Lisa Wilkinson’s move from the Nine Network to Ten was deftly executed in October and initially successful when she began on The Project in January.
Her first episode on the ratings-challenged The Sunday Project included a winning tear-jerker story and a bump in the audience, lifting the troubled weekend edition to an average 583,000 capital city viewers for its 7pm half-hour program, nearly 200,000 viewers up on its 2017 average.
Yet on Sunday night’s episode, her junket to Las Vegas to interview Celine Dion failed to deliver a notable lift in ratings (411,000) while also complicating office politics at The Project – were Carrie Bickmore or Waleed Aly asked if they wanted the trip?
The more pressing question, though, is will Lisa Wilkinson be worth it for Ten? Internally, Ten management is convincing itself Wilkinson’s recruitment is a coup and it has reported a 53 per cent lift for The Sunday Project’s average on last year.
Externally, analysts are less convinced. TV Tonight founder David Knox notes it is “early days” and “aside from a good debut three weeks ago, it hasn’t really led to any shot in the arm, outside of press coverage”.
“But then it’s a tall order against juggernaut reality shows, no lead-in and the show missing in action over summer. It will be a longer haul for results and rating trends,” he says.
Mediaweek’s James Manning agrees, noting the move only underlines what a challenge Ten has against Nine and Seven’s stronger news bulletins in the 6.30 half-hour slot.
“Wilkinson strengthens Ten’s news brand but it wasn’t a strong brand to begin with,” Manning says.
On screen, the effect has been erratic. On Sundays, when Wilkinson is host, she fits and can impose her style on the program; on Thursdays, when Bickmore hosts, the dynamic has been clumsy. Wilkinson looks like she has been imposed on The Project rather than being an organic progression for the show.
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Indeed, Ten may have created a problem for itself. It is no secret radio networks have been dangling big money in front of Bickmore for years, so the Gold Logie winner has options if she’s not feeling the love.
Ironically, Wilkinson’s move may only emphasise to networks the strength of a format or brand above individual personalities. The Project, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, has been a potent brand, differentiating Ten from Seven and Nine and appealing to younger viewers than those watching Nine News and Seven News.
And Wilkinson doesn’t appear wholly comfortable in that looser news brand. Speculation she may host another format within Ten is only speculation currently while she also has responsibility, as executive editor of its online portal, ten daily, to create a new digital brand. No easy task.
Meanwhile, her absence at Nine’s Today, and Georgie Gardner’s introduction, had barely caused a ripple in the breakfast battle currently being won by Seven’s Sunrise. Nevertheless, both programs are yet to approach last year’s audiences at this early stage of the ratings year.
Ultimately, Wilkinson’s worth will only be valued by Ten’s new owners, the American broadcasting giant CBS. Its strategy for the Australian network remains unclear although it does have a strong news heritage, as the home of 60 Minutes.
Time will tell whether they will make a comfortable home for Lisa Wilkinson.
Michael Bodey is a media journalist and the author of three books on film and television.