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Weird: The Paul Henry show is actually great

A year ago today, New Zealand’s most idiosyncratic broadcaster returned to our televisions (and airwaves) with his self-titled show. Tim Murphy explains how he became a reluctant fan.

I didn’t expect to like the Paul Henry show.  

I didn’t much like the idea of Paul Henry. Not just because of the Dikshit puerility and Governor-General offence. Just in general. And because the morning radio host I enjoyed most, Marcus Lush, had been pushed aside to make way for a Big Swinging Dick of New Zealand media.

I don’t think we’ve ever met. I remember him as a kind-of foreign correspondent for Radio Live or its precursor Radio Pacific, as a National Party candidate and then more lately on those infamous trans-Tasman morning and late night TV shows.

Paul Henry, 2007 (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Paul Henry, 2007 (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The fact he had once, in some word-association exercise, replied to the prompt “Herald” by saying “arseholes” had absolutely nothing to do with my wariness and weariness at his big MediaWorks gig when it launched a year ago.

Everyone can have their blind spots. Henry was one of mine. All kinds of smart people who I respect rated him and they were, of course, right.

So I listened from April last year because of habit – it had long been Morning Report or Radio Live in the morning – and because of Hilary Barry. When I watched, the million dollar studio, sports presenter Jim Kayes, a “social media bunker”, a free range studio of moving people and parts, and plenty of contemporary music gave the show real points of difference.  

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There were those 1950s microphones. And people sitting around a table rather than in contrived comfort on sofas. Who sits on sofas in the mornings to share breakfast and chat?

Most of all there was the host. On air, online, on point. Henry started well and got better. He knows stuff. He doesn’t just scan the net and talk fast, as can happen elsewhere. Is he a swot or a sponge? I don’t know. But when the going gets serious, he can go there.

In the past month or so, two stories stand out: the focus on the fate of terminally ill melanoma patients and the Keytruda drug, and on Fonterra’s late-paying of its suppliers. Henry’s take-no-prisoners interview with the Fonterra chief financial officer was agenda-setting beyond the breakfast show template.

It is a big show to pull off – three hours on three platforms Monday to Friday. By contrast John Campbell’s fine Checkpoint team is assembling one and a half non-commercial hours daily in its attempt at radio with pictures. So there have to be fixed points, regular devices and guest slots that mark out the hours.

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But Paul Henry manages not to appear same-ish. Even the daily panels, ubiquitous in broadcast media, have real character and people who prick the great man’s aura. The segments contain a weird mix of Henry self-praise, self-effacement, and mocking or applauding of panellists.

Henry is transparent about his political tinge. How could you not be?  So in discussing Kiwibank on Monday he offered: “We understand why you can’t fix interest rates. The Greens and Labour don’t.”

Or to Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse on new health and safety rules, allegedly making schools nervous about kids using playgrounds: “Michael, good morning. I want to tell you right up front where I stand on this. I’m on your side. But my support is paper thin and it depends very, very much on how you answer these following questions. Are we clear? The pressure is on…”

The news menu can stretch to what looks dull on the surface: A mineral exploration conference; this week’s charity or do-gooder cause. Yet Henry’s agility and pace can get something out of nothing.

Surprisingly, he’s less dexterous with some of the lightweight material. While he’s great on devices like lists, countdowns and the daily 9-in-10 Q & A competitions which break up the menu, he’s a fish out of water on sports. And a bit busy to watch things? He had a Game of Thrones star on and tried to make a virtue of never having seen the blockbuster show. I’m not sure how that went for him, really, but he did enjoy the admission from Alfie Allen that his Theon Greyjoy character’s “only point of authority was in the bedroom”.


There’s still lots of puerility. A list of unfortunate names: “Richard Head – what were the parents thinking?”, “Wayne King”… and this week the silliness that made the Herald about Hilary’s breasts and Henry’s determination to get his observations off his chest. (He highlighted the whole brouhaha on Tuesday’s show, sneering at the “shabby little tabloid” which ran the story).

For much of the time, like a dog fitted with one of those electric shock collars that make them look away when they see a cat, Henry seems to veer away from real offence. But wait long enough and his instincts will prevail, despite the pain.

Hilary Barry, unplugged, is still the best newsreader around. She lifted Marcus and she lifts Paul, too. Jim Kayes, the check-shirted jock to Henry’s viognier-drinking celebrity, is a bonus. Wry, real.

All of which is good. But the high-paid superstar is still reaching an audience well behind his TV and radio rivals. And it IS still “commercial” broadcasting.  

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Over on TV One, the well-resourced Breakfast show is a slick, if conventional, morning powerhouse.  

Even if he were to catch it, shouldn’t Henry be fighting in a heavier weight division, like 7pm? Maybe not. Radio is where the money is for MediaWorks and success there in the morning has existential benefits.

I’ve always been sceptical of those age bands broadcasters hold up as successes when total audiences can’t match their rivals. It’s like newspapers talking combined digital and print audiences when the papers’ readerships ebb away.

However, the TV ratings reveal Paul Henry is gaining traction in its MediaWorks’-targetted 25 to 54 demographic. One day in February it beat TV One’s Breakfast in that group – the first time ever! – and it has narrowed the gap sporadically and progressively since late last year.

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In the past month, a random selection of 7am to 8am slots have Paul Henry around a rating of 1.7 to 2.2 to Breakfast’s 2.2 to 2.9 in Nielsen’s ratings. That compares with May last year, a month in, when Paul Henry had 0.7 to Breakfast’s 2.something. The audiences aren’t huge, probably between 35,000 and 50,000. Henry nudges ahead a few times after 8am. On Monday April 4, between 7 and 8am, Henry recorded an audience of 3.0 to Breakfast‘s 3.1, with just 2000 viewers in it.

In radio, while the Ghost-of-Paul-Holmes-Show that is Hosking on ZB still monsters the field, Paul Henry edged up in Auckland and came from nowhere to a nearly 8 point share in Wellington in the last survey.

In a way, too much success might spoil this underdog. Part of its appeal is in its urgency and nothing-to-lose ambition. Henry is no doubt a small doses kind of guy. He keeps foretelling his own demise. “At some point, after I retire, which will not be that long’, he said the other week. And, this week, on the prospect of running to get fit: ‘Twelve weeks! It’s probably longer than I have left on the planet.”

I’ve been boring fellow media people for months with my theory that the three best new things to happen to New Zealand media in the past year have been: this site, The Spinoff*; the reinvigoration of Radio New Zealand; and Paul Henry.  

I didn’t want to like Henry’s show but – with its mix of the intelligent, the daring and the lols – it gets you.

Give it a go. Just keep Morning Report and your TV remote at hand if you need a bit of orthodoxy and a bit less of the tits and dicks.

*The Spinoff would like to clarify that it did not order ‘Tim Murphy’ to write this. His statement that ‘The Spinoff is good’ is his own view, and in no way reflects the position of The Spinoff.

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