Simon Pristel, a former editor of the Herald Sun, has put renewed emphasis on exclusive stories.
FOOTY aside, it is Melbourne's longest-running and sometimes least civil war: the battle between channels Nine and Seven to draw the coveted early-evening eyeballs of viewers to their marquee news bulletins.
This year, amid a media landscape shredded and shaken by digital revolution, the fight is marked by a fresh intensity - and for the current loser, a fresh strain of a decades-old disease. Seven is losing, and badly. Nine's news has reclaimed the crown it once held in seeming perpetuity. But this is not simply a case of the restoration of a once-and-future king. Instead, Seven is facing a ratings war while beset by internal troubles: a new boss - the former Herald Sun editor, TV novice Simon Pristel - who talks of a new culture, brought to bear with new ideas and staff.
Several old faces have gone - including veteran reporter Norm Beaman, Leith Mulligan, Margaret Dekker, Louise Milligan and weatherman David Brown - and old ideas given short shrift. And old ratings are back.
Seven newsreader Peter Mitchell.
While no one would claim the kind of infallibility that Nine held in the era of newsreaders Eric Pearce and Brian Naylor, there is no denying the punters are streaming back to the pews of Peter Hitchener. In the past fortnight, Seven News' weekday average has been 277,000 viewers in Melbourne, compared with Nine's 407,000, and sometimes drawing fewer viewers than the ABC's 7pm bulletin.
Surrendering the ratings crown is a bitter pill. Says a source familiar with the state of the newsroom: ''How could this happen? And so spectacularly and quickly?''
For Pristel, the suggestion of grumbles and discontent at the nature and impact of his surprise appointment as news director in July 2012 do not appear a huge surprise. In an interview with Green Guide, he says: ''I've worked in media for a long time and there are always grumbles … but I know that the people I've been able to attract here wanted to work here because they know it's a great place to work. What I sense out there on the news floor is passion and a willingness to try different things.''
With his emphasis on new hires (Brendan Roberts and Jacqui Felgate, both ex-Nine, Michael Scanlan, Mark Stevens, Sean Sowerby and weather presenter Giaan Rooney) and new ways of doing things, Pristel is highlighting what he sees as a virtue - but which critics see as change for the sake of change, and of a manager with no broadcast experience imposing a mismatched newspaper culture on a TV newsroom. ''There was a sudden change,'' a source says. ''He hadn't spent a minute in TV and people thought he might have come in and gone easy, but he came in and went gung-ho from the start. While you're still reporting news, TV is a different beast. So different.''
Pristel acknowledges his inexperience. ''I'd never been in a television newsroom before. There's a lot I had to learn and I continue to learn every day about the way the television business operates.''
And while he agrees TV is a different beast - one that feeds on a diet of great pictures - he insists his management style is as applicable to television as it was to a big-selling daily newspaper.
''What I tried to achieve at the Herald Sun, which was setting the agenda, is the culture I'm bringing across to Seven and to have that filter through the entire staff. A highly competitive culture, a winning culture, a passionate culture, people who love their jobs, people who just want to be No.1. That's the culture that I want to bring across from the Herald Sun.
"The newsroom out there looks like the Herald Sun … the news judgment is the same. I've been an editor out there for seven years, I know what a story is.''
Pristel has a ready, steady answer whenever the subject of the ratings comes up: he doesn't worry about the numbers, he worries about the quality of the product. Get that right, he says, and the ratings will look after themselves.
''If you want to judge a bulletin purely on ratings, then, sure, we've got a long way to go,'' he says. ''I'm confident with the team that we've got and that we're recruiting, that we'll get there. It takes a while … and getting back to lead position will take a little bit of time as well.''
Media analyst Steve Allen says network bosses at Nine and Seven are watching the battle closely because of its implications for overall national ratings supremacy. It is the ratings weak spot for Seven, which has otherwise had a stellar start to the year, led by the My Kitchen Rules juggernaut.
''Melbourne is the battleground now between Seven and Nine, and Nine now certainly has the upper hand,'' Allen says. ''Nine's making just much better story choices. And Nine's promoting better.''
On any given night, both Seven and Nine serve up a familiar diet of crime, cranky commuters and football capers. Pristel says he is trying to develop a culture that adds exclusive story breaks to the standard This-Happened-Today formula. ''You have to be continually breaking stories because [viewers are] getting so much news through the day. So in terms of the recruiting of reporters, it's very much based on reporters who can build contacts and who can tell people things they didn't know before the bulletin started.''
But Green Guide has been told reporters are chafing at this insistence on stories that can be slapped with an ''exclusive'' tag - an easier task in a newspaper newsroom, with its bigger staff, more space for stories and no need for dramatic footage to dress up the words - and that they are fearful of the repercussions if they don't deliver the goods. ''Exclusives will save the day,'' is how one critical source describes Pristel's remedy for ratings decline.
Pristel rejects the notion that TV is there only to deliver the basic nuts-and-bolts of the day's events. ''I simply won't accept that it's the job of newspapers to break news.''
And he makes no apologies for trying to tinker with the culture of the Seven operation. When Green Guide asks why it needed changing, he replies: ''I don't think it needed changing, because overall it was a winning culture, but I think every culture can do with some refreshing from time to time, fresh ideas, a fresh injection of passion. But every media business needs that, to take stock of where you are.
''Clearly what was here last year wasn't working, we were losing by a long way, so changes had to be made. I was given a remit to come in, make changes, and that's what I've been doing.''
If there is dissent in the newsroom, he says, he is also the kind of boss who is happy to have it thrashed out openly.
''I want a workplace where people are prepared to discuss everything, from the way the workplace itself works, to the debate around which story is lead story. And that's the position we're getting to. I run a very open, transparent newsroom and I think we're getting there.
''To some degree, you want a degree of creative tension, you want those fresh ideas coming in. I'm not detracting in any way from the people who have been here for years. It's a team that won for a long time and what I'm trying to do is get everybody back to that position of being No.1. You cannot stand still, you've got to make changes, you've got to bring in fresh people, fresh ideas …''