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Jehan Casinader and cameraman Andrew Dalton on assignment. (Photo: supplied)
Jehan Casinader and cameraman Andrew Dalton on assignment. (Photo: supplied)

MediaMarch 16, 2024

The sun is setting on Sunday. Here’s what it was like to work on the show

Jehan Casinader and cameraman Andrew Dalton on assignment. (Photo: supplied)
Jehan Casinader and cameraman Andrew Dalton on assignment. (Photo: supplied)

Jehan Casinader, who worked as a reporter for Sunday for eight years, pulls back the curtain on the last current affairs show we may ever see during primetime.

I’d never cried at work before. Maybe it was tiredness, frustration – or an unshakeable sense of failure.

For weeks, I’d been filming a Sunday story about oxycodone, a painkiller that was creating a new generation of addicts. In a grotty Wellington flat, a young man gave us a powerful on-camera interview about his addiction. As we sat on the floor, he injected himself with “oxy”, purchased on the black market. It was a confronting story that needed to be told.

When the editing was almost done, TVNZ’s legal team decided we couldn’t use the footage of the addict – because he was breaking the law. Our most evocative material would be cut out of the story. As a young reporter, I was devastated. I felt like I’d let the team down.

But we still had a deadline to meet. Steve Butler, a veteran producer, helped to salvage the story in the edit room. As I left the building that night, deflated and exhausted, he said: “You know what? Now that I’ve seen you cry, I actually like you more. Because I know that you care.”

On Monday, Steve sent a text. “Ratings are in – 600,000 people watched. Great result.” A wave of relief washed over me. I imagined 12 jam-packed stadiums, each the size of Eden Park. All those people had watched our story at the same time. I didn’t realise I was developing an addiction of my own.

Sunday’s 2016 line-up: Ian Sinclair, Miriama Kamo, John Hudson, Janet McIntyre and Jehan Casinader. (Photo: TVNZ)

For 22 years, Sunday hosted tears and tantrums; reunions and revelations; confessions and celebrations. Inspired by CBS’s legendary 60 Minutes franchise, the show had “correspondents”, not reporters. In the old days, someone would throw a dart at a world map and try to find a story in that country. A producer told me: “We’d go to Gaza so often that the doorman at the hotel knew our names.” Around the lunch table, I’d hear things like: “Remember when we interviewed Hugh Hefner at the Playboy mansion?”

Within TVNZ, Sunday was known as a fiercely competitive pressure-cooker environment, with a reputation for burning people out. But it was also the home of storytellers I’d grown up in awe of. At 26, I found myself in the same office as Janet McIntyre, the country’s finest TV interviewer, and Miriama Kamo, our most versatile presenter. I knew I had a lot to prove.

Sunday occupied a peculiar slot in the evening TV line-up. The network placed the show straight after Country Calendar. Viewers spent a cheery half-hour watching sheep being shorn or cows being milked – before the Sunday team jolted them awake.

Meth addiction, sexual violence, forced adoption – no topic was off limits. With a personal interest in men’s health, I profiled guys who had experienced bulimia, childhood abuse, porn addiction and depression. I interviewed people grappling with unimaginable loss, like the families of murdered Featherston schoolgirl Coral Burrows and slain Feilding farmer Scott Guy.

Sexual abuse survivor Louise Nicholas with Sunday’s production team. (Photo: supplied)

While Australian current affairs shows paid big money for blockbuster interviews, Sunday never engaged in “chequebook journalism”. Instead, we’d turn up at someone’s house with a brown bag full of lolly cake from the local bakery – and hope for the best.

Journalism is about searching for gold nuggets in the rubble of other people’s lives. Because of Sunday’s reputation and reach, hundreds trusted us with their precious stories – often taking personal risks to do so.

The beauty of TV current affairs is that, unlike other forms of journalism, it can’t be produced cheaply from behind a desk. You have to get on a plane, and take the audience with you. In Auckland, I watched zookeepers euthanise two ageing lions. In Queensland, I travelled 2km down a coal mine with Pike River survivor Daniel Rockhouse. In California, I visited film director James Cameron’s sprawling ranch. In Colombo, I met Sister Aroha, an elderly nun from North Canterbury who had spent decades caring for Sri Lanka’s orphans. 

On every story, I worked with senior producers and camera operators who cared deeply about their craft. They’d argue over a single word in the script – or the placement of a light – if they believed it would make the story better. Inevitably, it did.

Usually, TV critics only took notice of our hard-hitting stories. But in heartland New Zealand, the audience voted with their remotes. My two highest-rating Sunday stories may surprise you. One was an interview with former Miss Universe Lorraine Downes, after the death of her husband Martin Crowe. The other, a story with former Christchurch mayor Bob Parker, following a devastating stroke.

Pike River survivor Daniel Rockhouse speaks to Sunday in Queensland. (Photo: TVNZ)

Stories like these will disappear from our screens in May, if TVNZ follows through with its plan to axe the show. Some say this illustrates the need for more public funding for journalism. But Sunday didn’t need funding. While off-peak programmes like Q&A, The Hui and Newshub Nation rely on NZ On Air – receiving $2.6 million between them for 2024 alone – Sunday paid its own way, through primetime advertising and sponsorship from brands like Kiwibank. TVNZ accepts the show still makes a profit.

The problem, of course, is how to capture an online audience as linear TV enters its twilight years. There’s a popular notion that young people don’t have the attention spans for in-depth storytelling. That’s ridiculous. Yes, they’ve become hooked on snackable content from Instagram and TikTok. But they’re also quite happy to binge 10-hour factual series on Netflix, or listen to 90-minute podcasts.

Sir Bob Parker gives his first and only interview after a major stroke. (Photo: TVNZ)

In 2016, we filmed a Sunday story called “Straight Outta Kawerau”, about an inspiring principal who turned around the struggling Tarawera High School. On free-to-air TV, about 450,000 people watched it. When it was republished on TVNZ’s youth platform Re:News, it clocked up 1.5 million views on Facebook. Re: proved that young people do want to see real life stories from Aotearoa. Now, its team is also being cut back.  

A decade ago, TVNZ’s news bosses promised a “digital current affairs strategy”. It was never written. Journalists kept doing what we’d been told to do: clipping up our stories and sticking them on TVNZ’s website and social media channels for people to watch for free. In hindsight, we were digging our own graves. But no one took away our shovels.

Let’s be clear: journalists don’t need public sympathy. As the late Anthony Bourdain said: “Writing is a privilege and a luxury. Anybody who whines about writer’s block should be forced to clean squid all day.” Many people work longer hours, doing tougher jobs, in sectors that are way more vulnerable to economic pressures. But media aren’t just lamenting the cuts to our industry – we’re alerting New Zealanders to an unprecedented loss of their own culture and heritage.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to Sunday during the Covid pandemic. (Photo: TVNZ)

When a media outlet closes, its content often disappears. When German-owned Bauer Media shut its New Zealand operation during Covid, a website housing the Listener and North & South vanished overnight. Senior writers were shocked to see years of long-form reporting become inaccessible to the public. Eventually, the same will happen to Sunday. Its webpage and social media profiles will quietly be erased. Two decades of stories – costing tens of millions of dollars to produce – will spend eternity in TVNZ’s archives, unable to be reviewed, replayed, discussed or debated.

I left TVNZ in 2020, swapping journalism for public speaking. But I hung on to my swipe card, and kept filing stories. Recently, I finished a 25-minute piece about a young man jailed for murder. It’s a classic Sunday story: intimate, complex and emotionally demanding. On a sunny Auckland afternoon, I stepped out of a windowless sound booth after recording my voiceover. I tossed the 4,000-word script in the bin, not knowing it would be my last.

I used to complain that I missed out on the glory days of TV current affairs. I now realise I was there for the very end of them. 

Jehan Casinader’s final story will air on Sunday at 7.30pm on TVNZ1.

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