John Drinnan: Rialto setting its sights on Asia

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NZ content to feature on documentary channel for overseas viewers.
Te Radar's journeys will feature among the content offered on the planned Pulse channel.
Te Radar's journeys will feature among the content offered on the planned Pulse channel.

Rialto Channel is moving into the Asian pay TV market and taking a "significant" investment in a Hong Kong-based TV distributor called Lightning International.

After 15 years on the Sky TV platform, Rialto owners Andrew Hawken and David Ross are part of an initiative to develop a documentary channel in several Asian markets.

The new channel, called Pulse, will have 20 per cent New Zealand documentary content, such as the series Across the World with Te Radar.

In this country, negotiations are under way with Sky and other parties to run the channel here.

The plan, unveiled last night, represents a big step for a small independent New Zealand media company.

Rialto and Lightning see opportunities where it is tempting to see trouble.

In this country, the local TV industry is braced for an invasion by global pay TV players such as Netflix, challenging local operators.

But the Rialto-Lightning strategy is based on the idea that the new channel will feature quality documentaries offering something different from US fare.

However Rialto is not simply defensively fending off the likely global invasion. It is marketing its idea to a plethora of existing Asian pay TV operators, who face an even bigger challenge from global players.

Hawken says the channel will be adapted to the diverse nature of each market. Some countries have a relatively undeveloped pay TV structure, he says, while others such as Singapore and South Korea are advanced. Lightning will be developing formats - such as digital terrestrial and digital streaming - making adjustments to suit individual countries and their cultures.

Hawken declined to specify the investment with Lightning, which is headed by James Ross (no relation to David Ross), a former executive with British broadcaster ITV.

Lightning will be actively acquiring Asia-Pacific rights to documentaries, Hawken says. Asian operators want to break away from US packages, he believes. "Most operators have already started to lay the foundations to actively look for bespoke channels ahead of the arrival of the streaming giants."

The privately owned Rialto Channel is a premium option on the Sky platform, costing $11.18 a month. Rialto and Sky decline to discuss numbers, but industry sources say Rialto has performed well, and it is understood to have 50,000 to 60,000 subscribers.

Rialto developed from the Sundance Channel, owned by David Ross, entertainment entrepreneur John Barnett, businessman Wayne Brown and Peter Francis.

In 2002, the latter three sold shares to Hawken, who has since owned the channel 50:50 with Ross. Sky is not involved with the overseas expansion.

In my view

Rialto's mix of indie and foreign language films clearly has its ups and downs, but in my opinion the channel has been an important player in the New Zealand film and TV landscape.

As for the Pulse documentary channel, it is an ambitious project and there are signs it could do well, especially if it can navigate the complex cultural and political differences among Asian countries.

Some may remember that Sky ran the Documentary Channel from 2007 to 2010, managed by Richard Driver. It had a subtle New Zealand brand and succeeded by sticking closely to that brand.

The channel was sold to BBC World, which closed the Documentary Channel in favour of its own global brand, BBC Knowledge. Sky TV says BBC Knowledge attracts good numbers, but I believe the Documentary Channel's closure was a loss for New Zealand TV.

Trial by media

Lawyers have been called in over an article on the pop culture website The Spinoff, which reports allegations about a man said to be well-known in the music industry.

The website recounts sexual harassment claims against the man, based on interviews with women who said they had dealings with him.

The allegations have been made at a time of intense concern about society's attitude to abuse of females, and the way such claims are sometimes treated.

But ignoring for a minute the substantive issues, in my opinion the coverage raises issues over the growing trend towards trial by social media.

At this stage, police have only begun to look at the claims, but there is a risk that people might form conclusions based only on the allegations in the article.

Spinoff owner Duncan Greive says the website took a lot of time considering the issues involved in running the article, which he says was clearly displayed as the women's view of events. Several journalists have since held up the report as an example of good journalism.

I asked Greive whether the coverage was a case of trial by internet. He said that been happening for a long time, and he was comfortable with the way the claims had been dealt with.

The man's lawyer says he is considering his options.

- NZ Herald

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John Drinnan has been 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.

Read more by John Drinnan

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