8 May 2016

A turbulent week at troubled MediaWorks

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 8 May 2016

First a top presenter left, then the top executive - just after he launched a new TV channel. What’s next at MediaWorks and do recent events prove media people should lead media companies?

Mark Weldon and Hilary Barry

Mark Weldon and Hilary Barry Photo: Supplied

When Hilary Barry resigned last week, she became the latest in a long line of well-known broadcasters to leave MediaWorks.

During painful restructuring overseen by chief executive Mark Weldon over the past two years, plenty of executives have also left MediaWorks, which owns about half the country’s commercial radio stations as well as TV3 and Four.  

Following a stint in charge of the NZX, Mr Weldon was appointed in 2014 with a mandate to improve the financial performance of the company, which was just out of receivership. Mr Weldon said news and current affairs - which had been regarded as a strength for TV3 - were not performing commercially.

He refocused MediaWorks TV channels on entertainment and reality shows and brushed aside concerns about damage to the company's reputation or brand - as well as worries about the evaporation of goodwill and esprit de corps among staff.

This made Mark Weldon a hated figure among journalists: he was accused of wrecking the culture at MediaWorks, built up by those who were there well before him.

Some of Hilary Barry's colleagues have said this week that was why she quit even though the official line was that she wanted to "spend more time with the family"

Newsreader leaves job, stuns media

There was no other news at all on the front page of last weekend’s New Zealand Herald and in the Sunday Star Times, former Herald editor Tim Murphy said it was "huger than all the other huge shocks to rock the House of Weldon in the past 12 months".

Photo of former new Zealand herald editor-in-chief Tim Murphy

Former New Zealand Herald editor-in-chief Tim Murphy Photo: RNZ/ Dru Faulkner

But was one TV presenter quitting really a bigger deal than the departure, earlier this year, of TV3’s news chief Mark Jennings - the man who oversaw 3 News through multiple changes of ownership and management and had been there from the very start of the channel?

It was, judging by some of the overwrought reactions in the media.

On stuff.co.nz, Fairfax Media’s Katie Kenny said:

"The country stands behind her co-host Paul Henry in saying: “We love you Hilary."

But if New Zealanders really adored Barry so much, why didn't they watch the shows she fronts, rather than those on TV1?

The Spinoff editor Duncan Greive said of Ms Barry's resignation: "It’s a cataclysmic event for the organisation. A multi-pronged nightmare with implications stretching from dawn to dusk and across all platforms”.

He also said a source claimed Mediaworks could face a staff revolt within 48 hours if Mr Weldon remained in his job.

But in the National Business Review (NBR) media writer Nick Grant chimed in last Monday with this:

"I have three words in response to the hysterical pitch of many reports about broadcaster Hilary Barry’s resignation. Get. A. Grip."

Gone by breakfast

However, as events unfolded, the rumoured revolt appeared to be real.

On Monday Mr Weldon emerged from a MediaWorks board meeting scheduled for the following day, saying he thought he had the full confidence of the board. It seemed like business as usual the following day when Mr Weldon unveiled a joint-venture to rebrand the TV channel Four as Bravo

But the following morning MediaWorks announced Mr Weldon had handed in his notice late on Tuesday night. His statement said the personal cost was too high for him to carry on in the job. After that came the bizarre sight of his two most famous employees - newsreaders Mike McRoberts and Hilary Barry - turning up at MediaWorks’ Auckland HQ with champagne and beer to celebrate.

Mark Weldon insisted the company was much better placed than when he first walked in the door, but not according to the Twitter feeds of many journalists who went out the door during his reign.

There was plenty more of what Tim Murphy dubbed “Weldonfreude” through the day.

Why did he go?

"It was clear that he had lost the backing of key executives. In the end, he couldn't win the support of the people in the company that really mattered," former news chief Mark Jennings told Fairfax Media.

But the NBR found marketing and advertising people backed Mr Weldon.

“In focusing on Mr Weldon, they have largely missed the point that the changes, innovation and progress the company has made over the last couple of years is not only impressive but necessary,” Zenith Optimedia managing director Stuart Rutherford told the newspaper.

Mr Jennings told the Herald Mark Weldon was “not the right cultural fit."

But who is? The company is owned by a US-based investment firm which specialises in buying financially weakened companies cheaply and selling them on for profit later. Whoever follows as the next boss may have to follow the same plan Weldon was.

Must media leaders be media people?

Just after the news of Mr Weldon's resignation broke on Wednesday Nine to Noon media commentator Gavin Ellis said media companies should be run be people with media experience, echoing many of the former TV3 journalists commenting on Mr Weldon's exit. 

"Media is not just another industry. I struggle to recall a runaway success where someone has been brought in from outside," he said.

TVNZ chief executive Kevin Kenrick.

TVNZ chief executive Kevin Kenrick. Photo: RNZ

The biggest broadcaster in the country is currently led by a boss brought in from outside.

Kevin Kenrick was appointed as TVNZ chief executive in 2012 after leading the House of Travel company. That makes him the longest-serving leader of a major New Zealand media company.

"We've had four CEOs come from other industries into the media. It reflects the pace of change and the willingness of those organisations to get a fresh perspective," he told Mediawatch.

He said leaders of media companies must ensure they plan for the future by ensuring those with experience in the business are in place to lead it in the future. 

"We shouldn't overstate the role we play. If we didn't have any viewers, we wouldn't have any advertisers," he said. "We have to be open to feedback from viewers about what they want."