by Debbie Schipp
IN the end, Lisa Wilkinson and her long-time agent Nick Fordham decided on principle, and on paper, staying with Today wasn't worth it.
Talks to renew her contract with Nine and the Today show had stalled.
And after a decade of pay disparity with her co-host, Karl Stefanovic, Wilkinson and Fordham - one of Australia's most powerful talent managers - orchestrated the mic drop to end all mic drops.
It's understood Channel 9 on Monday indicated it wouldn't play ball. But nor did it think she'd walk then and there.
By 8pm, with Channel 10 playing ball, Wilkinson called Channel 9's bluff, and left it scrambling.
Fordham brokered the original deal which saw Wilkinson join Today a decade ago. She has been under The Fordham Company's management for 11 years.
Fordham would not comment on the Wilkinson deal, but is a man with a formidable reputation as an agent.
"He doesn't sit on his hands waiting for the phone to ring," said one industry insider.
"He's proactive, and he's like that for all of his clients. He chases, he works. He doesn't stop."
To understand Wilkinson's departure requires going back at least to February this year, when the TV ratings year was young, and the controversy surrounding the breakdown of Stefanovic's marriage was refusing to go away.
While Stefanovic had moved on publicly with new love Jasmine Yarbrough, it seemed many Today viewers, especially women, had not.
Before news of the split, late last year, Today had had a landmark ratings year, so close to rival and longtime ratings winner Seven's Sunrise that both networks had claimed their breakfast shows had won the year - depending on which sets of ratings figures you looked at.
But when the ratings race resumed in February, Today's ratings were at best sluggish. At worst, they were down tens of thousands.
The fallout from Stefanovic's personal life was talking its toll. Wilkinson reportedly had seen research by Nine indicating she was the strength of the show, which entertainment reporter Peter Ford said meant she and her manager, Fordham, could "really bargain very bravely".
As they chased pay parity, they would also have used this, as well as the fact Channel 9 had accommodated Stefanovic's absences: for summer holidays, to deal with the fallout of his marriage breakdown, fulfil commitments with 60 Minutes and his prime time show, This Time Next Year. Wilkinson was, more than ever, steadying the ship at Today.
Nine may have justified some of Stefanovic's bigger pay packet with his extra duties, but equally, he was given some time off from Today to accommodate them.
Meanwhile, Wilkinson had been getting up at 3am for 10 years, with no offers of her own prime time TV presence. Certainly she now has that with The Project.
Fordham would also have pointed to a 10-year-tenure which had been responsible for the show's resurgence: until Wilkinson came along, no female co-host had 'clicked' with Stefanovic.
THE TRUMP CARD
Entertainment reporter Peter Ford told radio's Kyle and Jackie O Nine didn't realise "she had a plan B".
"Had they known she was going to walk and go somewhere else, and the plan B was ready to go, they might have kept her," Ford said.
For Wilkinson the deal is a coup. Even if it is not the sum she was seeking to be on a par with Stefanovic, she gets dividends in dignity, a place in prime time, and, possibly, if Ten expands further into the digital space, other opportunities to put her editorial skills to work.
The fact it's been brokered with a network in receivership is down to Fordham, a man with a reputation for delivering for all his clients, big and small.
He also gave her the chance to do the ultimate one-two punch: she announced her departure with a single tweet, then delivering the second blow 45 minutes later, announcing she'd joined Channel Ten. Publicly, it put Wilkinson and Fordham on the front foot, while Nine found itself on the back foot, with a PR disaster.
WHO IS NICK FORDHAM?
Fordham, 38, has spent two decades building on the family business started by his parents - father John and mother Veronica - both formidable forces.
Nick joined at the age of 18, in 1997, bought it outright about five years ago, and is CEO.
The Fordham Company has its roots in sports talent and radio - among its earliest clients was radio legend John Laws and former Today show host Steve Liebmann.
Among the high profile list of sport, media and industry identities, is oldest Fordham brother Ben, who needs no introduction as a regular on Today, as well as his afternoon 2GB radio show Sydney Live. Big sister Sarah is an artist. Her works adorn the walls of Nick's office.
But Nick's domain is the company, with a talent roster which includes Wilkinson's husband, Peter Fitzsimons, and the woman who may take Wilkinson's old job, Sylvia Jeffreys.
The company also manages Channel 9 reporter Julie Snook (of "Jacketgate" fame) businessman Mark Bouris, rugby league legend turned Channel 9 commentator Andrew Johns, and former and current sports greats including Wally Lewis, Paul Roos, Adam MacDougall, Nick "The Honey Badger" Cummins, Mark Taylor, Craig Bellamy, Ange Postecoglou, Ian Chappell and Tom Carroll.
In the past five years Fordham has taken the company beyond talent management, expanding into production and content creation.
Fordham's first foray into TV production has seen Outback Wrangler, a series featuring Matt Wright sold into 130 countries and in its third series. Fordham co-created and executive-produces the show.
He owns a health food company, and the TV rights to the NSW Shute Shield rugby competition, which is shown on the Seven network.
A self-confessed "workaholic", he rises early, tries to go to bed early, and when he carves out personal time with family, guards it as ferociously as he negotiates.
His work ethic is built on watching "my old man", he said in a 2015 interview: "being trained by him and watching him do what he does and being a leader of industry and working hard and paying attention to detail. He always gave me the advice of: 'Don't want to make money - want to create money.' I don't stick to the norm, I think outside of the box, and that's what's happened with our company," he told D'Marge.
"It's my personality as well. I'm not the type to sit in a cubicle and tap away at one project. I like to do many things at once."
THE WARNING SHOT?
Was there a warning shot across the bows in mid-September, when Wilkinson popped up in a guest appearance on The Project?
Ostensibly, it was for Wilkinson, a former editor of Cleo magazine, to talk to about the record $4.56 million defamation settlement won by Rebel Wilson against the Bauer Media magazine empire. But to see big network talent on a rival network was unconventional to say the least.
The the same night, Stefanovic was hosting A Current Affair over on Nine.
Wilkinson told The Project team she hadn't yet discussed the defamation verdict with Stefanovic.
"You haven't spoken to him - tension on the Today set?" Waleed Aly joked.
"No no, that's only because he's hosting A Current Affair tonight. So we are having network wars right now," Wilkinson said.
"I've gone for Channel 10."