An­other col­league pays for Karl’s flag­ging star

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - ANNETTE SHARP -

If Karl Ste­fanovic sur­vives an­other year at the helm of To­day, he will owe his sur­vival to the men and women who have fallen around him while at­tempt­ing to hold up his im­mense and cum­ber­some sag­ging star.

Last year it was his hugely pop­u­lar co-host Lisa Wilkin­son (on a salary of less than a mil­lion dol­lars plus bonuses) who was sac­ri­ficed to help the net­work foot the bill for Ste­fanovic’s $3-mil­lion-a-year con­tract, which would have helped pay for his messy di­vorce.

A year ear­lier it had been af­fa­ble Steve Ja­cobs, who was moved on from To­day’s reg­u­lar weath­er­man gig to cut costs.

And now it is To­day’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Mark Calvert, Ste­fanovic’s boss, who finds him­self in the fir­ing line and un­der scru­tiny for fail­ing to ar­rest the rat­ings col­lapse that on Septem­ber 18 saw To­day slump to a his­toric decade-long low of 199,000 view­ers (all peo­ple in five cap­i­tal cities).

Nine CEO Hugh Marks de­ferred his re­spon­si­bil­ity last week when he in­formed me­dia “the chal­lenge” of fix­ing To­day had been handed to “pro­duc­ers … pre­sen­ters and es­pe­cially … Karl”.

In­sid­ers say Ste­fanovic (in­set), who has lost cred­i­bil­ity with view­ers since walk­ing out on his wife of 21 years, is in­ca­pable of fix­ing the prob­lems that now plague To­day — a show that has lost its beat­ing heart, lost pur­pose and be­come the tele­vised equiv­a­lent of a noisy poker ma­chine with end­less cash give­aways, a turn-off for its faith­ful rusted-on mum and dad view­ers.

It is Calvert who is ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for the pro­gram’s con­tent, and Calvert who bears re­spon­si­bil­ity for the pro­gram’s cul­ture, which is where he may have made what will prove a fa­tal ca­reer mis­take: He al­lowed him­self to be se­duced by Ste­fanovic and the star’s glam­orous and en­vi­able new-found bach­e­lor life­style.

Ear­lier this year, say Nine in­sid­ers, Calvert was pulled aside by se­nior Nine man­age­ment and spo­ken to about hav­ing blurred the lines be­tween busi­ness and so­cial­is­ing.

It was ob­served that af­ter ris­ing week­days at about 3am to pro­duce 17.5 gru­elling hours of tele­vi­sion a week, he was spend­ing far too much time so­cial­is­ing af­ter hours with his en­er­getic young crew. Com­pound­ing Nine man­age­ment’s con­cern was the fact Calvert, a 50some­thing dad of two, is mar­ried to an­other Nine em­ployee.

His wife, his sec­ond, is Nine’s well re­garded weather pre­sen­ter Belinda Rus­sell.

With Ste­fanovic’s im­age in the toi­let and To­day’s vet­eran en­ter­tain­ment re­porter and party an­i­mal Richard Wilkins in­stalled as Ste­fanovic’s so­cial concierge, net­work bosses had cause to be con­cerned for Calvert.

By Fe­bru­ary, Calvert had fallen into line, closed his so­cial me­dia ac­counts and given up drink­ing.

But de­spite his best ef­forts, the cul­tural rot had al­ready set in at To­day.

How does a boss who has blurred the lines be­tween man­ager and bestie re­claim the man­age­rial high ground?

Calvert isn’t the first ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer in­stalled over Ste­fanovic to be won over by the star’s charisma and power — some­thing be­stowed upon Ste­fanovic by for­mer Nine CEO David Gyn­gell and fre­quently flaunted by the star dur­ing his reg­u­lar so­cial catch-ups with for­mer net­work owner James Packer.

In 2013 the man Calvert re­placed in the role, for­mer newspaper ed­i­tor Neil Breen, de­parted the show in con­tro­ver­sial cir­cum­stances, af­ter be­com­ing so de­voted to and en­am­oured of Ste­fanovic, pos­si­bly at Gyn­gell’s in­struc­tion, it cost him his re­la­tion­ship with all other key on-air tal­ent on the pro­gram, among them Wilkin­son, Wilkins, Ben Ford­ham and sports re­porter Tim Gil­bert.

Now Nine CEO Marks must re­alise that to save the body, he must re­move the rot­ted limb, or, in this case, per­haps limb and head.

“I have every con­fi­dence they will do it,” Marks said last week, di­vest­ing him­self of his re­spon­si­bil­ity and plac­ing the task of restor­ing To­day to its for­mer glory in the hands of Calvert, Ste­fanovic and the To­day pro­duc­tion team. No Hugh, it’s well past time and it’s you who must do it.

Mark Calvert (fifth from left) so­cial­is­ing with the To­day crew in Au­gust last year. Pic­ture: In­sta­gram

Calvert (sec­ond from left) in party mode. Pic­ture: In­sta­gram

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