Another colleague pays for Karl’s flagging star
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