YEAR after year it is billed as the fight to end all fights, and while no one would disagree the 2012 television ratings war has been a bloody one, there can be only one winner.
For the sixth consecutive year, that winner is Seven, finishing the 40 weeks of the TV ratings year with a leading margin over its rivals.
For the full ratings year, including the Olympic Games, Channel Seven won the year with a 30.5 per cent share of the five capital city markets. Channel Nine came second with 28.9 per cent.
Ten scraped into third position with a 17.4 per cent share, less than half a percentage point ahead of the ABC's main channel, ABC1, which gave Ten serious chase and, for a large part of the second half of the ratings year, actually outpaced it.
At the beginning of the year, the big story was billed as the fall of Channel Nine, resurgent but struggling under the weight of its multibillion-dollar debt.
But then Nine was reborn, debt-free, after an extraordinary deal was stitched up by its chief executive, David Gyngell, and the story instead became the spectacular stumble of Channel Ten, crippled by management changes, poor programming decisions and a shrinking audience.
Proving perhaps that slow and steady wins the race, Seven crossed the finish line first.
Nine may have won significant gains in the demographics and the ABC's resurgence may have bruised Ten, but Seven, whose program line-up was perhaps a little unsexier than Nine's, had a schedule powered by more breadth, depth and consistency. Those three qualities ensured it retained the ratings crown for another year.
But the margins - on all fronts - have narrowed, and both Seven and Ten now face a tough fight next year to ensure they are not swamped by rivals which they have, for some years, kept at bay.
Snapping at Seven's heels is Nine, armed with formidable firepower and a suite of shows - The Voice, The Block, Big Brother, Celebrity Apprentice - which are proving to be magnetic.
Snapping at Ten's heels is the ABC, whose blue-chip programming, including New Tricks, Call The Midwife, Midsomer Murders and Gruen Planet, ensured it fought a good fight against its commercial rivals.
But the stakes in the Seven-Nine war are the biggest, as the victor can lay claim to the ratings crown.
The year will end much as most ratings analysts expected: with Seven in first place, and everyone else claiming anything they can lay their hands on.
Nine's control of the demographics - 16-39, 18-49 and 25-54-year-olds - is a particular thorn in Seven's side, as those three demographic segments soak up the lion's share of the television revenue.
In particular, Nine's resurgence has been strong, not just because of top-rating reality shows such as The Voice and The Block, but also in Australian drama, with the successful launch of House Husbands, Nine's first weekly drama in some time to win both strong audience and critical acclaim.
In that sense, this year sets up next year perfectly for a final showdown between the longtime bitter rivals. S
If Nine is ever going to topple Seven, then 2013 is the year they surely must do it. And if Seven is ever going to cement a commanding margin over its resurgent rival, then next year is also the theatre for that battle. Nine goes into that fight armed with The Voice and the NRL. Seven has The X Factor and the AFL. Both have strong drama suites, though Seven's is more consistently spread across all 40 weeks of the ratings year.
Both are neck and neck in breakfast and news.
The two outstanding blue-chip programming assets on the market - the cricket, whose opening bit will sit about $300 million, and the rights to the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2016 Summer Olympics - are still in play. Insiders suggest both might end up with Nine.
The battle for 2012 may be over, but the war is far from won.
The story Seven retains the crown but Nine is snapping at its heels first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.