Former TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick (Photo: supplied. Design: Tina Tiller)
Former TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick (Photo: supplied. Design: Tina Tiller)

MediaMarch 1, 2022

Departing TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick: ‘If I had my time over again, I’d have gone faster’

Former TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick (Photo: supplied. Design: Tina Tiller)
Former TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick (Photo: supplied. Design: Tina Tiller)

The longest-serving CEO of a major NZ media company finished up yesterday. Duncan Greive talks to TVNZ’s Kevin Kenrick on his way out.

When Kevin Kenrick first pops up on a Microsoft Teams screen, I clock the TVNZ newsroom splayed out behind him. It’s the beating heart of the company he’s run for the last decade and home to by far the most popular show on television, 1 News at Six. It’s only after a few minutes I notice that what I’m looking at is oddly static and realise it’s just a backdrop. He’s at home, like many of the rest of us.

Still, the backdrop is fitting – the 6pm news is the first thing he singles out when asked what he’s most proud of about his tenure leading the state broadcaster. He took up the role in April 2012, and news is one of the few elements of TVNZ which has remained a constant for the company throughout a decade of enormous technological and audience change. 1 News’ 6pm bulletin ratings have slipped a little since 2012 – it commanded a 16% share of the 5+ audience in 2012, versus 14.4% in the most recent Nielsen numbers available. But in that time Shortland Street, for so long TVNZ2’s big nightly draw, has seen its linear audience decline by two-thirds, from a 14.4% share to just 4.6%.

This has happened because of the vast splintering of audiences brought on by the proliferation of smartphones and cheap high speed internet. Kenrick, to his credit, came into the job with this on his mind. He arrived from Telecom by way of the travel industry, and spoke about “taking advantage of the new opportunities, like ultra fast broadband, to deliver richer media services to more New Zealanders… delivered to every screen, where and when people want to see it.” This emphasis on the opportunity of digital is obvious now, but a decade ago an enthusiasm for disrupting your own business was far from a given. Sky and MediaWorks were slower off the mark, and continue to pay the price for that reticence today.

Yet ultimately technology is only the delivery driver – what they’re carrying is what matters. “The fundamental point of difference in the industry is always the content,” says Kenrick. On that front TVNZ looks very different to how it did a decade ago, too. Its key presenters were paler on average than they are today, and there was a far more formal and Pākehā-audience centric house style, more “good evening” than “hoki mai ano”.

Out have gone the likes of Mike Hosking and Mark Sainsbury, replaced by younger and looser presenters like Jeremy Wells and Matty McLean. TVNZ found more prominent and impactful roles for Māori presenters, including Scotty and Stacey Morrison, while casting John Campbell and Hilary Barry to bookend the day, adroitly plucking them from the chaos of Mark Weldon’s Three.

Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells of Seven Sharp. (Photo: TVNZ)

That willingness to steal a good idea from MediaWorks has been a hallmark of recent TVNZ history, with an emphasis on multi-night reality TV helping give hope to TVNZ2, while a generation of comic talent reared on Jono and Ben and 7 Days is spreading through various properties. All this means that while the tide has headed out on linear TV, TVNZ under Kenrick has successfully modernised its content, while building out a strong streaming audience for TVNZ OnDemand which still has significant room to bring in new revenue.

Kenrick leaves at an opportune time. Cabinet’s decision about a merger with RNZ is due any day now, and is thought inevitable to go ahead. This will inevitably be a very difficult process, a melding of a radio and TV network, one non-commercial and the other entirely commercial, each with distinct cultures. Kenrick has, perhaps wisely, decided to sit that one out. He leaves with some governance roles at BNZ and brewers Good George, but seems genuine in his desire to take six months off. Three has had four CEOs in his time, and Sky TV three, while RNZ’s digitisation and transition to youth has been more halting than TVNZ’s – meaning Kenrick leaves as unquestionably the most able media CEO of the past decade.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity

Duncan Greive: It’s easy to feel like in 2012, when you took over, all this digital stuff was already written. But it was before Netflix, before any scale of streaming, and you were already talking about ultra fast broadband and content on every screen. How important was the technological piece of what you were doing even back then?

Kevin Kenrick: I think technology has been the catalyst for the change. And how people have responded to that, and taken advantage of the the opportunities that has created, has had a huge impact on how things played out. Technology for the sake of is not necessarily something that excites viewers, but it’s what they can do with it.

And so the internet has massively changed this industry. And there’s been some exciting new services that have come out as a result of it. And ultimately, you know, we’ll get through this technology migration, and that will all seem normal, and there’ll be the next one, right? Because the technology never stops. But I think that the fundamental point of difference in the industry is always the content. And sometimes the noise surrounding technology overtakes the content.

As an observer, it felt like there was quite a change somewhere around 2018, about when the new brand launched, where TVNZ stopped being an imposing thing that projected down onto the country, and started to feel much more relatable. And at the same time, you got a more diverse range of talent and an uplift in the quantity of local content too.

I think over time we’ve just attracted more and more curious people, and people who’ve got an appetite and a willingness to experiment and to learn by doing. There’s a big difference between being a know-it-all and learning. I’m not saying that we were necessarily a know-it-all, but we knew what we knew, and we were in a leadership position in our traditional markets. And I think the new markets, we’ve had to become really curious, we’ve had to learn, we’ve had to try. And and I think that that’s been really beneficial for the culture.

What are you most proud of out of your time at TVNZ, when you look back across it all?

Preserving the leadership position of 1 News, and the trust that people place in it. I think the trust has been earned over quite a long period of time. I don’t think you can ever afford to take that for granted. To see it still being the most watched [news programme], and the most trusted, to me is really satisfying. And actually, to be honest with you a bit of a relief that I wasn’t a part of stuffing it up.

The growth in online streaming and on demand is something that’s been really exciting to be a part of, because it’s something which has really blossomed. I look at it now, and it’s such a critical part of the future. We’re engaging over a million New Zealanders every week – that’s something that’s making an impact.

I also look at the people, at the diversity of the talent and the stories that we tell that are showing up on screen and, and to me that feels like it’s future proofed. And it’s relevant for future generations in a way that gives me confidence that, you know, that my kids will be able to learn, or maybe even my kids’ kids will actually have something that they can look back on and enjoy.

In terms of the trust thing, we’re talking at a time when down in Wellington there’s a huge group of people who are wildly mistrustful of our news media and mostly communicating through these entirely unregulated channels like Telegram and private Facebook groups and so on. As a country, we have moved from a heavily regulated media environment in the pre-internet era, to an internet era where you can do mass communication with almost no guardrails. Do you see any issues with that?

I think it’s one of those things that you can’t always legislate for the outcomes that you want. And legislation isn’t always the most elegant way to shape the outcome that you want. Consumers always want choice, they want to have multiple options. I think you’ve you’ve actually got to stay the course and and be confident that if people go out and sample they will actually understand the benefit of what they had before

What we’re seeing is that at the moments that really matter to New Zealanders, the really big events and the times when people really need to be informed, 1 News audiences swell. And so I think that [1 News has] this relationship with New Zealanders, which really matters and every time a major event happens, it’s an opportunity for 1 News to showcase what it does really well and remind people about why they should keep on coming back.

Flipping around the question about what you’re proud of, what do you regret with hindsight. I’m thinking of something like TVNZ U, where you had an extraordinary basket of talent but maybe the delivery mechanism wasn’t quite right. But feel free to pick anything else.

When you’re looking at something new, everyone is really happy to put the names of the things that have been successful. Sometimes you’ve picked the wrong thing, sometimes you’ve got the right thing, but you’ve picked the wrong time. The trick is actually making the distinction between them. Because if the timing is just wrong, then you should come back and revisit it, and actually have another go. And so we didn’t give up on what we’re trying to do with U, we just found different ways of doing it. And I think, you know, Re: is a good example of kind of what was the next version of that.

[The big thing] has been the strategic race for scale in the digital world. And you’d look at it with the benefit of hindsight and say, If I had my time over again, I would have gone faster. I would have been faster to take the risk of cannibalising the existing core business to get a bigger slice of that future.

What do you view as the biggest challenge facing not just TVNZ, but the whole of the New Zealand media sector?

I think the big challenge is to keep pace with the future viewers’ needs. There’s normal distribution curves about how growth occurs. I think what you’ve got to be focused on is the “early majority”. You can experiment around the really early adopters, but that’s not going to be a scale business. You’ll get some great learning, and you can apply that to the early majority. I think the biggest risk is that if you get comfortable with the audience that you derive from your current offering, then you don’t reinvent yourself. The biggest risk for all traditional media is the ageing profile of the audience.

If you look at a younger audience, its most singular distinguishing characteristic is that it’s made up of millions of niches, effectively. Big homogenous brands, like TVNZ or even The Spinoff, are not as interesting to Gen Z as individual creators. What’s your perspective on that missing younger audience?

I think what it does lead you to is [asking] who do you partner with, versus assuming you’re going to be able to achieve it on your own. I don’t think people want to reverse the shift to the multiplicity of sources of content. So you’ve got to see yourself as being part of the offering, as opposed to the total solution. The more that you can partner with others to create a more holistic offering, the more I think you’ve earned the right to see more of that. You’ve got to be willing to share some of that with others and you’ve got to be able to identify what you offer as a partner – to become someone that is attractive to others to partner with.

You are getting out ahead of the TVNZ-RNZ merger, which we’re supposed to get news on any day, yet the case for it doesn’t seem any clearer. What is your perspective on the merger as it stands right now?

My expectation is that a decision is imminent. And I think certainty will be really valuable for all players. I think you can analyse and assess this stuff forever, and you’re never going to have the perfect answer. But you need to come up with the current best thinking, put it in play, learn, evolve, change, and repeat that cycle.

I think the positive part of it is that the government of the day is committed to the sustainability of the industry, and is willing to take some steps to support that. Everyone’s got a view about how you might go about doing it. [You have to accept that] the first tranche of how you go about solving it is going to be imperfect.

If I look at public media around the world, New Zealand has been under-investing in public media by global standards. But most of the public media around the world, these have all been around for quite a long period of time. They are all pre-internet models that have morphed into trying to accommodate digital as an add-on. So we have an opportunity to create a digital-first public media business, and that opportunity is pretty exciting.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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