NINE’S HEADACHE: How it went wrong for golden boy Karl
FOR a long time, Karl Stefanovic could do no wrong.
When he infamously showed up to work still drunk the morning after the Logie Awards in 2009, slurring and giggling his way through hours of live television, viewers lapped it up.
As the co-host of Channel 9's Today show, he was both the daggy dad, self-deprecating and entertaining, as well as a steady hand that lounge rooms turned to in a crisis.
With the click of his fingers, Stefanovic could expertly swap hats from family friendly star, fronting everything from Carol's By Candlelight to This Time Next Year, to hard-nosed newshound on the frontline of major breaking events at home and around the globe.
Viewers couldn't get enough.
Stefanovic was renowned for hilarious gag segments that quickly went viral as much as he was serious investigative pieces for the flagship program 60 Minutes.
His meteoric rise from general news reporter to one of Channel 9's most bankable stars made him well worth the multimillion-dollar salary.
But in the space of two years, Stefanovic's brand has become toxic and, according to damning reports at the weekend, beyond repair.
"Karl lives and breathes who he is - he's authentic," personal brand specialist Suzie Lightfood said. "You can't accuse Karl of faking it. Part of that connection to people in the lounge room and part of his success has been that he's real. People like his values.
"The problem comes when there's a conflict with those values represented and your conduct comes under fire. People who believe in you start to question that connection."
And after the breakdown of his marriage, a quick rebound with a new, younger girlfriend, a very public gender pay gap issue and his public trashing of a female colleague, the fire is now raging.
Sources say Nine is preparing to cut him loose from Today after an extended run of devastating ratings; a viewer exodus for which his public relations nightmare is to blame.
Where did it all go wrong for one of the country's best-known personalities? And is there any way back?
AT THE TOP OF HIS GAME
Almost from the moment Stefanovic took over from Steve Liebman at Today in 2005, it was clear the baby-faced Queenslander was special.
There was something deeply relatable about him that viewers loved.
Even as his star rose and he climbed the ranks, hobnobbing with the likes of David Gyngell, the hugely influential boss of Channel 9 until 2015, and billionaire mogul James Packer, there was still an everyman air about him.
In 2011, he took out Australian television's highest honour, the Gold Logie, and was also named Most Popular TV Presenter.
He could straddle personas like no one else - a blokey larrikin on the male-heavy Today panel as well as a sensitive and progressive thinker.
He spoke from the heart about issues that struck a chord - budget pressures on working families, the plight of farmers and struggling communities recovering from natural disasters.
When he misspoke and angered the LGBT community by using the outdated phrase "tranny", he delivered an immediate and heartfelt apology that won him praise.
In 2014, he wore the same suit on air every day for the entire year as an experiment to highlight sexism. No one noticed or cared about his wardrobe choice.
"I'm judged on my interviews, my appalling sense of humour - on how I do my job, basically," Stefanovic told Fairfax at the time. "Whereas women are quite often judged on what they're wearing or how their hair is … that's (what I wanted to test)."
To Today viewers - especially the dominant female demographic - he was immensely likeable, especially alongside his "best mate" Lisa Wilkinson.
And in 2015, at long last, the show began to make up some serious ground against its fierce rival Sunrise, a long-time ratings winner in the lucrative timeslot.
Instead of being smashed by a margin of almost 100,000 metropolitan viewers or more each morning, Today was neck-and-neck with the king of brekky TV.
"We finished the year strongly, so I'm really looking forward to getting back together with the team and bringing the best morning television to our audiences around Australia," Stefanovic said at the end of 2015.
And through 2016, Stefanovic and the team kept Today competitive and within striking distance of being number one. That is, until September rolled around.
A PUBLIC-RELATIONS NIGHTMARE
When he won the Gold Logie in 2011, Stefanovic praised the devotion and support of his wife Cass Thorburn, whose career had long ago taken a back seat to his.
While he battled 3am wake-ups, long days at work, extended travel around Australia and the world, and an insatiable ambition for more, she raised their three children at home.
The announcement of Stefanovic's split from Thorburn in September 2016 came as something of a shock. But initial sympathy quickly gave way to a sense of unease, as revelations about his personal life dominated women's magazines.
"We all know people who've been through exactly the same things that Karl has. The problem is that because he's on a platform where the standard is higher," Lightfood said.
"Unfortunately, he's being tested by other people's values and their perception of how he lives up to them. It's a pretty difficult position to be in. How do you possibly win?"
Just months after he moved out of the family home and into James Packer's luxury bachelor pad in Bondi, paparazzi pictures showed Stefanovic passionately kissing a young shoe designer on the deck of a yacht on Sydney Harbour.
Jasmine Yarbrough, a socialite and regular fixture at glitzy parties and red carpet events, is almost a decade his junior. The relationship was serious from the get-go and within a year, she was gleefully showing off the $120,000 engagement ring on her finger.
Not long after they met, she and Stefanovic began turning up at the social equivalent of the opening of an envelope.
The image of him sitting front row at fashion shows with Yarbrough and a gaggle of 20- and 30-something gal pals was unsettling to loyal fans used to the suit-clad nice bloke and dad.
"He was almost the epitome of a midlife crisis," a former Nine colleague told news.com.au.
While Thorburn packed up the family home they'd shared and supported the kids through the very public divorce, Stefanovic looked - at least in pictures - to be partying it up and jetsetting around the world with his new girlfriend.
There were a string of unexplained absences from Today and then a day or two later, pictures of the couple lazing on a beach in Mexico or jumping off the side of Packer's yacht.
"S*** hit the fan," his former colleague said. "And he ran off and left everyone else to battle through the drama he made."
John Burfitt, veteran television industry writer and former senior editor of TV Week, said it was a problem that Stefanovic's personal life has become the main news story instead of his show.
"Karl's off-screen life has become such tabloid fodder," Burfitt said.
"There are real problems on screen as well. There's a genuine awkwardness between Karl and Georgie that does not make for easy viewing.
"That lack of chemistry and sense of unease between them is a problem for the breakfast timeslot, a time when most people are easing into the day."
'LOATHED BY WOMEN'
Stefanovic's messy divorce generated almost daily headlines that he simply couldn't escape and which clouded his on-air efforts.
Nine orchestrated a rehabilitation attempt in hopes of hitting reset, with extended interviews talking of his regret at hurting his ex-wife and kids and the challenges of co-parenting.
The morning editorials ramped up, with a heavy bias towards female issues, as did the attacking tone of his interviews with politicians about issues impacting Middle Australia.
This Time Next Year was meant to be a tear-jerker that could show his softer side, but the up-and-down ratings indicated viewers weren't quite buying what he was selling.
"It was so transparent and desperate, it was embarrassing," a former TV publicist told news.com.au of the image makeover efforts.
In October 2017, Stefanovic's co-host Wilkinson abruptly quit Nine and defected to Ten, reportedly over a breakdown in salary negotiations.
It emerged that she was being paid much less than her co-star and when she asked for a fair and equitable adjustment, it was declined.
While the decision was that of the network's purse-holders, Stefanovic bore the brunt of anger from viewers at her upsetting exit.
A month after Wilkinson left, Georgie Gardner was announced as her replacement, to join Stefanovic at the desk at the start of 2018.
But just as the duo began to find their feet in the new ratings year, an Uber driver spilt the beans about a 45-minute back seat rant he overheard.
Stefanovic was on speaker phone with his brother Peter and his wife, Today newsreader Sylvia Jeffreys, as the couple were driven home late one night in March this year.
The driver told New Idea that Stefanovic vented his frustration at Gardner, who he accused of "sitting on the fence" and not having enough opinions. He became angry as he declared that she needed to "step up" if she "wanted to stay on the show".
The embarrassing revelations caused tension on the set, upset network bosses - Stefanovic had also slagged off senior figures as not knowing anything - and further damaged the embattled co-host's standing with women.
"Karl's comments undermine everything producers and management have been trying to build around the show following bad press around the departure of Lisa Wilkinson," TV Tonight editor David Knox said at the time.
That remaining chunk of the female demographic, which once made up a significant proportion of ratings, had clearly had enough.
As media analyst Steve Allen told The Sunday Telegraph at the weekend, female viewers now "basically now think he is an a** hole".
"And who could blame them, really?" Allen said.
"Here you have his ex-wife, who supported him and raised his kids, and she's left out in the cold while he is off with his younger girlfriend in various exotic locations on holidays every other week.
"For Nine to think that there is any other reason viewers are off the show is, to me, just complete denial."
A SINKING SHIP?
Last week, Today recorded its worst ratings result in 12 years after being absolutely obliterated by Sunrise and slipping below an average of 200,000 metropolitan viewers.
The ratings slide began about the time revelations about Stefanovic's personal life began and only got worse from there.
"Karl's buffoonery that was once part of the fun has definitely run its course. Instead of being part of the fun, it now seems to be part of the problem," Burfitt said.
Reports at the weekend quoted senior level sources at Nine saying his position was untenable and he wouldn't be back at the helm of Today next year.
Nine's chief executive Hugh Marks denied the claims and said the network was standing behind Stefanovic.
However he conceded 2018 had been a "tough and challenging year for Karl and Today".
"No doubt the constant publicity surrounding issues with 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," Marks told The Australian.
Brand strategist Sue Currie from Shine Academy said the damage hadn't just been inflicted on Stefanovic, but also on Today.
But Nine can't just dump him, given he's on contract until the end of 2020, and tearing that up would look like a reaction to media pressure and seen internally as a sign of weakness.
"My thoughts on attempting to fix both brands would be to give Karl a new job - a journalism-focused role that results in credibility for him and the (illustration) for Nine that they're backing their star," Currie said.
And the way to save Today would be a total revamp - including a new host, she said.
Lightfoot said stepping back and taking break from the limelight could be one of the few options left for Stefanovic.
"I don't think he'll be the type of person who'll let this define him. He has what it takes to rise up again," she said.
"I would be advising him to step away from the pressures and the emotional debris from the bombs that have gone off.
"He will refresh himself, reboot and breathe again. I think Karl is resilient enough to bounce back. Perhaps that means stepping away and taking a break. We'll see. Watch this space."