Amid backlash over Lisa Wilkinson’s shock defection from Today to Ten’s The Project, her former network is fighting its corner by going public with its version of why she left.
Nine spilled insider details of Wilkinson’s salary demands and deals with media rivals that limited the company’s access to her and therefore her value to them.
“I went to an incredible amount of trouble to build a $1.8 million package for her,” Nine chief executive Hugh Marks told The Daily Telegraph.
“She wanted $2.3 million.”
Mr Marks addressed reports that Wilkinson, 57, walked after fighting for, and failing to get, salary parity with her then-co host Karl Stefanovic, 43.
“It wasn’t a $200,000 shortfall to Karl’s $2 million magic number. It was $500,000.”
A network insider told the Sydney Morning Herald that if Nine had met Wilkinson’s pay demands, “We would have had to cut 10 producers’ jobs … that is the reality.”
Hinting at why Wilkinson didn’t command the same salary as Stefanovic, Mr Marks said it was a case of Karl being pledged totally to Nine.
“With him, we have those rights. With Lisa, we do not.”
An industry source tells The New Daily: “It was apples and oranges. As well as Today, Karl was doing This Time Next Year and sometimes 60 Minutes. He was sent off around the world for breaking news.
“He may have been paid more, but he did more. The price for him is that Nine owns Karl.”
So was Stefanovic really giving more bang for Nine’s buck?
“Nine says Lisa had one role and Karl does two or three, and I tend to believe that,” analyst Steve Allen tells The New Daily.
“But I guess what Lisa would say is, ‘I would have taken those other opportunities but they weren’t offered to me. If they offered the same work, I would have done it.’”
As reported in The Australian, Nine sources close to Wilkinson said the “momentum” for her to leave the network came when she saw market research showing she was more popular with Today’s key demographics than Stefanovic in the wake of his high-profile marriage split.
Contract discussions between the veteran journalist – who Marks appeared to suggest wasn’t a team player – and her employer of ten years stalled months ago.
Things came to a head in a closed-door meeting in the afternoon of October 16 between Wilkinson’s manager, Mr Marks and the director of news.
But the issue had been simmering since Wilkinson broke her arm holidaying in Italy in July, then broke the story herself on the Huffington Post – where she is editor-at-large – rather than on the Today show or Nine’s digital platforms including 9Honey.
Wilkinson’s work for a rival digital platform created increasing friction, said sources.
“Her arrangement with the Huffington Post restricts our ability to engage with her digitally … we are restricted from engaging with her also on social media,” said Mr Marks.
“The reason we walked away from Lisa is because we are not able to secure those rights with her.”
In a veiled swipe at Wilkinson, he said the dispute wasn’t “just a pay thing. We want people to partner with us, who are invested and want to go on the journey with us.”
When Nine is “discussing on-air talent,” he said, “we assess their contribution beyond just their gender, audience appeal, rights and contribution to the overall business – and not their own brand.”
Any mistakes or otherwise weren’t apparent the day after Wilkinson’s walkout. Today audiences surged 25,000 from the day before to hit 301,000, eclipsing Seven’s rival offering Sunrise.