John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

Media: TV7 shopping channel idea a step too far

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Former All Blacks captain David Kirk has been suggested as a possible TVNZ chief executive. Picture / Natalie Slade
Former All Blacks captain David Kirk has been suggested as a possible TVNZ chief executive. Picture / Natalie Slade

TVNZ's plans to get advertising cash from doomed channel stymied by practical and political difficulties

Television New Zealand and Ogilvy have dropped plans to turn TVNZ 7 into a shopping channel. Plans outlined in December were greeted with righteous indignation by campaigners for public broadcasting.

TVNZ's shopping channel ideas added insult to injury after it scrapped TVNZ 6 and moved to scrap TVNZ 7.

But the plan did not fall over because state-owned TVNZ found its public-service heart. It just didn't make financial sense.

Advertising entrepreneur Greg Partington had said the channel, to be fronted by Candy Lane, would feature shopping and advertorial content such as product demonstrations - a tough move in such a small market.

Partington wanted to make the content at Ogilvy's studio in Stanley St, where it makes TV commercials for retailer clients such as Briscoes. TVNZ, which owns the channel capacity on Freeview and would make money subleasing it, also wanted to make more money out of the project by producing the content.

Behind these practicalities were public relations problems for the Government. The Nats are not worried about losing TVNZ7 and they want the state broadcaster to make money.

But my sources say turning TVNZ 7 into a hyper-commercial shopping channel was seen as a step too far. It would exacerbate the small but energetic criticism of the Government killing off public broadcasting. TVNZ was told as much.

ALLAN KEY
TVNZ news bosses went out of their way to keep Guyon Espiner on Q&A, emails seen under the Official Information Act show.

Espiner resigned as TVNZ political editor and had intended to work in Auckland.

When NZ on Air cut funding to Q&A, TVNZ offered to trim it back from 38 episodes to 36 episodes "and with that can ideally secure Guyon and keep the series within budget - giving him sufficient work to be gainfully employed," the emails said.

"The compromise means more work for the existing team, less ambitious taped items and fewer episodes. But it means we keep Guyon and a viable programme."

In the end Espiner defected to TV3. Now TVNZ is not saying who will front Q&A.

Paul Holmes has his good points and is good in the panel, but it's a big ask to have him doing the interview of the week.

Simon Dallow is a good anchorman but no great shakes as an interviewer.

What about Heather du Plessis-Allan? She's smart, quick witted, lively, unafraid of complex stories and is not prone to self-aggrandisement.

MONEY FOR JAM
Top Shelf is expected today to reveal details of a new "lifestyle channel" starting soon on Freeview. Managing director Vincent Burke declined to spell out the approach for the new channel, but it is expected TVNZ will have a role providing advertising revenue as part of its package.

The new channel is distinct from plans for a new public service channel replacing TVNZ 7 that are linked to moves by Maori Television to develop a news channel, and moves by Top Shelf to find a new home for its show Media 7.

Burke has played an active role developing a public service channel. But he is a commercial programme maker and says the public channel must be funded with new money or it will just force NZ on Air to "spread the funding further".

CALLING CAPTAIN KIRK
There is no sign yet of a new CEO at TVNZ, although my mention of Lynley Marshall as a contender got people talking as she has no background overseeing advertising revenue, which is what TVNZ is all about now.

My source says sales and marketing boss Paul Maher has a strong view of himself as the ideal successor to Rick Ellis, who now heads digital media at Telstra in Australia.

The most intriguing name to come up is David Kirk, the former chief executive of Fairfax in Australia who now chairs private equity-controlled Hoyts Cinemas.

But it seems highly unlikely given his past salary packages.

The TVNZ board was generous paying Ellis more than $900,000 a year but with his history running a listed company Kirk would want more than that.

If he were an applicant he would tick a lot of boxes. Kirk is a former All Black captain who has run a big media company.

He knows New Zealand politics, having worked as an adviser to Prime Minister Jim Bolger. He spends time in Hawkes Bay each year, but lives in Australia. The deputy chairman of TVNZ is Joan Withers, who used to head Fairfax New Zealand and is a strong admirer of Kirk.

Withers had been suggested in the past as a replacement for Sir John Anderson, who is standing down from TVNZ board in April. But it is understood that she has too much on her plate in her roles chairing Mighty River Power - being part-privatised - as well as Auckland International Airport. Maybe the Government could coax Kirk home with a place on the TVNZ board.

CHURCH AND STATE
A documentary that looks at the issues facing the health system will be based at a hospital in Queenstown.

The location was selected by a working group at NZ on Air that included Stephen McElrea, a deputy chair of the northern region of the National Party, who has been at the centre of debate about the independence of the funding agency.

It's probably not a big issue, but should he have a say on an issues-based documentary?

The programme - being made by PRN Films - is one of four programmes allocated $1.1 million of taxpayers' money for a strand of documentaries.

Scottie Productions is making a programme about Whanau Ora and Octopus Pictures is making a programme - High School Story - about education.

A fourth programme, believed to be about law and order, is still being considered.

Whether there has been any political interference is neither here nor there.

The question is whether a politically appointed funding agency should be involved in documentaries.

NZ on Air seldom funds true public service programming. In this case, where it has done, in my opinion it has not taken due care that it be seen as independent.

A documentary maker who approached the Herald noted NZ on Air asked specifically for documentary proposals relating to areas of Government spending.

The idea for the programming strand on public issues came in part from NZ on Air, said the documentary maker, who insisted on anonymity because he feared questioning the system would to limit his access to NZ on Air funding in the future.

"TV3 were keen to secure some of the Platinum Fund money earmarked for documentary and NZOA suggested a strand like this might work for them," the documentary maker said.

Programme makers were approached with a brief: "The story comprises four individual 1x90-minute documentaries that provide a special insight and understanding into the workings of key institutions charged with delivering New Zealand social outcomes. NZ on Air and TV3 are looking for observational documentaries with an appropriate level of access that will explore aspects of the challenges faced in New Zealand's four main areas of public spending: Health, education, welfare and law and order."

CLOUDY SKY
There is an inkling of a problem ahead for Sky TV in the Commerce Commission report released yesterday.

The "High-speed Broadband Services Demand Side Study" looks at content and willingness to pay, and whether there are any barriers to the uptake of ultra-fast broadband.

Critics of Sky TV say its unregulated hold on content is a barrier to uptake because it discourages unique content and competition. But National has steadfastly ruled out regulation of pay TV.

In the report, one sentence illustrates the danger for Sky: "While existing New Zealand content providers and potential new entrants are interested in ... delivering video-on-demand services, the provision of these services rely on companies having access to premium content."

The comment is innocuous, but it does mean the Commerce Commission has Sky's hold on content in its sights if it decides the market needs competition.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan is the media writer for the New Zealand Herald. 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. He is focused on the business side of the digital revolution in media.

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