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No other ranking in history will include: the Black Ferns, Kamahl Santamaria, FBOY Island, Tova O’Brien (Image: Archi Banal)
No other ranking in history will include: the Black Ferns, Kamahl Santamaria, FBOY Island, Tova O’Brien (Image: Archi Banal)

MediaDecember 16, 2022

The 10 biggest, baddest and weirdest NZ media stories of 2022

No other ranking in history will include: the Black Ferns, Kamahl Santamaria, FBOY Island, Tova O’Brien (Image: Archi Banal)
No other ranking in history will include: the Black Ferns, Kamahl Santamaria, FBOY Island, Tova O’Brien (Image: Archi Banal)

Duncan Greive looks back over a chaotic, enthralling year of stories in New Zealand’s media.

The media by its very nature generates an outsize number of stories. It flings together opposing forces and tries to make sense of them. It’s naturally on the bleeding edge of changes in technology and audience behaviour. It’s also self-obsessed – there’s little most people in the media like talking about more than the media.

Still, even by those standards, 2022 was a particularly volatile year. It’s almost like there’s an inverse relationship between the economic scale of this industry and the amount of noise it generates. If only someone could figure out a way to make money out of all that attention and chaos…

Anyway, what I’m trying to do here is write an intro to a listicle which captures what I, subjectively, think were the 10 biggest stories in New Zealand media this year. They run the gamut from employment disputes which felt deeply personal to changes which are as impactful as any in decades. In between there are many which are small windows into far bigger issues. They collectively reveal an industry undergoing huge change, with skilled practitioners working in deeply unfavourable circumstances, yet still managing to get extraordinary work done.

NB: this ranking draws on a podcast I did with Mediawatch’s Hayden Donnell – the audio is below if you’d rather listen than read.

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10. NZ Film Commission’s CEO disappears and then resigns

It should have been a great year to be chief executive of the Film Commission, the government agency which funds and manages big screen projects in New Zealand, with Power of the Dog headlining a banner year for our movies. But after hosting parties around the Oscars, the commission’s leader David Strong just disappeared – he stopped coming into the office and was never heard from again. A mismanaged conflict of interest situation involving a script he’d been nursing for years blew up in the most spectacular way, eventually leading to his resignation. While he’s still yet to speak, there’s a sense that Strong was let down by a board chair who massively underestimated just how prickly the film industry can be.

Read more: The Curious Case of the Pilgrim, the script tearing the film industry apart

9. The Tova O’Brien employment dispute

The launch of Today FM, a well-resourced rival to Newstalk ZB, should have been on this list. MediaWorks took a big swing and hired ex-Three political editor Tova O’Brien to host its breakfast show, betting that there was room for a moderate but still urgent third brand in talk. Instead, O’Brien’s former employers at Three enforced her restraint of trade in an employment tribunal case which ultimately was decided in their favour. This meant Today FM missed the biggest story of the year in the occupation of parliament, a situation which still rankles even now – “a shitty way to end what had been a really good relationship,” said O’Brien when she finally made it to air.

Read more: Why Three lost the O’Brien case before it even began and ‘I still get my political hit’: an interview with Tova O’Brien

8. Sky tried to buy MediaWorks. Sky’s shareholders said absolutely not

“A lost opportunity,” was how Mediawatch’s Donnell described it, and six months on from that fateful week it’s hard to disagree. New Zealand’s media businesses are notoriously sub-scale and fragmented, so the idea of merging the radio and outdoor business of MediaWorks (The Edge, The Rock, Today FM) with the subscription behemoth that is Sky looked tantalising. Sky’s shareholders hated it though, and it collapsed less than a week after being announced.

Read more: Sky just decided not to buy MediaWorks. Why?

7. Sean Plunket makes good on his threat and launches The Platform

Today FM emerged on the frequencies vacated by Magic Talk, an unloved talk radio venture that MediaWorks’ CEO Cam Wallace shut as one his first acts in the job. This left broadcaster Sean Plunket looking for work, and he decided to launch The Platform, an online radio station hosting the people and views deemed unacceptable in the mainstream media. “A uniquely of-this-moment endeavor,” as Donnell described it. It drew on the wellspring that animated the protests at parliament, and while not antivax itself, it was comfortable speaking with those who are. “The Platform is evidence that you can actually launch a pretty successful venture based on people that feel excluded from mainstream media, and there’s enough of them to sustain you,” said Donnell. And he’s right – it has a real and legitimate audience. But it also has a very wealthy backer…

Read more: Meet the secretive rich-lister backing Sean Plunket’s The Platform

6. The shrinking of NZ On Air

It got lost in the tumult around the merger of RNZ and TVNZ into ANZPM, but the parallel decision to slash the budget of NZ On Air by 60% represented a break from a 30 year consensus around decentralised public media in New Zealand. This country is unique in that instead of having a single public broadcaster, we fund content for dozens of platforms through an agency called NZ On Air. It’s an idea which came from linear TV, but really worked for the splintered audiences of the internet. Yet when the government decided to fix its missing audiences problem, instead of amplifying NZ On Air, it allocated most of its budget, plus $109m a year more, to its own channels. It caused a major spat and meant NZ On Air had to reimagine its purpose in the space of a few short weeks.

Read more: Notes from the most tumultuous 24 hours in the NZ screen industry

5. The end of a reality TV era?

Three very different disasters befell three major local productions in a chilly spring for reality TV. The worst by far was the revelation that one of the contestants on TVNZ’s FBOY Island had recently been charged with a serious offence involving an intimate partner – a catastrophic failure of vetting, and not the first in the past few years. A different disaster befell The Block, which saw a total of $4,000 over reserve come from its big finale auctions, leading to a predictable postponement of its 2023 season. Less high profile was the tawdry revelation that the unloved real estate show Rich Listers was almost entirely made up. It added up to a sense that this genre might need to evolve to survive.

Read more: Three cursed shows which tell the story of reality TV’s decline

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4. Kamahl Santamaria lasts a month before detonating TVNZ’s newsroom

A few short weeks after being announced as the splashy new hire to replace John Campbell on Breakfast, ex-Al Jazeera anchor Kamahl Santamaria disappeared from screens, with strong reporting from Stuff and the Herald revealing allegations of inappropriate conduct with colleagues which ultimately stretched back years. “TVNZ didn’t conduct itself well – they said it was a family emergency, which is kind of darkly comic, because getting accused of inappropriate conduct in the workplace will cause a family emergency – just not the type that they probably wanted people to interpret that as,” noted Donnell. It was a sorry episode for TVNZ, and later led to the resignation of head of news Paul Yurisich too – the episode left a scar during a time when the organisation desperately needed to hang together.

Read more: Why the Santamaria saga could cause bigger problems for TVNZ

3. The Black Ferns smash ratings records and change women’s sport forever

New Zealand’s best live sporting event of 2022 was undeniably the Black Ferns nailbiting RWC 2021 win over England. That’s both opinion and fact – it was easily the biggest TV event of the year too, with just shy of 1m tuning in to watch it, 50% higher than the peak audience most weeks. In a year with multiple destabilising and disturbing storylines, here was one to unambiguously celebrate – a rare truly mass cultural moment which united splintered audiences. (Honourable mention: the Sāmoan league team around the same time, setting thousands of flags fluttering and creating multiple impromptu street parties.)

Read more: The Black Ferns are the best rugby product in the world right now

2. The protests at parliament show the scale of the parallel media universe 

While it was happening, it felt like society might be slipping away. Day after day we watched on streams, on social media and on 6pm news as thousands of people flocked to parliament to protest vaccine mandates, ending in fire and fury. It was confronting viewing, and deeply challenging to cover. There was an element that was extremely hostile toward journalists, who were threatened while doing their jobs. 

Others went into the crowd and created work that could be read as sympathetic to even some of the more problematic elements within the crowd. Despite the protests echoing loudly on social media, as Donnell notes local election results proved that “while these people are quite numerous and very loud, subsequent events show that they aren’t actually a significant political force just yet.” It’s something to be grateful for – New Zealand was tested by this moment, but so far appears to have passed the exam.

Read more: A week on the ground at the ‘Freedom Village’

1. The TVNZ-RNZ merger is really really happening (or is it?)

This was the story which ran the whole year, and is somehow still in the air, exhausting all who come into contact with it through prolonged exposure. I personally have lost most of my friendships by becoming massively boring due to being incapable of talking about anything else. The government’s decision to merge two beloved media entities in TVNZ and RNZ into a mysterious new thing called ANZPM gathered steam over the year, because it touched on so many contemporary themes – changing audience behaviour, disinformation, national identity, centralisation and free speech. 

Just when it finally seemed unambiguously settled, broadcasting minister Willie Jackson gave an electric and weird interview on Q+A which seemed to crystallise all fears around political interference in the new entity. Even though meant in jest, his comments put it squarely at the front of the news agenda for all the wrong reasons. In recent days both Jackson and prime minister Jacinda Ardern have made very equivocal statements about the merger’s future, and suddenly a done deal is a coin flip. Its cancellation would mean millions of dollars and countless hours had been wasted, but also remove a buzzing headache from the government at the start of election year. Which is to say that a wonkish story which should have been only of interest to weird nerds (me) is still very much alive and likely to feature on this list again in 2023.

Read more: Yesterday was a very weird day for the RNZ-TVNZ merger

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

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