Prime time challenge

By Carroll du Chateau

Paul Holmes is looking much fresher than last week. Then, at Don Brash's speech at Orewa, his crumpled pink shirt unravelling from his expanding waistline, sweat beading on his forehead, he'd declared himself "too shagged to stand up" and draw the lingerie raffle.

Now he is all pancake makeup, cool narrow glasses, new cool suit, tie and cufflinks. This is the new Paul Holmes, the Prime Paul Holmes, the cheeky version who seems to have reacted to his first Tui billboard ("We'll miss the cheeky whitey, Yeah Right") by getting even cheekier. It is to be hoped he won't take the latest hoarding - "Let Paul fly us there" - to heart or this could be a shorter career comeback than he planned.

Holmes, one of the few people in the country famous enough, and with enough attitude to make it on to a beer billboard, orders a proffered coffee: "A heaped teaspoon of instant coffee, milk in first, stir to dissolve then half a teaspoon of sugar", sinks into the cushy leather seat at the head of Prime's pod-shaped new boardroom table, and ponders.

Since he stepped over the threshold, Prime's Albany premises have been transformed. The tins of rat poison that studded disused offices have gone. Now there's a state of the art recording studio, designed in part by Holmes himself. His guest will sit closer than on his old TVNZ Holmes show. The banks of lights that will bring this room alive, are the most flattering, and cool to sit under, that you can buy. There's all sorts of fancy equipment that will allow for what Holmes describes as a more interactive style.

"Why did I do it?" Holmes settles his 54-year-old frame into the big seat, and grins. "Why not?"

But the question that gets him thinking is the one about not feeling "appreciated" by TVNZ. For some time before he left, he says, he had not felt appreciated at what the new Prime duo of Holmes and Alison Mau call the Deathstar. As he says, "in our game you might have to operate on the edge, take risks and put yourself there for scrutiny, you need 100 per cent loyalty behind you. I certainly did not feel that - and hadn't had for two years".

During the interview he comes back to the question again and again. It rankles that when he and the team raised $2 million for the victims of the Manawatu floods they didn't get as much as a thank you. And when they built a house for the Ofafonua family in Otahuhu, nothing either. "In fact," says Holmes, "there was slight discomfort on the part of the board [at our doing our own thing]."

WHAT will be the difference between the old Holmes show and the Prime version? For a start, Holmes will have his head. "There'll be no sense of not doing a story because they might not like it upstairs," he says. There will be attitude, a sense of fun. "By God we'll be direct in what we think and have a laugh doing so."

There'll be the chance to explore things freely "with no hidden agendas, no sneaky, resentful lefties floating around". Which is sensible considering that the show's political commentator will be renowned right winger, Lindsay Perigo, of the Libertarianz group.

"At last I can say to people if you don't like it, don't watch it," says Holmes with relish, before pulling himself up. "Having said that, one has to be careful of being too intolerant with that attitude because tinkering with a programme is part of building an audience and we want to have a very active [and interactive] relationship with our audience, and that's one point of difference I think you'll see.

"To sum up, it's gotta have attitude, be energetic, fearless and lively."

Are you looking for a new audience or your own audience? The Auckland audience, particularly younger viewers will be crucial to success, which is where the hi-tech, interactive, pacy style - not to mention the new, funkier suit and tie - will hopefully bite, he replies.

But actually, "At the moment Carroll, I'm looking for anybody."

So where does Mau (pronounced "More"), who also gets a 2m high portrait in Prime's reception area, and seems to share equal billing, fit in this frame? Despite the build-up, Mau, who is a good few centimetres taller than Holmes, describes herself primarily as a reporter on the show, certainly not equal with the cheeky one.

Throughout the interview they compliment each other.

Says Holmes: "Ali can read a bulletin with the best in the land, sit down and do an extended news report and has skills that never flowered where she was. People are going to see a much broader, extremely down-to-earth, Ali Mau ... Also she's got some quite dazzling glamour and in telly you need dazzling glamour."

Says she: "Paul underestimates himself sometimes." Says he: "That's very nice of you Ali."

But didn't he also choose Susan Wood, who is now presiding over a shrinking audience share on TV1's Close Up @ 7? Well yes ...

Since she left TVNZ, Mau has also developed a cheeky smile and is revelling in being part of a small team. A former reporter for the Melbourne Herald, she was snapped up by TVNZ partly for that dazzling glamour Holmes talks about. Her last reporting stint was Eyewitness in 1995.

And was the Mau/Holmes double act Holmes' own idea? Again the cheeky smile, the "I didn't approach her" fob-off. But, he confesses,"When I sat with Chris [Taylor] in the early, euphoric days, we didn't sit in stony silence. Ali was the icing on the cake."

Taylor, the baby-faced Australian CEO of Prime, is a big part of this project to catapult Prime into the serious end of free-to-air TV. He hovers round the edges of the interview, excited at the prospect of propelling Prime into the big time.

His newly appointed, Australian-based chairman, Sam Chisholm is, according to Holmes, one of the legends of modern Western broadcasting. "You can't look at Sam without absolutely marvelling at him. He has no truck with bullshit. He's just straight. And we found that with all of them ... Having said that, their being Australian ... we might see a different side to them. I expect to do the job properly and if we don't ...

Agrees Mau: "They're big believers in news and current affairs being the guts and heart and soul of a network."

Which brings us back to TVNZ. Holmes' "lack of appreciation" is not directed at news chief Bill Ralston, he says, but further up, at board level. And no, he's not saying who. "But I think they have no appreciation of the effort that goes on, and still exists, on the second floor of TVNZ - by that I mean the newsroom."

HERE, in contrast, Holmes' and Mau's efforts are "instantly and generously appreciated". Says Holmes. "I know if anything was troubling me in my job Chris would step in and make it work. I certainly did not feel that at TVNZ."

How much of Holmes' reportedly huge salary package is riding on the show's success? "There are benefits linked to performance, but it's not audience-related."

How can that be? "There's a way," he replies. "I don't want to discuss my contract with you and now I don't have to. I can tell anyone who asks about remuneration to piss off."

Certainly he doesn't seem worried about meeting his targets, whatever they are. Before he even gets on air Close Up @ 7 has slipped by 31 per cent in the desired 25-54 age group compared with 2004, while Prime's ratings at 7 have lifted. "Hell, Hogan's Heroes is doing about 80,000 viewers a night," he says. "You'd have to hope that you could score better than Hogan's Heroes, don't you?"

And no, he is not dismayed by a Herald-DigiPoll that showed only 27 per cent of people polled might follow him to Prime. Says Holmes, "Do you know what 27 per cent means to us? Every person we gain is someone not watching One, Two or Three ... Prime is a spring waiting to erupt.

"The biggest challenge we've got really is to undermine what I had a big part in building, which was loyalty to One at 7pm weeknights ... "

And what does he feel when he drives past the mighty TVNZ building on his way to Albany? "There are no bitter feelings, no hard feelings, no anger. It's just business." And with a final fiendish grin: "We just want to shaft them."* Holmes starts on Prime, at 7pm this Monday.

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