Comment

Gower shows Mediaworks how to smoke its rivals

Mediaworks journalist Patrick Gower’s documentary on cannabis gave Three its highest ratings of the year and showed that a different style of programming could turn a profit for the TV networks

Three’s two-part documentary Patrick Gower: On Weed has been quietly embarrassing for the network. Not because Gower contrived to smoke “dope” in front of the cameras or because it lacked investigative rigour as some critics have suggested. 

No, it was embarrassing because it turned out to be more successful than all of the high-profile and high-cost programmes Three’s been screening lately.

Mediaworks has poured millions into productions like Dancing with the Stars, The Block and Married at First Sight but none of them have rated as well as Patrick Gower: On Weed

Over the two nights, nearly 800,000 people tuned in and downloads from Three’s on-demand platform are heading toward 140,000. 

More important for the network and advertisers are the viewing figures for 25 to 54-year-olds (see table below). This is where the money is made - or lost.

PG:OW was 16 percent higher than the next most popular programme on Three – the Australian version of Married at First Sight.

Average Audience (25-54) in 2019:

Patrick Gower: On Weed 206,797

Married at First Sight (Australia): 177,931

The Block NZ: Firehouse: 160,645

Dancing with the Stars: 149,311

A programme’s performance is also measured by its share of the total audience watching television at that time.

Gower’s documentary averaged a 40 percent share, blitzing the shows on competing channels. It would be hard to recall when Three or TVNZ last achieved a share figure as high as this in a similar timeslot.

Average Share Percentage (25-54) in 2019

Patrick Gower: On Weed: 40 percent

Married at First Sight (Australia): 32.3 percent

The Block NZ: Firehouse: 27.4 percent

Dancing with the Stars: 25.6 percent

The cost of making and marketing the big reality shows has been a problem for Mediaworks as it struggles to get its TV operations out of the red. The margin it makes on productions like Dancing with the Stars is negligible, if it is anything at all.

These shows do keep the channel’s audience share up and a network’s overall share is important, but in a soft television advertising market the strategy has not been a financial winner.

Gower’s documentary on dope was mostly paid for by the taxpayer. NZ On Air gave Ruckus, the production house that made the two 44-minute episodes, $287,000.

Mediaworks would have paid a licence fee but if the advertising space in the two programmes was sold out, as it should’ve been, then the company would have made a decent profit.

The person who came up with the idea for the documentary, Andrew Szusterman, quit Three before it was screened. If he were still there, as head of programming, he would be thinking hard about trying to replicate Gower’s success.

In the last 10 years, documentaries and long-form current affairs have almost disappeared entirely from the programme schedules of the free-to-air channels (except for Māori TV). The reason is simple: they haven’t rated well enough in prime-time slots.

Three did have a very successful documentary series in the late 90s called Inside New Zealand but it eventually went off the boil. The only 'serious' current affairs left in primetime is Sunday on TVNZ 1.  Networks around the world have been trying to reinvent the genre for years without much success.

Ganja yoga in LA. Photo: Supplied/Mediaworks 

Patrick Gower: On Weed resonated with audiences for a number of reasons. Weed - medicinal and/or recreational use - interests Kiwis of all ages and social demographics.

It was newsworthy given next year’s referendum and, to a degree, filled some of the information vacuum on what the vote means.

Thirdly, Gower and director Justin Hawkes made a very watchable and engaging piece of television. The entertainment value was pretty 'high'. Now that Paul Henry, John Campbell and Hilary Barry have left and Jono and Ben no longer have a show, Gower is the really the only “star” on the rise at Three.  

In the documentary, there is a scene where Gower and his father are discussing whether cannabis could have relieved the pain his mother suffered prior to her death from cancer.

Both men break down in tears; it is an emotional and touching moment in the first episode.

The rawness of it sidelines any suggestions of cynical producer intent but Gower has an innate understanding of how giving of himself makes him highly relatable, especially to younger audiences.

This year, Gower has opened up on how he survived being bullied at school, the destructive stress of being a political editor for Newshub and how covering the story of a 3-year-old boy killed in the March 15 mosque attack had “broken him”.

These personal reflections have been picked up by Mediaworks’ own radio stations and other media outlets like Stuff. 

In much the same way John Campbell became the television journalist of his generation, Gower is assuming the mantle for a younger, progressive audience across both television and social media channels.

As his political equivalent, Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick put it, when she reviewed his documentary for The Spinoff, Gower has a “colloquial finesse” and an “easy ability to communicate with the New Zealand public”.

He also knows how to promote himself. The amount of free publicity Gower drummed up for Patrick Gower: On Weed was eye-watering. Mediaworks had a one-man publicity machine that saved them tens of thousands in marketing dollars.

Is this a model for the future? Public-funded documentaries driven by high-profile journalists, placed in primetime by the networks and pushed across all social media platforms?

There are plenty of big issues confronting New Zealand, the problem will be finding enough Patrick Gowers to explore them.

Gower at a cannabis store in LA. Photo: Supplied/Mediaworks 

Quick Q & A with Patrick Gower

How did you get the idea for the documentary?

It was Andrew Szusterman (Three’s head of programming). He stopped me in the TV3 carpark and asked me if I wanted to do it. Paul Henry had just turned it down.

Did you go into it thinking Marijuana should be legalised?

I didn’t care either way.

What do you think now?

I think there is definitely a place for medicinal marijuana.

Recreational?

I realise now (after doing the documentary) that is a bigger call than I thought. From what I have seen though, everywhere it goes medicinal it goes recreational. There is this inevitable creep. I think people want there to be a good debate on this.

Do you think we are going to have a good debate?

There is no one really leading the pro side of the argument. We are one year out (from the referendum), where is the working group? We need more information out there.

We also need to think about what happens if there is a 'no' vote. It’s not like weed is not here. It is already everywhere.

What thoughts did you form about the cannabis plant?

I gained a respect for the plant. It is an amazing plant to look at and film. People involved with this plant have a lot of passion and energy, and believe in it.

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