Three’s stealth attack on TVNZ

The shock resignation of Mike Hosking has led to Three playing some very aggressive media chess.

“You’re looking very bronzed,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Duncan Garner on Monday morning. “A bronzed whaler,” he replied, assumedly not a confession of his summer recreational activities. Thereafter, they got into the serious business of Trump and shitholes and national politics. It’s mid-January, and the AM Show is already off and running.

This shouldn’t be noteworthy, but it is: New Zealand’s critical news programmes (the bulletins aside), have typically taken most of this month off. It’s been part of a tacit agreement amongst all the major networks to start the year slow, ultimately dating back to the misty past when only men were in paid employment and everyone lived in a tent beside a pristine waterway until January 30 or so. 

That era just got blitzed by Three, which has not only returned The AM Show, but last night brought back The Project too, with Ardern and all her star power showing up there as well. Three is clearly betting that it can tempt some longtime TVNZ1 watchers to try something new – and keep them.

The strategy would be laudable anytime, if only to spare us this crash news diet – but right now it’s also a very adroit media chess move. It so panicked TVNZ that they rushed confirmation of the long-rumoured news that Hilary Barry was moving to Seven Sharp, to be replaced on Breakfast by Hayley Holt. How do we know it was rushed? This kind of news is always on the front page of the paper when carefully planned – and this morning’s Herald teased with ‘fish n chips with a twist’.

This chaotic little flurry has come about because TVNZ, the giant of our free-to-air media, has quite suddenly found itself looking a little shaky – even vulnerable.

A year ago this would have seemed utterly absurd: TVNZ was cruising, while Three was in disarray. Weldon’s reign of error had seen the channel’s legacy stars scattered to other networks, while its biggest-ever recruit in Paul Henry had just resigned on a whim.

Paul Henry at a Mediaworks event in 2016. Photo: Duncan Greive

Yet here we are in 2018 and the wind has shifted quite radically. Now it’s TVNZ scrambling to replace a boorish male star, after Mike Hosking abruptly quit at the end of last year, and facing a reshuffle of key talent less than 18 months after the last.

These opportunities are rare. Between 2006 and 2012 the two networks had a total of two hosts fronting 7pm current affairs shows. While things have moved more lately, Three is right to consider this moment the network’s best chance in years to take a chunk out of the mighty state-owned broadcaster’s still-vast and uncommonly stable audience.

It’s not necessarily a disaster. Sources familiar with TVNZ’s thinking suggest that Hosking’s departure, while a shock, was not altogether unwelcome. While he remains unquestionably the biggest star in New Zealand media, his curmudgeonly style was starting to feel dated, and grating on attempts at renewal like the new Breakfast, the What Next experiment and Facebook smash Re:.

Hilary and her beer fridge. Photo: Joel Thomas

Hosking’s replacement Hilary Barry is just five years younger than him, but stylistically is world’s apart thanks to her relatability and self-mocking humour. If the rumours that Jeremy Wells will sit alongside her are true the pair will, paradoxically, be both a strong foe for The Project and a major risk for TVNZ, thanks to being a big bet on youth – who’ve been deeply ambivalent TV viewers lately. Barry has transformed Breakfast but its ratings have been solid rather than exceptional. Wells is spectacularly talented but was last seen on TVNZ doing weird things late at night on Eating Media Lunch and has, if anything, only gotten weirder since.

Even if the combination gels, there are now at least three clear weeks during which The Project is competing with Extreme Cake Makers for the 7pm current affairs eyeball. It’s an uncommonly long stretch to leave such a critical time slot essentially unguarded, and while TVNZ could hardly have predicted the double resignation which prompted it, the organisation will be very conscious of what is at stake here.

Seven Sharp is not the only challenge, either. Barry’s Breakfast replacement Hayley Holt was superb on The Crowd Goes Wild, but tentative on Back Benches. A three hour a day, five day a week live production – albeit a richly resourced one – will take some getting used to. The AM Show now boasts, in Garner, Richardson and Gillies, significantly more star power.

Hayley Holt on The Crowd Goes Wild

At a corporate level, other issues abound. TVNZ’s profit has shrunk to a negligible $1.4m (impacted by a programming write-down), and its long-term business looks decidedly shaky. As worrying is the new Labour-led government’s decision to favour RNZ for its new commercial-free budget. While TVNZ might privately be relieved not to have to recreate TVNZ7, they are being forced to supply resources to the new channel. While explicitly not for sale, it’s clearly not a favourite of the new government.

The sense that the tonal wind is changing in media more broadly is strong, and moving from a conservative lean to a liberal one. Hosking was not the only divisive figure to resign towards the end of last year – Leighton Smith (albeit with an epic notice period) and Tony Veitch also announced their exits. Each had a long career and heavy baggage, and their departures offer the chance at renewal for big media brands which are always fighting the ageing process. But they also carry the danger that their replacements will fail to fire, or prompt audiences to try other stations.

We won’t know whether it is a pivotal moment or just another reshuffle for another year at least. But Three’s accelerated return of its key current affairs properties suggests that it senses a rare weakness at TVNZ – one it is determined to exploit.

Declaration of interest: The Spinoff TV will air on Three later in 2018.


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