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2014 in Review: The Year NZ TV ‘Did a Jesus’ and Came Back From The Dead

Duncan Greive looks back over a momentous year for the local television industry and catalogues its highs and lows via the timeless medium of a Births, Deaths and Marriages column.

2013 ended with New Zealand’s television in some kind of catatonic state. MediaWorks was limping out of receivership (again), TVNZ had just drowned another of its babies (TVNZ U) in the bathtub and Sky looked old, flabby and a little confused. Local production was knackered, and there seemed little prospect of fresh money or ideas entering the sector.

You could have been forgiven for thinking that we were going to just let the thing wither and die while we waited for Netflix to come along. To let TV be something we used to do here, like car manufacturing or berm mowing.

Instead 2014 will likely be looked back on as the industry’s most climactic year since either deregulation or the arrival of Sky (pick one). Big public companies poured resource and cash into the sector, multiple new channels launched, the biggest local production house fetched a cool billion and the biggest private sector channel is back with a vengeance.

With that in mind we thought we’d break down this mad year into Births, Deaths and Marriages – distilling the year’s key industry storylines into neat, borderline offensive categories.

BIRTHS

Mediaworks: A rebirth, and a shocking one. As our report detailed at the time, the parent company of TV3 and FOUR not only emerged from receivership but came back with a vision, energy and insane volume of reality TV. The debt-for-equity swap which rescued the company saw former NZX boss Mark Weldon installed as CEO in August, and an immediate sense of purpose back at Flower Street. They’re putting Paul Henry across almost all platforms almost all the time, launching an early-evening soap and generally behaving like television is the biggest, weirdest and most powerful media form in the world. It’s good to have that feeling back.

Mike Hosking’s Seven Sharp: After a year serving as a punchline which got so worn out that you felt like the whole nation was bullying the poor show, TVNZ finally relented and gave us what we (apparently) wanted. Hosking strutted in, took a look around, kicked out any competing male talent and made himself at home. It’s not nice television, but it has figured out its tone, and the comedic value of Hosking’s self-parodying sermons is second only to Jeremy Wells’ tributes to them. It doesn’t change the fact that Hosking’s a mean, pompous ass, but it’s hard to deny that he was born for this role.

The Paul Henry Show: Henry should have come back from Australia thoroughly chastened after a very singular failure to catch fire there. Instead he seemed emboldened by the disaster, amplifying his core traits to deafening volume. The PHS looked like a recipe for cheap, offensive chaos on paper, and often did on screen, too. But it was also never less than entertaining, thanks to producers who put smart, challenging voices alongside him both on staff (Rebecca Wright) and on the various panels. Even its bungled live crosses were car-crash fascinating, and while it never rated high enough to justify the hype, it certainly raised expectations for his forthcoming multi-platform breakfast monster coming next year.

The Edge TV: From the ‘bung a camera in the studio’ school of channel creation, The Edge TV makes The Shopping Channel look like HBO, but mostly gets away with it, thanks to the enduring appeal of music videos and deft editing of the station’s key dumb fun moments.

The Zone: After years of ignoring the clamour for a true sci-fi TV channel, Sky launched The Zone with a killer campaign and better lineup in November. It was indicative of a change of mood and stance within Sky, traceable (perhaps) to the arrival of Coliseum last year. They bought in great new sport product, like surfing and ESPN2, expanded Sky Go, announced streaming service Neon (though it looks increasingly like it’ll miss its December launch) and continued to pour resource into the consistently excellent SoHo. The Zone was the year’s crowning achievement, though – a great idea, brilliantly executed.

Lightbox: We have to declare an big honking conflict here – Lightbox are The Spinoff’s key sponsor and general best bud. But we sought them out in the first place because we loved the idea of a New Zealand-owned and operated online TV startup. We loved that it was all about TV – because that’s where the action has been over the last 10 years (sorry movies! You know it’s true). And we loved the lineup they put together for launch, and the way it’s grown. Lightbox has delivered a huge array of killer shows from past and present, and acquisitions like Outlander, the forthcoming Better Call Saul and Coliseum (see Marriages below) show the scale of their ambition.

DEATHS (And retirements/resignations)

Sommet Sports: Launching last year around the same time as Coliseum, Sommet Sports had a very different model – free-to-air via Freeview, with big plans for new advertising models and disrupting Sky’s then-quasi monopoly. It all came to a sad end late last week, with screens going blank amid rumours the channel owed nearly $2m to satellite operator Kordia. It wasn’t to be, but for over a year they brought AFL and a bunch of other fun, weird sports to our screens, and they will be missed for that reason alone.

TVNZ’s Maori and Pacific Unit: TVNZ under Kevin Kenrick has mostly been a cautious animal – seemingly content to defend its ratings-monster position, rather than try anything too radical. But while there were signs toward the end of 2014 that might be shifting – notably a strong local lineup to set against TV3’s reality bonanza – their big move was to cut longstanding ties to Maori and Pacific broadcasting through their internal production units. Shane Taurima’s indiscretions perhaps gave them an opening, but this seemed an extreme reaction. There’s a sense of loss for the corporation, of stripping back a key part of what once made it different from the competition. From a public service perspective – and this where the move might be viewed as strategic – with the loss goes a key argument for maintaining government ownership at all.

Maori TV’s Carol Hirschfeld Era: Coincidentally or not, Carol Hirschfeld’s migration from Campbell Live to Maori TV in 2009 accompanied a strong period for the broadcaster, during which it expanded its audience and scope without losing sight of its core remit. But a restructure destabilised the whole organisation – head of news Julian Wilcox left not long after – and Hirschfeld, once tipped as a future leader of the organisation, fled to Radio New Zealand. That was a very interesting piece of personnel acquisition – because while RNZ maintains it’s not interested in TV, is it too crazy to imagine a future a few years down the track where RNZ is a low budget public service TV channel and TVNZ is in private hands?

One’s Jim Hickey Era: The greatest – maybe the first? who can remember back that far – damn weatherman these lil islands have ever known hung up his brolly this year. Our own Alex Casey wrote a touching, clip-soaked tribute, and we were forced to contemplate a humid, overcast Hickey-less future.

The Paul Henry Show: Isn’t the Paul Henry Show too young to die? Probably – but it also seemed too crazy to live, and in some ways its brief, flaming run will make it grow rose-tinted in our memories – a collective national fever dream, soundtracked by Henry’s endless barking guffaw.

MARRIAGES:

Lightbox and Coliseum: Isn’t Lightbox too young to be getting married? Probably – but this is the internet era, kids grow up shockingly fast. It was less than 24 hours ago that this union – a joint venture to be known as Lightbox Sports – was made public, and so information is fairly thin on the ground. But it unavoidably suggests that Spark are doubling down on Internet TV, and planning on going toe to toe with Sky. The near-simultaneous announcement that Dan Carter was signing with French rugby competition Top 14 immediately made Coliseum’s acquisition of that rugby property look prescient, and bodes well for an enthralling game of media war between two rich, well-resourced New Zealand giants.

South Pacific Pictures and All3Media: Less a marriage than a digestive process, All3Media completed its acquisition of South Pacific Pictures for a jaw-dropping ten figure sum. Some grumbled about this vast figure being allocated to a production house which has consumed so much public money over the years, but it’s impossible to deny the sheer volume and quality of what SPP has produced. I personally would pay $2 billion for Shortland Street alone – so the Brits look like they got a bargain.

Anything we missed? Tell us in the comments or shoot us a tweet – if we consider it egregious enough we’ll try and update the post next week.

 

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