No one was surprised when Channel Nine extended its 6pm Sydney news service to an hour during last year's bushfires. But when the crisis abated, the extended bulletin remained.
Clearly, Nine was testing the waters for a national one-hour service to compete with Seven's Today Tonight, from which host Helen Kapalos resigned on Monday.
Today Tonight presenter quits
Helen Kapalos has resigned as host of Channel 7's Today Tonight and will join the network's flagship current affairs program, Sunday Night.
Nine's news chiefs scrutinised the ratings each morning and were pleased by what they saw. Previously, a sizeable chunk of 6pm news viewers switched off when A Current Affair started at 6.30pm. Now, most stayed to watch the longer bulletin. And in the 6pm to 7.30pm period overall, Nine's figures were growing.
With the business preparing to float – and having bought the underperforming Adelaide and Perth stations from WIN – a national one-hour bulletin appeared inevitable. Yet Nine's spokespeople insisted, through stifled laughter, that A Current Affair would return to its 6.30pm slot in Sydney "soon".
Of course, it didn't. Rather, Nine rolled out its national one-hour bulletin in January without so much as a tweet to herald it.
The missed promotional opportunities, Nine decided, were outweighed by the advantage of catching Seven off guard. When it comes to nightly news and current affairs, it's trench warfare between our two biggest networks.
There's a good reason for this. Despite big-budget reality shows and dramas hogging the headlines, news and current affairs are a pillar of every commercial station. Each weeknight, Seven's and Nine's 6pm news, and Today Tonight and A Current Affair, are among the top 10 programs – and frequently, the top five. A network might get 15 to 20 weeks out of a reality or scripted program, while news runs all year. And light entertainment and drama audiences can be fickle, while news viewers are comparatively loyal.
In other words, news and current affairs are the meat and potatoes of a network's schedule. They provide a solid lead-in to the 7.30pm offering, as well as being an important platform from which to promote new shows. Most importantly, they deliver strong and consistent advertising revenue.
No wonder Nine and Seven are fighting so fiercely to snatch viewers from each other. And history shows it can be done. Nine, historically, was Australia's news and current affairs leader until Seven usurped it a decade ago.
Over the past few years, however, Nine has re-gained its mojo. It finished 2013 as the No. 1 network in the key demographics of viewers aged 25-54, 18-49, and 16-39. But among all viewers, Seven is still the country's top-rating network.
The news battle is closer than it has been in a long time, too. To its credit, Nine kept long-serving Melbourne newsreader Peter Hitchener after he was overtaken by Seven's Peter Mitchell. Slowly but surely, Hitchener clawed back his lead and now claims the biggest winning margin between any Nine and Seven bulletin in the country.
In Sydney, Nine's Peter Overton is out-rating Seven's Chris Bath and Nine has also re-asserted its dominance in Brisbane, while Seven's news remains unbeatable in Adelaide and Perth.
This leaves the future of Today Tonight in doubt – which might seem strange for a program that often cracks the top five. Seven, however, will not take Nine's recent advancements lying down.
Sources inside the network say that all options are on the table, from leaving Today Tonight untouched to scrapping it entirely.
Some Seven executives want to "re-invigorate" the tabloid show, providing a point of difference to Nine's one-hour news. Others favour keeping Today Tonight in Adelaide and Perth – where it comfortably beats Nine – but launching one-hour news across the east coast. Another option is to "roll" Today Tonight segments into a one-hour bulletin.
The fact that Seven is already experimenting with a truncated 20-minute version of Today Tonight in Sydney and Melbourne suggests it is seriously considering changing its line-up.
For now, however, A Current Affair's Tracy Grimshaw is likely to compete with the residents of Summer Bay when Home and Away returns, given the long-running soapie is still a strong performer for Seven.
Either way, one thing seems certain: prime time will feel oddly repetitive to many viewers this year.
Not only has Nine stretched its news and current affairs block to 90 minutes, but all three commercial networks will soon "strip" their reality programs across multiple nights: My Kitchen Rules on Seven, The Block: Fans v Faves on Nine and The Biggest Loser: Challenge Australia on Ten.
Among all this, Channel Ten – which finished fourth behind the ABC last year – is planning to give Seven and *Nine a run for its money in news and current affairs. The network has hired Peter Meakin, a former news and current affairs chief at Seven and Nine, to reinvigorate its offering.
This battle, in theory, should be good for viewers.
For industry observers, it will be fascinating, with 2014 set to become the year in which the evening news becomes the news.