Reality queen Julie Christie has been brought in to turn around struggling TV3 with shows like X Factor and The Bachelor. Mediaworks boss Mark Weldon tells Matt Nippert that despite some grim-looking numbers, the strategy is working.
As increasingly tense meetings took place late last year over the future of flagship current affairs programme
, possible co-hosts to join the show's popular presenter were spitballed. Some suggestions were either out-of-the-box, or off the reservation: Either way they confirmed a revolution was under way at TV3.
Newsreader Hilary Barry was championed by the programme's staff, but dismissed by management. Several sources told the Weekend Herald the counter-offer was to think well outside the building and included the extraordinary suggestions of a comedian and a sitting MP: "We need someone like Rose Matafeo or Judith Collins."
Matafeo has since relocated to London, and did not return calls. Collins laughed uproariously when asked about possibly sharing a desk with Campbell. She says the idea was news to her, and not something she'd contemplate leaving Parliament for.
"I'm very occupied being the MP for Papakura," she says.
Though the suggestion doesn't appear to have been anything more than an exhortation to think broadly - the replacement show, Story, starting on Monday, has opted for traditional co-hosts Duncan Garner and Heather du Plessis-Allan, forged on television journalism in the press gallery - it's indicative of how radically things have changed at TV3 since the channel emerged from receivership in 2013.
The company's chief executive Mark Weldon, in a rare series of interviews this week, told the Weekend Herald he's unapologetic about shaking things up, both in the 7pm slot and across the whole company.
"You have to choose your risks. A bigger risk would have been to do nothing: It's worth remembering that this was a business that was in receivership two years ago. You take risks, and you have to make choices. Standing still is not an option," he says.
The television and radio broadcaster had struggled under the weight of debts incurred in 2007 when Australian private equity firm Ironbridge paid well over the odds and bit off more than they could chew. Eventually the company's bankers lost patience and took the firm over, before selling out and writing off around half of the more than $700 million they were owed.
The company eventually found itself with new owners (Los Angeles vulture fund OakTree Capital, who have made no public comment to date), new management (most notably former stock exchange boss Weldon), and a new board (including reality TV pioneer Julie Christie and Australian chairman Rod McGeoch).
Christie, who has declined regular interview requests made by the Weekend Herald, made her name in the 1990s as a television producer. She was well ahead of the curve in making and exporting reality shows, and in commercialising programmes with product placement, sponsorship and naming rights.
Internal restructuring documents sketching out plans to make the 7pm slot more focused on "entertainment" also has parallels with one of Christie's earlier programmes - The Paradise Picture Show - described at launch in 1991 as a "mix of current affairs and light entertainment that is 'positive, funny and happy'."
Her philosophy has been unashamedly populist, as she notes in a recent Q&A. "I became addicted to ratings, I measured my work by it. I was only as good as my last show, in my head. This has helped me be less affected by media criticism as it's the public reaction and whether they watched that drove my business success."
Industry observers, and MediaWorks insiders, see Christie's hand - and her presence for a time in the building in an executive role - involved in a shift in the channel's direction towards light entertainment.
This course change is most visible in the reality-heavy anchoring over the past 18 months of TV3's weekly schedule with The Block, X Factor, The Bachelor, Dancing with the Stars and currently MasterChef.
One senior industry figure who has worked closely with Christie says: "She does have a soft spot in her heart for reality television - it was her first success. And I think if that was your success, it does become your first port of call."
Analysis of ratings data for The Block and X Factor, both shows with earlier iterations on TV3, appear to show diminishing returns. The average audience for home renovation show The Block declined 22 per cent between the 2013 and 2014 iterations.
The trend for singing talent show
was even worse. Compared to 2013,when it last aired, the show has lost a third of its audience, declining from an average of 427,773 viewers to only 288,200.
Market players, who have been briefed over the past year by the company, say the declining ratings are flowing through the bottom line and the television side of the business is showing operating losses for the first eight months of the year.
"Radio is solid, but the numbers for TV are pretty grim compared to where the business was forecast to be at this stage. There's a budget done at the start of each year, and very recently there's been another update: The numbers weren't even flat, they were going backwards," one source says.
Another industry player familiar with the human resources department at a rival network says up to 10 unsolicited CVs of MediaWorks staff are now crossing his desk each week.
"Even when they entered receivership [in mid-2013] it was only one or two a week. So clearly there's some unhappy people there."
Weldon notes such chatter is likely ill-intentioned - "I unfortunately have a sense they would look to see the strategy fail rather than raise genuine questions" - but declines to address whether the television side of the company is currently breaking even. Instead he talks about the business as being more than one medium and says: "We are confident about the prospects for the TV business."
He isn't blind as to living in interesting times and notes no one in the media is having an easy ride.
"We are going through a very strange time in TV. We have declining free-to-air participation in all parts of the world," he says.
The ratings numbers for
aren't news to Weldon, but he says they don't tell the whole story.
"How it is working? The strategy is a lot broader than pure ratings," he says.
Weldon says other metrics, such as engagement and on-demand streaming, are also important, as are synergies with the company's radio assets. Simon Barnett, a breakfast host at MediaWorks, won Dancing with the Stars, and Weldon says: "It's been a great boost to MoreFM, a key brand for us."
One flow-on of the reality strategy, Weldon argues, is that because the channel's tentpole programmes are made in-house, they're not subject to exchange rate variations or escalating fees that often accompany importing foreign drama shows. This has meant costs are more easily contained as the market fragments, he says.
Weldon concedes The Block and X Factor haven't performed strongly in terms of viewers, but says the suite of reality programming as a whole is tracking well and audiences in the early evenings are 4 per cent higher than 12 months ago.
Ratings for MasterChef have also been below expectations (insiders say advertisers were pitched with audience projections of 400,000, but earlier this week only 181,000 tuned in) but Weldon notes the same show in Australia started small but had tripled its audience by the finale and is optimistic it'll turn around.
"We very much think about it as a portfolio. No one would expect when you're putting in four new shows that all four would be a hit. What the strategy requires is one to be successful and two to be okay," he says.
Whatever happens, there's no turning back. The Bachelor is held up as proof of success, enough that Weldon commits to producing another season - pre-empting a formal announcement from his PR team. "The Bachelor, we will certainly repeat that," he says.
"We've chosen a certain strategy, and we've got further to go. One thing's for sure, this isn't short-term, this is a multi-year plan."
First up has been the evening reality shows, the launch of Story and the launch of the multi-platform Paul Henry breakfast production. Next up, he says, is a bid to "refresh" the six o'clock news hour - which has alarmingly shed viewers to TVNZ - and tackle the troubled 5.30 slot which has been in flux since the receivership triggered clauses in contracts that saw the rights to Home & Away lost to TVNZ.
Weldon confirms New Zealand On Air funding will be sought - and will be required to make financial sense - for a long-rumoured and planned soap for the earlier timeslot.
And these plans have an end-game: A sale of the company, either flotation on the stock market or to an established media player.
New owners Oaktree Capital are widely understood to be uninterested in being long-term media owners. They made a similar acquisition of Australian broadcaster Channel Nine in 2012 and have recently begun selling down their stake making what Australian commentators call a "tidy profit" in the process.
Weldon says such a goal for MediaWorks is merely good business and requires the company to be knocked into financial shape. But he declines to discuss the terms of the "share-based cash-settlement" scheme flagged in annual accounts that will see the company's board and management - especially him - get a slice of profits from any sale.
"A lot of the chatter the market forgets is that were anyone to buy the business - whether a private sale or a sharemarket float - equally important to how the company is performing is what its prospects are.
"When people talk about doing a few cosmetic things to get it into shape for sale, markets are smarter than that, you can't gild the lily."
The bubbling of rumour, around both financial performance and the departure of his channel's former star John Campbell, is one reason why Weldon agreed to break his silence and talk to the Weekend Herald.
"We've all been pleased to see him end up in a role that suits his style and type of journalism," Weldon says of Campbell, who was confirmed this week as Radio New Zealand's new afternoon host.
Directly addressing wild claims made on left-wing blogs that the axing of Campbell Live was orchestrated by Beehive, Weldon seems exasperated. "That is in no way based on fact. The reality is there were no conversations with John Key.
"The only politician who's had a conversation me about current affairs with me is Andrew Little."