Lisa Wilkinson’s sudden departure from Today – with Nine admitting it was “unable to meet the expectations” of the star over contract negotiations – has left media pundits with a new armchair sport: who will be the new Lisa?
Wilkinson, 57, held down the coveted breakfast show role for 10 years, using what co-host Karl Stefanovic called “intelligence and a wicked sense of humour”.
Given her experience, rapport with Stefanovic and popularity with viewers, her designer shoes may be hard to fill.
Still, within hours of Wilkinson’s Monday Twitter announcement that she has exited, stage left, to Ten’s The Project, online betting agencies were lining up replacement favourites.
Sylvia Jeffreys was installed as the short-priced favourite at Sportsbet, with Georgie Gardner, Deborah Knight, Carrie Bickmore and Rebecca Maddern rounding out the top five favoured candidates.
Meanwhile, 1970s magazine queen Ita Buttrose is an outside chance, at $41.
Jeffreys, 31, who is already ensconced at Today as newsreader and is married to Karl’s brother Peter Stefanovic, is a logical and worthy favourite, but may not resonate with viewers who loved Wilkinson’s mix of glamour, talent and real-life experience.
“Sylvia doesn’t have quite the same journalistic credentials but there’s no question she’s a strong pick,” strategist Steve Allen, the managing director of Fusion Strategy, tells The New Daily.
“She’s on the rise, she’s a younger version of Lisa.”
Would Jeffreys want the job anyway? “The reasons that it’s said Lisa left make it a bit more difficult for a female to slot into that job,” says Allen.
“There is a danger that anyone who steps up to it … it’s very difficult for any female who’s pro-opportunity, pro-equal pay, to go in there and not come off looking a bit shabby.
“And I think that’s part of why Nine needs everything to calm down. I wouldn’t think they’re likely to do anything in a rush.”
That belief echoes Nine’s official party line, expressed in a statement: “Nine will be going in another direction and will be considering our options in the coming weeks and months.”
As to whether that different direction is a smokescreen or could include hiring from outside the network, an industry source says the latter is unlikely.
“I think they’d stick with someone internally,” says the source. “There’s an array of amazing women within the organisation.”
One of the betting agencies’ top tips, Georgie Gardner, is Jeffreys’ predecessor as Today’s newsreader and has “class and maturity”, says a former colleague.
Tried-and-tested breakfast presenters Edwina Bartholomew and Samantha Armytage from Seven’s rival show Sunrise have been named as possibilities, along with Erin Molan and Kylie Gillies.
Rebecca Maddern, of The AFL Footy Show and Australian Ninja Warrior, “would love the gig”, says a second industry source. “She’s successfully filled in on Sunrise before, and Ninja has given her high-rating national exposure.”
The same source says former Seven star Chris Bath could have a shot – “a senior newswoman who can work without an autocue, has a reputation for tough interviews and would make Karl look like less of a lad” – and names two surprise candidates.
“Emma Alberici could be a dark horse. Lateline has been axed, so she’s freed up.
“And Melissa Doyle – how good would this be? Sticking it up her old bosses at Seven who thought they were updgrading to a younger model with Sam Armytage. One of the nicest people in the industry.”
While we watch and wait, Nine – who installed fill-in Today presenter Knight next to Stefanovic the first day Wilkinson was gone – will be doing the same thing, says Allen.
“They’ll watch the ratings for the next few days, and make an assessment of how much damage this causes,” he says.
“I’d expect a movement downwards in ratings. The majority of viewing of television is by females and in breakfast it’s even more so, which means losing one of your female hosts is a bit precarious.”