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TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick (supplied)
TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick (supplied)

MediaOctober 3, 2016

TVNZ has found the internet – and the rest of our media should maybe start worrying

TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick (supplied)
TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick (supplied)

TVNZ has been the doughy dinosaur in the media room for years now, content to defend the biggest, oldest and least mobile audience in the country. Last Thursday though, they suddenly showed their teeth at a very different new season launch. Duncan Greive was there to watch.

Kevin Kenrick is on stage, looking oddly like Mark Weldon but without the clouds of doom, and the first thing he does is talk not about television but about content. This is new. Next it’s about “sharing the moments which matter to New Zealanders”. Meaningless – but again, not television. It’s the first sign that something weird’s going on with the venerable old TV giant.

The TVNZ CEO is in front of a large screen in the pristine Warren and Mahoney-designed interior of TVNZ’s new headquarters, which were until recently their old headquarters. They’re the last of the big newsrooms to complete a transformation, and theirs might be the prettiest of the lot.

It’s powerful in its symbolism. In much the same way as their analogue-era building has been stripped and reconfigured to resemble a sleek digital spacestation, TVNZ as an organisation is today presenting itself to New Zealand as a dynamic multi-media enterprise, better equipped than anyone else to complete the big media pivot without falling flat on their face. Shockingly, based on today’s very impressive presentation, they may be right.

TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick is his shiny new newsroom (photo: supplied)
TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick is his shiny new newsroom (photo: supplied)

Two years ago I watched the old TVNZ complete the same new season presentation in a very different venue and style, one which made me think they were well on their way to the merciful release of death. Rumour had it that the event cost around $300,000, though even that seems conservative. It was the Civic. A drummer rose from within the stage. There was a lot of dancing and dry ice.

Hosking was there too, basking post-election and talking about how much he loved ‘Vote Compass’, possibly meaning it. This time the only time we saw Hosking talking about elections today was on the big screen: “I love elections,” he told Tim Wilson cheerily. That screen was the only place the stars came out today – they were otherwise kept well away from the atrium where the launch event was held on some fold out chairs, with coffee, tea, donuts, sliders and potato balls for accompaniment.

It was appropriately austere, is what I’m trying to say: it told us assembled media that TVNZ is spending its money on assets like rebrands and platforms, not frivolous stuff like big nights out. (They did in fact have a big night out later that night; media were not invited).

What else did they have to say for themselves? Kenrick captured the spirit of the age when he talked about the one truth which unifies all of us diverse audiences. “The only thing in common is that everything is sub-optimal,” he said, referring to the tangled mess of devices, rights situations and platforms which characterise this shambolic era. It was actually incredibly refreshing to hear the head of a major business speak so candidly about the shitty customer experience we have right now. And for his business to seem to be genuinely concerned with fixing it, at least within his own patch.

Kenrick had five key learnings to pass along, all of which were sound. They were:

    1. More consumers are watching more video than ever before. “There’s any number of people who’ll tell you TV is dying”, possibly referring to an incredibly inflammatory headline published recently in an online magazine. TVNZ prefers to say that instead it’s having babies. Which is probably fair.
    2. I can’t really remember this one. I think it was something to do with there being more shows premiering online, and more full seasons. Seems good.
    3. Simple and easy access to content is key. Hence the combining of TVNZ and TVNZ OnDemand into a single site.
    4. Online preferences are different to on air preferences.
    5. Viewing behaviours will continue to change. In support of the latter he talked about TVNZ’s 10,000-strong “greenroom panel”, which helps them keep abreast of how behaviour is changing. That’s a lot of people.

Of the five points, the fourth seemed most salient. “We can’t approach it from the position of linear first with online as a bolt on”, said Kenrick, perfectly describing how online has been treated by both traditional broadcasters and production houses to this point. The line has been that if a show is available online, it’s not their fault if no one watches it.

The fact that TVNZ is not only recognising the emptiness of that response, but embracing the implicit challenge is impressive. Especially given that to this point they’ve mostly looked like they were prepared to just wait the internet out.

Soon Kenrick wrapped, and, as is mandatory on such occasions, a highlight reel played, accompanied by an uplifting pop drum’n’bass track featuring the refrain “I feel the good times coming”. Subtle, guys.

Next came Andrew Shaw – a wiry, pugnacious fellow with boundless energy and a true company man’s misty-eyed enthusiasm for everything TVNZ has ever done. “I accept the new world order,” he told us, almost dutifully.

The most notable piece of that new world order is ‘Project New Blood’, a fairly explicit acknowledgement that TVNZ’s blood is very, very old and nearly dried up. It’s tech-styled: a “skunkworks” involving “a raft of innovation projects”, “cross-functional across the whole business”. They’re tasked with engaging with the “next generation of TVNZ viewers”, who until now have been essentially ignored by the broadcaster. It all sounded very exciting – until we got to what they’d actually come up with:

  • ‘New Blood web series competition’
  • ‘New Blood content lab’ featuring Harriet in legal and Adam in marketing.
  • ‘New Blood talent scheme’

Maybe I’m just old-blooded, but those new things all sound like essentially the same thing, and not nearly so profound as they need to be.

Still, it’s nice to think the 200 under-30s at TVNZ have some kind of facility to be listened to and innovate. The other big announcement was the rebranded channels – TVNZ 1, TVNZ 2 and TVNZ DUKE (the latter of which is conspicuously and mercifully not referred to as a man channel anymore, perhaps because the whole organisation is still recovering from the shame spiral associated with its announcement).

It’s a big rebrand! And probably overdue. And, like pretty much every one of these many major pieces, it seems absolutely the right move from a business perspective. Like RNZ, TVNZ is a publicly-owned media organisation which came late to the pivot party. But on today’s evidence they’re using the muscle of their dominant position to move as assuredly as any of our Big Media.

It was all very exciting and impressive – until we got to the content. With a few notable exceptions – Victoria, Survivor NZ, more Latta, the returning Broadchurch and Doctor Foster – it was a bit dull. Lots of familiar-feeling shows, lots of stuff we already knew, like the return of Filthy Rich (bad) and Sensing Murder (appalling, maybe criminal).

So after the whole thing wrapped, for all the great strategic moves which had been made, the final analysis felt a little hollow. We have all these great new channels and distribution strategies – but for now are still waiting to find something great to go in them.

For a more sophisticated analysis, read Stop Press’ coverage here.

The Spinoff’s media coverage is brought to you by MBM, a media agency for the digital age.

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