John Drinnan 's Opinion

John Drinnan is the Media writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Media: Close Up already closed up

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Show has been dysfunctional for years and brand needed to be replaced but what will we end up with?

Close Up presenter Mark Sainsbury outside the TVNZ building in Auckland. File photo / Herald on Sunday
Close Up presenter Mark Sainsbury outside the TVNZ building in Auckland. File photo / Herald on Sunday

TVNZ bosses say that scrapping Close Up is just a proposal.

It is done and dusted, of course.

Mark Sainsbury - who I understand will enjoy a lavish severance pay - will be counting down the days before leaving, reportedly in November.

It may be bad news for journalists on the show and current affairs, but Close Up has been dysfunctional for several years, initially over jockeying for Paul Henry to replace Mark Sainsbury and Sainsbury's poor interviewing style.

Over the past two years the brand has got weaker and needed to be replaced. The issue is not that the show is going, but that we are likely to wind up with a 7pm version of morning TV - a late breakfast, you could say.

PIPPA'S PROGRESS

On July 27 this column reported TVNZ head of news and current affairs Ross Dagan had been working on the revamp and the show was marked for death even before he arrived in April.

The all-powerful marketing department, which loved the Paul Henry style of journalism, has wanted a change for years given the importance of the 7pm timeslot for advertising revenue.

TVNZ management have looked to former Breakfast host Pippa Wetzell for the 7pm slot - not least because she is hugely popular in marketing focus groups, and in my opinion she is the best bet.

Former Breakfast co-host Paul Henry retains a passionate fan base and they will be cheerleeding him for the new show.

Henry's breakfast show on Australia's Ten Network has been a ratings disaster and faces the axe, so maybe he will be available.

A TVNZ source said some in the TVNZ marketing department would be tempted to bring him back but more cautious people, such as Dagan, would be wary that he polarises opinion - some love Henry, but others hate him.

Other names suggested by TV sources as a male partner for Pippa include the fresh-faced New York correspondent Jack Tame, a slick professional who former TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis once promoted to bemused staff as "the new face of television".

An outside choice for a new-look 7pm show is weather man Tamati Coffey, the amiable host of New Zealand's Got Talent.

Don't expect any investigations there.

CAMPBELL ALIVE

Some lament the loss of news focused current affairs programmes, but it's hard not to agree with Dagan's press release that something needs to change.

The brand has been in trouble for some time.

It's just that replacing Close Up with the late breakfast would be a loss for people who believe it sometimes fulfils a function with the old role of holding people to account.

Perhaps predictably, TV3 director of news and current affairs Mark Jennings says TVNZ is surrendering its 7pm show to Campbell Live, a programme that he says mixes hard and soft stories.

But he rejects the view Close Up is being scrapped so TVNZ can make a cheaper softer-edged show, so it can increase its profit margins.

Campbell Live makes a solid profit and he thought Close Up probably did, too.

He claimed TVNZ bosses had become embarrassed about the show and its stories, which he would say, of course.

HOW BIZARRE

The lost authority and influence of the news and current affairs department at TVNZ is reflected in Dagan being hidden from view. Amid major upheavals in New Zealand's biggest newsroom, Dagan would not be interviewed about the death of the long-time current affairs format.

TVNZ says it is obliged to talk with Close Up staff and cannot talk about replacement options, but the argument lacks credibility given the state broadcaster is asking for public ideas on the replacement show in a Facebook page.

More bizarrely, TVNZ corporate spokeswoman Megan Richards refused to even pass on Herald queries to Dagan for an email response to another major issue for TVNZ - the mock interviews by Back Benches host Wallace Chapman running in prime time.

In my opinion the advertorials made internally at TVNZ's joint venture advertising production arm Black Sand, breach the state broadcaster's obligations to protect the integrity of news.

But Richards said the news boss was a party to the decision by management so would not be able to present his view.

"I am not going to ask him to do that," she said.

WHO RUNS NEWS?

The fundamental rules about the independence of news and current affairs are changing, but TVNZ's approach signals one or more of the following.

Firstly, that the state-owned television news operation is no longer regarded as distinct from the corporate business and all its commercial arrangements.

Secondly, that like a few others in Dagan's newsroom who are looking askance at the Wallace Chapman advertorials alongside news shows, he does not agree with the policy and does not want to speak out of turn.

The third is that he lacks the courage to define his view on the fall of standards on his watch.

Making TV shows always involves pushing and shoving and negotiations.

But given that Back Benches is about journalism, quasi public broadcasting taxpayer funding and politics, the oversight of ethical issues has been surprisingly loose.

Prime Television and New Zealand On Air have no problem with Chapman hosting politics show Back Benches next year.

Prime programmer Cathie Wright did not learn of interviewer Chapman's role fronting the TVNZ prime-time advertorial series until the Herald called. But having talked to producers at TVNZ she was happy Chapman's mock interviews with Cadburys - and more brands to come - would not harm the reputation of the show.

Chapman told the Herald that his role interviewing politicians on Back Benches was not a conflict of interest because he was "a broadcaster not a journalist".

Up until the 2013 series, Back Benches was funded by the government's digital fund when screened on TVNZ7.

But when TVNZ7 closed, the broadcaster was no longer interested in screening the show but was willing to make it for Prime, and New Zealand On Air gave $629,000 for 20 episodes of Back Benches to screen on Prime next year.

NZ On Air provides funds on the basis of a shows's appeal to viewers, but insists it has no role in selecting presenters.

The taxpayer funding agency is not concerned about Chapman fronting the advertorial campaigns.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK

The return of Back Benches will be welcomed by its small but enthusiastic group of fans.

Produced by veteran television journalist Maryanne Aherne, the survival was due to the intervention of Tony O'Brien, the assiduous political lobbyist for Prime's owner Sky Television.

O'Brien was also named as "network executive" for Prime debates on the 2012 election, and is credited in large part for Sky's success in staving off regulation of the company's pay TV monopoly.

It may be stretching the point but in my opinion there are other conflicts in the way this show is put together. Having Chapman fronting ads has drawn a range of opinions on Twitter. While there is a common view that the advertorial ads on TVNZ are beyond the pale, some from the blogging community such as Russell Brown believe strongly that the Back Benches host is not doing anything wrong in presenting prime time advertorials.

NEWSMAN

Given the increasing crossover between ads and news at TVNZ it was interesting to note that the broadcaster's advertorial campaign The Extra Mile featuring Chapman is overseen by Tim Wilson, the new development boss at TVNZ's Black Sand. Wilson recently returned from a role as US correspondent for TVNZ.

- NZ Herald

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John Drinnan

John Drinnan is the 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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