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Breakfast TV wars: Lisa Wilkinson quits Today in major loss for Nine

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It’s the shock announcement few in the media saw coming: after more than a decade behind the desk, Lisa Wilkinson has quit Channel Nine’s breakfast show, Today, effective immediately.

The veteran journalist and media personality had been in contract negotiations with the network for several months, and according to all sources had consistently declined to accept any offer less than what her male co-host Karl Stefanovic was being paid.

Stefanovic’s pay packet is rumoured to be worth $2 million a year, and Nine refused to give Wilkinson a raise large enough to meet him.

Within an hour of announcing that negotiations with Nine had broken down, Wilkinson announced she had a new job as a host on Channel Ten’s prime-time popular news show, The Project, alongside Gold Logie winners Carrie Bickmore and Waleed Aly. She’ll also host the new Sunday Project program.

Wilkinson, who started her career editing women’s magazines Dolly and Cleo has long been a campaigner for women in the media to be treated respectfully and remunerated appropriately for their work.

“Wilkinson’s presence set Today apart, and has been key to its competitive ratings position over the last decade.”

But the news of her departure comes after Stefanovic has been appearing to seek fairness for women in the media, by lashing out at Daily Mail for misogynistic reporting concerning colleagues, and through his famous navy suit stunt (apparently the money Nine saves on Stefanovic’s suits isn’t enough to cover the cost of Wilkinson’s raise).

Wilkinson’s departure is big news for Nine — her face is plastered across promotional material everywhere — and could prove a major blow for the network, on a number of counts.

Firstly, it’s a terrible look to have lost one of its major talents without any public hint that she’d be departing. It’s also a terrible look that she’s been snatched up so quickly, with another network able to make a more attractive offer.

It’s certainly true that most women facing pay disparity with their male colleagues in Australia don’t have the luxury of leaving difficult contract negotiations (most aren’t even involved in any kind of negotiation), confident in the knowledge that they’ll find attractive employment opportunities. Most workers, of any gender, can’t announce that they’ve scored a high-profile job less than an hour after revealing they’ve walked out of contract negotiations for another high-profile job.

The practical impact of giving Wilkinson that raise would be minimal in the context of a gender pay gap, but it could have been great PR. Nine easily could have been painted itself as a leader in this particular arena by paying its two breakfast anchors equally. Instead, it’s now at risk of alienating women across a number of commercial areas.

But more significant are the challenges that Today now faces in having to put together a new hosting team. Stefanovic has long been considered the “star” of the show, and has the Gold Logie to prove it, but on-air partnerships can take time and serious resources to develop and promote.

The Stefanovic-Wilkinson combination has been one of the most successful on Australian TV, and I’d wager Wilkinson’s energy is more difficult to replace.

While Stefanovic’s larrikinism, combined with a compassionate, “smarter-than-your-average-reporter” style of interview and reportage, clearly resonates with audiences, it’s hardly the most challenging act to pull off on breakfast TV.

To bring the gravity that Wilkinson clearly possesses, and the ability to anchor Stefanovic, is a far more valuable skill. Not only does it make for more dynamic viewing, it allows Today to retain some sense of journalistic integrity in segments, whereas Sunrise has long since abandoned any hopes of being an authoritative source for the day’s news and conversations.

Wilkinson’s presence set Today apart, and has been key to its competitive ratings position over the last decade. Today was struggling to compete against Sunrise during the first two years of Stefanovic’s time on the show, from 2005 to 2007, but the situation started to turn around when Wilkinson joined the desk in 2007, and the pair found a comfortable groove and rapport.

“Today could very easily fall far behind Sunrise and lose the loyalty it’s been rebuilding across the last decade.”

While Sunrise has been chasing a very particular kind of light, bright breakfast TV, punctuated with moments of high conflict, Today has been somewhat more reflective, thanks largely to Wilkinson.

Rumours of her replacement are running wild — although chances are the bosses at Nine won’t have had a chance to decide on any one candidate just yet — with Today newsreader Sylvia Jeffreys considered a clear front-runner. Jeffreys has the runs on the board as a TV journalist and presenter, but the viewing public may consider it too “strange” to put her permanently alongside Karl when she’s married to his brother Peter.

Choosing an appropriate replacement could prove to be quite difficult in and of itself: the combination of warmth and respect that Wilkinson commanded is difficult to find, and if the network chooses somebody who could be considered a “lightweight”, then it will certainly be eclipsed by Sunrise, a program which simply does “lightweight” better than Today is equipped to.

If the next few months aren’t handled well, Today could  easily fall far behind Sunrise and lose the loyalty it’s been rebuilding across the last decade. That could even have ramifications for the Nine brand as a whole.

7 responses to “Breakfast TV wars: Lisa Wilkinson quits Today in major loss for Nine

  1. I have to share my overwhelming joy to the numerous headlines and multiple front page news stories across all the best Oz newspaper websites about the incredible event of Lisa Wilkinson .. for those of you who are clueless .. this lady is a morning TV host on commercial TV network and .. wait .. wait .. calm down .. breathe .. Lisa changed jobs .. everyone is thrilled for her and will remember where they were when they first heard the news today .. oh girl….

  2. Too much dot-itis in the posts so far!

    Wilkinson is [all-at-once] glamorous, experienced, and obviously intelligent; sufficiently intelligent to know that she is at least the equal of ‘foot-in-mouth’ Stefanovic—she deserves the same level of dosh. More power to her! Nine has sexist egg on its face.

  3. Both Lisa and Karl do an average job so both should be paid about the average salary of about $70,000.
    To pay media show ponies more than the average wage is to pay them too well for reinforcing public prejudices back to the public to which they pander as the key part of their jobs.
    If one is chasing the other for any more than average wage, it is just a matter of greed and pride.

  4. I have never watched breakfast TV – I can’t stand the faux jocularity and “mateship” – but to find these two very ordinary journalists are paid so much money for so little is depressing, even more so because they are thought of highly. Journalists throughout the world put themselves at great risk to fight injustice and reveal corruption; I wonder how much they get paid. What a lousy system we live under: unequal and unfair and getting more so.

  5. This can’t be right; this reads as if Wilkinson is not utterly talentless grossly overpaid crap. If she weren’t she wouldn’t be on breakfast tv and pounced on by fellow purveyor of dross, the projectile, to sit alongside fellow gormless gits Wally, Cazza ‘n Strachny.

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