The co-hosts of ratings smash Sunrise will return to screens on January 6, a week earlier than expected, to match the relaunch of rival Today and the resurrection of Karl Stefanovic.
Stefanovic’s surprise comeback, announced last month, sent shockwaves through the media industry, given it’s barely a year since his stunning downfall.
“Seven are taking it very seriously,” media analyst Steve Allen told news.com.au.
“They aren’t going to let Nine build up any steam before their own front row forwards are lined up. Seven is thinking of it strategically. You can’t afford a new crew to have any advantage and be there unopposed.”
But will the troubled Today be able to claw back the significant audience it has lost over the past few years?
“There’ll be visitation in that first week – viewers will tune in to have a look and to see what Karl does,” Allen said. “That doesn’t mean that viewers will stick with it. That’s not a given.
“They might come back to visit and see if the program overall is a bit better, if there’s more on offer to them, but there’s still a cloud hanging over (Stefanovic), his performance and his appeal.”
Vivienne Kelly, editor of media industry website Mumbrella, said breakfast television relied on loyal viewers – and that could present a challenge for Today.
“There will definitely be a curiosity viewing factor but it’s whether or not they can maintain that,” Kelly told news.com.au
“People tuned in for the aftermath of Lisa Wilkinson leaving, people tuned in for Karl leaving, but they didn’t stick around with the various iterations.
“What Nine needs to do is capture that curiosity and translate it into loyalty. They’ll have to utilise larrikin Karl without going too overboard and making viewers sour on him again.”
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Stefanovic was dumped as co-host last December after an extended period of negative publicity surrounding his personal life – the end of his marriage, his new relationship and then his glitzy Mexican wedding.
The thought was that the mass exodus of eyeballs was due to his PR nightmare, particularly when it came the dominant female demographic.
But the new line-up of Georgie Gardener and Deborah Knight failed to impress, seeing the show’s audience slip even further and the gap with Sunrise extend substantially.
“We don’t believe the public has forgiven him,” Allen said of Stefanovic’s second coming. “We certainly don’t think the people who’ve left Today have forgiven him.”
It will be a tough battle for Today to make up its lost ground but it’s clear Seven is taking nothing to chance.
“The breakfast battle between Seven and Nine is so heated and so hotly contested,” Kelly said.
“As much as they both always say that they run their own races and don’t care what the other one is doing, this just shows that that’s not entirely true. Seven does mind and they do really want to hold onto their market.
“January 6 is well outside the official ratings period but they obviously want to hit the ground running in 2020. It’s so early, but this gives viewers a chance to experiment and then make a decision and settle with the show they like before ratings begin.”
Koch told The Australian newspaper today that getting a headstart on the competition was a strategy that Sunrise pioneered way back when they were ratings underdogs.
“It’s how we built Sunrise when I started – we only had 10 per cent of the Today audience back then, in some markets we rated so poorly we were just an asterisk (in the ratings figures),” he told the newspaper.
“So we figured, if the opposition A-team is on holidays, we will work through the summer and hope people give us a chance. I’m very grateful that they did and we’ve built a very strong and loyal audience as a result of that.
“When I told my wife we were starting a week early (because Today was trying to do the same thing), she just laughed in that cynical way that only wives can and started listing all the holidays we’ve been brought back from over the years to cover major news events.
“She understands breakfast television is extremely competitive and the entire team appreciates this just goes with the territory. We’re really proud of what we have and don’t want to lose that.”
Today will roll out its almost entirely new talent mix on January 6 – Stefanovic and Langdon, joined by Perth reporter Tracy Vo in the newsreader role, former Sunday Night journalist Alex Cullen on sports and Sydney reporter Tim Davies on weather – a week out from the tennis.
The following Tuesday, the team is expected to head to Melbourne to base themselves in the centre of the Australian Open action, as part of Nine’s coverage of the major sporting event.
“Nine took a strategic approach in getting the tennis so they could launch their first quarter programming on the back of the Australian Open – it’s what Seven used to do,” Allen said.
Getting the early jump in what has traditionally been a programming ghost town in summer, a month out from the official start of the ratings period, seems to be an emerging trend in 2020.
Network 10 will launch the next season of its flagship reality format I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! on Sunday January 5.
“We just couldn’t wait any longer to put the celebs through the paces – cue the gag reflexes, cries and screams – and look forward to sharing their identities on January 5,” a Ten spokesman said.
“Waiting for the official start of ratings is less and less of a done thing,” Allen said. “If everyone else is grabbing viewers early, you’ve got to compete.”
Channel 7 is yet to confirm a start date for its juggernaut franchise My Kitchen Rules, but it’s unlikely to be quite as early given the network broadcasts test cricket and the Big Bash League series.
Sunrise might be bringing the main crew back early, but it’s not really winging it over the coming quieter few weeks either.
Popular network personalities Monique Wright and Mark Beretta will hold down the fort in the absence of Koch and Armytage but by comparison, Today will rely on lower profile talent, including journalists from interstate, to tide them over.