COMMENT

Mal Walden, George Negus, Helen Kapalos.

Turbulent times ... Mal Walden, George Negus, Helen Kapalos.

It was the most bone-headed programming decision in the history of Australian television. In 1987, Fairfax, owner of this website and at the time the owner of Channel Seven, fired its popular Melbourne newsreader, Mal Walden.

Overnight, its ratings dropped to an asterisk – literally too small to measure – while Ten's audience soared after the network snapped him up. The lesson: mess with news at your peril.

There is no doubt the struggling network must make major changes, but the savage cuts to news – particularly the axing of its high-profile anchors – are a major gamble. 

But over the past few days, the embattled Ten has been messing with almost all its news and current affairs shows. On Friday, it sacked popular Melbourne newsreader Helen Kapalos, who has co-hosted the 5pm Melbourne bulletin with Walden since 2006. In a terse statement, the network said: "We will not be renewing Helen's contract, the details of which we will not discuss publicly."

Bill Woods.

Leaving ... Bill Woods.

No thanking Kapalos for her service. No wishing her well.

Ten has since axed long-serving newsreaders Ron Wilson and Bill Woods from Sydney and Craig Smart in Perth. The future of Brisbane newsreader Georgina Lewis is still in doubt. And George Negus, who was hired to front a nightly current affairs show, has been notably absent of late – despite the network's assurances he would appear on its other news programs after his own show was axed in October last year.

When asked if Negus was still signed to the network, a spokeswoman said: "We do not discuss the details of our talent contracts publicly".

Leaving ... Ron Wilson.

Leaving ... Ron Wilson.

Yesterday, Ten also cancelled its ailing Breakfast program and morning news bulletin, just a few months after it ended chat show The Circle.

Fairfax understands that approximately 100 staff, including journalists, editors and camera operators, have taken a voluntary redundancy or been forced out. According to the spokeswoman, the redundancy process is now finished.

It's a stark contrast from last year, when Ten went on a hiring spree, lured Negus from SBS and significantly expanded its news and current affairs offering.

There is no doubt the struggling network must make major changes, but the savage cuts to news – particularly the axing of its high-profile anchors – are a major gamble.

As the 1987 sacking of Walden demonstrates, audience goodwill comes from the fondness felt for presenters. Sack those presenters and you risk that goodwill. Indeed, the potential cost savings of those sackings could be dwarfed by lost advertising revenue if viewers change channels.

While the removal of the under-performing Breakfast is no surprise, Ten's tampering with its 5pm news bulletins – still strong performers for the network – is much more dangerous.

Like all networks, it has relentlessly promoted its anchors through other media outlets. The aim is to build familiarity and trust. Having established that emotional connection between viewers and presenters, only to axe several of those presenters in one hit, provokes an inevitable backlash. The only question is how damaging the backlash will be.

And in moving to a single-newsreader format, Ten has also relinquished a point of difference.

"Since the days of Jana Wendt on Eyewitness News [in the early 1980s], having two presenters made the Channel Ten bulletins unique," says TV Tonight editor David Knox. "When you start fiddling with something that works, you face a lot of risk."

In another statement, Ten finally got around to thanking Kapalos and wishing her well, extending the same courtesy to her retrenched interstate counterparts.

Yet Ten's viewers have been posting scathing comments about the sackings online. Whether they forgive the network – let alone remain loyal to it – will soon become clear.

mlallo@theage.com.au