Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday.

War of emails over doomed TV soap

MediaWorks' Julie Christie claims NZ on Air bosses doubted her integrity.
Reality TV queen Julie Christie told NZ on Air bosses she would consider resigning from the MediaWorks board over perceived attacks from the funding body on her integrity. Photo / Supplied
Reality TV queen Julie Christie told NZ on Air bosses she would consider resigning from the MediaWorks board over perceived attacks from the funding body on her integrity. Photo / Supplied

Reality TV queen Julie Christie told NZ on Air bosses she would consider resigning from the MediaWorks board over perceived attacks from the funding body on her integrity.

A series of explosive emails obtained by the Herald on Sunday under the Official Information Act reveal a war of words between Christie and NZoA over the proposed funding of doomed TV3 daily soap Trinity Point. The series, touted as New Zealand's answer to Home and Away, needed several million dollars to go ahead.

In December NZoA rejected MediaWorks' bid for funding, saying the project was given serious consideration but was not supported as it was not a priority.

Instead, NZoA opted to fund a third season of the popular South Pacific Pictures series The Brokenwood Mysteries, committing more than $4 million to the project.

A string of emails between MediaWorks executives and the government funding body in the lead-up to the decision reveal Christie believed a funding application for Trinity Point was being influenced by a perceived personal conflict of interest by NZoA.

The contract to make the much-vaunted TV3 drama was awarded to Warner Bros, which acquired Christie's former TV production company in June 2014. Christie's brother Michael Molloy is a director of Warner Bros International Television Production New Zealand.

Christie founded the successful Touchdown Television in 1991 but sold her remaining stake to partners at international firm Eyeworks in 2006, which in turn was taken over by Warner Bros.

She stayed on as chief executive of Eyeworks NZ until late 2012 before joining the board of MediaWorks the following year.

The row over a perceived conflict of interest kicked off on June 3 when MediaWorks boss Mark Weldon emailed NZoA chair Miriam Dean and chief executive Jane Wrightson.

"As regards Warners, I am sure you have both seen a number of occasions where a purchaser looks to clearly establish a new direction and impose different decision-making controls," Weldon wrote. "That is clearly the case with Warner's purchase of Eyeworks, over which it is clear Julie has no influence."

On June 8, Christie became involved.

In an email to Dean, she fumed: "For many months now, the management of New Zealand on Air has repeatedly questioned my integrity as a company director of MediaWorks. Despite repeated evidence of a transparent process in choosing the successful applicant for the development of TV3's serial drama, your management continues to use this as one of the reasons to decline the necessary level of funding for MediaWorks' serial drama to proceed."

Christie insisted it had clearly been shown there was "no conflict with the successful potential producers Eyeworks Warners" as she had not worked there for three years and sold the company years before that.

She went on: "For many years NZoA management has openly wielded a 'big stick' over an industry afraid to give feedback or criticise the organisation for fear of losing funding."

Christie concludes by saying she had several choices, including resigning from the MediaWorks board "so that the company then has a reasonable chance of receiving future funding for this and other projects".

Dean replied four days later, saying the organisation "agrees you do not have any such conflict". She explained NZoA was experiencing significant funding constraints that demanded hard choices be made.

The next day, June 13, Weldon emailed Wrightson expressing his "confusion" over the organisation's budget constraints and asked for a discussion on this "as well as the matters relating to Julie".

The next day Wrightson replied that NZoA valued its relationship with MediaWorks "very much" but "we are both in a difficult position".

She added: "Both the NZoA board and staff have consistently signalled that a 5.30pm daily soap is not a priority for us; what we have said is we could possibly take a minority investment, to try and assist."

On June 15, Christie again emailed Dean accusing her management of "further and repeated" probing of her integrity.

She also asked for evidence of "complainants" from other production companies unsuccessful in securing the contract for Trinity Point. The next day Dean responded: "The complainants expressed their concerns in confidence by telephone, with no records taken. Several production companies conveyed a sense of disquiet regarding the selection process to the effect that, despite the RFP, the outcome was predetermined.

"It would be inappropriate to comment further. Nor is such comment necessary, given that both board and management accepted those concerns were groundless after appropriate probing.

"I am assured that NZ on Air management is not 'continuing' to raise any issue of conflict."

Wrightson yesterday said NZoA continued to value its relationship with MediaWorks and the final letter to Christie from Dean in June was the last word on the matter from the organisation's perspective.

Christie and Weldon would not be interviewed, but a MediaWorks spokesman said its relationship with NZoA was strong.

Leak angers media bosses

The Herald on Sunday exclusively revealed details of the proposed Trinity Point soap late last year in a series of articles that enraged MediaWorks bosses.

Even the name of the series had been kept secret for more than 18 months - until we told how Trinity Point would try to replicate Home and Away's hugely successful Summer Bay.

It would be based around a beach community, would screen up to four nights a week, and would require about $10 million of funding. It was also understood the plot would revolve around a group of families living at a fictional seaside resort north of Auckland.

The stories sparked MediaWorks into launching a probe into where the information had come from.

An OIA request reveals a string of emails between a top MediaWorks executive and NZ on Air in which the broadcaster accuses an outside consultancy used by the funding body of leaking details about the show.

Andrew Szusterman, group entertainment content director for MediaWorks, emailed NZoA chef executive Jane Wrightson on November 23, drawing her attention to a Herald on Sunday story published the previous day.

"Our combined efforts to keep this project confidential is paramount and until this point I believe we've all done an extraordinary job in doing so as the project is commercially sensitive," he wrote.

He then asks for an assurance that a third-party non-disclosure policy was in place for assessors used by NZoA.

Wrightson replied: "The Herald on Sunday clearly has an inside informant. It is not NZoA or its assessors."

The matter is further discussed in a series of emails between the pair over the next three days before Szusterman concludes: "Thanks for the response Jane. For the record we don't share your position on this but yes, let's park it there for the better good."

- Herald on Sunday

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