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A Newshub bulletin (Image design: Gabi Lardies)
A Newshub bulletin (Image design: Gabi Lardies)

MediaFebruary 28, 2024

Today marks the shocking end of Three as we knew it – here’s what that really means

A Newshub bulletin (Image design: Gabi Lardies)
A Newshub bulletin (Image design: Gabi Lardies)

After 35 years as the most charismatic challenger brand in our media history, Three has announced a proposal to shut almost all of its core programming, including Newshub. Duncan Greive analyses it all.

The clues were all there, if you cared to look. The shuttering of popular 7pm show The Project late last year was followed by a cheaper, leaner show built around Ryan Bridge. That kept getting pushed back, over and over and over. The head of Newshub, Sarah Bristow, resigned around the same time – when her replacement came, he was only given an interim title. Watching ThreeNow lately, Newshub ads were more common than commercials – a clear indication that the ad market which funds the station was in dire shape.

Still, no one seemed to believe it. Two weeks ago I asked a former senior staffer at Warner Brothers Discovery (WBD), Three’s parent company, whether there was any risk to Newshub, but they were adamant it was safe. That it was to do with a hiring freeze until the new financial year, or an ad market in the doldrums. That might even have been true – until it wasn’t.

An email emerged around 11am, announcing the end of the station as we know it. As I write, the meeting to announce all this to staff is still in progress. “Everyone here’s pretty shattered”, one told me. That’s understandable. This is a shocking, cataclysmic event. Despite the signals, it remains so. Because Three has almost always been in trouble – enduring receiverships and debt restructures and rogue CEOs and begging for government help. For all that, it endured.

The company’s local leader is Glen Kyne, who said in a statement that ​​“everybody who works for Warner Bros. Discovery ANZ has done everything we could have asked. This proposal is not a reflection of these efforts.” That is undeniably true. Despite a hiring freeze, the news part of the business has been a shining light, continuing to put out a 6pm bulletin that draws over 200,000 viewers most nights, and was among the 10 most popular shows in the country for Three’s target demographic.

A statement attributed to regional WBD head James Gibbons noted that it goes beyond the TV news, and in effect impacts the entire operation: “new local programming would only be in collaboration with local funding bodies and other partners.” This means that any commercially-funded shows, like The Block NZ, or the previously-announced return of Married at First Sight NZ, are soon to be gone too. In effect, much of the infrastructure of the channel is in question – from commercial, to commissioning, to programming. Everything that makes Three different and expresses its identity as a New Zealand channel is likely to be gone soon. 

The network is at pains to say that it’s still open for business, and will continue to seek NZ on Air funding – but without news to open its evening and big commercial shows to anchor its schedule, it’s to be expected that ratings will collapse. A smaller audience and manifestly much lower commitment to local programming would make it much more difficult for NZ on Air to continue to fund its shows at anything like the current level. This shifts even more power to TVNZ, which prompts bigger questions about the whole NZ on Air system. All of which suggests Three will, before long, backslide to become a brand that largely warehouses overseas content owned by WBD internationally, and not a lot else.

Screengrab: Newshub; Design: Toby Morris

Beyond the pain felt by its employees and partners, this has real and profound implications for the broader media, and for the government too. Linear TV ratings are already sliding fast, and this will only hasten their decline. The advertising and media buying industries continue to centre television in their thinking. Despite gains from Sky lately, TVNZ now has an enormous weight on its shoulders, propping up the whole free-to-air TV industry. Everyone from media buyers to the big ad agencies will be wrapping their heads around what their world looks like with a much-diminished Three.

Even more troubling is what it means for news, and the plurality of voices in our democracy. Once this proposal becomes reality, we’re hurtling towards the day when the only TV news for New Zealand will be owned by the government. We’ve become used to conspiratorial complaints from senior ministers about the quality of our media – but with the demise of Newshub, so goes the only major TV newsroom that is not ultimately owned by the government. This is not trivial – think about the tonal difference between RNZ and TVNZ’s political coverage and Newshub’s – we are now living in a world where the latter is just gone.

A country with government ownership of all its major broadcast news sounds a lot like an autocracy – that is something this decidedly media-averse coalition will have to absorb and respond to in the coming days. The Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill, which is currently before select committee, already had a near-existential urgency to it; that has just escalated enormously.

All that is to come. Today we should simply absorb the loss. Since its founding in 1989, TV3 (relatively recently rebranded to Three) represented an electric and charismatic challenger to the hegemony of state-owned and controlled media within New Zealand. It birthed generations of iconoclastic stars, many of whom – John Campbell, Hilary Barry and Carol Hirschfeld, to name but three – now occupy crucial positions at TVNZ. 

The current generation, headlined by Paddy Gower, Mike McRoberts, Samantha Hayes and Ryan Bridge, carved out a beloved place among those predominantly younger viewers who found even the evolved TVNZ still carrying a whiff of the paternal in its presentation. Outrageous Fortune might never have been commissioned were it not for the vision of TV3; while The Block and The Bachelor defined the last decade of reality television. There are hundreds more shows and careers in that basket.

The channel that birthed those shows and personalities will soon exist in name only. And New Zealand’s media landscape just got that little bit colder and less colourful as a result.

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