Gordon Campbell on the demise of Campbell Live

The imminent axeing of Campbell Live has been the inevitable outcome of a mindset which considers only (a) declining ratings which impact on (b) advertising revenue, which are then offset against (c) the production cost of doing news and current affairs which (surprise, surprise) is a more expensive commodity to make than reality television. Those are the commercial realities. Once again, the market tells us the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Obviously, TV3 is not a charity. It is not obliged to provide a social service, at least not in prime time. Lets leave aside for a moment the question of whether broadcasters should be required – as a condition of holding a licence – to do news and current affairs beyond the ghetto of early morning weekend television….when almost no-one is watching, and no major advertising revenue is at stake. Lets also put to one side the question of the animus that TV3 director Julie Christie reportedly has towards John Campbell and his style of advocacy journalism.

The wider issue – beyond the fate of highly talented people like John Campbell – has to do with how many New Zealanders really put a value (beyond mere lip service) on quality news and current affairs journalism, such that they are willing to pay to retain it. Currently, a lot of people don’t think twice about paying a monthly subscription to Sky TV, which invests sweet nothing in news and current affairs about New Zealand.

As viewers head elsewhere or switch off altogether, the country is left with the prospect of losing a major talent who is the closest thing we have to a John Oliver – ie, someone who can do quality journalism and entertain at the same time. Unfortunately, the likely response among Campbell’s current supporters will be to reach for the Sky remote and click somewhere else. Anything But Hosking is an understandable gut response, but it isn’t much of a political strategy.

Can Campbell Live be saved? An influx of 50,000 viewers would certainly help in the meantime, while TV3’s internal “review” of its future options is carried out. Consider that as a political act. At least it would strengthen Campbell’s own negotiating hand. Winter is coming and viewer numbers will pick up, which may explain why TV3 is acting now on Campbell Live while ratings are at their nadir, given that any change will be virtually bound to look better by mid-year.

Right now, it is pretty hard for Campbell to argue for a prime time slot when he’s delivering (at times) only circa 120,000 viewers while over on TV1, over 500,000 New Zealanders seem to prefer to watch Mike Hosking. The recent exodus of talent from the TV3 newsroom _ Rebecca Wright, Rachel Morton, Jane Luscombe etc – has shown that some of the channel’s key talent has seen the writing on the wall. (Few people are looking at whether TV3’s news hour is doing a good job of delivering Campbell Live enough viewers, come 7pm. It shouldn’t all be blamed on Campbell himself. )

The key decision- makers in TV3’s decisions over Campbell Live seem to be its new CEO (and former Stock Exchange head) Mark Weldon, and TV3 director Julie Christie, the queen of reality television.

Christie’s bio on NZ Onscreen helps to explain why she might not be a champion of John Campbell, or of any news and current affairs service that can’t earn its keep in a prime time slot. As former news supremo Bill Ralston has pointed out on RNZ this morning, the key audience for advertisers is the 18-44 age group, and therefore –given Christie’s background – she may see potential in using the 7pm time slot to attack TV2’s Shortland Street audience, which sits in that prized age demographic. If that really is the plan, prime time television news and current affairs in New Zealand will soon be the sole preserve of Mike Hosking, partly by choice and partly by default.

That outcome may be what the public is going to get, but arguably, it is not what they want.

The news comes [of Campbell Live’s likely fate] as MediaWorks’ own research commissioned from an external company showed Campbell is the nation’s most preferred current affairs broadcaster, receiving approval ratings twice that of Mike Hosking and Paul Henry.

The Herald has learned the research was in TV3’s target audience bracket of 25-54 year olds, but noted there was no significant difference on research against the broader population.

TV3 may be preparing to axe its flagship news and current affairs programme. Yet evidently, it is also readying itself to tap an income stream from the taxpayer, and to do investigative journalism elsewhere on the TV3 schedule, only this time from the public purse:

Meanwhile, as news of the longstanding current affairs show’s possible demised emerged, NZ On Air announced it would fund a TV3 investigative journalism show called 3D Investigates to the tune of more than $500,000.

Yes, TV3 is under short-term financial pressure. Christie however, would seem to be the last person you would want to be endowed with making life-or-death decisions about any form of quality television. Her career as a producer began with Mud and Glory : Great Rugby Stories, and with Rachel Hunter: Cover Girl and it has been more of the same ever since. As her NZ Onscreen bio says with pride :

Many of Christie’s programmes have become staples of the local television schedules – This is Your Life, Changing Rooms, nine seasons plus of My House My Castle, Whose House Is It Anyway, DIY Rescue, Trading Places, Treasure Island and Game of Two Halves. The company has also retooled overseas formats for local audiences, as was the case with time travelling reality show Pioneer House and Dragons’ Den, in which Christie was one of the team who decided which entrepreneurs to invest in. Touchdown’s shows have made stars out of a number of presenters, including Matthew Ridge, Marc Ellis and April Ieremia.

Wow. The person who made television stars out of Matthew Ridge, Marc Ellis and April Ieremia. No wonder John Campbell is doomed. And no wonder we have a system of television where the notion of broadcasting as a public service is increasingly, a relic of the past.

Public Service Broadcasting?

That’s a useful segue for another form of time travel… back to the days when the advent of colour television held out the promise of a new world to come:

and why not go all the way back, to the days of the Spitfire :

Content Sourced from scoop.co.nz
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