Stokes’ $1.35m man James Warburton has an impossible task at Seven


Also he gets things done and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. “He has fire in his belly and is respected around the traps,” says an industry executive.

But another says: “He believes his own PR, he’s very focused on James.” And that’s from a supporter.

Warburton arrived at Seven and made decisions predecessor Tim Worner couldn’t or wouldn’t, sacking 160 staff, axing Sunday Night and Today Tonight, selling Pacific Magazines for a piffling $40 million to pay down debt and buying the Prime regional TV network.

At least, he tried to do all that. Now his strategy is in tatters. It was naïve not to think the  competition watchdog would flag concerns over selling the magazines to rival Bauer, owner of Australian Women’s Weekly, which is still shifting the furniture about in its Park St headquarters, telling staff to expect Better Homes & Garden and the rest of the Pacific titles to arrive in April when the ACCC issues its final verdict.

Seven is still determined to buy Prime, despite two key shareholders blocking the deal. It is spruiking that an enlarged company will reach 90 per cent of Australians.

But so what? Everyone knows that, despite Seven’s stronghold in Perth and Adelaide, the ad revenue is on the east coast. And why buy your biggest customer, that pays you more than $60 million every year for your programs?

Warburton is so keen on the Prime acquisition that he tried to buy the network himself. Cashed up after departing APN Outdoor in the wake of its takeover, he teamed with private equity to form a crazy-brave takeover scheme with a consortium. But talks with Prime fell apart when Warburton joined SWM, which had veto over any Prime takeover anyway via its programming deal.

Still in Warburton’s in-tray: some sort of team up with a streaming service; and appointing a chief content officer, which just about everyone is in the frame for, including Mark Fennessy, chief executive of giant production company Endemol Shine Australia. But Fennessy has just signed another contract, and probably thinks Warburton should be working for him, not the other way around.

Besides, what could Seven afford? The share price is 25 cents, the market capitalisation is $369 million, its debt pile a mountainous $564 million.

Controlling shareholders Kerry Stokes and son Ryan, who have firmly told Warburton to make money out of SWM’s assets, watch and wait.

Warburton could take the content gig himself, but he’d need to handle programming better than his misadventures last time around at Ten, which ended in his sacking.

It’s been a dismal start to the year. The Big Bash league and revamped My Kitchen Rules were both beaten by I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and Australian Survivor on (deep-breath) Ten.

It seems long wait until the AFL and Olympics.

Seven risks becoming Virgin Australia, debt-laden and trapped between Qantas (Nine) and Jetstar (Ten), unable to transform itself into either.

Programming will recover. Former MasterChef  judges Matt Preston and Gary Meighan, minus the  underpayer of staff, turn up later in the year. Seven is already making programs in India with Preston, whom Warburton texted on his first day of the job.

Potential hits: a local version of riotous game show Holey Moley, which will do for mini-golf what Nine’s Lego Masters did for Lego. And Between Two Worlds, the Bevan Lee drama so involving that the first episode left one executive tearful.

Seven West Media half yearly result drop next week (February 18). This year is likely to be character building for the fishing and V8 cars fanatic, who by is own ridiculous standards, is a self-confessed failure. Warburton wanted to be a CEO by the time he was 40, but missed the deadline by two years at Ten.

Let’s hope for better outcomes second time around.

Still in the dark times ahead, Warburton, ever the optimist, can take comfort in one undeniable fact. However bad things get, they could be worse. He could be running Foxtel.

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