Image: Supplied, additional design by Tina Tiller
Image: Supplied, additional design by Tina Tiller

TelevisionNovember 15, 2021

Three’s new owners are obsessed with reality TV and launching new channels

Image: Supplied, additional design by Tina Tiller
Image: Supplied, additional design by Tina Tiller

Less than a year on from the divorce from MediaWorks radio, Three’s new CEO comes on The Fold and tells Duncan Greive about the new direction.

It’s outwardly been a rough few weeks for Glen Kyne, the CEO of Discovery NZ, the new owners of Newshub, Three and a host of other local media assets. Still very fresh in his job, working with new owners he’s had a good year’s worth of issues to confront over lockdown. First the cancellation of acclaimed drama Head High became a flare-up, with key members coming on The Fold to decry the decision, and Kyne’s former colleague Andrew Szusterman, who now runs TV production giant South Pacific Pictures, addressing the move in an opinion piece.

Much worse was to come. Over the space of a few weeks a clutch of the network’s biggest stars have been poached by MediaWorks – until very recently the parent company of Three to join its radio operation. These include agenda-setting political reporter Tova O’Brien, her heir apparent Lloyd Burr and former host of The AM Show Duncan Garner. Three is always on the backfoot against the enormous legacy audiences and stable government ownership of TVNZ – but that lightning raid of its talent cupboard felt like it might have foretold a disengagement with news entirely.

All that was washed away in 45 minutes last Wednesday, when Kyne and his team staged a virtual upfronts, showcasing an enormous amount of work and a clear strategy which ladders up to the strengths of the new owners in Discovery. 

The emphasis was on reality TV and lifestyle programming, with a bunch of familiar and reliable shows like The Block and Dancing with the Stars, along with very Discovery-friendly new formats like the Amazing Race-esque Tracked and Hoarders-esque Sort Your Life Out. It also showcased two new free-to-air channels, investment in Three Now, a rebooted AM Show, now known as AM – along with even more news programming. Taken together it suggested a muscular and reinvigorated new media entity, one which has left the MediaWorks era behind and is primed to grow.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity

Tell me how the Discovery ownership has changed Three, changed Newshub and changed the culture of the former MediaWorks television business?

It feels like we’ve always been owned by Discovery. There hasn’t been this huge cultural pivot – we’ve really been allowed to continue on with what is in the essence of DNA of Three. 

What’s come with Discovery is a level of discipline around being very focused on what we do and what we don’t do. We talk about ‘glocal’, the best of global and local. So Discovery allow us to be quite entrepreneurial in the region, to develop our own plan, our own strategy. We know the market based on what’s going to resonate, but they bring global support and infrastructure and thinking to help support that strategy. So we feel in a really calm, confident place.

There was a real sense that you are very much committing to reality and lifestyle programming. The one glaring absence was local drama and comedy, which have been previously big local planks of Three’s experience. Where do they sit for you now?

The lineup is about trying to select and present to the world what we think are winning formats. Much-loved formats like MasterChef, but also brand new content that New Zealand hasn’t seen before with formats like Tracked. So we’re really excited about that. We recognise that in comedy, we have lost ground in the last couple of years – Three was renowned as the home of comedy and we want to bring that back. The start of that today was about a change-up to 7 Days. Moving it into the 7:30 slot, expanding it for an hour. You can expect to see a lot more talent being rolled through that format, a lot more new talent.

There’s a couple of funding rounds here to come and we are working really hard in the background around additional comedy formats. Guy Williams is still a big part of the stable with New Zealand Today. But there’s more work to do. 

In terms of local drama, it’s really important to us. It hasn’t changed. We’ve had a lot of success in the past and we want to have that success again. Drama, as you know, is the hardest format to make work these days with the prevalence of international drama coming in via streaming services. But, we recognise it’s still deeply important to reflect New Zealand stories through drama. So we are going to have more to say on that. 

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One drama you had was Head High – really well received and super important to those who worked on it. It wasn’t renewed for a third season. Why?

Like you, I loved the series. I thought it was fantastic. One of the challenges for us is that we’re a commercial broadcaster at the end of the day. We’d love to tell more stories, but commercially everything has to work. And Head High wasn’t doing the job for us, frankly, that we needed it to do. And so that’s why it wasn’t renewed for a further season. I’ve been quite open with Andrew and had a good conversation with him about that. And I know he’s commented through The Spinoff as well. But going forward, we’re committed. 

Over the last year, we have had to make tough decisions around our content and programming. And one of the reasons we’ve done that is we had to earn the right to make the investment decisions we’ve made today. And so that doesn’t come with putting every piece of content you’ve got on screen, that comes around making critical choices around the things that are going to get the best return. 

It’s always a bit porous what’s reality, what’s factual, what’s lifestyle. But new shows like Trackers et cetera point to converging of classic Three approaches with more of what Discovery knows.

There may have been some assumptions that we were just going to release a whole bunch of Discovery formats. Clearly we haven’t done that. And the reason we haven’t done that is it’s about getting the best out of the local audience. And so with a brand like Three, it’s a very broad, general entertainment and news channel.

It’s a mass reach channel. So we need formats and ideas and content that are going to work out for the masses. We certainly have packed a couple of Discovery formats that we think will work. My Town Takeover is a good example – in the US it’s called Hometown Takeover. It’s a huge hit. And that’s all about finding regional New Zealand towns that we can go into and do a bit of a makeup job and bring some life and energy and inspiration into those towns.

So that’s, I guess an example of taking the best of Discovery, localising it, making it relevant through a New Zealand audience. 

Let’s talk quickly about your rebrand of Choice TV to Gusto. The pitch is movies, British drama, game shows, news. It’s a very 90s schedule – which seems perfect for that narrow 40-54 demographic you’re targeting.

Choice has done a really good job in the market and was a performing channel from, not just an audience point of view, but also financially. It did really well. But we saw the opportunity to refresh it and really tighten the programming and the type of content that’s going to appeal to that audience. We think that channel’s got a really good shot at some long term growth in it.

One of the questions would be, is it, does it still make sense to invest into traditional linear broadcast television these days? We wouldn’t have done that if we didn’t think there was an opportunity to grow that audience. But of course it has to be done in a targeted way. 

What we are not trying to do is build another TVNZ and or Three.

Is the targeting of it an admission that under 40s – which are still a 15-year band of Three’s 25-54 target – that they are getting increasingly hard to hit through linear?

There’s no doubt that the pattern of behaviour is changing. I’m not going to reveal anything new by sharing that. That’s a common truth now of the broadcast industry. I think what we’ve done with the targeting of our channels is made sure that we are not stealing audience from one another. 

So if I think about Three, actually it’s 35-44 is really the key audience. So it makes sense to extend 40 to 54 off the back of that, because there’s still a lot of viewing happening in that audience.

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Let’s talk about news. And we’ll start with the glass half empty. What’s your relationship with MediaWorks CEO like Cam Wallace right now?

It’s good. We’ve been talking for months. And I think at the heart of the question is obviously the announcement around MediaWorks, obviously moving away from someone casting the AM show and creating their own breakfast radio show.

And the talent. It’s very inconvenient.

With the talent piece, we’re super excited with how Ryan [Bridge] has been performing. He’s just such a talented broadcaster. We are genuinely excited for New Zealand to see Mel and Ryan together. They are going to be electric and dynamic and fun. Everyone’s going to enjoy that. We’ve got a couple more announcements to come, obviously around talent at that show. 

But around talent generally, I think we’ve been an incubator of talent for a time. I think Three has done a fantastic job and Newshub has done a fantastic job of identifying talent and giving them opportunities. We’re going to continue to do that. We’ve brought over Oriini Kaipara into the fold this year. She’s done an incredible job reading our news bulletins during the day. Sam Hayes is coming back from maternity leave in the new year. So we’re excited to see her back. 

So we are going to continue to develop talent. We are excited with the breadth of talent we do have. We think they’re doing a phenomenal job and there’s more opportunities now today than ever.

Between AM, the Project, and all your other bulletins you now have at least six and a half hours of news running each day. At what point do you look at the rest of the schedule and see here a 24-hour news channel opportunity here? 

One of the very first questions that I got asked globally by Discovery was, do you think we could stand up a 24 hour news channel in this market? And I think the answer is, yes. I’m certainly not announcing that we’re doing that today, by the way.

But I think the point here is that the desire to consume news and analysis and opinion is higher and every year seems to get higher still. So I definitely think there’s a space in the market to find dedicated news and current affairs content to service that need. We’re certainly not planning on doing that in 2022. But I think it’s going to be an ongoing discussion for us as a company.

What is the current state of the Discovery-Warner merger and what would that do to Discovery NZ?

It’s so exciting. When you think about the scale of content that a merged organisation will be able to produce every year, it’s just, it’s mind blowing. Across every genre and format. The reality is unfortunately, I can’t talk a lot about that merger right now and I know that’s disappointing but we are working through the US regulatory process. But the deal’s progressing well and we expect it to close sometime around the middle of next year. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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