For Nine bosses, Karl Stefanovic’s ex-wife Cassandra Thorburn’s tell-all with the Australian Women’s Weekly on Thursday probably wasn’t great timing.
Nine’s most highly-paid star, Stefanovic – now engaged to shoe designer Jasmine Yarbrough – helms a show that in 2018 has experienced a dramatic plunge in ratings.
In the first two weeks of August, the metro audience for Today was down 15 per cent from last year, according to OzTam.
“In one word? Woeful,” said a TV insider of the ratings.
And that’s after the show has thrown everything (including a barbecue but not the kitchen sink) at viewers in August: Princess Diana’s private dream therapist has been a guest, Richard Wilkins cooked at home for Delta Goodrem, Karl climbed into a cage.
Still, Ms Thorburn’s new grievances against her ex – whose marital bust-up has made him a divisive figure – may have caused angst.
The former journalist told the magazine that since Stefanovic decided “to up and leave” her, “I feel we’re dead to his family”.
In two years, “There has been practically no contact. I feel like we’ve been discarded and disposed of, replaced by a whole new line-up of starters,” Ms Thorburn said.
The network went into damage control over Ms Thorburn’s “inflammatory” claims, with a Stefanovic spokesman saying “nothing could be further from the truth”.
Speaking to Nine’s TheFix, the spokesman said there are “custody and financial matters” before the Family Court, “and Karl has abided by every single one of them”.
A legal court is one thing, but buzz in media circles is the court of popular opinion might speak louder.
In the last year, Today has lost 14 per cent of its national audience, with figures showing a 2018 audience of 349,104. Last year, it was 407,841.
Nine deflected any concerns, with a network spokesperson telling The New Daily that Today is “in for the long haul and ratings fluctuate throughout the year”.
Over at Seven’s Sunrise, the picture isn’t as gloomy but the August figures show a drop of 2 per cent on last year. The year-on-year fall is 6 per cent, with national viewers dropping from 473,750 to 443,445.
A post shared by thetodayshow (@thetodayshow) on
So is commercial breakfast TV just on the nose – the ABC’s News Breakfast is holding steady at 76,751 in five capital cities – or is there a definite Karl factor?
“Streaming services and catch-up TV, all these things are fragmenting the market further and putting live-to-air viewers under pressure,” Sydney media analyst Steve Allen from Fusion Strategy told The New Daily.
Nine bosses are in a tough place, he said.
“They lost one of their hosts, Lisa Wilkinson, last year in a pretty messy dispute and they can’t really afford to lose another one,” Mr Allen said.
“I’m sure they would be saying to Karl, ‘No more mess ups, my son. We can’t afford it and you have tarnished our image and some viewers are leaving you’.”
For Michael Smith, chief executive of Melbourne firm Inside Public Relations, it’s “a big question” as to whether Nine has a PR issue on its hands with its controversial host.
“Today certainly has a problem, but how much of it can be attributed to Karl is probably the harder question,” Mr Smith told The New Daily.
“Logic dictates that some of his escapades in the last couple of years would have been a turn-off for some viewers, particularly women, but there may be other factors.
“Sunrise has been a bit sharper in the last couple of years and Today is starting to look a little tired.”
A post shared by Sunrise (@sunriseon7) on
How would the PR chief handle the situation if he was working for Nine?
“I would do the research, and if the problem is Karl you move him,” Mr Smith said.
“I’m sure they could find a quiz show for him. Or maybe Love Island.”
Nicole Reaney, director of Sydney’s InsideOut PR, outlined crisis management strategies to bolster breakfast ratings in the short term.
For Today, “It could be more public and community appearances of hosts working together and positive social media banter,” she told The New Daily.
And for Sunrise, Ms Reaney suggested “reporting controversial stories with experts in the field, and looking at new innovative segment ideas that connect with the audience”.
Mr Allen agreed there’s plenty of re-engineering – outside broadcasts, prize-based competitions – the shows know well.
“But, in essence, kind of buying your audience isn’t the long-term solution,” he said.
As to why the ABC is retaining watchers, “without in any way besmirching Channel Two and their viewers, they’re a rusted-on audience,” Mr Allen said.
“They want what they consider is the legitimacy of the stories that ABC put up, and they like the commercial-free style.”
Seven was approached for comment by The New Daily.