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

John Drinnan: New show spurns pundits

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Sean Plunket will front a nine-part politics show on Prime TV.  Photo / Paul Estcourt
Sean Plunket will front a nine-part politics show on Prime TV. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Front Page, the producer of a new television politics show, says it will focus on the key players, including business leaders, and on the issues - not on the pundits. Called Prime Time with Sean Plunket, the nine-part programme will start in time for the run-up to the September 20 election, and the horse trading afterwards.

Prime TV, which will air the show, has not named the launch date but it is believed to be August 9.

Prime owner Sky TV has commissioned panel-based shows for previous elections.

Front Page owner and veteran broadcaster Richard Harman said this series would differ from 2011. Then, the focus was on Crossfire-style debates between political players and people from specific areas who broadly backed their policies. That was distinct from a panel of off-the-shelf pundits and journalists of the sort who turn up on panels for Newstalk ZB, Radio NZ's Afternoon show and the Sunday political programmes.

Harman founded the Agenda format which became Q&A, and produced TV3 show The Nation before TV3 took it in-house this year. "It is very valuable to get in people who really know their stuff. It was something we were very proud of on The Nation," Harman said.

He said the focus on players rather than pundits would counter a trend in TV current affairs. "Journalists have stopped asking questions; they are too busy giving us their opinions."

Increasingly, pundits were filling the gap on current affairs shows, he said. They could be relied upon to give opinions within the formats and their comments would fill a sizeable portion of the programmes.

"There are pundits everywhere," said Harman.

Sale talk

Discovery Networks has been trying to buy the Food and Living channels that run on Sky TV.

The Herald understands the giant United States firm has talked with their owner, reality TV queen and MediaWorks director Julie Christie.

The two channels are included in the basic package for Sky TV and are understood to deliver a solid profit.

Neither Christie nor the Discovery Channel returned calls, but talks on a sale are advanced, it is understood.

Such a sale has been tipped for a long time - and rumours ramped up after Christie took on a new role as a MediaWorks director last year.

The Food and Living channels have been bulwarks of the Sky TV package, and Sky's John Fellet has said Christie has found the right formula to work as an independent channel on its pay platform.

While viewer numbers are relatively small compared with the big free-to-air channels, the two channels' market is well defined and they attract good advertising support.

But it would be surprising if the programming formula for the Food and Living channels remains untouched if Discovery buys in. The last time an independent channel on Sky changed hands was when the owner of the Documentary Channel sold to BBC World.

Effectively, that sale was about buying a place on the Sky platform.

When the BBC's commercial division bought the Documentary Channel, it was taken off the air and replaced with documentary strand BBC Knowledge. The replacement was much less eclectic, and presumably more commercially viable.

Discovery already has lifestyle channels, but none is close to the formats for Food and Living.

RACAT science

Early last year, Fox Television sold the Dunedin-based Natural History NZ to David Haslingden, an Aussie who was once boss of Fox International. He left the Murdoch-owned firm to create his own company, RACAT, which runs a raft of international firms out of Sydney.

Haslingden has sung the praises of NHNZ, which was born out of TVNZ's privatised natural history unit, and which delivered solid profits to Fox over the years.

The future looks bright, yet there have been sale rumours about NHNZ too. But Haslingden categorically ruled that out when he was approached this week.

Haslingden, by the way, is also the chairman of Nine Entertainment, which owns Aussie brands Nine Network and Ticketek, and a stake in Sky News, among other things.

What's in a name?

Well, more than there once was, according to John Fellet - the veteran chief executive of Sky TV, who recently announced a new subscription video on demand (SVOD) service.

Fellet was forced to announce the new service early as rumour mounted in the industry, and he says focus groups are still mulling over three alternative names.

It is not due to launch before late this year.

In the early days of Sky, when he arrived in the early 1990s, he said naming these sub-brands was done on the trot, with not too much ummimg and ahhing. But the world has changed and the marketers are in control.

To be honest, I can't help but feel the various video-on-demand and catch-up services are becoming confusing. Sky really needs to make this new brand stand out.

Fellet said competition with other SVOD services would be won on content, not pricing, and Sky's rights to SoHo content would give its initiative an advantage.

Unlike in countries such as Britain, the new service will not include live sports, even though Sky has a huge amount of sports rights. You would expect that if Sky offered live sports on a per game basis on the new service, it might undermine the revenue for its lucrative sports channels.

Who are the competition? Australian company Quikflix is one, and appears to be over a financial hump it faced a while back. Another could be Netflix, but despite hopeful rumours, few industry observers expect the US company to bother with a small market like New Zealand.

Under wraps

Telecom is keeping its new SVOD under wraps, and has the corporate firepower to back a new player through its establishment phase. There is talk that internet streaming - as Telecom will offer - is the future of television, but is this going to be a big earner?

Despite high revenue in the US, the margins are relatively low. That might work across a big market, but it could be tough in New Zealand.

Strange bedfellows

There have been widespread rumours that Sky TV is planning to buy Orcon - the company founded by Seeby Woodhouse, and now owned by a company led by Vivid Networks' Warren Hurst.

Sky isn't the only subject of speculation - CallPlus has also been named as a potential buyer for Orcon - but Sky's John Fellet has added fuel to the fire by declining to comment on industry speculation.

It would be highly surprising if Sky was the buyer, given it has avoided buying into internet service providers in the past. Sky has long had a close relationship with Vodafone, and Fellet gets on famously with Vodafone chief executive Russell Stanners. For its part, Vodafone is happy to stay out of the content business.

Worse, a purchase of Orcon might reopen the wounds over claims about Sky's alleged market dominance.

Less relevant but more ironic, how would it look for a company such as Sky - its business model built on securing copyright - to buy Orcon, a company whose recent ad campaign was built around Kim Dotcom?

- 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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