Another catastrophic week for Mediaworks could yet mark the start of its resurgence

The exit of Paul Henry and the dumping of Story make for another miserable glut of headlines. But the talent that does remain, Duncan Garner and Guy Williams especially, lends hope that the darkest hour is before the dawn, writes Duncan Greive.

Over the past 18 months, there have been a number of disastrous periods for Mediaworks’ news and current affairs operation. First the botched axing of Campbell Live; then the long slow bleeding death of the 3D investigative unit; the trickle of loss represented by the departures of David Farrier, Mark Jennings and Jono Hutchison; then the atom bomb of Hilary Barry decamping, followed quickly by the departure of Mark Weldon, the source of all this chaos.

Shockingly, this week looks worse, if anything.

As confirmed to Mediaworks staff this morning, not only are they losing Paul Henry, their one figurehead broadcaster who was actually beating his TV One rival in the same slot, but they are also dismantling Story, which for all its flaws was a better version of Seven Sharp a lot of the time.

At a certain point after you keep losing figurehead broadcaster after senior executive after promising talent, the cupboard starts to look bare. Mediaworks isn’t just a collection of frequencies, assets and sales staff and brands – it’s a warehouse of talent, and for many years it was the most well-stocked in the industry across any medium. Now, with so much of that talent reservoir drained, you have to wonder whether the brand can plausibly defend the kind of $250-$400 million dollar valuation that had been mooted as recently as two years ago, and that its owners at Oak Tree will desperately want to defend.

Particularly in the light of the fact that NZME is valued in the $100m dollar range now – a business constructed from a near-identical collection of radio assets, a better online bolt-on in GrabOne and cumbersome newspaper business broadly analogous to MediaWorks’ higher revenue though similarly low-to-no margin television business.

Guy Williams and Duncan Garner. May not be precisely to scale.

Guy Williams and Duncan Garner. May not be precisely to scale.

Despite all that, the events of this week have the potential to be a godsend for the embattled broadcaster. That’s because I’ve long felt that Duncan Garner, who will succeed Paul Henry at the helm of the breakfast show on TV3 and RadioLIVE, was wasted in the drive slot. His energy, his aggression, were coming in at the end of the day, when most people were looking for something a little slower. The key drive shows don’t tend to have your sort of marquee news broadcasters – John Campbell aside – and he’s emblematic of a slower and more empathetic form of journalism than Garner ever delivered.

What you get in the mornings, the key time slot for radio, is a form of barely contained aggression and energy. Across key competitors at RNZ and ZB you have bulldogs that won’t let the news go. That’s been a hallmark of Duncan Garner’s drive show from the first. The other thing about Garner is that he has one of the strongest competitive streaks and largest chips on his shoulder, in broadcasting, on radio or TV.

I thought that point was beautifully illustrated in the anecdote in Steve Braunias’ classic profile of him for Metro in 2013, during which he described an encounter with Leighton Smith, who, in a typically Leighton Smith way, came up to him at a sushi bar and told him he was joining a losers’ team at RadioLIVE, and there was no hope.

And that’s a classic TVNZ/ZB perspective – a born-to-rule attitude: we’ve got the best frequencies, the powerful brands, the entrenched audiences, we’re unbeatable. Now, there’s a lot of evidence to back up that assertion. But I think that if you are the kind of person that takes that very personally, who views any insinuation that your team has an unwinnable hand – if that makes you want to prove people wrong then you will not rest until your point is proven. Clearly, the way that he told that story shows that it ignited a fire within Duncan Garner that’s showed no dimming.

And ultimately the only way to prove in radio that you have the true killer instincts and the ability to take on the reigning champs is to get in the ring with Mike Hosking. Now, finally, Duncan Garner has an opportunity to do that.

You could argue that Paul Henry did the same. Yet Paul Henry was a lifestyle show – it sort of fit and didn’t fit him. But Paul Henry, for all his faults, is an idiosyncratic guy. He felt like he’d been passed over for some really important gigs and with Paul Henry he was concerned with making a show in his own image. It didn’t feel like he was concerned with taking on Mike Hosking at his own game: he was doing his own thing, something… not quite self-indulgent, but was built around his own interests and humour, which was sometimes obtuse or playful.

Fundamentally Paul Henry too was a broadcaster who, while he did have some undeniable strengths in terms of his conviction and his personality, he also was constantly saying terrible things, in an era where there’s less and less tolerance for it, particularly with the younger demographic that both TV3 and RadioLIVE are courting.

So the situation this week was an inevitability. He’s one of those people – and they exist across print, radio and television – who never leaves a contract on good terms. It’s a when-not-if situation. Whereas Garner’s a company man. He’s been with TV3 essentially his whole career, tutored by Linda Clark, invented the style that Patty Gower has now perfected. And is very much here playing for keeps in the biggest spot. I think there’s every chance that this will be the making of him. And by virtue of this wave upon wave of departures he now has no real competition. The job will be his for as long as he wants it, and I think that can be a very reassuring and galvanising situation for an employee or broadcaster.

The second major move is the end of Story, which was launched with great fanfare 18 months ago. Heather du Plessis-Allan is a very talented broadcaster in her own right, but she and Garner never quite clicked. You can tell when there’s a natural chemistry between hosts, and they just slightly grated against one another. Neither was willing to concede an alpha status, and they had stylistic instincts that were slightly at odds. Also Story was a match product, albeit a well-executed one, but a “we’ll do our version of Seven Sharp – that’s what the public want.”

I think the era of the public just wanting a choice of two of the same thing is kind of over. The elder demographic’s not going to shift, the younger demographic is just going to see it as more of the same. So the idea that they’re going to move to a more entertainment-driven panel show – while it will wind up the public broadcasting, save-TVNZ7-types something chronic – it’s also probably the right thing to do if well-executed. Obviously that’s the biggest “if” in New Zealand or world broadcasting. You get the thing right and everyone calls you a genius, get it wrong and you’re a moron.

But the talent rumoured to be attached (though this is far from a done deal) is Guy Williams. For a lot of people, who may only have a cursory knowledge of Williams, who just caught him doing some buffoonish shit on Jono and Ben or know him as a commercial radio guy, they’re going to see this as further evidence of the disintegration of society and the relegation of news.

But in reality Guy Williams is a political animal, a provocateur with a purpose. Full disclaimer here, I know Guy pretty well and consider him a friend and a kind of genius – I’ve long tried to work with him at The Spinoff precisely because I think he’s one of the great underutilised talents in New Zealand media. He resigned from The Edge, and we – I don’t mind revealing this – submitted a proposal to NZ On Air for a Daily Show-style online show that would have gone out daily for the 15 weeks of next year’s election, and would have been absolutely savage.

NZ On Air turned it down. I remain disappointed by that. But Guy is a really interesting person. He became famous, made it his mission to become a New Zealand shit-lebrity, and he’s done that. And I think now he’s got this great power which isn’t particularly well-understood. He’s got this huge social audience – if you look across his channels it’s probably nearly 250,000 – across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And should he get this role I think you’ll see a metamorphosis there over the next year or so, which reveals him as New Zealand’s Jon Stewart, essentially. A person who uses humour as a weapon and as a way of exposing hypocrisies and nonsense.

I wouldn’t describe him as apolitical, but he isn’t averse to calling any policy from any party or politician what it is, or explaining the problem with it. He’s no admirer of John Key, but he’s also someone who understands, in a very fundamental way, why Key has that power – because he’s seen him and the way he operates in a Jono and Ben and The Edge-type environment. Which is precisely where Key’s Everyman personal has such impact. In a place that all the kind of hand-wringing people that loathe Key a) don’t even see the performances and b) find it unbecoming of his post that he’s there. But that is the reason he’s popular, and Guy’s understanding of that would be critical to the way he’d frame politics going into this election year.

But more than that, I think he’s just ready for a moment like this. I think every night where there’s any kind of event, you’ll want to see what Guy Williams has to say on it. You’ll want to see him put someone, whether it’s a politician or a businessperson, I think you might see more event interviews out of this kind of show that you’d expect. Even if it’s just a well-assembled panel, you’ll have that electric discussion that feels like it cuts through the bullshit in a way we don’t see elsewhere.

Most of all, TV3 are sort of all in on this now. They don’t have many alternatives. Heather du Plessis-Allan is an enormous talent, and whether the reports that she will rejoin the Press Gallery are right, and/or she takes over Duncan’s drive slot, I think she’ll do a very good job. Those are the last big pieces left really. And knowing they’ve got a bit of rope, they’re well-deployed, and there’s considerable amounts riding on this – that could be the making of them all.

So while this has all the potential ingredients of a last great calamity, for a network and a business which has been in free fall ever since, Mark Weldon announced its new look to great fanfare – this might end up being the making of the channel. And out of all this chaos, might finally come some order. At the very least, everyone involved knows the stakes.

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