COMMENT

Lachlan Murdoch, centre, has been appointed non-executive co-chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox.

Lachlan Murdoch, centre, has been appointed non-executive co-chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. Photo: Rob Homer

No matter how the departure of Lachlan Murdoch from Australia's embattled third commercial network for the giddy heights of News Corp is ultimately spun, history will not be kind to his reign as chairman of the Ten Network.

In a commercial television industry virtually enslaved by ratings, it is those numbers that deliver the harshest verdict.

During Murdoch's roughly three years at Ten – one as interim CEO and the balance as chairman – Ten has slipped from third to fourth place among the five free-to-air "main" channels. It has shed audience, profit and share value. Irrespective of which percentages you use to make the point – network share, commercial share or actual audience – Ten has lost considerable ground.

Just six months shy of the network's 50th birthday, what should have been a young, digital-savvy TV network striding into the digital age with a natural advantage over its older rivals has instead been left a shadow of its former self.

Ten's spin machinery has offered truckloads of reasons for its misfortune in the past three years: the downturn in the economy, the depressed advertising market, perhaps even a suite of cheap-looking, brand-trashing commissions such as The Shire and Being Lara Bingle.

But those don't hold much weight when you consider that neither Seven nor Nine has suffered to the same extent. Even the ABC, much-maligned by the Murdoch-owned press, has gained ground and replaced Ten as Australia's third-ranked free-to-air channel.

In historical terms the shift from third to fourth place is enormous: while Seven overtook Nine for ratings supremacy in the mid-2000s, Ten's sharper focus on younger viewers cemented it safely into what was then a very lucrative third place.

Ten's new strategy of chasing 25 to 54-year-old viewers effectively means it has exchanged ownership of one demographic to chase one third of another, albeit a richer one. Whether you believe it was the right or wrong move, the impact has been costly in almost every way.

Murdoch came to Ten in 2010, first as a shareholder, then in 2011 as acting CEO after the board terminated the contract of former CEO Grant Blackley. In 2012 he became chairman of the board. He was, ostensibly, part of the network's salvation from an alleged cocktail of mismanagement, poor programming and unclear strategy.

But the heart of the problem with the perception of Ten since then is that those charges, which never felt entirely proven when made against the previous management, seemed to have doubled in their intensity under the new regime.

In 2012 Ten launched a series of failures: Being Lara Bingle, I Will Survive, The Shire and Everybody Dance Now, hosted by Murdoch's wife, the former model Sarah Murdoch.

The same year Ten also launched what would be the first of two failed attempts to push into the breakfast TV space: Breakfast, with New Zealand presenter Paul Henry, unknown in Australia, who was signed by Murdoch for $1 million to sit in the centre seat. It failed, largely because it was off-brand and lacked originality.

In the past three years Ten has also demonstrated an extraordinary inability to recruit executives without costly and time-consuming litigation. From the Seven Network it has taken sales executive James Warburton, daytime TV producer Adam Boland, news executive Peter Meakin and programming consultant John Stephens.

Of those, only Meakin remains at Ten, and he's barely in the door after his own gardening leave. Warburton was hired as CEO, delayed with litigation and, after a turbulent year of decline, stood down. Boland had a highly publicised breakdown after the failed launch of Wake Up and Studio 10. Stephens' appointment is still playing out in the courts.

How much of the blame for all of that is left at Murdoch's door depends entirely on your perspective. Some decisions were obviously in the programming sphere, and in 2012 those claimed the scalp of the network's programmer, David Mott.

But anyone who works in television knows that networks – even groovy, hip young ones – are run like fiefdoms and that decisions about new programming or executive recruitments are rarely made without either the endorsement (or even instruction) of the chief executive or chairman.

In historical terms, Ten has always sat inside a perfect storm of shallow program inventory (when compared to its library-heavy rivals Seven and Nine) and a low cost base. Those qualities made it a superstar in the 1990s: no cost, no fuss, cash rich and all profit.

And for most of Ten's life after its rebirth through receivership in the early 1990s, its place on Australia's broadcasting landscape was as an edgy, younger network with more sass than its weighty, po-faced corporate siblings Seven and Nine. Seven was Blue Heelers, Nine was Water Rats and Ten was Heartbreak High.

But that personality has left it, in more recent years, in natural conflict with Ten's new shareholders, overloaded with old-media empire names like Murdoch, Packer and Hancock. For viewers, in an era where behind-the-scenes twists and turns are played out like a soap opera in the daily press, that shift was an uneasy pill for its savvy young audience to swallow.

The slow death of music-oriented social networking giant MySpace after News Corp acquired it ought to have taught both elder and younger Murdoch that you cannot be edgy with a capital E and corporate with a capital C at the same time. Even Apple, the edgiest company in the world, is suffering for its growth and formidable market share.

The net result was to gradually wrench Ten's core audience away, without really consolidating a new audience to replace it. Or, to express it in MasterChef terms, there is ultimately nothing wrong with changing the menu, you just have to make sure there are enough willing diners in the restaurant before you do.