John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

Media: MediaWorks in limbo land

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Hilary Barry, Mike McRoberts and the rest of the MediaWorks team are in line for an ownership shake-up. Photo / Supplied
Hilary Barry, Mike McRoberts and the rest of the MediaWorks team are in line for an ownership shake-up. Photo / Supplied

Corporate rivals Ironbridge and Texas Pacific Group (TPG) are holding hands in a refinancing proposal that is in front of MediaWorks banker investors.

Mike McRoberts, Hilary Barry and the rest of the MediaWorks team are being lined up for an ownership shake-up.

It is the latest attempt to free the broadcaster from a weighty debt loading and there is pressure for this one to happen.

Under a proposal in front of banks, current owners Ironbridge Capital would still have some involvement in the broadcaster.

MediaWorks owns TV3, Four, and stations that are listened to by half the country's radio audience, including The Rock, The Edge and RadioLive.

MediaWorks is weighed down by debt and interest payments related to Ironbridge's 2007 purchase at the height of the leveraged buyout boom.

Under a previous restructuring by Ironbridge, second-tier bankers would have taken a big hit, but not all the better-placed bankers would back the deal.

The Texans tried a back-door takeover of MediaWorks by buying up debt at a discount, a plan that would have squeezed Ironbridge out and cost it big money.

But it appears some of MediaWorks' bankers turned that down too. Now TPG and Ironbridge are working together, but there is no timetable for a decision.

MediaWorks remains in limbo land.

Ironbridge's stymied restructuring would have seen it repaying the more than $36 million owing to taxpayers - a 50-month loan so it could pay radio frequencies and stay on air after the global financial crisis. Ironbridge also promised to boost funding for programming.

An investor source says that the company's radio arm is doing a lot better than television.

CHOC-A-BLOC

News media love confections - light, bright, new stories that make the medicine of proper news go down.

They are popular with readers, viewers and listeners, especially online.

Often they are stories that are fed to media by PR companies and don't require too many queries.

It is a case of "never mind the quality, feel the online hits".

But the relaunched Choco-ade biscuit left a funny taste in my mouth.

Is this what really counts as news nowadays?

Last week this column reported on the extensive coverage across most media for the relaunch of the chocolate biscuit after a Facebook campaign by Upper Hutt woman Amber Johnson.

Griffin's says the return of the biscuit, "an 80s favourite", was due to a grassroots campaign on Facebook by Johnson.

Griffin's marketing director, Josette Prince, did not return calls, but it's hard to believe Griffin's based its production decisions on a personal Facebook campaign.

In my opinion Choco-ade had all the appearances of what is known as "astroturf marketing" where companies use social media to give the appearance of grassroots appeal and support.

Restaurant Brands and KFC had similar editorial success with the Double Down burger, which featured extensively on TVNZ's Breakfast.

The coverage of mainstream media boosts online chatter and that helps boost demand.

It's a cheaper way to promote products than traditional advertising

TAKING THE BISCUIT

MediaWorks was just one of the many media companies to use the fluffy story.

But it appeared to be the most enthusiastic about editorial coverage, with three spots last week, and my source says staff were encouraged by management in a memo.

However, MediaWorks stands by an assurance that the editorial coverage was not because it had been given instructions by corporate management.

Campbell Live offered a scrummy portrait, RadioLive did a gentle interview with Facebook campaigner Johnson.

The icing on this bikkie was on the satirical comedy show 7 Days last Friday.

Griffin's marketing director could not be reached for comment.

COMMERCIAL BREAK

That's modern marketing for you. A merging of the editorial and the promotional.

As for editorial coverage - it seems most media took the bait with unquestioning coverage of the claims fed to them by Griffin's, happy, it seems, to take a light snack instead of a wholesome meal.

I am told there was some resistance to the item on Campbell Live, but this was rejected outright by executive producer Pip Keane, who said that its item on the Choco-ade was to provide some light relief for the show.

TV3 spokeswoman Rachel Lorimer said head of news and current affairs Mark Jennings would not countenance that sort of coverage.

Over at RadioLive, the woman who launched the campaign, Amber Johnson, was given an extensive interview.

She was asked by a kindly interviewer her special technique for eating the biscuit.

Possibly the most surprising and disturbing parts of the plug were on 7 Days, the take-no-prisoners Friday comedy show - it finished with Jeremy Corbett thanking the woman for bringing back Choco-ade.

Sheesh.

Despite this softly, softly treatment, 7 Days TV3 producer Jon Bridges said there was no instruction to mention Choco-ades, and 7 Days had commented on other commercial stories, like Marmite and the KFC Double Down.

To which you'd say, thank goodness for that.

Because you'd hate to think that a brave comedy programme like 7 Days - where comics say the unsayable, one of the best shows on TV - would use public funding to give advertisers free plugs.

MIKE LATTIN DIES

One of the most important people in the backroom history of New Zealand television died last week.

He was an Australian named Mike Lattin, a TV man who liked to call himself Big Bird.

Mike Lattin was an executive at Television New Zealand for only three years - from 1994 to 1997. During that time he had a major impact, attempting to change the culture of TVNZ and bring back razzamatazz to the company.

He boosted TVNZ with some of the good aspects of Australian commercial television.

Initially general manager of programming, then latterly head of television, Lattin played a big role in the decision to follow TV3 with a one-hour news bulletin.

He brought back the Ian Fraser interview and the notion of the long form current affairs programme and, less successfully, made the decision to cut back the number of episodes of Coronation Street - his biggest pratfall and one that TVNZ repeated only recently.

The former head of programming at Ten Network, he was a big, booming Australian who - to borrow a cliche - said what he liked and liked what he said.

As a result Lattin was loved and loathed in equal measure, sometimes at the same time.

My source at TVNZ - who is in the former camp - said Lattin was viewed as a maverick by the board, and someone whose independent thinking frightened the board of directors, which ensured that one person could never have so much influence again.

He could also be a Machiavellian character - a good friend who could be a dreadful enemy.

Lattin returned to Australia in 1997 to work in the TV satellite delivery industry.

Previously he had held senior management and programming roles at each of the Australian commercial TV networks.

He died after a long illness.

- 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.

Read more by John Drinnan

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