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NZ Today, a spin-off from the popular Jono and Ben segment starring Guy Williams. Image: supplied
NZ Today, a spin-off from the popular Jono and Ben segment starring Guy Williams. Image: supplied

Pop CultureOctober 16, 2019

MediaWorks wasn’t bluffing: NZ Today and MAFS NZ cancelled, 7 Days faces huge cuts

NZ Today, a spin-off from the popular Jono and Ben segment starring Guy Williams. Image: supplied
NZ Today, a spin-off from the popular Jono and Ben segment starring Guy Williams. Image: supplied

It’s the end of an era at Three as MAFS NZ and Guy Williams’ new show cancelled and 7 Days cut to bone, writes Duncan Greive.

A trio of shows which have been among Three’s most important local productions are either being cancelled or severely cut back, as the channel’s agonising winter extends to spring. Neither Guy Williams’ acclaimed comedy New Zealand Today nor reality mainstay Married at First Sight NZ will be returning in 2020, while 7 Days, which has run for 10 years and over 300 episodes, will shrink to just a 12-episode cameo in 2020, from the 32 which ran this year. 

A spokesperson for Three called 7 Days “an integral and much valued part of the Three brand. 

“Unfortunately, like all free-to-air content, it is not immune to the pressure we all face as industry in protecting and enhancing New Zealand and New Zealand stories on screen.” It’s particularly telling that the two comedy shows will diminish or disappear, as each is largely government funded through NZ on Air. 7 Days has received over $7.5m over ten years, while New Zealand Today received $524,000 last year – indicating that even the relatively small license fee paid by the network (sources suggest it is around $25,000 per episode for New Zealand Today) is too costly for Three to sustain.

The reality show is the biggest schedule loss. Married at First Sight NZ has for the past three years been one of the core parts of Three’s spring programming, following The Block to end the year’s multi-night slate the same way that its Australian counterpart officially kicks it off. This year’s version faced challenges before it even began, with revelations one of the grooms had been accused of domestic violence in the United States, eventually leading to his entire storyline being cut.

The unpleasantness continued in an at-times ugly season, culminating in one of the participants calling another a ‘slut’ six times in a single sentence. Its ratings suffered too, with a typical episode declining from around 170,000 in 2018 to closer to 120,000 in 2019 within its target 25-54 demographic. This is part of a broader trend of declining linear free-to-air ratings, but was more pronounced for Married at First Sight than for television as a whole. (Three would not confirm the demise of MAFS NZ, though a network source suggested it was inevitable).

In many ways the cancellation of New Zealand Today is the most surprising of all the three blows. The show had rated well in an off-peak slot, drawing up to 80,000 viewers to Three’s target demographic to watch host Guy Williams’ portrayal of a bumbling citizen journalist. The show was not without its attendant controversies either, with an episode having to be pulled after allegations surfaced online about one of the participants, but it certainly performed strongly enough to justify a second season – particularly on YouTube, where its clips received hundreds of thousands of views. 

A spokesperson for Three said it “has been a great performer for Three and we have been thrilled with the response to it. However, in the same vein as our decision with 7 Days, we have had to make a tough call. Unfortunately this means we will not be renewing it for next year.”

Like 7 Days, New Zealand Today was part of a lineage which saw the network able to claim it was “the home of local comedy”. It grew out of the long-running Jono and Ben franchise, a show in which Williams had been an abrasive third wheel for much of its run. After waiting patiently for nearly a decade, New Zealand Today was him finally being given his own vehicle. He says he’s “absolutely gutted”, and was given little notice of the decision.

“I guess I should have seen it coming,” he said in a statement to The Spinoff. “TV is really struggling, but I was still shocked! We were supposed to be applying for funding this week and I was told there was a pretty good chance we would get it and then, next thing, we were out before we even tried!”

It leaves a gaping hole in New Zealand’s comedy scene, as 7 Days and Jono and Ben have employed dozens of comics as writers, directors and on-screen talent over the past few years. While TVNZ will cherry-pick some, it’s inevitable that a large void will be left.

The story of this winter in television has been one of the pressure on television networks being felt much more keenly by Three than its crosstown rival, the government-owned TVNZ. MediaWorks, which is made up of a network of profitable radio stations and a loss-making TV operation, has been increasingly vocal about the challenges it has faced, and openly pleaded for government intervention.

These decisions are the latest signal that the losses the network has suffered over the past few years are no longer being tolerated by ownership or executives. In an interview with The Spinoff earlier this year, MediaWorks’ CEO Michael Anderson talked of the challenges facing television in 2019, from the structural advantage of its rival (TVNZ recently told the government it would no longer pay a dividend, and expected to make a loss in 2020), the advertising challenge of Google and Facebook and the audience shift away from linear television more broadly. 

“They sort of all add up and can seem insurmountable,” said Anderson. “There’s just a couple of things to stay focused on and then allow those things to unfold.”

What he was referring to was the prospect of government intervention, either through direct subsidy, or a de-commercialising of TVNZ 1, potentially within a merger of various government media entities

When Anderson raised the prospect of MediaWorks’ struggles earlier this winter, there was the air of a coordinated attack, with his news executive Hal Crawford authoring a blistering editorial attacking the structure of the New Zealand television sector, while Duncan Garner dimmed the lights for a stunt on the AM Show the same morning. Some commentators doubted whether things were really as hard as they made out. Today’s bloodbath, with three major titles disappearing, at least two of which would never be cut by a broadcaster under normal conditions, suggests that Three wasn’t bluffing. 

The government has suggested it will report back with plans for the industry before the end of the year. The urgency around that plan just markedly increased.

Read more:

Contemplating the end of Three

The case for the government media mega-merger

The disaster that was MAFS 2019

Guy Williams’ full statement to The Spinoff is below, both because it’s funny, and because it’s sad:

For almost 10 years I’ve worked on all sorts of weird and crazy kids’ shows and cooking shows and I thought: “I’m definitely not coming back next year!” But I do! And this year, with New Zealand Today, I finally think: “Man this is actually really good!” And I’m cancelled!? I owe a lot to TV3 and this was kind of my chance to pay them back!

By all accounts New Zealand Today has been a huge success: It won its time slot almost every week, except for when it was up against the World Cup opening ceremony. It did really well on demand. Only five clips from the show have been posted online but they already have over 2 million views combined! And each of those clips are 12-minute segments which is the perfect length to support advertising. My “plan” now is to beg for money. Is that a plan? I’m convinced I’ve got a programme that not only has an audience in New Zealand but could be sold overseas. The show is popular on “Reddit Videos”, a subreddit with over 20 million followers mainly in the US.

The David Brent in me wants to storm into TV3 with a whiteboard and pitch a show with “great funding prospects, obvious advertising opportunities, and a large established audience in the key demographic…” and they’re like “Guy, what is it?” And I’m like: “The name of that show… (pulls off red curtain)… Is New Zealand Today!” And they’re like “Woooaaah” and they take me back and we kiss.

Keep going!