Christchurch’s CTV channel survived a quake that killed half its staff and wrecked its premises five years ago. But changing technology, media economics and public broadcasting policy have combined to knock the country’s leading local TV channel off the air.
In February 2011, the collapse of the Christchurch’s CTV building, named after the local TV channel which had been on the air since 1991, killed 115 people.
The channel lost more than half its staff that day, including managing director Murray Wood, a veteran of the TV industry.
At the time, local TV critic Trevor Agnew told Mediawatch the city would miss CTV.
“They stuck to their knitting with programmes that kept the regional link, and people watched them,” he said.
“It’s terrible to speak about it in the past tense but it seems CTV as we know it is finished,” said Trevor Agnew, buffeted by aftershocks during the conversation.
But he spoke too soon.
"Anyone who gives up in a little bit of adversity is not worth a tin of salt," said chairman Nick Smith in 2011.
CTV was broadcasting again in Christchurch less than three months later. It might have been sooner but replacement equipment was held up by - of all things - a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Within a year, the ‘The Recovery Channel’ was broadcasting more local programmes than before - north as far as Kaikōura and as far south as Waimate - from new premises.
Its news covered the inquests and inquiries which revealed its former building failed to meet critical standards when it was built in 1986.
CTV was taken over in 2013 by Christchurch-based Mainland Media, backed by Dunedin-based Allied Press which owns The Otago Daily Times. The channel was then integrated into the newspaper and magazine publishing operation of the company, which became Star Media in 2014. Mr Smith’s role in reviving CTV was cited when he was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in June.
The channel celebrated 25 years on air this year, and reported the news when the ground shook again last week.
It saw off quakes in 2010, 2011 and now in 2016, but technology and modern media economics have proved a mountain too big to climb.
Last week Star Media staff were told CTV would cease broadcasting on TV. From 19 December, CTV will only be available online and and up to 13 jobs will go.
"We need to compete with a whole lot of screens now for audience — that is mobile devices, tablets, phones web-based products and so on, “ Star Media chief executive Steve McCaughan told The Press.
"It's been very difficult for traditional TV to continue to grow audience,” he said.
From 2017, Dunedin will be the only major centre outside Auckland with a local TV station. Channel 39 is also backed by Otago Daily Times publisher Allied Press.
But it is not just the spread of broadband and digital devices killing off local TV stations like CTV. It’s also public broadcasting policy.
Some local stations went off air after the digital switchover when the cost of transmission increased.
In 2014, New Zealand on Air reviewed its policy of granting sums of between $100,000 and $250,000 dollars a year to 12 local TV stations. It concluded bankrolling news on little-watched local networks was a bad investment, especially as many did not seem to have a sound financial future.
It now gives four media companies around $400,000 each for occasional online videos of news stories in four selected regions.
CTV was a successful applicant, and the money will fund the kind of news offered to viewers in Christchurch since 1991. But from next month, they won't see it on each night on Freeview Channel 40 along with coverage of local events, sports and shopping.
Rob Cope-Williams was instrumental in getting CTV back on air in 2011.
He told Mediawatch he feared some of CTV’s loyal viewers would not follow the channel’s output online when TV transmission stopped.
He now produces weekly farming show On the Land which is available online and also screens on Auckland-based Face TV (Sky channel 83).
“Technology has moved on and more viewing is online these days, but the policy of doing away with [established regional TV] and going online-only could be throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he said.