar thing happened last year and Nine still won the year.

“The media world has changed,” McGuire admits. “Network Ten has one model (targeting the 16-39 demographic) while Nine and Seven have battled it out over a different model, and there is no doubt it is as competitive as it has ever been — that’s because we are not dominating the way we traditionally have.

“The fact that Channel Seven has had a good run with their output deal is probably long overdue for them and good luck to them,” McGuire adds. “We have had tremendous success with Warner Bros. over the years…. We still have ongoing relationships with CBS Paramount, and DreamWorks is still in play.”

An on March 21 the net announced it signed a four-year output deal with U.S. indie Lionsgate that includes such titles as as “Dirty Dancing,” “The Blair Witch Project” and Oscar-winner “Crash.”

McGuire also pointed to the web’s deal with Alliance Atlantis, through which Nine gets the top-10-rating “CSI” franchise.

McGuire also pointed to the web’s deal with Alliance Atlantis, through which Nine gets the top-10-rating “CSI” franchise.

But McGuire’s plan for the path back to dominance is not to rely on areas beyond his control. He plans to use the synergies involved in being part of parent company Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd. (PBL); build up Nine’s event programming and entertainment; and tubthump the Nine brand to media buyers. This last strategy may well be the most persuasive. McGuire is known for his networking skills, his drive and his enthusiasm, and these traits could help to tip the balance in favor of Nine.

“The thing about Channel Nine is our ratings have been consistent for 50 years,” he says when asked about the falling ad share. “Even on our worst day and our opponents’ best day it is a close margin and it is that that allows us to command a revenue premium.”

It also means coming up with more creative ways of getting advertising dollars such as product placement, which Nine used with mixed results in reality skein “The Block.”

“We’ll continue to come up with innovative advertiser integration into content and content into advertising and make sure that the things that we’ve got going for ourselves — like the links with PBL and Ninemsn — make us a one-stop shop for advertisers,” McGuire says.

There is also the question of Australian drama, which saw its successes (“Little Oberon” mini) and its failures (“The Alice” cancelled after failure to draw eyeballs) on the Nine network last year.

“Unfortunately in Australia there have been very few dramas outside of ‘McLeod’s Daughters’ that have started in the 21st century that have worked,” he says. “When there is so much great Australian talent around, particularly going to Hollywood, there has to be a way of doing it so we have to — like everyone else — work out how best to do it.”

Much has been made of McGuire’s lack of a proven track record in running a publicly-listed company, but he talks frankly about the industry like someone who has worked in it for almost all his professional life. He sees his role at Nine as simple: Roll out quality product, ramp up the ratings, and the advertisers will follow.

“It’s the same as ever, its about picking the trends as they come and making sure we are at the front of the queue,” he says.

A handful of pioneers and key players kept Nine moving forward

Kerry Packer
Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer inherited the Nine Network from his father, Frank, but it was his love of the TV biz that drove Nine to become the dominant web. His crowning achievement was the founding of World Series Cricket which revolutionized the way cricket was broadcast and played. Packer sold Nine in 1987 to businessman Alan Bond for A$1 million, only to buy it back three years later for $A250 million. He died in 2005.

Bruce Gyngell
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to television” were the first words Aussies heard from the TV set on Sept. 16, 1956. These words were spoken by Gyngell, who became a key Nine exec; he established the hit music skein “Bandstand” (1958-1972), adapted from the Stateside “American Bandstand,” and established the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, forerunner to TV watchdog ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority.

Sam Chisholm
One of Oz’s most successful TV execs, Sam Chisholm pushed Nine to its position as No. 1 network with the catchphrase “Still the One” and top shows. He then headed to Blighty to lend his skills to rescuing Rupert Murdoch’s struggling satcaster BSkyB. Chisholm returned to Nine in 2005 to oversee cost-cutting measures after the sudden departure of topper David Gyngell, son of Bruce.

Brian Henderson
Channel Nine newsreader for 46 years, “Hendo” became synonymous with Nine’s news dominance with the network’s news slogan “Brian told me.” Henderson started with Nine just months after television began in Oz in 1956 and retired in 2002 at the age of 71.

Graham Kennedy
Dubbed Oz’s “King of Television,” Kennedy dominated the first two decades of TV. He hosted the “Tonight Show” clone “In Melbourne Tonight” on Nine and went on to have a 40-year career; he was particularly well known for his irreverent live commercials that were so well loved they could change the buying habits of the Aussie public.

Bert Newton
Although starting out at Channel Seven, Newton soon moved to Nine, where he became Kennedy’s co-host before his successful pairing with American talkshow import Don Lane for “The Don Lane Show,” which ran 1975-85. After almost a decade at Network Ten, Newton — one of the most beloved talents on Oz TV — returned “home” to Nine this year; move was one of Kerry Packer’s last pieces of business for his beloved web.