Mark Ferguson and Seven News upset the locals in 6pm TV showdown

MERCURY. NEWS. Pic of Bruce Gordon owner of WIN TV with TV News prestenter Geoff Phillips. Picture: Sylvia Liber . 7 February, 2017 Photo: Sylvia LiberRegional broadcaster Southern Cross Austereo’s launch of localised Nine News bulletins against WIN News in Canberra and Wollongong appears to have split the local news viewing audience in both markets and delivered ratings wins to competitor Prime7.

But the Nine affiliate insists it is satisfied with its news debut despite running third behind its commercial rivals in the 6pm timeslot.

The first survey period of the 2017 free-to-air TV ratings season shows WIN’s established half-hour weeknight news bulletin, presented from Wollongong by veteran anchorman Geoff Phillips, holding off its local news challenger in both cities.

But Prime7’s relay of the Mark Ferguson-hosted Seven News from Sydney is the winner at 6pm.

Southern Cross Austereo and feeder network Nine are halfway through the ambitious roll-out of 15 localised evening news bulletins for the ACT and regional viewers across southern NSW, country Victoria and Queensland.

Canberra and Wollongong were the first to receive local versions of Nine News – the first time in 15 years that billionaire Bruce Gordon’s WIN TV has faced direct commercial competition for local news viewers in those markets.

In Canberra over the month to March 11, WIN News averaged 15,378 viewers in the 6pm-6.30pm slot, beating the first half of the new localised Nine News (11,745) but narrowly beaten by the first half of Seven News (15,588).

The Prime7 program won the 6pm-7pm slot, averaging 15,377 viewers to WIN’s 13,397 and Nine’s 11,438.

The ABC’s 7pm Canberra bulletin remains the capital’s most-watched evening news by far, averaging 39,000 viewers.

In WIN’s hometown market of Wollongong, Seven News from Sydney won the 6pm-6.30pm timeslot with an average 34,939 viewers for Prime7, ahead of WIN News (27,644) and the first half of the localised Nine News (17,483).

Prime7 also won the 6pm-7pm hour, averaging 36,329 viewers a night, ahead of WIN (25,755) and Nine (18,258).

An hour format mixing local, state, national and international news and sport, the new ACT and regional NSW bulletins of Nine News are presented from Nine’s Sydney studios by Vanessa O’Hanlon, with weather presented by Gavin Morris from Nine’s NBN station in Newcastle.

In a media release that trumpeted its Canberra ratings victory over Nine without mentioning Prime7, WIN said its 30-minute news format of all-local content “consistently delivered a higher number of viewers across the four-week survey period compared to Nine’s recently introduced local bulletin”.

“ACT audiences have remained loyal to WIN News,” network news director Stella Lauri said.

But the localised versions of Nine News are already delivering audience gains for Southern Cross Austereo, according to its head of regional media Rick Lenarcic.

“It is still early days but in Canberra our audience between 6pm-6.30pm has increased by more than 20 per cent compared with the same period last year and by six per cent in Wollongong,” he said.

“It’s clear the news is already building our audiences.”

Despite running third in the 6pm news race and Prime7’s success with its cheaper relay of Seven News, Mr Lenarcic said adding locally focused content “enhances the overall brand” of Nine in regional markets.

Prime7, long-time affiliate of Kerry Stokes-owned Seven, hasn’t produced its own news bulletins for Canberra, Wollongong and Newcastle since June 2001, when it axed locally produced evening news in favour of brief “updates” slotted into ad breaks.

It still airs five half-hour weeknight bulletins from its Canberra studios for the regions of Inland NSW, North Coast NSW, Central West, Wagga Wagga and Albury/Wodonga, as well as a half-hour national news tailored for regional areas.

Commenting on the ratings success of Seven News in the ACT and Wollongong, Prime7 head of news Paul Patrick said “clearly these markets prefer a national news bulletin”.

But Prime7 was committed to retaining its local news bulletins in regional NSW – despite the arrival of localised Nine News bulletins setting up a three-way fight for small local news audiences.

“Our local bulletins deliver exceptional results,” Mr Patrick said.

Last month, ahead of the Nine News launch in its NSW markets, Prime7 switched to dual newsreaders Madelaine Collignon and Kenny Heatley for its local bulletins.

From March 20, meteorologist Karl Lijnders joins to present a “more insightful” weather forecast.

WIN News, presented in NSW and the ACT by Phillips and Amy Duggan, moved to the 6pm timeslot – between Ten Eyewitness News First at Five and The Project – last July as part of WIN’s program supply deal with Network Ten.

That switch followed Nine’s dumping of WIN as its regional affiliate after almost 30 years to strike a five-year, $500 million programming tie-up with Southern Cross Austereo.