Zero out of Ten: Lachlan Murdoch fails again

It's much easier for Lachlan Murdoch to blame someone else for his mistakes, so Channel Ten network will soon have its fifth CEO in two years and no indication that the broadcaster has a clue about how it might climb out of its governance, ratings and financial pit.

It says plenty about the wacky nature of the Channel Ten board that Murdoch is still chairman – it's been a governance disaster since the day he gained a seat at the table after chiming in on James Packer's grab for control of the vulnerable network. Pity the poor minority shareholders who found themselves at the mercy of billionaires with their own agendas and Rupert's oldest son trying again to prove himself – and not succeeding.

With chairman Murdoch sacking James Warburton last week, the Ten board has gone from, er, “interesting”, to farcical. Close to the most important job of a board is to appoint the right person as CEO. Warburton was Lachlan Murdoch's personal pick, thus his ditching after a bare year in the job counts against the chairman's judgment. But Warburton was Murdoch's second dud pick in a row as CEO – his predecessor in that role was worse: Lachlan Murdoch himself.

That many of Warburton's problems came from decisions made by Murdoch in his year as CEO takes it to another level. Ten's big flops in 2012 weren't Warburton's work – they were mostly put in train on Murdoch's very hands-on watch, right down to importing the dud Kiwi morning TV host. (The jury is still out on whether Andrew Bolt is more Gina Rinehart's baby or Murdoch's, but it doesn't matter.)

Now Murdoch has made his third and fourth picks as CEO – and neither of them has much in the way of television experience. Russell Howcroft's first-hand television knowledge is appearing on the ABC's Gruen Transfer – his day job until joining Ten last year was running an advertising agency.

Admittedly Howcroft is only acting CEO until Hamish McLennan comes on board in three weeks from Daddy Murdoch's New Corp. McLennan also is an advertising executive – he hasn't even been on Gruen.

Why anyone in their right mind would want to be Ten's CEO, answering to chairman Lachlan and the current board, or trying to manage them, is beyond me. That McLennan comes from a role in News Corp's “office of the chairman” sparks suspicions about just how close the relationship is between Ten and News with young Lachlan remaining on the News Corp board. It's a suspicion that McLennan plays down, but it remains. While it looks like he's another personal choice of Lachlan's, it's hard to imagine he's taken the job without Rupert's blessing.

Australian Financial Review journalists James Chessell and Ben Holgate were busy on Friday updating their Ten ways to kill a TV network feature, adding the latest scalp to the very large Ten executive pile. Their December review of Warburton's precarious position concluded:

“Many of the bad calls that have contributed to Ten's demise were made by Murdoch. It was Murdoch who passed on the AFL rights for being too expensive, and let Nine get its hands on The Voice and Big Brother. These are the decisions that have cost Ten dearly.

“Ten was in questionable shape when Grant Blackley was fired. It was in a far worse condition when it was handed to Warburton.”

On Friday, before the Warburton announcement, Crikey television watcher and business commentator Glenn Dyer coincidentally filed prescient paragraphs in light of Ten's Thursday night ratings performance:

“Call it the curse of the Murdochs, call it bad luck, call it bad management, but whatever the reason, the Ten Network is being strangled by the dud performance of the Murdoch family TV production arms, Shine and Fox ...

“Ten's board and management can take some of the blame for this, but ultimate responsibility must lie with chairman Lachlan Murdoch. The related-party production deals with Shine and Fox are costing Ten well over $120 million a year, and at the moment, they are not delivering.”

So Ten's chairman is a director of News Corp and the News Corp chairman's son and Ten's soon-to-be CEO is coming from the News Corp “office of the chairman”, but apparently it would be wrong to think there was any relationship between News Corp and Ten.

There also has long been a suspicion that the move by James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch to get control of Ten was at least partly driven by the desire to hose down Ten's first digital channel, One, as its sports programming could be a threat to the motza the Murdochs and Packers were making out of providing sports programming for Foxtel. It's a suspicion denied in the AFR feature, but if that's not the case, the pair's financial failure at Ten is all the more hilarious – as long as you're not one of the hapless minority shareholders without a seat at the board table.

Michael Pascoe is a BusinessDay contributing editor.

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