Week in Review

Putting news back into sport

In these times of falling revenue and audience fragmentation, few TV networks are prepared to risk launching new daily programmes. This week, Sky TV took another step down its transformational path and debuted a channel devoted entirely to sports news. Mark Jennings reports. 

COMMENT: For the last decade Sky has dominated live sport in New Zealand. Until this year, it has held a vice-like grip on the rights to cover the country’s major sports matches. Other media have been pushed to the sidelines. 

Strangely, given its power and unique ability to reach large numbers of local sports fans, Sky has never attempted to set the editorial agenda. Its one attempt at sports news – Sport 365 – was seriously underwhelming.

The breaking stories, the scandals, the selection dramas and social media interaction that fuel the endless conversations around sport have been left to journalists working elsewhere. 

Ian Smith, Tony Johnson, Justin Marshall and other Sky commentators are among sport's best analysts, but Sky subscribers don’t get to hear their insights unless they are watching live coverage or in the case of Johnson, a once-a-week review show.

Sky brings us all the action but leaves the opinion-making to the likes of Radio Sport’s Martin Devlin, NZ Herald’s Chris Rattue, Stuff’s Mark Reason and Newsroom’s Steve Deane. 

It is the same for women’s sport. Stuff’s Dana Johannsen, Newsroom’s Suzanne McFadden and RNZ’s Ravinder Hunia shape the conversations, albeit more subtly.

This has never sat easily with Sky’s director of sport and broadcast Tex Teixeira. “We are the only sports network in the world that doesn’t have a sports news. Having worked for Super Sport (South African TV network) I know that sport news is about much more than just the news because it is the start of the editorial thread that helps all of your content.”

Sky’s change of CEO six months ago gave Teixeira an opening. “When Martin Stewart walked through the door it was the first thing I thought of. I pitched [sports news] to him in week one.”

Teixiera got the go-ahead from Stewart, a former BSkyB executive, four months ago and the first programme went to air on Monday at 7am.

Sky hired Newshub journalist Craig Norenbergs to set up and produce the two local news shows that feature Monday to Friday on Sky channel 50 – a new 24/7 sports news channel.

Norenbergs is a well-travelled Australian who has worked for big pay TV operators like Fox Sport and Sky Sport UK. He is also the only sports journalist in the country who wears a three-piece suit and tie to work.

Known for his friendly, affable nature, Norenbergs is full of energy and excitement about his plans for the two shows he is putting to air, 7am to 8 am and 12 to 12.30pm.

More than Mark Richardson

“I am up at 2am, I’m in here at 3am and looking at the live sport that is happening [in other parts of the world] because this is breaking news. The audience want to see the highlights when they get up ... AM (Three’s morning show) will have 90 seconds with Mark [Richardson] talking over the top of it, we can do a lot more.”

The programmes will also go out live on Sky’s free-to-air station, Prime.

Sky’s decision to launch a few weeks out from the Rugby World Cup might be coincidental but it makes sense. Rugby fans hungry for news and views out of Japan are likely to sample the early morning programme.

A good performance during the RWC could be the making of the show, a poor one will break it.

Much of the weight will sit on the shoulders of four people. Co-hosts Goran Paladin and Kate King, plus former All Blacks Cory Jane and Israel Dagg, who will be regular contributors on Mondays and Fridays.

Paladin was an underrated talent when he was at producing and presenting at Radio Sport. He looks at home in front of the camera and his engaging style suits the nature of early morning television.

Jane and Dagg will feature as rugby experts. Their jocularity is clearly part of the attraction but Teixiera wants it to be used judiciously.

“We don’t want these guys go take the piss out of everything because that’s not going to work, it’s not good for their brands long term. 

A big 'if'

If Dagg and Jane (who is part of the coaching group at Wellington Lions) are able to blend humour with real insight, in the same way many former Australian sporting stars do for Fox Sport, then they will be a real drawcard. But it is probably a big “if”.

Between the morning and midday programmes, Sky will take live feeds from its international partners. There will be a two-hour block from Fox Sport in Australia followed by two hours from Sky Sport UK.

Teixeira says Sky has never really leveraged its connections with the big overseas players.

“We have quite extensive networks globally whether it is Fox Sport, Super Sport, Sky Sport UK or ESPN. We have relationships with these guys and when news happens we will start linking up with these guys, we can just get on the blower to our mates and say can you do a two-way (interview) or feed us something.”

“Now with the new leadership we are becoming a content engine ... sports news, sports documentaries, better shows ... I think finally we are going to become a true sports content hub.”

Norenbergs says the flagship early morning show will be “revolutionary” as it will use the whole studio, but in reality, it looks similar to the morning news programmes on TVNZ and Three.

Former intern Sam Harris presents weather (as it relates to sports events) at a screen in the studio and there’s a couch for Paladin and King to conduct interviews in a more relaxed style.

With a probable cost of close to a million dollars a year the pressure will be on Teixeira, Norenbergs and Sky’s head of production Brian Hitchcock to deliver an audience.

It won’t be easy to draw people away from well-established programmes like AM on Three, Breakfast on TVNZ and Radio Sport.

Will Nisbo, Smithy and Marshy front?

Much will depend on how successful Hitchcock is in extending the contracts of commentators to include making themselves available for the sports news programmes - especially at 7am.

Hitchcock says he will “be making a few of those phone calls myself” but thinks that once the show is humming, he won’t have to twist any arms.

“You’re talking Nisbo (Grant Nesbitt) Smithy (Ian Smith), Marshy (Justin Marshall) and what do they think? We now have an avenue for that, we can cross to Smithy in Napier, no one has to leave home.”

As if to prove a point the first show on Monday crossed to former Black Cap Craig (Macca) McMillan at home in Christchurch to get his thoughts on New Zealand’s dramatic win over Sri Lanka in a just-finished T20 match. It worked well.

Of course, it’s not all about ratings. The new channel is partly about Sky living up to its claim of being “The Home of Sport” and it is a handy marketing tool to promote the next game, the next race or the next fight.

With Stewart at the helm Sky has been turning around its image. Many of the company’s products are now better value for money and there has been a lot more sport on Prime.

The sports news is another “value add” for customers but Teixeira is still feeling the battle scars of the last few years and expects the new channel to bring out all the old critics.

“We know we are going to get slammed, we are going to get nailed for every little thing, every spelling mistake ... We are saying to ourselves we will have to get comfortable with that [criticism] because we are going to stay with this one ... We believe what we are doing is for the greater good of customers and Kiwis.”

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