Move that could’ve saved Karl
AS KARL Stefanovic's ascendance reached its height and the breakfast TV star revelled in the love of the public and the gushing tolerance of network bosses, an offer presented itself several times and was promptly tossed aside.
Rival network Seven tried three times to lure the host - the final offer, in 2015, ignited a fierce bidding war which ended with Nine offering an astronomical deal.
Three years later - as Stefanovic continues to be battered by negative press about both his personal and professional life - industry executives and people close to him say the move to Seven could have saved television's golden boy.
"He should've taken the Seven offer. It was a mistake," a member of Stefanovic's inner-circle told news.com.au. "He was sick of (the Today show). He wanted something more."
Speculation about Stefanovic's future reached fever pitch this week with reports Nine bosses were preparing to let him go from his Today hosting duties in the new year following a horror two years of bad publicity in the wake of his marriage breakdown. It has been a slow and painful fall from grace for the star - a fall some think could've been avoided.
David Leckie, the former Seven boss responsible for turning the network around after leaving the top job at Nine, first tried to lure Stefanovic to the rival in 2008. He told news.com.au Stefanovic's rejection was the host's biggest mistake.
"He was clearly absolutely buggered with it (Today) - the early morning call. And he wanted to have something else," he said. "If it worked he could've made it anything he liked. It was a gamble but we were hardly going to send him poor with our deal."
The legendary executive remembers the night the host came to his house and they "hugged" on the deal.
"I was the one pursuing Karl and he came to my house with his team of lawyers and it was just me. I thought we had a deal done. We hugged each other at the end of it," he said.
Leckie said Seven never wanted Stefanovic to front its breakfast show.
"What I was talking about wasn't Sunrise. It was about doing a late night show - like in the slot of 9.30pm. He would've been a natural. Channel 9 tried to use him (in the failed panel show The Verdict) but it was a ridiculous format. That was ridiculous. Our idea at Seven was to do a Jimmy Kimmel or something like that."
The last, and final, approach from Seven came in 2015, when the host was in the throes of renegotiating his current eye-watering contract to stay at the Willoughby studios. A decade hosting the breakfast show had seen him become the network's biggest star and Australia's favourite host. He held the power and a bidding war ensued.
The hosting gig of a revamped Today Tonight and a stint fronting the 2016 Rio Olympics coverage were reportedly being offered by rival Seven. It's also suggested Seven's weekly current affairs show Sunday Night was a possibility. It was the move Stefanovic craved, away from relentless breakfast hours and gimmicky segments.
An industry executive told news.com.au it was this return to structured news that could've saved Stefanovic from the turmoil that soon followed.
"It would've been helpful if he was in a tighter format because you wouldn't have seen Karl being Karl - he would've been 'produced Karl'. He can be very slick. He's a good interviewer. In breakfast TV, there's no hiding. It's a real person. And when the real person isn't at his best, it's bad."
Even when the negative publicity surrounding his split with wife Cassandra Thorburn reached its height, the gig at Seven would've protected Stefanovic, the executive added.
"We would've seen a different Karl. At Seven, management would've steered him in a direction to stay himself whereas at Nine, it's the mates network. It would've been more professional (at Seven) - it could've extended the value of his brand," they said.
On paper, the offer from Seven was everything Stefanovic could have wanted. But Nine punched back with an offer he couldn't refuse.
Management knew he was sick of Today. This had already been combated with reporting duties on 60 Minutes and the gift of his own panel show - the ill-fated series The Verdict. The new contract offered a pay packet of $2 million a year - with a potential bonus that could take it to a reported $3 million. The condition was, he had to remain the face of Today.
"A lot of the blame is on the network," the executive added.
"Breakfast TV should not be a life sentence. From the time he started putting his hand up, that should've been the time they worked out how to get him out of breakfast TV. The audience knows he doesn't want to be there. And it's obvious. Giving him extra duties wasn't going to solve the fundamental problem."
At the height of his popularity, Stefanovic was the rock star of Australian TV. He appealed to young and old and, most importantly, females - the coveted demographic in breakfast TV. A Gold Logie came. He partied with billionaire mate James Packer.
"He was untouchable within the network," the executive said. "There was a different power play - Karl called the shots."
The storm didn't hit until the breakdown of his 21-year marriage became public at the end of 2016. A new relationship soon followed, as did a surprise commitment ceremony. For two years, his personal life has been a publicity nightmare and his popularity with the public dipped.
It's the negative publicity and persistent ratings slide that's being blamed for the reported decision to cut him loose from Today in the new year - despite being contracted to the show until the end of 2020.
Nine's chief executive Hugh Marks publicly issued a challenge to the star this week and demanded the breakfast show lift its game.
"No doubt the constant publicity issues surrounding his personal life have had an impact on Karl, his colleagues and on the show. We can't hide from that. And as a result we know there's a lot of hard work to be done to win back the audience," he told The Australian.
But not everyone's convinced hard work alone will win back lost viewers.
"The only way out of this now is for Karl - and Karl only - to concede that he needs to do something else," the network executive told news.com.au.
"It can't be the network doing it - that will play out badly. He's signed to 2020 - he needs to decide it's time to take time out to rebuild his brand. People need to see it's Karl who is looking in the mirror and saying, 'This is not who I am anymore'."
Leckie said he wouldn't discount a return from Stefanovic. "I'd just like to know where his head is," he said.