John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

Media: News names join SkyCity's party

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Media stars - including news people - have signed up as "SkyCity ambassadors" hanging out at the casino company's restaurants and bars in return for free food, drink and hotel stopovers.

The same faces keep turning up in the Sunday newspaper social pages - and some of them pictured at SkyCity functions simply like to be out and about enjoying corporate hospitality.

But some media folk have entered into a symbiotic relationship with the casino company where they enjoy freebies and boost their career appearing in newspaper social pages.

Meanwhile, having "celebrity" faces at venues and in functions makes SkyCity look like the place to play and boosts its brand as the centre of Auckland nightlife.

Deals with sports stars, actors and models makes some sense when marketing a nightspot.

But a TV source said that ambassadors also included people associated with news or current affairs programmes - putting them in a commercial relationship with a gambling firm.

SkyCity steadfastly refused to name its "ambassadors" but chief executive Nigel Morrison said: "SkyCity has relationships with celebrities and other well known personalities and also a number of sports stars through our various sponsorship arrangements, who from time to time assist us with staff functions and at event launches."

A television source said in one case a well known TV news face had made "several requests to be seen" around the complex in return for free meals from the restaurants - but had been turned down.

SWANKY DO

Hollywood star Hilary Swank got into trouble recently taking money to appear at a despot's party in Chechnya, prompting US magazine Entertainment Weekly to comment that celebrities are more willing than ever to rent out their star power for "everything from corporate events for major banks and car companies to private weddings and backyard soirees".

Hollywood stars can demand big bucks. In this country the star power is less and the payoff comes down to some free eats and drinks.

But you have to ask - why would you bother?

Some Kiwi celebrities will turn up to the opening of an envelope.

One television industry source who deals with the stars said the need to be seen and admired was one of the endearing failings of celebrities who are desperate to stay in the public eye.

TVNZ spokeswoman Megan Richards insisted "to our knowledge no one here is doing it, and we have not heard of anyone even being asked. It would certainly need approval from the head of news and current affairs for anything like that and approval would not be forthcoming."

TV3 head of news and current affairs Mark Jennings said that it was clear in journalists' contracts that they could not have a relationship with another company.

"That would be obvious to any journalist, and if they did not already know that, there would be a problem," he said.

GURU HO HUM

Technology expert Peter Griffin is ho hum on the new Igloo pay television set to begin with 11 channels and capability for broadband pay-per-view downloads.

Griffin said the new digital terrestrial platform - owned 51 per cent by Sky TV and 49 per cent by TVNZ - will offer a $25 a month package that the two parties hope will appeal to people who don't want to pay $48 for a basic Sky package.

Start up costs will be about $25 million, mostly for pre-purchase of the set top boxes that will retail for less than $200.

Igloo is aiming at 50,000 subscribers within two years and its biggest benefit could be to provide a new base for downloads of pay per view sports and movies - an option that will come into its own when ultra fast broadband is up and running. Griffin is unimpressed by the channel choice which he said was a lost opportunity.

Igloo channels include BBC World News, BBC Knowledge, Vibe, Kidzone24, MTV Hits, National Geographic, Animal Planet, Comedy Central and TVNZ Heartland.

Griffin is critical of the hardware, saying the Igloo set-top box - which has no hard drive or recording facility - is a stark contrast to the MySky box.

Griffin compared Igloo with two recent half-hearted recent media technologies in this country. TiVo has been a financial failure on both sides of the Tasman and part-owner TVNZ has written off its $17 million investment.

Yet the technology is much better than that offered by Igloo and the set-top box, which is much smarter, now sells for less than $200.

Another technology that has been something of a damp squib has been iSky, the Sky Television download technology that is a precursor to ultra fast broadband and the advent of internet TV. Griffin said the biggest problem with iSky was that it was an unpleasant consumer experience.

NEW WORLD ORDER

If TiVo and iSky have been downers, MySky and Sky's new premium drama channel SoHo have given viewers a high.

MySky owners are boring evangelists, but their persistence is warranted.

It gives much better value to Sky customers, not least because of the ability to fast-forward through ads with relative ease and rewind to pick up chunks of missed dialogue.

SoHo has been a big plus in our house, with top end dramas like Treme and The Hour and repeats of classic series like Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and The Wire.

My favourite has been In Treatment, a series on intense dramas set around a New York psychologist.

The show was written and produced specifically to screen across a five day week and is played as such.

Not everybody will be such a big fan, but to me SoHo is a sign that Sky has finally realised it has to put money into quality for a following that is based on more than just a monopoly.

It seems clear that the Government is not going to address Sky's monopoly and it has even encouraged the state broadcaster to get into bed with Sky.

Igloo marked a turning point for New Zealand media - the end of free-to-air competition with Sky.

The best hope is that the Sky juggernaut will provide a good service, and not just milk profits for shareholders.

SoHo offers the sort of quality programming that free-to-air television - or at least TVNZ - has abandoned.

The numbers may be holding up for the endless reality shows and formula dramas, and prime-time repeats of aged Intrepid Journeys.

The low-risk, low-cost programming strategy may well deliver increased profits, but it is leading the audience to abandon free TV.

When the audience moves to pay networks, advertising will migrate there too. You'll increasingly be paying to see ads.

CHAZ ADDS PIZAZZ

Igloo introduced a new name into the world of corporate media - and it's a name made for telly.

General manager Chaz Savage looked like he had just stepped off the set of Entourage, and was a marked contrast to elder statesmen John Fellet of Sky TV and Rick Ellis of TVNZ.

For the past five years he has been general manager of product and subscriber marketing at Sky TV.

- 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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