Anyone with the smallest understanding of managing a crisis could see that Stefanovic had to go.
In a perfect world Nine, the publisher of this masthead, would have spent six months planning a flash new show for him and then broadcast a glorious send-off celebrating his achievements while announcing a shiny new presenter to replace him.
But, come the end of 2018, the scrutiny was so intense that Nine buckled. The bosses threw out the baby, the bath water, the bath, the taps and the tiles in what is looking like a ham-fisted attempt to make it all stop.
By rushing Stefanovic’s departure, Today now has a line-up that is starting the year on a back foot.
Breakfast television lives and dies by the chemistry of its presenters. Even if they don’t get along, it can be bizarrely enjoyable to watch. There needs to be a spark.
Unfortunately, there has been precious little chemistry during the fledgling weeks of Today.
Gardner, Deb Knight and Tom Steinfort may well turn out to be a good line-up but they are yet to click. This is hardly surprising given they barely knew each other as co-presenters when the show kicked off at The Australian Open.
Entertainment reporter Brooke Boney is a good example of the problems created by the decision to cut Karl early. Boney is one of the most charming and unaffected people to ever have found themselves on a television. However, she was yanked from the wireless and thrown in front of a live camera with very little time to figure out what kind of presenter she might like to be. Next to her were presenters she had met professionally two days before.
They had a day of rehearsals to find out where the cameras were and form a vague idea of who was going to say what. Then their performance was up for scrutiny from viewers, critics and the same sections of the media that hounded Stefanovic.
The merger of Nine and Fairfax – News Corp’s arch rival – only increased the impetus to ensure the scrutiny from News’ tabloids such as The Daily Telegraph would be as intense as it was ferocious.
Hours after the new line-up aired, stories began appearing canvassing a selection of armchair experts from Twitter who weren’t digging the new vibe.
With less time to spend together than even new breakfast radio shows enjoy, Today suffered a significant blow. On Wednesday, days before the official ratings survey period begins on Monday, Today posted its lowest results in a decade.
Just 177,000 people tuned in across the five capital cities and a handful more in regional areas.
Sunrise was watched by nearly double the audience.
Nine defended the numbers by pointing out the show had hovered between an average audience of 200,000 and 230,000 since the new team began, however this is still a miserably small average viewership for one of the network’s most significant brands.
Today’s low ratings should come as no surprise. No one wants to tune in and watch the rehearsals. No one enjoys seeing TV folk awkwardly get to know each other and figure out where the cameras are.
Of course, Nine management were between a rock and a hard place when it came to their Today problem; keep the status quo and lock themselves in for a Summer of Stefanovic or rush through some changes and destine themselves for the hard slog up from the very bottom.
The current performance of the show suggests they made the wrong call.
They are likely to pay for it in the form of problematic ratings over the next 12 months, perhaps even longer. The worst thing they could do now is act in haste once again.
As Koch likes to remind people, Seven management almost fired him after his first year because he was “too opinionated”. It never happened and he’s gone on to dominate breakfast television every since.
Whether Gardner, Knight and Steinfort do this remains to be seen but they need to be given a proper chance. In the meantime, all they can do is hold on for the bumpy ride and develop a bit more chemistry.
Nathanael Cooper is the deputy entertainment editor at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.