Why NINE was right to sack Karl Stefanovic from TODAY
Dear reader I have a confession, I am a TODAY viewer. Every morning I wake up at 5:30 am, switch the TV to NINE, and prepare for the working day. Some might say I do it out of habit, others might call me a recidivist, but I can genuinely say I have derived much joy over the years from this somewhat quirky news offering.
2016 was a golden time for TODAY. After years of being belted by arch-enemy SUNRISE, the NINE offering had finally found its mojo winning the metro market. The chemistry between Lisa and Karl was electric. Two performers who placed full trust in each other's ability to improvise their way through 100's of hours of live TV. Sure, it was about presenting news. But it really it was all about entertainment.
Of course it couldn't last, first came the now famous marriage bust-up, endless negative headlines generated by a spiteful Sydney Tabloid press, and a scorned wife who refused to be silent, no matter what 'feedback' she received from lawyers.
Then the departure of Lisa Wilkinson. The fact NINE, a network that invests hundreds of millions in sports rights, was unwilling to find a few extra dollars to secure its biggest star, someone co-hosting over 17 hours of national LIVE TV per week, will go down in history as one of TV'S biggest blunders. CEO Hugh Marks failure to recognise Lisa and Karl's priceless chemistry, and that they should be paid equally, has likely now set NINE back a decade.
Perception is everything in Television, and for Karl Stefanovic, negative viewer perception is ultimately what brought him undone.
Rightly or wrongly, an increasingly large percentage of viewers looked at Karl and perceived a childish, boorish drunk, the kind of guy who thinks he is the life of party, yet someone everyone else is trying desperately to avoid.
To many his life appeared out of control, happily promoting himself as a "cashed-up bogan" and doing little to avoid negative headlines.
The departure of Lisa Wilkinson sparked more unanswerable questions for viewers, was it just about the cash and new opportunity at TEN, or had Lisa finally had enough of an overbearing co-host?
The arrival of Georgie Gardner certainly didn't help quell growing viewer concern. Just why did this smart, charismatic, respected woman look so painfully uncomfortable in the presence of Karl? In an age of #MeToo something just didn't feel right.
Female viewers in particular looked at Karl and saw someone who had abandoned his wife, walked away from his children, all so he could go chasing a 20-ish Instagram-friendly blonde.
But viewer perception wasn’t the only problem for NINE management, the past few years has seen a concerning culture emerge at TODAY. "Work Hard - Party Hard" was show motto, plenty of long lunches enjoyed. Sure, it's fine while the show is rating well, but when things turn bad, and you continue turning up for work, stinking of the night before, your co-workers are always going to start asking questions.
There were plenty of other issues along the way, ‘UberGate’ was a spectacular own-goal from the Stefanovic brothers, a moment of drunken honesty by the lads, providing us all an insight into what many at NINE had been dealing with.
Then the decision by Stefanovic and his new bride to sell their Mexican wedding photos to a magazine owned by SEVEN, a move both bizarre and spiteful.
In a recent interview, Stefanovic admitted he had lost focus on his career;
“I think there have been times in the last couple of years where I haven't been (focused), where there's been so much going on, where I've just punched in and punched out, and it's not been perfect it's just the way it was, but I feel like I'm back and I can concentrate now and really focused in on the stories that matter and trying to make a difference, and, also, trying to make people laugh.”
Karl has 2 years left on his mega-dollar contract; 24 months of employment at NINE. The fact the network requires his services to complete filming 'This Time Next Year' is all that has saved him from being sacked so far.
As a long-time fan I do hope he makes the most of this next chapter. For all his faults, Karl is a highly skilled interviewer, his cheeky charm has an ability to put at ease the most nervous of interview subject.
And I suspect spending as much time travelling for 60 Minutes, escaping the Sydney bubble would do him the world of good.
So, to his replacement. Four weeks ago, no one outside of Adelaide had heard of Brenton Ragless, now this clean-cut, highly respectable, scandal-free newsreader looks set to take on TV's toughest task. Let's hope NINE give him a bit more support than they did for Craig Hutchison.
More changes look likely at TODAY. A new executive producer has been given the task of lifting the toxic culture. Sylvia Jeffreys is expected to be demoted to weather duties, Sydney’s Tim Gilbert looks set to be swapped for Melbourne’s Christine Ahern. While Richard Wilkins has already been informed to not bother turning up until 9am.
Will all this change lead to an instant boost in the ratings? I doubt it, TV hosting chemistry is hard to find and takes years to develop. TODAY might be a whole lot more boring in 2019, but for NINE that's now the safe option.