Network Ten hires programmer John Stephens to flush competitors

Ten’s new gun … John Stephens, former Channel Seven executive. Photo: Brendan EspositoMore ratings blues for Channel Ten

The Ten Network has recruited the man who helped guide the Nine and Seven networks to their ratings peak.

In the poker game of television, it is what they call a high card.

The question for Ten is whether or not hiring former Nine and Seven program executive John Stephens is enough to help the struggling network build a royal flush.

A decade ago such appointments seemed certain building blocks on the TV landscape. In a more fractured digital environment, nothing is guaranteed.

Stephens, who had been in something of a semi-retirement, has been appointed director of scheduling and acquisitions for Ten.

A statement from Ten says he will “work closely” with Ten’s programming head Beverley McGarvey.

Both, the statement says, will report to the network’s chief executive officer Hamish McLennan.

It is a footnote intended to solidify Ms McGarvey’s position, lest television’s chattering classes suggest she is being replaced, or superceded.

What is certain is that Stephens brings to Ten one of the most, if not the most, formidable bodies of programming experience in Australia.

Stephens was the head of programming at Nine when that network sat at the top of the ratings totem pole.

And for the past decade he has served as an acquisitions executive and program “consultant” to Seven, not co-incidentally during their ratings ascendancy and supremacy.

McLennan described Stephens as “one of the most experienced and successful television programming executives in Australia, with a local and international reputation second to none”.

“With a long history of developing, commissioning and acquiring popular, innovative and enduring television series, he knows what viewers want and how to create and schedule hit programs,” McLennan said.

Stephens joins another former Nine and Seven executive at Ten, the network’s newly recruited news and current affairs chief Peter Meakin.

Like Stephens, Meakin was a lieutenant at the Nine Network during the reign of the network’s colourful former CEO David Leckie. And like Stephens, Meakin also worked with Leckie at Seven.

But neither man is young; both are, more or less, at or close to retirement age. And simply hiring the best talent in the business does not, as it once might, come with any certain outcome.

Ten’s recruitment of breakfast television producer Adam Boland is proof of that: despite the best credentials in the business, Boland’s attempt to deliver Ten its own Sunrise and Morning Show double in Wake Up and Studio 10 has not succeeded.

The two programs are drawing lower audiences than Ten’s failed Breakfast, and the Logie-winning panel show The Circle, which preceded it.

But for Ten, the stakes have never been higher. A new management regime, led by the network’s chairman Lachlan Murdoch, which was supposed to staunch audience losses, seems only to have deepened the wound.

McLennan’s description of Stephens as a “critically important addition to our management team” was at the bottom of the media release which heralded his return, but in some ways it is the most important statement.

“His appointment underlines our commitment to hiring industry-best talent as we work on our turnaround strategy,” McLennan said.

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