COMMENT

Charlotte Best as Cheryl and Claudia karvan as Judy Vickers in Puberty Blues.

Struggling in a schedule wasteland ... Puberty Blues starring Charlotte Best as Cheryl and Claudia Karvan as Judy Vickers.

In the cruel and unforgiving world of television ratings, the perception of Channel Ten as a network struggling to keep its head above water has almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Last week, the network posted its worst weekly audience share for prime time on record, just 13.8 per cent. That figure put it well behind even the ABC, a broadcaster it once only saw in the rear-view mirror.

Puberty Blues with Ashleigh Cummins and Brenna Harding on Ten.

Targeting the young ... Ten's lucrative market is too narrow according to the ratings.

The rarely discussed secret of success and failure in television is that neither is achieved through good (or bad) publicity, or even smart (or lousy) marketing. Rather, audiences sample new programs by watching promos for them during familiar ones. It's that simple.

The net result is that the smaller your audience, the smaller your reach. And the smaller your reach, the slimmer your chance of successfully launching each new show. In that sense, for a network in audience decline such as Ten, it becomes a business of devastatingly diminishing returns.

This, perhaps, is why Ten is struggling not just to launch weak programs but outstanding ones as well.

Diana Glenn and Martin Henderson in the Australian series <i>Secrets & Lies</i>.

Secrets & Lies starring Diana Glenn and Martin Henderson should be doing better. Photo: Supplied

Puberty Blues is easily one of the most outstanding commercial dramas of the the last decade. Its writing is almost without peer, its cast delivering career-defining performances. And yet, in ratings terms, it has been left gasping for breath.

Secrets & Lies is a crisp, intriguing drama that has been robust enough in commercial terms to attract the interest of US network ABC, which is remaking it for the US market. And like Puberty Blues it is struggling to deliver reasonable numbers.

Programs such as the Australian drama Wonderland, the current affairs show The Truth Is or the reality shows MasterChef Australia: The Professionals or Recipe to Riches should perform better than they do. They are structurally sound.

But the schedule into which they are launched, like an increasingly barren field, offers them little in the way of sustenance.

Others, such as The Bachelor, on which Ten pinned its hopes last year, make media noise but deliver little in the way of real audience volume. And others again, such as Wake Up and Studio 10, have zero impact on Ten's primetime performance but have done serious brand damage. In effect, they have scared off audience.

Make no mistake, there are talented people at Ten. The network has an excellent drama portfolio, which is the envy of other networks; a solid, and talented news department; and, prior to its management shake-up three years ago, it had an unbroken line of hit brands: Australian Idol, Big Brother and MasterChef.

Inside its four walls there are enough people who care passionately about what they do to save it.

But Ten is also carrying an inexperienced management. It may seem impolite to say it, but Ten has now passed the point where good manners kept tongues in check.

Far more damaging than a handful of failed shows has been Ten's inability to parlay investment in the Big Bash League cricket competition, the Sochi Winter Olympics and the Australian Grand Prix, into something more solid in the long term. Those events delivered Ten a big audience, which the network failed to exploit effectively.

That, more than anything, demonstrates how far short Ten's management has fallen in meeting the challenge.

And yet, we've been here before.

It was almost a quarter of a century ago both the Ten and Seven networks sat in the mist of a perfect storm of rising costs, falling revenue and flat-lining ratings. Both networks went into receivership and, for a moment, it was proposed that the two become one, in the belief that Australia's free-to-air capital city television markets could not sustain three commercial licences.

But a quarter of a century after Ten and Seven both embarked on very different voyages towards middle age - Ten, as a youth-skewing network, which made more money than its rivals combined, and Seven, reborn under the triumvirate of David Leckie, John Stephens and Peter Meakin - it is Ten which has come full circle, listless and struggling, bruised by poor leadership and a lack of strategy.

With the two market leaders - Seven, the triumphant, and Nine, renewed and tasting ratings blood - sitting at a 33 per cent and 31 per cent share respectively, Ten's declared ambition to carve itself a third of the bigger race looks impossible to achieve.

Their shorter term goal must be much simpler: survival.