TV news teams look for a hangover cure

Broadcasters head into Christmas with a variety of headaches – some big, some small. Next year is crucial for TVNZ, MediaWorks and RNZ, Newsroom co-editor Mark Jennings writes.

Elections are good for ratings and the country’s broadcasters celebrated when the political parties produced a cracker of a campaign this year. 

Jacinda Ardern brought Bill English to life and the coverage engaged audiences in a way that hasn’t been seen for nearly a decade. The usually dull debates had a new dynamic – we learnt stuff about the leaders’ personalities and policies.

But good times can produce a hangover and the networks are nursing one through to the end of 2017.

Covering an election is financially draining and the increased audiences have melted away. It is as if people binge-watched or listened and then had immediate fatigue the minute it was over.

The broadcasters, and their tired staff, were left wondering how they could regain those pre-election highs.

The year is whimpering out and the big guys are now facing some big challenges in their news and current affairs divisions. TVNZ, MediaWorks and RNZ have different dramas to deal with, but 2018 will be a crucial year for all of them.

Job applications, by the bottle

TVNZ's head of news, John Gillespie, will get more than a few bottles of pinot from wannabe presenters looking to figure in his thinking as he mulls how to replace Mike Hosking and Toni Street on Seven Sharp.

It won’t be a relaxing Christmas for Gillespie. Presenter changes, especially when the departed are well-known and, in Street’s case, much-liked, make programmes vulnerable. Disruption gives viewers a reason to leave or sample the opposition. Get it wrong (like TVNZ did with Jesse Mulligan at the beginning) and it’s a long, hard road to ratings recovery.

Hosking and Street will be hard to replace. As a combo, they worked. Hosking is the most polarising host in the country, but he saved Seven Sharp from oblivion.

Street showed her class at the recent TV Awards, at which she won the “personality of the year” – the only category voted on by the public. Her speech, on a night of many good speeches, stood out as gracious, funny and perfectly pitched.

Her rumoured replacement, breakfast host Hilary Barry, was also a finalist for TV Awards’ personality of the year. However, Barry’s profile has shrunk from the heights conferred on her by Paul Henry’s morning show and the 6pm anchor role at TV3.

TVNZ and Barry both know that she needs the prominence of a prime-time role – but which male will get the rose handed to him?

It would have been marvellous, but...

Despite some commentators’ predictions it won’t be John Campbell. Campbell would love to replicate the sort of involvement he had at TV3 – television is in his blood – but TVNZ is never going to allow two ex-TV3ers to get behind the wheel of its primetime vehicle.

It is also doubtful whether TVNZ would have the appetite for Campbell’s social campaigning style that he and producer Pip Keane have carried from Campbell Live into RNZ’s Checkpoint. Campbell must also feel a strong sense of loyalty to RNZ and that might prevent him from moving anywhere else in the short term.

Jack Tame is one of the few talents TVNZ has nurtured and retained in recent years. He is destined for a major role, sooner or later. He and Barry get on well and they would be a safe choice, with Tame supplying plenty of potential upside for future years.

The problem with taking Tame out of breakfast is the domino effect it creates. TVNZ would have to start from scratch again on a programme that, if the ratings were to drop further, will start losing money. That is, if it isn’t already.

The early morning time slot is a problem for the local TV networks. No one has worked out why New Zealanders don’t behave like audiences in the US and Australia, where breakfast programmes have always rated well.

MediaWorks has not really recovered from Paul Henry’s departure. Duncan Garner, Amanda Gillies and Mark Richardson have worked hard and the AM Show has plenty of good moments. Yet it doesn’t seem likely it to ever hit the highs (on-air and in the ratings) of Henry. If it wasn’t for the shared cost base with Radio Live it probably wouldn’t survive.

Hal Crawford’s best option would be to “nuke” Radio Live and start again.

MediaWorks has two big problems and a smaller one. The first doesn’t relate to news but it sure affects it.

TV3 is back in the familiar place of trying to find a sustainable lead-in programme for its 6pm news bulletin. The 5.30pm slot has been a pain-point for Three since it made a bad bungle a few years back and lost Aussie soap Home and Away to TVNZ. 

A local version of Australian quiz show Family Feud hasn’t rated well enough and was canned last month. Its replacement, the Aussie version, has been a complete disaster and hardly registered on the ratings scoreboard. This dramatic drop will be demoralising and dangerous for the network.

Its news bosses will be telling their programming counterparts that if they can’t fix 5.30pm, and find something suitable to take on One’s The Chaser, there’ll be big trouble. Financial trouble, staff-retention trouble and reputational trouble will be just around the corner.

The news team is also under pressure to fix another problem not of its making – the basket case that is Radio Live.

“Live” has been going for 12 years now. It was set up to take on NZME’s cash-cow Newstalk ZB in the lucrative talk-radio market. It hasn’t been a complete failure, but certainly hasn’t been a success.

When MediaWorks’ head of radio, Wendy Palmer, left earlier this year, the problem child was handed to the news department to run. Three’s head of news, Hal Crawford, will want to rebrand the station Newshub Radio in 2018, but he knows a name change won’t fix the problem.

Crawford’s best option would be to “nuke” Live and start again. But he and MediaWorks CEO Michael Anderson will be reluctant to press the red button. Their appetite for carnage will be tempered by the ghost of Mark Weldon. The decisions of the former CEO still haunt Flower St.

Life after Paddy

Crawford has another smaller problem, but a problem nevertheless. He needs to find a replacement for political editor Paddy Gower, who has decided step down and take a less intense reporting role.

Not many bottles of pinot will pop up on Crawford’s desk from would-be candidates. This is a tough, tough job and taking over from the highly charismatic Gower is going to require a special resilience. Not many hands will go up for this one.

The wildcard in 2018 – for both networks – is going to be RNZ Plus. It has been a great year for RNZ but its ratings dipped in the latest survey and next year its move into television will be highly scrutinised by the public and its commercial rivals.

The new RNZ TV channel will have a natural focus on news and current affairs. And if it takes even the smallest audience away from TVNZ and Three, it will compound the problems facing the commercial broadcasters.

RNZ has some experienced TV people in its ranks – Campbell, Keane, Carol Hirschfeld, Guyon Espiner and Tim Watkin. But it will need some innovative thinking to develop a TV channel that isn’t just putting cameras into its radio studios.

It has done this already with Checkpoint and, despite Campbell’s skill, it doesn’t work on the level required to draw viewers from One and Three.

TV people will tell you that the extra $30 million RNZ is getting from the Government isn’t enough. But as Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran points out, it’s still a lot of money. She will want RNZ to get on with it and make it successful.

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