Future at stake for Nine's proud but crumbling dynasty

Nine boss David Gyngell.
Nine boss David Gyngell.

FOR 56 years the Nine Network has been a force to be reckoned with. Today, it sits on the brink of collapse, threatened with the possibility of a financial coup de grace that will put it in the hands of the banks.

At stake is a $1 billion contract for NRL rights, a $500 million deal with the US studio Warner Bros and the future of Nine's $300 million cricket rights deal, which expires next March.

More importantly to Nine, whose power was built in a dynastic age when the Packers ruled it like a fiefdom, is something bankers cannot put a price on: pride.

Nine's supremacy in ratings terms was built on the unflinching belief that it alone was born to be the best. As its ratings dissipated against Seven, Nine's sense of self-belief has proven indestructible, even if it has been delusional at times.

As the bankers circle, Nine's fate now becomes the fate of many: its sports stakeholders - though sources say the NRL is insulated against any outcome - its programming output deals with the US and its blue-chip programs, such as The Voice.

Nine's future is being decided by two groups of lenders owed more than $3.2 billion who are effectively squabbling over pennies in the dollar.

If the two groups cannot reach an agreement by the time of Nine's meeting today, the media group's directors, including boss David Gyngell may be forced to call in the corporate undertakers or face being made personally liable for its debt.

The junior lenders, led by Goldman Sachs, are holding out on the basis that the senior lenders - the US investment funds Oaktree Capital and Apollo Global Management - would rather do a deal with them than push Nine into administration.

The US funds are weighing up how little they can pay the junior lenders while avoiding this scenario.

The US funds also received advice over the weekend from KordaMentha - the high-profile insolvency specialists who made their name with the Ansett collapse - on the implications of Nine sliding into administration.

If Nine's directors appoint administrators, the US funds are expected to appoint KordaMentha as receivers who will then control the business on their behalf.

Nine's troubles have nothing to do with its performance, despite dwindling earnings thanks to the media industry downturn. Nine will still report underlying earnings of about $250 million for the financial year just ended.

But the business cannot survive under the mammoth $4 billion debt loaded on to it by current owner CVC Asia Pacific when it acquired the business from James Packer in 2006.

The centrepiece of Nine's power is a commercial broadcast licence, one of only three golden tickets that entitle its bearer to a multibillion-dollar free-to-air television business in Australia.

The NRL deal, signed earlier this year in partnership with Fox Sports and worth $1.025 billion over five years, is important because its delivers control of a key sporting code. Losing that, as Ten has recently done with the AFL, is a gamble that can bring a big network to its knees.

Nine's soon-to-expire $300 million contract with Cricket Australia is also significant, not just because it is a major sport, but because the history of cricket and Nine are intertwined, dramatised recently in the top-rating Nine drama, Howzat.

To see a sporting code that has always commanded pride of place on Nine's programming mantle either fall to rival Seven or be broken up across several broadcasters is a worst-case scenario for Nine.

Less important is a $500 million output deal with Warner Bros, which delivers key programs, including The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and The Mentalist.

The feeling within Nine is the deal, like most US studio deals, has for the most part failed to deliver the volume of high-rating shows in recent years required to justify the cost. The Warner Bros deal expires in mid-2014, although Nine would not be unhappy if it was broken up before then.

The process of negotiating the network's debt load has already proved costly for Nine's parent company, Nine Entertainment.

Its other subsidiary, ACP Magazines, which includes the The Australian Women's Weekly and TV Week, has been sold to German publisher Bauer. That deal included TV Week's Logie Awards, which have been linked to Nine since 1959.

As a perfect storm gathers around it, Nine sits at a historic crossroads. Its current boss, David Gyngell, is the son of Bruce Gyngell, the first man to appear on the channel, in 1956.

Although the network was for many years owned by the Packers and will forever be associated with that family, it is actually the Gyngell bloodline that links the precipice on which Nine now stands to its birth 56 years ago.

And this comes, ironically, as Nine delivers its best year in the past decade, building blue-chip franchises in The Voice and The Block into genuine ratings powerhouses and posting significant gains across all demographics. Nine's news and current affairs portfolio, in particular, has regained much lost ground.

Seven will still win the 2012 ratings year, but not without enormous pressure from a resurgent Nine.

Seven will unveil its 2013 slate tonight at a function in Sydney. Nine is expected to unveil its 2013 slate at a function in November.

This story Future at stake for Nine's proud but crumbling dynasty first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.