10 Apr 2015

Farewell current affairs TV?

6:56 am on 10 April 2015

Two stories published online yesterday afternoon prompted an immediate flurry in the media.

Is Campbell Live on the chopping block?

Is Campbell Live on the chopping block? Photo: FACEBOOK

Fairfax Media's stuff.co.nz reported that TV3's current affairs show Campbell Live was "facing the axe" after a meeting between management and the programme's staff earlier in the day, while the New Zealand Herald said TV3 bosses may be thinking of canning the current affairs show for a daily version of the Jono and Ben entertainment show.

Journalists took to twitter to express disappointment - even anger - including some from rival media.

Elsewhere in cyberspace campaigns were launched, including one urging big companies to come to its financial rescue.

In ten years on the air, Campbell Live and its host have earned much kudos and respect for reporting on matters of public interest - and human interest.

It is not surprising journalists and dedicated viewers reacted badly to news that its days may be numbered.

But TV3's owner Mediaworks has only confirmed the show is "under review ... to improve commercial performance of the 7pm time-slot in a changing television market."

It is not surprising a review is under way. The launch of a new Paul Henry morning show this week - across radio, television and online - can only have been the result of a fundamental review of Mediaworks' news programmes.

And it would not surprise subscribers to the National Business Review's website.

On April 2, it reported unnamed sources saying that the top brass at Mediaworks did not support Campbell Live but this article behind NBR's subscriber paywall did not make the sort of impact of the ones last Thursday's stories did which were widely-shared and commented upon.

The NBR also said big-name reality TV shows have become a bigger component of TV3's prime time since Mediaworks board member Julie Christie took a hands-on role in programmes.

NBR said these shows may not prove as profitable as projected by Mediaworks, creating more pressure on other programmes. However, that was denied by Mediaworks in a subsequent statement.

"Local event television is a long-term strategy and we are very comfortable with the performance of these shows to date . . . despite what some uninformed commentators believe, these days the success of shows like The X Factor NZ and The Bachelor New Zealand is not solely measured by television ratings," the statement said.

The review of Campbell Live will be led by Mark Jennings, Mediaworks' long-serving news chief. He presided over the show's creation, has backed it in public and ensured it remained on the air in prime time even when TV3 was cutting costs to reduce debt incurred after a private equity fund bought the broadcaster.

Some have said a ratings slide in recent weeks prompted the review of the show, but since it launched 10 years ago - competing for viewers' attention with TVNZ's long-established 7pm news show Holmes - it has always had a smaller audience.

While it is not certain that the axe will fall on Campbell Live, it seems unlikely the programme will remain as it is in the long term - or on air at the same time it has always been screened since its launch.

Tellingly, Mr Jennings has said, "viewer expectations in 2015 are quite different from those of 2005" - and now the same is true of the broadcasters too.

Shortly after TV3 launched Campbell Live in 2005, Paul Holmes went to Prime TV which set up a third TV current affairs show at 7pm.

Today, by contrast, only Campbell Live is doing current affairs on its own some nights at 7pm, as TVNZ's Seven Sharp favours entertainment instead.

On twitter, one journalist summed up the contrast like this:

If the broadcaster's appetite for daily current affairs is diminished, another question arises; will it seek public funding for a programme such as Campbell Live?

In the past, New Zealand on Air money was never used for news or current affairs, to guard against potential conflicts of interest and dependence on the state for finance.

But in recent years, off-peak politics shows The Nation and Q+A have both been bankrolled by the Platinum Fund which "supports quality content which may be currently difficult to find on our screens".

This week New Zealand on Air also announced funding for a new investigative journalism programme for TV3 because it said "the logistics of a weekly stand-alone investigative journalism programme are not viable".

If Mediaworks decides the "logistics" of Campbell Live are no longer viable in prime time, it may be also be pushed to the fringes where advertisers and sponsors are hard to attract.