With TV3’s drive to find a new 7pm weeknight rating-killer, Joe Nunweek looks back at their mid-90s effort, a venture so amazing and bold that it was discussed in Parliament.
If the doomsayers are right – and Campbell Live is not long for this earth – it won’t be the end of an era so much as a new chapter in TV3’s bitter stoush for post-news dominance. Bitter, because it’s always been an unabated hiding – Campbell Live’s virtues conceal that the show only won the post-news ratings war during brief, rare moments of weakness (chiefly the fascinating, wretched and addictive first weeks of Seven Sharp) and lagged the rest of the time.
As a private player in a newly deregulated broadcast market, TV3 had to fight the might of Holmes, the unprecedented success of Shortland Street, and generation-deep viewing habits. The last of these was, and still is, the hardest to shake – legions of free-to-air viewers who never switched over to watch “the other 6pm news” in 1989, and never will.
Stumbling from receivership to reinvestment, the channel ran on the smell of an oily rag in the ’90s. Investments like the $1.26 million sunk into 44 episodes of Melody Rules – the notorious Titanic of Sunday-night sitcoms – proved disastrous. The post-news slot simply made do. In 1990, TV3 were screening overseas versions of Family Feud.
The ante was finally upped in 1995, when TV One caught up on TV3’s hour-long news format and shifted Holmes, in his imperial phase, to 7pm. What happened next is kind of a personal history: one boy’s story.
My first hint that TV3 was preparing for something absolutely momentous came during my Saturday morning routine of watching Garfield & Friends (a surprisingly good show with lots of meta humour, which Jim Davis had precisely zero to do with). Every ad break would run a different, frightening clip of an adult man in hysterics on the couch, shrieking and weeping with laughter and occasionally burying his head in a cushion in a desperate effort to regain some dignity and self-control.
The caption underneath was enigmatic and fascinating: “SOMETHING VERY FUNNY IS COMING TO 7PM”.
And I was bloody excited. I was too young for Holmes or Shortland Street but I liked cartoons and I definitely liked funny things. Sophisticated pre-launch marketing had finally come to New Zealand, and it looked like the target market was a special little guy sitting in his Bart boxers in Mt Albert.
The week finally came, and John Hawkesby wrapped up a seemingly-interminable hour of current affairs. I was on the edge of my seat, and here is what I saw:
Faced with a no-win situation, and certain defeat by both ends of the market, TV3 had pulled out a valiant rear-guard action. Their trump card would be the classic CBS Nazi POW camp sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, a comedy which aired its last first-run episode in 1971 and (most amazingly) had already been screening as a repeat on TV3 in the afternoons.
Not for the last time, I had believed the hype. With my parents’ blessing, I changed the channel to Shortland Street, where I cultivated a love of its first great epoch – just in time for what’s still its best Christmas cliffhanger (truck somehow crashes into the entire damn hospital).
It’s easier to cut your losses and bounce back from a shock when you’re young. People older and wiser than me could not. That same month, a very mad Jim Anderton would raise the issue in an amazing exchange in New Zealand’s Parliament, tabling the faded exploits of Colonel Klink as final proof of a broadcasting system that was broken beyond belief, and even a matter for the courts (I think?):
Jim Anderton (MP for Sydenham): If the buyer is, say, CanWest and TV3, we will end up with Hogan’s Heroes on in prime time. The contempt that TV3 has for New Zealand is such that at 7 o’clock – prime time – it puts on Hogan’s Heroes. That is what the Canadians think about New Zealand television. If they tried it in Canada they would be laughed out of court. But, no, they put it on here.
Hon. John Luxton (MP for Matamata): I like it.
Jim Anderton: The Minister of Police likes Hogan’s Heroes. It is his favourite programme, and he has watched it for the last 20 years. That is why he is no longer Minister of Energy; he could not think up a programme for energy, because he was watching Hogan’s Heroes. Now we have all sorts of messes, with people like that.
Even John Luxton’s dedicated viewing habits could not save Hogan’s Heroes repeats forever. In a time before Twitter and Change.org petitions, civil society were unable to come together stop TV3 making a commercial decision to close Stalag Luft 13 once and for all. Years of Home Improvement followed, before TV3 won the rights to screen endless Simpsons repeats. Finally, in 2005, we got a new hero of our very own.
My anger has long-since dimmed, I no longer blame a television channel and its over-eager promo department for letting me down 20 years ago. And in many ways, the Hogan’s Heroes saga offers a new lens for us to see MediaWorks’ actions in the past week. It’s easy for us to imagine the CEOs and directors of these companies as cruel, cynical Machiavellis – weathering the outrage now and crying crocodile tears before they bin Campbell Live. In fact, history reminds us that decisions around TV are continuously made in a state of floundering, stupid, and deeply human panic that we can all relate to.
In other words, somewhere in MediaWorks’ Auckland office, a whiteboard says “TRADE CAMPBELL FOR ALF?!” and “PAY GUY WILLIAMS TO LAUGH IN AD”.