John Drinnan on business

John Drinnan is a Herald business writer and media commentator

Media: TVNZ's big sell - on-screen and off

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News of a shopping channel to replace TVNZ7 recalls Ricky Gervais' Extras catchphrase - 'Are you 'avin' a laugh?' Photo / Supplied
News of a shopping channel to replace TVNZ7 recalls Ricky Gervais' Extras catchphrase - 'Are you 'avin' a laugh?' Photo / Supplied

The Government has insisted it has no plans to privatise TVNZ this term.

Yet many in the industry - among ad agencies and production companies - are predicting a partial sale of individual assets such as TV2 or the transmission state-owned enterprise Kordia that owns Orcon.

Scoping studies conclude TV2 is more viable for sale but that it is becoming harder to split now that programming is less differentiated.

What is TV2 beyond a brand and access to programming deals, many of which are now shared with TV One?

And who would buy? Free-to-air TV channels are in low demand worldwide and the return to taxpayers might be hardly worth the bother. What would the impact be if TVNZ were to double or triple its profits - in my opinion it would not counter the current loss of a cultural institution.

Yet National's policy to strip away TVNZ's public responsibilities, the policy of the board to expand TV and the Sky monopoly seem aimed at a sale.

Talking to the Herald before the election, TVNZ shareholding minister Jonathan Coleman was enthusiastic about the progress of the company under chief executive Rick Ellis.

Deputy chairwoman Joan Withers, who is expected to take over as chairwoman next year, has also praised management.

But in my opinion - on the facts that have been released so far - it is not clear that TVNZ is in the ascendancy.

Advertising market share is growing - thanks in part to sharp management. But impressive advertising has not yet translated to strong net profit.

EIGHT IS ENOUGH

TVNZ is expected to appoint a replacement for head of news and current affairs Anthony Flannery, who exits next week for a job at Australia's Network Ten. The job has been pitched as a business management role and not solely as an arbiter of journalism. With the list down to eight names, contenders include:

* Mark Jennings, longtime head of news and current affairs at TV3. Loads of experience and his loss would hit the competition.

* Former TVNZ news executive Mark Boyd, head of news at SBS.

* Max Uechtritz, former head of news at the ABC, Channel Nine and managing director of news at Al Jazeera.

* Unnamed senior executives at TVNZ - presumably including Cliff Joiner and Paul Patrick.

Departing chief executive Ellis will be helped by British-based news consultant Michelle Romaine, who begins filling in soon for Flannery.

NZ On Air will decide next month on funding for the weekend current affairs shows - The Nation on TV3 and Q+A on TV One - with no guarantee that it will pay for both.

'HAVING A LAUGH'

Ellis' parting gift to the nation will be to scrap TVNZ7 and lease the digital frequency for a shopping channel to be run by Ogilvy advertising and adman Greg Partington.

Ogilvy is working on a long-term contract for The Shopping Channel offering "wall-to-wall selling" 24 hours a day. And nobody can blame the ad agency for taking advantage of the opportunity.

Nobody doubted TVNZ7 would be dropped when the Government announced it would stop funding from July 2012. But even commercial executives in the TV world are stunned the state is turning public television into wall-to-wall selling. It's either chutzpah or unrestrained arrogance, unencumbered by consolation, that illustrates a disdain for a certain segment of the audience.

Myles Thomas of the Save TVNZ7 group was astonished. He referred to Ricky Gervais and a catchphrase from his show Extras that sums up the crass sensibility of lowest-common-denominator TV. "It's like they are having a laugh" said Thomas.

MAORI 7

Maori Television might provide a resting place for public television as activists start looking at how to fund public TV after TVNZ7 is abandoned next year.

Maori TV board member Ian Taylor says supporters have to combine the fractured campaign and find a vision. While the Government withdrawal of funding has spelt its death knell, some believe that TVNZ is best left out. Radio New Zealand and Maori TV both have integrity to carry the mantle.

Flushed with confidence after Rugby World Cup coverage, Maori TV is looking at whether it should take it on. The subject is likely to come up at a meeting of the Maori TV board this month.

Speaking to the Herald this week, Taylor said: "People tend to talk about funding first. But I think it should come down first to a vision of what is wanted - and not just by a bunch of producers."

Chief executive Jim Mather agreed and said that a key issue for Maori TV was that it should not distract attention from its fundamental role as a Maori broadcaster.

DEAD RAT

Air New Zealand is killing off Rico the potty-mouthed rodent mascot the airline says was a big hit among customers and online.

Air New Zealand is turning his departure into a mini-narrative. And good luck to it - if that's what sells plane tickets nowadays.

Rico passed away while hosting a celebrity-packed house-warming party in his Los Angeles mansion, the airline said in a press release.

Air New Zealand's head of international marketing, Jodi Williams, said editorial coverage had delivered lots of free advertising and done wonders for the airline.

Critics have questioned whether sleazy aspects of the Rico character - andother attention-grabbing marketing initiatives - have sent mixed messages about the Air New Zealand brand.

STRATOS CHANGE

Change is in the wind for Stratos, the public service-oriented channel on Freeview and picked up on Sky TV. Asked for clarification about the channel's status yesterday, co-owner Jim Blackman said it was "not for sale" but declined to say whether anybody was undertaking due diligence. "It might be - I'm not saying," he said.

Companies office records show shareholders include Blackman, Roderick Carlyon and Mary Dryden along with Allan Clark and Wilson McKay Trust. Stratos is tiny and has little impact commercially but it has been one of the standard bearers for solid public-interest television including nightly reports from American PBS news.

An industry source said Stratos had an intimate relationship with Triangle TV, the community-based channel serving Auckland, and used its equipment.

HOGAN!

New Zealand Post Group corporate affairs chief Dean Schmidt has been appointed to replace Peter Parussini as head of TVNZ corporate affairs. Parussini moved to the ANZ Bank last year.

Schmidt comes highly recommended but that hasn't stopped one TV wag alluding to his Germanic name, the hit 60s TV series Hogan's Heroes, and a classic response of PR consultants to media inquiries.

For the record, the character with the catchphrase "I know nothing" was Schultz, not Schmidt.

- NZ Herald

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