John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

Media: Winds of change blow through TVNZ

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TVNZ political editor Guyon Espiner's departure leaves a big gap at the Beehive. Photo / File
TVNZ political editor Guyon Espiner's departure leaves a big gap at the Beehive. Photo / File

Broadcaster close to naming head of news as CEO prepares to leave and political editor shifts to TV3

Television New Zealand will pick its news boss in the next few days but the preferred candidate will face a newsroom in flux and a company waiting for a new leader.

With head of news and current affairs Anthony Flannery going home to Australia and Network Ten, a committee of his colleagues are close to finding a replacement.

Chief executive and editor-in-chief Rick Ellis will be off in February for a new life in Australia working at Telstra.

Flannery did what he was told without complaint, initiating cuts and laying off staff without allowing any collapse in ratings. He will be remembered for re-establishing processes.

One criticism was that like a lot of Aussie TV news bosses he was more into organisation than a love of news and beyond the creditable administration of the Christchurch earthquake and shift to the American-style news, he will not be remembered for promoting the search for big, breaking stories.

How will the new TVNZ newsroom look? My sources have been surprised that BBC-trained Michele Romaine appears to be actively planning changes to the newsroom that Flannery's replacement will take over. It's an unusual process - you would assume you would conduct a review when a replacement for Ellis is found.

ESPINER AWAY
The defection of Guyon Espiner to TV3's 60 Minutes leaves a gap at the Beehive and the loss of some key interviewer talent.

One suggestion is that TVNZ would do away with the role of political editor - which seems mad but plausible.

Breakfast host Corin Dann has the wherewithal for the Beehive job, but might not be keen to leave Auckland.

I hear his Breakfast co-host Petra Bagust has not always scored well in focus groups.

In the unlikely event Dann went, New York correspondent Tim Wilson would be ideal for Breakfast.

Q&A will be back next year with Paul Holmes, but he will need a co-host, some new energy and new commentators.

* Expect the TVNZ news department to lose control of the consumer programme Fair Go . Programmers have long wished to remove journalism oversight of the consumer show, which spoils some promotional ideas, removing the last vestiges of risk that it might lead to legal demands.

* Star reporter Lisa Owen will return from overseas - but there is not a lot of demand for her style of hard-hitting journalism.

MERRY CHRISTMAS
The Michael Laws fiasco is rumbling on at RadioLive, as is the ill-feeling between MediaWorks TV and radio staff.

It has been two weeks since Laws was on the airways after "joking" that journalists he did not like should be shot dead. With the Christmas break ahead, listeners will be starting to forget what he is like.

Laws has the upper hand - a freshly signed contract - and a sharp brain that would run rings around your average radio executive.

As for the tension between TV and radio, I hear that managing director Sussan Turner is trying to appease her TV staff still furious at Laws' rants, but news boss Mark Jennings made few friends at a recent radio function when he outlined to one staffer at the Breeze the failings of MediaWorks' radio product. Things became very tense.

Meanwhile, TV3 press gallery chief Duncan Garner has been tipped for Paul Henry's drive-time show, but that seems unlikely given that he may have extra responsibilities for The Nation now Sean Plunket has been dropped. It is understood Plunket's departure is partly because of a $70,000 New Zealand on Air budget cut but also related to tensions between the high-price Plunket and TV3's Jennings. Plunket will be a loss for TV3.

'DISTRESSED'
New Zealand On Air was running scared after bloggers criticised a TV3 child poverty documentary it funded, which screened just days before the election.

The politically appointed funding agency is concerned the TV3 scheduling three days out from the election had called its neutrality into question.

The alternative view is that the board, which includes John Key's electorate chairman Stephen McElrea, got the political jitters.

When NZ On Air saw the TV3 promos last month it was aghast.

NZ On Air said that around that time there was criticism in blogs and questions over the funding body's neutrality.

Chief executive Jane Wrightson sent TV3 bosses "a stern and strict letter" before the doco screened complaining about the documentary highlighting an election issue so close to polling day.

"We jealously guard our political neutrality and we were distressed it was put under threat by the scheduling," she said yesterday. "The whole board is concerned about this and so am I.

"We had no trouble with the documentary itself which Bryan Bruce describes as a social issues documentary.

"It attracted considerable comment from people such as bloggers."

INDEPENDENCE
The timing of the child poverty doco raised eyebrows. TV3 has maintained solid, serious documentaries while the genre has been abandoned at TVNZ.

Admittedly, you might expect such an important topic would run a few weeks out rather than just before polling day.

And you could argue that the topic - about the distribution of income and its effect on the weak - would have a left-ish perspective. Bruce did not seem to be heavy-handed with any party political bias.

New Zealand On Air's "stern and strict reaction" was more disturbing than the scheduling decision.

It evokes some of the wider issues about bravery and independence at a time when media are under pressure and turning to the state for help, and particularly for New Zealand On Air being caught up in the Wellington milieu.

NZ On Air can't be taking an editorial line, but it should serve the public and not hide from controversy.

HEAL THYSELF
The New Zealand On Air board is made up of political appointees and could look closer to home when it concerns perceptions about its neutrality. It included Labour-friendly people and friends of Helen Clark.

Under National a 2009 appointee was Stephen McElrea, who has long experience in the broadcasting world, and who is also northern region deputy chairman of the National Party and was chairman of the electorate committee for Key's Helensville electorate.

He would have played an important role in National's campaign.

The Prime Minister took an active role in his appointment to New Zealand On Air - opening up to scrutiny the funding body's neutrality.

Despite his party political background, McElrea was appointed to a special committee to select a series of three social issues documentaries to screen on TV3 next year.

One will be about education and charter schools, a notion that was unheard of before the election, and most certainly could have done with some exposure in the run-up to the election like child poverty did.

The Government and NZ On Air needs to gets its own ship in order before it starts firing off "stern and strict" letters to organisations who rely on taxpayer funding for their survival.

VENTURE PLAYGROUND
It was not surprising to see in a Herald article this week the New Zealand Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (NZPEVCA) urging the Government to alter its policies to ensure the longevity of the venture capital market.

Brian Gaynor, of KiwiSaver operator Milford Asset Management, says venture capital investment is probably too risky for many of the 1.8 million KiwiSaver investors who had small accounts that they relied on for their retirement.

An intriguing aspect of the report is that the call came from NZPEVCA chairman Kerry McIntosh, who is the New Zealand operating partner of Ironbridge Capital, the majority owner of MediaWorks.

The media company owns TV3, Four and half the country's commercial radio stations, and has laboured under the weight of heavy indebtedness because of its private equity ownership.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan is the media writer for the New Zealand Herald. A business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s. He is focused on the business side of the digital revolution in media.

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