Do we still care about the 6pm TV news?

3:01 pm on 4 July 2024
GST on fruit and vegetables was big news on Newshub at 6 last Monday - in which the PM was confronted on vege eligibility.

Sam Hayes and Mike McRoberts will host their final 6pm news bulletin together on Friday. Photo: screenshot / Newshub at 6

Analysis - 'No-one watches the 6pm news anymore,' many claim. But plenty of people this week read and watched lots in the media about the end of Newshub at 6 - and the start of ThreeNews by Stuff this weekend. So do we still care about the old-fashioned evening TV news? And if so, what do we want at 6pm?

Former broadcaster Paul Henry hosts a new reality game show The Traitors in primetime on Three each Monday.

Former colleagues at the channel's news operation may have labelled Henry as one himself recently when he told a conference of ACT Party backers he'd advised his bosses to kill Newshub in 2020.

"We don't need to congregate around a TV at 6pm any more to find out who's dead and what the weather will be tomorrow," he said to rich applause.

Henry also said so to actual Newshubbers on one of the last ever AM shows this week.

"Sorry guys. If I'd been running the place, I'd have closed it down four or five years ago. Habits are changing," he told them.

They are, but they are also enduring. And national TV still has clout.

Henry is only hosting The Traitors long after his prime because he was a TV news personality in the past.

Newshub host Paul Henry and guest Maria Armoudian throw their hands in the air.

Paul Henry during his AM hosting days. Photo: screenshot / Newshub

And without a broadcast channel, even big TV personalities fail to launch.

Former AM host and 3 News political editor Duncan Garner is a household name. His new live morning show Editor-in-Chief streams on every possible online platform live. Short on-demand video bits are pushed out later and boosted on social media.

TV3's Duncan Garner reads Sky's statement announcing free-to-air coverage of the Americas Cup.

Duncan Garner had a post at the AM desk as well. Photo: screenshot

But not much of it seems to find an audience. One item about renting this week had been watched just once hours after it was posted on YouTube.

Former Newshub chief Hal Crawford recently told Mediawatch a live news bulletin also gives a TV channel life. Without one, they end up mere "content databases" that quickly shed alienated viewers.

That is the reason that, after deciding to kill off Newshub, Warner Bros Discovery (WBD) agreed to pay undisclosed millions to Stuff to make the 6pm replacement - ThreeNews - starting on Saturday.

That - and the fact that more than a million Kiwis still tune in for news at 6pm at least once a week these days. And many of them watch the entire news hour (including commercial breaks) while most comparable countries have far shorter evening bulletins.

The received wisdom says it's a thinning cohort of the boomer-age-and-beyond still watching. And like newspaper readers, viewers who die are not replaced.

But the sun may take a while to set yet.

"I'm still an appointment viewer at six o'clock every day," the Between Two Beers podcast co-host Seamus Marten told Mediawatch last month. Marten is 42 - squarely in the advertiser-friendly 25-54 age bracket TV3 used to target heavily in primetime. He's probably not typical of people his age.

But while not many Kiwis Marten's age or younger will be keeping the 6pm appointment with him, timeshifting has been an option ever since '+1' digital channels appeared in 2012. The +HR=E Now and TVNZ+ apps mean you can watch when and wherever you want.

TVNZ+ stats show 1News content is important to the platform - even though it's not exactly highlighted on the homepage.

1News at Six was the most watched programme on TVNZ+ (with Shortland Street a distant second) accounting for a significant chunk of the 40.5 million streams in April alone.

Even if people aren't watching the full 1News at Six bulletin on TVNZ+, many online users will still see the content created by the TVNZ newsroom for 1News.

The video-heavy 1NewsNow site and app had 22.3 million views and 2.8 million unique browsers in April. Many would have been attracted by news alerts and push notifications to phones.

Spinoffs from TV news also find new audiences and relevance.

For example, The Spinoff's Duncan Greive pointed out Newshub succeeded in reaching younger people unlikely to watch its 6pm news with the Paddy Gower has Issues current affairs show.

Mark Jennings has overseen more 6pm news than anyone else New Zealand. He was head of news at TV3 for more than 20 years.

These days he's a co-editor at which also pitched to make the replacement for Newshub at 6.

"I think it should go back to being an 'uber' summary of the day with high-quality vision and articulate reporters layering in context - and all curated expertly by good producers. But the economics of TV news make that very hard."

Jennings says interactive gimmicks would be a mistake.

"People respond to conciseness and don't want reckons or opinions from young reporters. People do want astute balanced analysis in context. You don't get that with people just whacking breaking news video online. That's the chance at 6pm."

6pm news is also a product that must attract advertisers though. Do they call the shots in the end?

"They're looking for large aggregated audiences - and those are disappearing. The networks have had to reduce the rates and it becomes a vicious circle."

What do we want from TV news?

When TVNZ operated under a public service charter from 2003 to 2011, the state-owned broadcaster was obliged to survey Kiwis annually. Year after year, a healthy majority said they did watch local news and current affairs - and the proportion of those who said they valued it was often even higher.

But that was then.

After super-popular current affairs shows Fair Go and Sunday were controversially culled by TVNZ in May, they have been replaced by Border Patrol repeats and local property porn hosted by British import Phil Spencer.

Fair Go presenters Pippa Wetzell and Hayden Jones.

Fair Go was pulled back in May. Photo: YouTube / 1News

Three's timeslots vacated by Newshub will be filled with foreign renovation, baking and Bondi Rescue. There have not been howls of outrage about that either.

Digital disruption is also acute for Māori TV news.

Whakaata Māori - which recently marked 20 years on air - doesn't publish news audience figures but a recent Te Mangai Paho survey found 34 percent of the Māori general population accessed Māori TV content online - and only 28 percent of rangatahi.

The bilingual Te Ao Māori News and the Māori+ app give instant online access to Whakaata Māori news.

Te Ao with Moana current affairs show airs at 8pm on Mondays but also finds an audience via its 124,000 Facebook followers.

The dilemma for Stuff in replacing Newshub at 6 is whether to mimic what's familiar to the rump of habituated TV appointment viewers - or pivot to something new, like ThreeNews did back in 1990 when 'digital' was still synonymous mainly with wristwatches from Japan.

A preview piece in the Stuff-owned TV Guide seemed to suggest the latter:

"ThreeNews will have a new set and a new, vibrant look and feel. There will be innovative opportunities for audience engagement and participation," it said.

But Stuff digital managing director Nadia Tolich signalled the former when she told the New Zealand Herald this week: "We don't want this to be a cold plunge pool for the existing audience.

"The reality is there is an expectation there that it will feel somewhat similar."

We'll see for ourselves how they square the circle from Saturday at 6pm.

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