Part-time Karl a rare sighting on Today
HE'S Australian television's highest-paid talent, raking in a rumoured $2 million a year, primarily to co-host Today.
But since late last year, Channel 9's most valuable face has been a rare sighting on breakfast television: Karl Stefanovic has been absent from hosting duties on Today for a total of three months out of the past five.
As the show muddles through weak ratings, line-up changes and off-screen dramas thanks to the infamous Ubergate scandal earlier this year, a combination of leave and "other network commitments" have seen Stefanovic absent from the show for six full weeks of the first four months of the year, and a few additional Mondays and Fridays during on-air weeks.
And despite the fact Today is being continually whipped by rival Seven breakfast show Sunrise in the ratings race, three of those weeks have fallen during the 11 weeks of the 2018 ratings season - almost three weeks on, one week off.
It's an absence which hasn't gone unnoticed by viewers - but not for the reason you might think.
This week, as Stefanovic headed off on a week's leave they welcomed stand-in host Ben Fordham back to the fold.
Fordham announced via Instagram: "I'm hosting @TheTodayShow this week with this awesome human. Tune in." with a picture of himself and Gardner.
The response reiterated what many viewers are thinking.
"Make it permanent please," was one response. "Y should host full time," was another.
More worrying for Nine would have been the comment: "Is Karl on holidays again???? What a great job he's got!!!!!" and "why don't they call you the co-host and be done with it!"
Insiders say Nine heads are quietly and privately furious at Stefanovic after almost two years of off-screen drama, kicked off by the breakup of his marriage to Cassandra Thorburn, and most recently when he was allegedly caught slagging off his co-host Georgie Gardner and others from the network in an Uber conversation with brother and Nine stablemate, Peter Stefanovic.
"They're out of time and patience with Karl and they might forgive that, but the ratings and public sentiment aren't on his side," said one Nine source.
"His contract is up towards the end of the year, and for some, it can't come soon enough.
"Fact is, Today viewers think he's more off the screen than on it. Some wonder if he's gone part-time."
Since late last November, Stefanovic been absent from Today screens for a total of between 11 and 12 weeks.
Channel 9 would not be drawn on the specifics of Stefanovic's on-screen absences, or if it was concerned about his limited on-screen presence on Today.
"This week is the first few days of leave Karl has been able to take since returning from his summer break on January 22nd. He also had a week away from Today to film This Time Next Year, and a week overseas filming for 60 Minutes," said a network spokesman.
WHERE IS HE?
When Lisa Wilkinson walked from Today last October thanks to a pay parity dispute, Nine CEO Hugh Marks backed his male co-host, saying he was worth more to the network because of the additional duties he performs for Nine, and the full access the network has to him that it did not have to Wilkinson.
"I hate the fact we have to compare her with Karl but with him we have all those rights. With Lisa we do not," Marks said.
Another Nine executive was far more blunt: "As the host of two shows, Today and This Time Next Year, as well as a contributor to 60 Minutes and a specialist news reporter, Karl is worth more money. That's just a fact," said a Nine executive.
Those commitments are also cited by Nine as the reason for Karl's absences.
However, it's understood the first round of filming for This Time Next Year has been wrapped since mid-March - about the same time Stefanovic, 43, and his fiance Jasmine Yarbrough, 33, held a commitment ceremony at Palm Beach.
The March 10 commitment ceremony came just as news of the Uber conversation broke, and saw Karl absent from Today screens for another week - from March 12 to March 16 - with conflicting reports that he had been "dispatched on an urgent assignment" or was enjoying a week off with his fiance. Nine declined to clarify specific on-screen absences.
Meanwhile, 60 Minutes has aired two stories from Stefanovic this year: a recent report on flu vaccines, and an interview with Kylie Minogue which saw him slammed as "creepy" for observing the singer was a "hot 50-year-old".
It's also rumoured Stefanovic's 60 Minutes stories may be sporadic at best from now on, given the brothers' indiscreet Uber rant saw them openly critical of 60 Minutes executive producer Kirsty Thompson, as well Nine's news boss Darren Wick, and Today show boss Mark Calvert.
NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT
Whether he's been on assignment, or kicking back on leave matters little to Today viewers, industry insiders warn.
It's all about perception.
"He's the face of that show and so many absences aren't a good look," said one source.
"When you consider the average viewer gets four weeks annual leave a year, they're not taking kindly to Karl, who's supposed to be this likeable everyman, appearing to have had one-and-a-half times their yearly holiday in four months."
"He might be working elsewhere, but all they see is that he's off."
The other danger is, many seem to be warming far more to his possible replacement.
Fordham has emerged as favourite for the gig - if he wants it - with Nine executives very aware that the viewers' love affair with Karl is on rocky ground.
And with Stefanovic reportedly as disaffected with Today as the network is rumoured to be with him, and time ticking on his contract, there's plenty of talk about his replacement.
Last month, Adelaide newsreader Brenton Ragless - who stood in over the long summer period - was said to have gained the approval of a network keen to stop the angst.
For now, Stefanovic is preparing for his next assignment - part of a slew of Nine Network talent heading to the UK to cover the royal wedding on May 19.
Stefanovic and Yarbrough are tipped to exchange vows of their own later this year.
Whether his relationship with Today will last the distance remains to be seen.