Why Nine network reluctant to use $50K-a-week-Karl
AFTER six months off screen and virtually out of action, Karl Stefanovic's $3 million a year pay packet is weighing heavily on Nine's bottom line.
With Stefanovic's "stud fee" sitting at around $50,000 a week and borne by any program wishing to tap Stefanovic for his in-house services - an accounting arrangement that offsets the pressure on the Today show budget to which Stefanovic remains expensively tethered - Nine producers remain reluctant to touch television's highest paid personality.
It's a reality said to be troubling Nine's chief cost-cutter, CEO Hugh Marks.
As the man who signed off on Stefanovic's last - and as history now shows - overpriced contract just weeks into his job as Nine CEO in December 2015 (after his predecessor, David Gyngell, who now sits on Nine's board, refused to set his pen to it), Marks finds himself with the onerous task of finding something for his expensive charge to do for the remaining 18 months of his contract.
No one is of the view today that Stefanovic - who television veterans are in agreement has priced himself out of the market and off the studio floor at Nine - is value for money.
Six months after his departure from Today, the vehicle that made Stefanovic a household name is trailing Seven's Sunrise in the ratings and the program's new on-air team of presenters, fronted by newsreaders Georgie Gardner and Deb Knight, are still struggling to find their rapport.
Today's poor ratings coupled with the recent re-signing of radio breakfast star Alan Jones to Nine's majority owned Macquarie network - and Stefanovic's star turn on the bill at a Nine sponsored hospital charity fundraiser on Thursday night - were last week driving industry speculation Marks is preparing to exhume Stefanovic and reinsert him into the ailing breakfast show that still pays his salary.
Marks could not be reached for comment on Friday but Nine's Director of News and Current Affairs Darren Wick was quick to scotch rumours of a Today show return for Stefanovic.
"We've gone in a dramatically different direction with Georgie Gardner and Deb Knight to where we were with Karl and while we know we haven't got it quite right yet, we are happy with where we are," said Wick.
"No one in panicking about the ratings."
In the week ended May 31, Seven's Sunrise averaged 279,000 (all people, five capital cities) to Today's 202,000.
Within the media, Today's daily ratings have become a national obsession. So too has speculation about Today losing ad revenue - something Wick was quick to deny outright: "I check on it regularly. We are a commercial beast and you can't stand on principle, as much as you might like to."
Concerning Stefanovic, Nine's news boss was adamant no one at Nine believed he was the solution to Today's ratings problem.
"We had no choice but to make changes," Wick said, confirming he has had no second thoughts about Stefanovic's removal.
"The ratings were plummeting last year - and the last three years they were dramatically down. We made the big change and now we have to ride it out.
"The show is doing better now and it looks to have found a base audience of around 200,000."
Stefanovic, partnered with Gardner during his final year on the show, had been in a "world of pain", said Wick.
"Karl was in a bad place. The show was in a bad place.
"We decided we needed to get him out of there, rest him, get him off air for six months and give him a reset.
"We needed to deal with the noise - for us and for Karl - online and off, and particularly on a personal basis for Karl, who was finding there was a public obsession with every aspect of his life.
"There was no escape for him."
The Nine news boss will sit down soon with Stefanovic to discuss his future.
"We will sit down and work out where to from here," Wick said.
"Karl is an incredible talent. "We've just got to find the right fit for Karl - and Nine."
The newsman may make a couple of appearances on Nine's 60 Minutes in upcoming months and has recorded a second series of This Time Next Year, scheduled to air in the last quarter of the year.
As for 2020, there remains speculation Nine may yet release Stefanovic from his contract at the end of the year - after agreeing to pay him out the last year of his contract.
Wick maintained such talk was "just speculation".
Inside sources at Nine say the network will begin tweaking Today from this week - with small format changes to begin with and a new set planned for 2020 after Nine moves from its old production headquarters in Willoughby to North Sydney.
Sidelined entertainment reporter Richard Wilkins is also expected to play a larger role at the expense or Nine newcomer Brooke Boney, the woman brought in this year to replace him.
"We are happy with the content but we probably need to do more to sell the message about the role our presenters are playing," Wick said.
"We are going to tinker with the formula and the format and see where we are in six months time but Today will still be a Karl free zone."