A CASUAL match-up would suggest that the Channel Nine and Channel Seven evening news, the traditional choice for a recap of the day's events at 6pm each night, are remarkably similar. They both deal in crime stories, suburban scandal, AFL coverage and, based on Monday night's competing crosses to the Brownlow Medal red carpet, close-ups of Brynne Edelsten's pneumatic breasts.
But the ratings figures tell a dramatically different story. Melbourne viewers in the influential timeslot have deserted Seven and embraced Nine. The disparity is jarring: a week ago Seven's Friday night bulletin drew an audience of 221,000, while Nine had a remarkable 373,000. That crushing defeat is the story no commercial television executive can afford to miss.
Traditionally, Nine has eked small victories in Melbourne and Sydney, but Seven has won nationally across the five mainland state capital cities by controlling Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane. Kerry Stokes' network still tops the 6pm news ratings in those three cities, but the size of Nine's Melbourne victory is such that now they're in front nationally. Last Friday Nine had about 1.17 million in the five cities, compared with 1.02 million for Seven.
Part of Seven's problem stems from the upbeat game-show war at 5.30pm, where its tiring lead-in, Deal or No Deal, is being beaten by Eddie McGuire's Millionaire Hot Seat. If the troubled Nine Network ever got its programming act together and came up with a genuinely strong slate of prime-time shows, the head start provided by their dominance between 5.30pm and 6.30pm would probably return it to the mythic Kerry Packer-era status as the country's No. 1 commercial broadcaster.
What makes people decide to opt out of Seven for Nine, and what can the former do to catch the latter? Both bulletins really are similar in design and presentation, right down to Nine newsreader Peter Hitchener looking like an older version of Seven's Peter Mitchell. The format is boilerplate familiar - news, sport, weather - and no one is going to mess with that.
Seven in Sydney has opted for dual newsreaders, with the husband and wife team of Jim Wilson and Chris Bath facing the autocue, but in Melbourne they're in the early stages of a more radical remake of the content that's being directed by incoming news director Simon Pristel, a former Herald Sun newspaper editor. Seven is pursuing a tabloid mix, right down to a premium on exclusives and a serve of Kim Kardashian.
On Monday night both programs led with the disappearance of ABC employee Jill Meagher in Brunswick, and both crossed live to the scene. Nine reporter Tim McMillan reported the day's development, the discovery of Meagher's handbag in an alley, as well as capturing comments by the obviously traumatised husband and brother of the missing woman. It was solid and to the point.
Seven, via reporter Cameron Baud, had much the same, but it was pitched differently. There was a ''revelation'' from Meagher's mother, which was that the Irish national had called her brother on the way home, which Nine also reported, while the idea that Meagher was in some kind of ''crisis'', which might have made her flee, was also floated so that her family had to validate the idea by denying it.
Nine can certainly have its questionable moments - last Thursday its coverage of AFL footballer John McCarthy's Sorrento funeral, by veteran sports hand Tony Jones, dipped into purple prose for the report's narration - but they get more information into their stories, sometimes finding an extra vein that deepens what's being communicated. Seven did break the reaction to Nicole Kidman's "unusual outfit" at the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles.
Seven's 6pm news is definitely trying to break stories, which should be the province of the current affairs show that follows at 6.30pm, but it's Today Tonight and the strategy makes sense. The network is reportedly considering axing Today Tonight, which is also losing to Nine's A Current Affair, and opting for an hour-long news bulletin. The attraction is an audience that arrives home from work later than 6pm, but it's also a tacit admission they're running out of ways to reverse the current slump.