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Television: Swapping News for Reality – Looking Back on a Bad Year for TV3

With yesterday’s terrible news about flagship current affairs show 3D, Duncan Greive assesses the MediaWorks’ strategy, a year on from its flashy relaunch.

Yesterday, at the well-known bad news dump slot of 4.56pm, I received this via email:

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3D is TV3’s flagship current affairs show – the place where its best journalists go to do their most important work. Paula Penfold and producer Eugene Bingham played a key role in the quashing of Teina Pora’s convictions for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett in March of this year. One of the grossest miscarriages of justice of recent times was overturned in part because they doggedly pursued the case, despite the Police’s general indifference to it. And a young man done very badly wrong now breathes free as a result.

The show does this kind of thing regularly. On Monday, less than 48 hours before this ‘review’ (in name only; as with Campbell Live) was announced, 3D played the latest of its NZ On Air-funded ‘3D Investigates‘ special programmes. In it Sarah Hall spent a TV half hour looking into allegations of a culture of bullying in our Fire Service. It was meticulously researched, featuring dozens of interviews with ex-Service members, many of whom looked scared out of their minds to be talking on camera. Just persuading them to talk would have taken months.

On Morning Report today a follow up revealed that the Mangawhai Fire Station is essentially without staff capable of driving during the working week. That’s a big community, relatively isolated, just hoping it doesn’t catch fire during business hours. Why? Because the station appears to have a chronic problem with workplace bullying, to the point where a large number of volunteers have resigned rather than work alongside Mike McEnaney – a man who is the public face of the Fire Service.

That’s a big story! One of the key roles of government is to keep its citizens safe, with preventing them from burning to death high up that list. And 3D was one of the last places that kind of public interest story could be told at the length it requires, in front of an audience large enough to force change from the relevant parties.

Now MediaWorks has seemingly deemed the show a relic, a style of journalism no longer relevant in 2015. Too costly. Tellingly, this is despite the show being propped up with over $500,000 in public money, to produce the 3D Investigates episodes. In light of that, it starts to look like less a commercial decision than a philosophical one.

The bigger question that has to be asked is about the quality of the decision making at Flower Street. Almost exactly a year ago I watched in The Cloud, down on Queen’s Wharf, as the new MediaWorks was born. It was an ecstatic scene, buoyed with hope and energy. It must have cost a fucking bomb. I went home immediately afterwards and wrote a crazed, hyperbolic love letter to the vision, summed up below:

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Mark Weldon clearly liked it – he forwarded it to the whole company the following day. I don’t think he’ll be doing the same this time around. Because while I still think the vision we were sold that night was beautiful – a big, bold organisation, with talkable reality TV, strong local comedy, big personality news – the execution has been woeful.

The reality shows were – with the notable exception of the The Bachelor – mostly weak. Ratings plummeted for X Factor, Masterchef was a tepid bomb, The Block is generating nowhere near the interest of previous years. Come Dine With Me was brilliant, but senselessly sent to die in the firing squad of the just-vacated 7pm slot.

Most productions were manifestly asking good people to do too much with too little. They lacked for strong narratives and were notably poorly cast.

The local comedy has been better handled: raising Jono and Ben to an hour; expanding the 7 Days brand; making Fail Army an unexpected joy; launching Funny Girls. All good things, though similarly, a small crew being asked to create hours of television across multiple shows means signs of wear are often visible.

The big problem was news. Paul Henry arrived – no issue with that. It’s a light morning news show which pretends to be nothing else. Henry himself is surrounded by strong personalities who call him to account when he steps out of line – which is less often as a result. Newsworthy came too, and is positioning itself out as a place which embraces the chaos of this era. Probably what you want out of the late night slot.

But hard news has been decimated. Campbell Live was bled out in the most bitter and public way possible. I saw one of their reporters at an event last night. He still seemed slightly in shock at the brutality and senselessness of it. The bitter irony being that the campaign to save it produced the channel’s best ratings of the year – maybe the best they’ll ever have from here on out.

It has been replaced with Story, a different kind of news show. Faster, more combative, perhaps a little glib at times. Certainly not worse, just different. But it is unaccountably staged just four nights a week, and has had to work incredibly hard to heal the open wounds within and without of the organisation as a result of its predecessor’s axing. Let’s not even mention Scout – a gossip site without much gossip.

Now 3D has been put into the Campbell Live sleeper hold, after being shunted from a plum 6.30pm Sunday slot, straight after the news, to a terrible 9.30pm Monday slot, following that well-known current affairs lead-in Heroes Reborn. Shockingly, its ratings fell.

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But it’s hardly alone there. The Block had its worst debut everX Factor had its audience drop by a third between seasons. Jono and Ben has suffered too, mostly courtesy of a series of disastrous lead-ins post Campbell Live. Some of the overall decline is attributable to the loss of Home and Away, sure. But some must be linked to the callous and contemptuous attitude toward news the channel has exhibited.

News used to be a signature of TV3 – pacy, punchy, no-bullshit news. It had an energy and attitude which seeped into everything the channel did and stood for. But the summary execution of two of its biggest news properties, despite an uproar and Campbell Live‘s extraordinary ratings, gives credibility to the conspiracy theorists.

They’ve long muttered that the Weldon-Christie duo really are ridding TV3 of anything resembling hard news, anything problematic to their political views.

I still don’t think that’s the case. Seems too crazy, despite the circumstantial evidence. I’m leaning more toward another diagnosis: incompetence.

A year ago, during that gaudy presentation, there was a clear strategy visible: make exciting, dynamic, talkable shows on TV3; keep radio rolling; then sell or float the business.

That’s why you would bring a guy like Weldon on. Ran the NZX very well, brought it into the 21st century. Will come in. Clean house. Cut fat. Sell on. Job done.

Only, he’s not done that. He’s presided over a period in which TV3’s brand, for so long so strong, has been badly eroded on multiple fronts. And correspondingly the company’s owners, Oaktree Capital, now possess a media company which is no longer anything like so valuable as it was. That exit strategy looks a long way off.

Which makes you wonder – will Weldon last the year? And will some poor sap have to come in and clean this mess up? Starting with rebuilding the news brand?

More specifically, in time, will the axing of 3D look like the end of a tough period of reorientation. Or the last, flailing act of an administration which got it very badly wrong.

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