John Drinnan 's Opinion

John Drinnan is the Media writer for the New Zealand Herald.

John Drinnan: TV viewer numbers slump

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MediaWorks dropped the ever-popular Simpsons from its TV4 lineup last month after losing a deal with supplier Fox.
MediaWorks dropped the ever-popular Simpsons from its TV4 lineup last month after losing a deal with supplier Fox.

On TV, even the good times are bad.

TV networks believe a slump in viewer numbers is happening because the economy is getting better and people are going out more - not because there is nothing worth watching.

New Zealanders have been spending less time in front of the television, according to "people-meter" figures collated by the ratings agency Nielsen. Prime-time figures last month were down 12 per cent compared with November 2012.

Programming must have been an issue for one of the channels, MediaWorks' Four, which last month dropped some of its top shows such as The Simpsons after losing a deal with Fox.

Four's audience was down by 32 per cent. TV3 was down 13 per cent amid claims that it fared best out of the big channels. TVNZ's big earner, TV2, was the second biggest loser, shedding about a quarter of its viewers.

The slide in viewer number, as compared with last year, started in July and TVNZ says the estimated numbers of people watching TV are now down around the levels seen in 2008.

"Around then people spent less, stayed home and watched TV, and that continued for a few years. We believe the lower numbers are a sign of the improving economy," says TVNZ spokeswoman Megan Richards.

But despite the fall in the audience, advertising consultant Martin Gillman says advertisers' demand for TV time has kept up.

For the first time, the Nielsen figures incorporated recorded programmes on My Sky and My Freeview, and he says that might have exaggerated the decline in TV-watching, because the fall seems too large to be credible. The overall 12 per cent drop is significant, but does not signify the much-predicted death of free-to-air television, Gillman says.

New media, non-media?

Liberal left-wing blogger Russell Brown has formed an unlikely alliance with right-wing shock blogger Whale Oil, amid fears that blogs may be shut out of legal protection for the media.

The Government has created a mess by turning its back on Law Commission recommendations that would have encouraged new media to meet minimum standards for ethical conduct by voluntarily joining a standards body and adhering to codes of conduct.

The Government decision has ensured there is no alternative to an unregulated blogland.

The pay-off of the Law Commission proposal, for those who placed themselves under the jurisdiction of a voluntary online standards body, is that they would have enjoyed the limited legal protections offered to the news media.

One such protection is a provision under the Evidence Act that allows news media to protect the identity of their sources.

But the Government opted to do nothing. Meanwhile, bloggers have made no move to set up their own self-regulatory body - partly because of the cost, no doubt.

Most blogs do not count themselves as news media and would never attract legal action because they are too small.

But the matter has come to a head with District Court Judge Charles Blackie's finding relating to a defamation claim by an Auckland businessman Matthew Blomfield against Whale Oil, aka Cameron Slater. Judge Blackie referred to the Law Commission paper and decided Whale Oil did not fit the definition of a media organisation, and so had to provide the identity of a source.

Slater intends to appeal that decision and is backed by fellow bloggers David Farrar and Russell Brown. The latter has been a virulent critic of Whale Oil and his approach, but says he is standing up for his legal protections as a point of principle.

Other left-wing bloggers who have been critical of Whale Oil agree, and they have been supported in editorials from mainstream media such as the Herald and The Press newspapers.

But while some Whale Oil content - such as the revelations about Len Brown's affair - are valid news stories, the blogger sometimes attacks and even campaigns against individuals, especially those who criticise him. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Judith Collins has praised Slater and his sources.

The question is whether the judge has set the bar for belonging to the news media too high, or whether bloggers supporting Slater in order to protect their own positions are setting the bar too low.

Slater has been unclear about the business plan for his blog and whether it takes money from outsiders such as public relations companies.

Screen time

The Film Commission made a popular decision in appointing veteran screen producer and businessman Dave Gibson as its new chief executive. Gibson is a well known player in the local film and television business and is expected to bring change to the Commission, which funds small and medium budget movies.

A major issue is easing the industry out of its reliance on servicing "runaway productions" from the US. Some expect the Commission will develop a closer relationship with the TV funding agency, NZ On Air.

As a former head of the producers body Spada, Gibson has a wide knowledge of the local industry.

A former rival for funding, John Barnett of South Pacific Pictures, applauded his appointment, as did NZ On Air chief executive Jane Wrightson.

"He is somebody who has built a business from scratch and knows how it works," says Barnett, a harsh and public critic of the Commission in the past.

One of the issues has been that junior commission staff have made some big decisions about what films get funding.

Gibson and his firm The Gibson Group are mostly associated with television, but he has made three movies.

I can attest to Gibson's confidence in the down and dirty world of film and TV sales, having seen him in action.

As editor of a London film industry publication, I met Gibson at the Cannes Film Markets, where he was guiding his star - a remarkably diffident Carl Urban - through the rigours of his first meeting with the moneymen.

His sale of the Gibson Group marks the end of another era in the screen production industry. Barnett has resigned as managing director and sold his interest in South Pacific Pictures, but remains as chairman. And Julie Christie - aka the reality TV queen - has stepped away from independent production, though many believe she will continue to have a role in production at TV3.

Another change involves John Harris, whose company Greenstone has been one of the most prolific of producers, since beginning in a small office in Mt Eden in 1994.

Since then, with the help of many gifted Kiwis, Greenstone has become New Zealand's biggest locally-owned producer of factual programmes.

"It's been a wonderful adventure, but it is now time for me to step back and hand over to new owners with fresh enthusiasm and vision," says Harris. "I'm pleased to announce that I have accepted an offer from Nick Murray and Michael Cordell of the Australian company CJZ (Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder). Like Greenstone, CJZ is an independent production house that specialises in quality original programming - and both companies share the same values and ethos."

Beijing bound

Controversial former TVNZ head of news and current affairs Paul Cutler has been appointed as a strategic planning consultant for the Chinese state-owned English-language network CCTV. Cutler exited TVNZ under controversial circumstances when Helen Clark was Prime Minister and took on senior roles at CNN in Atlanta, then Hong Kong, before taking over as head of news and current affairs at SBS TV in Australia, which he left in June after eight years. Cutler says the CCTV role is centred on news and current affairs and he is looking forward to the Beijing-based job.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

John Drinnan is the 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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