MediaWorks management cut a key Campbell Live sponsorship deal, smoothing the path for the show's axing, months before the company told staff it was conducting a formal review of the flagship current affairs programme.
Citing declining ratings and a need to improve financial performance, TV3 owner MediaWorks announced on April 9 Campbell Live's future was up in the air.
The news led to an outpouring of public support for the programme, including nearly 75,000 signing an online petition calling for the show to be saved, with the attendant publicity contributing to a 40 per cent spike in ratings this week.
Last night, in an open dig at network bosses who have suggested replacing the show with a soap opera, Campbell Live opened to the theme tune Let Me Entertain You.
The terms of the review initially called for consultation with affected staff, understood to number about 25, to end yesterday with a decision on the show's future to follow shortly after. But MediaWorks confirmed yesterday that the consultation process had been extended into next week.
However, a Weekend Herald investigation can reveal that earlier this year MediaWorks, in an unusual move, secretly trimmed the length of the show's cornerstone sponsorship.
During a February meeting with Mazda, the show's principal sponsor since 2008, instead of a typical one-year extension MediaWorks opted to extend the deal for only three months.
The new deal is set to expire at the end of May, signalling perhaps a curtain call for a show that only recently celebrated its tenth year on air.
Bill Ralston, a former TVNZ head of current affairs, said the short-term deal was highly unusual and only made sense if a decision about the future of the show had already been made.
"A three-month deal makes no sense, unless they were - at the point at which they negotiated that three-month deal - considering getting rid of Campbell Live."
A MediaWorks spokeswoman rejected suggestions the show was being railroaded into an early end. "It would be completely incorrect to suggest the outcome of this review is predetermined."
Mr Ralston said longer-term sponsorships made more financial sense for broadcasters.
"If you're a cash-strapped TV channel like they are, you'd want that cash booked in for at least a year."