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Paul Henry vs Breakfast: the hottest war in television awaits Hilary’s arrival

Last month Paul Henry continued its strong gains in the ratings war against Breakfast, despite losing Aunty Hilary. Following his supportive piece for Paul Henry‘s one year anniversary, Tim Murphy returns to explain what TVNZ should do next.

Hey, Hilary, get back from dancing in the rain at Pakiri Beach and help TVNZ out.

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The TV3 breakfast programme Hilary Barry helped create, Paul Henry, has continued in her absence to do the unthinkable and recorded ratings wins against TV One’s Breakfast. We’re talking in the cume (whole show) audience numbers for the key 25-54 age group. Which is beat at least 10 times in June.

TV3 beating TV One at anything, any week, is a rare event. On one magical day, Wednesday June 22, Henry even beat Breakfast for the overall total number of viewers aged five years and over.

Barry walked, of course, from the morning and evening news reading jobs at Newshub (TV3/Mediaworks) in protest at the omnishambles concocted by former chief executive Mark Weldon.

She’s almost certain to be announced soon as one of two front-people for Breakfast. TVNZ’s American correspondent Jack Tame is understood to be closing in on the role of her offsider. The incumbent male, Rawdon Christie, had chivalrously announced Barry would be welcome on the Breakfast sofa any time. He might look sideways if, as rumoured, screen testing is going on around him among a number of other male TVNZ presenters keen to take the seat beside her.

For now, Hilary’s got her head down. She’s on a break, and was last seen on social media, talking up the wonders of quiet, wild Pakiri. The fact Paul Henry is humming along in the rear-vision mirror simply adds anticipation to this looming battle.

Hilary Barry on launch day for Paul Henry (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images the Paul Henry Show)

Hilary Barry on launch day for Paul Henry (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images the Paul Henry Show)

Ratings are going so well, in fact, that Henry has just set off on a three week holiday. Mark Sainsbury today slid into the chair in his stead, doing radio and TV simultaneously, joined by the growing aplomb of Barry’s replacement as newsreader Ingrid Hipkiss and the enduring authenticity of sports guy Jim Kayes.

When Paul Henry turned one in April, I ventured that it could have been much worse. He and the show had an inexplicable appeal which felt like it was gaining momentum. Barry promptly upped sticks and left, with ongoing suggestions all was not good between her and Henry. Some trace it back to Hilary getting the one golden interview in New Zealand with Oprah Winfrey, and triumphing – to Henry’s chagrin.

In any case, in came Hipkiss, straighter, more cautious but with a similar news pedigree and an engaging style of her own. And, happily for MediaWorks, the Paul Henry surge kept going. What was an average of 113,500 25-54 viewers per episode before May (against 143,600 for Breakfast), nudged up in May to 124,700 vs 134,000 for Breakfast, and last month saw Henry at 123,900 vs 124,500 for the other guys.

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Anecdotally, you hear far more about Paul Henry now than Breakfast. People laughing with and at Henry and being really entertained by the banter and laughter – in both intention and execution this is not dissimilar to the appeal of the trios on the morning radio stations. Henry teasing Kayes last week about his inability to say the word ‘pools’ in a report on Olympic Sevens rugby was but one, small, example.

The news mix is still good – Paul Henry leads with real stories and most of the ‘talent’ wheeled in for interviews responds to the pace and solipsism across the table.

One caveat to all the good news for MediaWorks: the ratings figures are for TV. The show is finding it harder going against the slick tongue of Mike Hosking on radio, particularly in Auckland. (Henry must have been spitting into his merlot glass when the petition to have Hosking removed for racism started getting air. It gave more attention to Hosking than the puppet videos on nzherald.co.nz ever could.)

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TV ratings success is a slowly-building, personal redemption for Henry, himself run out of town in a racism scandal years ago. It is that trend that must be exercising the C-suite at TVNZ as it makes its calls on Hilary and who might be her partner.

Barry is all-class; serious, informal and silly as needed. What type fits along the couch? Tame is highly valued where he is, in New York. He has a Saturday morning radio show he might not want to forsake. And might he be too, well, young, to work beside Barry? The fact such a question would never be asked of a younger woman and an older man is unfortunate – but it doesn’t mean it won’t be exercising the TVNZ execs casting the new Breakfast.

Tame was always going to be one of TVNZ’s key stars, but is not thought to have the gravitas to succeed Simon Dallow when he departs One News. (Dallow is said to be keen, soon, to step out of news anchoring after an impeccable stint).

If not Tame, who could help stem the Henry rise? Some bolder questions: do you even need a guy? Could incumbent female host Nadine Chalmers-Ross be the answer? Or, perhaps as radical: does Hilary need anyone else, other than, perhaps sports and weather presenters?

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The available audiences are relatively small. But it matters commercially, for revenue and for the network’s brand, to have the highest-rating and best morning news show. It is important too for morale.

At TV3, having a show innovative and muscular enough at last to take on the TVNZ Death Star must do wonders for those on other programmes, who can see the possibility of success. At TVNZ, letting the morning slot falter just as MediaWorks regathers itself would be executive carelessness.

All this might see Hilary coming out of retirement earlier than we thought. Expect it to be this year, not next. Sooner rather than later. Hilary, your State Broadcaster Needs You.

And you can only hang out in Pakiri for so long.


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