Finlay Macdonald on the imminent order from MediaWorks to pack up the Mazda, and how recent ratings successes were not enough to save Campbell Live.
The writing was on the wall the moment John Campbell got behind the wheel of that Mazda and drove it through the opening titles of his show. It’s one thing to accept programme sponsorship – the days of hand wringing over the crossing of that particular Rubicon are long past – but it is another to tacitly endorse the sponsor’s product with your own personal brand. Hashtag journalism, hashtag Driven by Mazda.
No one should blame Campbell for doing whatever had to be done to appease the capitalist gods and keep his show on the air when its owner was in a permanent state of crisis and bankruptcy. There are greater evils than shilling for a car company if it means you get a commercial half hour in primetime to do the right thing. The sponsorship deal is merely emblematic of the perils of such Faustian pacts.
The well-meant but futile protests and campaigns to save Campbell Live were largely predicated on the belief that the driver might still be able – metaphorically speaking – to step away from the Mazda; that programme and host were worth saving precisely because they stood for something other than the prevailing orthodoxies of a market-led mass media.
It was always a hopeless cause, alas. That a decent magazine show on a hyper-commercial network had come to represent the last hope of serious current affairs on TV said more about the state of the competition than it did about the show itself. Certainly Campbell Live screened some great current affairs, and it occasionally made a genuine difference to vulnerable people’s lives. But that ad-break advocacy was simply a stone in the shoe for a channel determined to remake itself in the image of its new board – what you might call the NZX Factor.
The miracle is that Campbell Live survived as long as it did in the dead-eyed world of private equity and vulture funds – an achievement built largely on the talent and energy of its host. The remarkable ratings surge towards the end defies analysis. Who were these longed-for extra viewers and where had they been? Were they just witnesses at an execution, or was this a strange form of ratings charity? There were times when the campaign and the on-air gratitude began to feel a little cloying, which led one cynic to observe they should rename the show Givealittle Live and be done with it.
In a fair world Campbell would have been nurtured and developed by his owners and any seven o’clock succession properly planned, allowing him to make the transition to elder statesman, celebrity interviewer or whatever else it took to protect such a patently valuable asset. But showbiz isn’t like that. As a veteran of the glittering trenches once put it, eventually you lose count of the horses shot out from underneath you.
A lot was made of MediaWorks sneaking its announcement out under cover of the Budget news blitz – not that it worked – but the more interesting timing to me has always been the proximity of the axing to the end of the financial year. The Herald’s hilarious malapropism that the decision was “imminently foreseeable” seems unintentionally true. The imminence of Campbell Live’s demise has, indeed, been foreseeable ever since its future was put up for “review”.
In the end – and this is the end – Campbell faced the firing squad with dignity. His Budget day report on the hard-working life of an Otara mum getting by in Mark Weldon’s mate’s rock star economy was everything good journalism should be: timely, critical, compassionate, imaginative, accessible and well crafted. It was also a reminder that there are tougher ways to make a living than hosting a primetime show. Just not many.
Ka kite ano.