Ready, aim, fire: War at 7pm

By Amelia Wade

Bill Ralston - Talking with viewers is a lot better than talking at them.  Photo / David White
Bill Ralston - Talking with viewers is a lot better than talking at them. Photo / David White

The 7pm battle for viewers is about to turn into a war with the start of Seven Sharp on Monday.

But it's not only big numbers that TV One's new current affairs show is after - it's the younger audience, which is the most attractive to advertisers.

Since TVNZ announced the death of Close Up late last year, critics, commentators and viewers have speculated about what would take its place.

Some were concerned Close Up's demise was the end for current affairs on TV One.

However, TVNZ has maintained the show's replacement would be a news-based programme, but with a fresh format.

Viewers were thought to be growing tired of the same structure which has been around since Holmes started in 1989.

Paul Holmes was credited with "single-handedly introducing the cult of personality, trash televisions and ritualised rudeness" to local news and current affairs in a Listener article from the year the programme started.

TV One dominated the 7pm current affairs time slot - its only competition was Paul Holmes which began in 2004 when Holmes defected from TVNZ to Prime TV. But his Prime show lasted only a few months.

Then in 2005, TV3 weighed in with Campbell Live, fronted by the young and well-liked 3 News newsreader John Campbell.

That year, Close Up at 7 was given a facelift to give it a competitive edge.

TV3 spokeswoman Rachel Lorimer said Campbell Live had retained "remarkably loyal and consistent" viewership. It has had a modest increase of 0.4 per cent in average viewership per show.

Commentator Bill Ralston - TVNZ's head of news and current affairs from 2003 to 2007 - said scrapping Close Up for Seven Sharp was a clear push to boost ratings and attract a younger audience.

"Television New Zealand wouldn't be that concerned about Campbell Live because Campbell Live failed to make serious inroads into Close Up's audience.

"I think their main worry now is that the audience at seven o'clock is getting too old and is not the kind of audience that necessarily appeals to advertisers. So they're determined to try to get younger viewers who have been under-represented in the ratings, household shoppers and the kind of people that advertising agencies and media shops want to sell ads to."

But Seven Sharp faces a challenge - it needs to siphon more youthful viewers from the lighter programmes at that time, such as Shortland Street, The Simpsons and a slew of programmes on Sky TV.

"It's going to be a massive, massive challenge for them because it will no doubt be hard to attract a younger audience to TV One which is quite traditional," Ralston said.

Media commentator Brian Edwards is adamant the show won't be a current affairs programme.

While he said it would be unfair to review a programme which has yet to be broadcast, Edwards said in a blog post about Seven Sharp that "the omens really aren't looking good".

He said TVNZ had abandoned "even the remnants of current affairs" at 7pm in favour of a light entertainment show.

But TVNZ's boss of news and current affairs, Ross Dagan, said the show would "reflect the day's events with smart thinking, different viewpoints and plenty of laughs along the way".

The programme would have a "conversational tone" similar to the Holmes show, and its focus would be on current affairs and would include interviews.

One of the hosts, Jesse Mulligan, said nobody needed their help in finding information as they were getting their news online, from Twitter and even from Facebook, in between photos of cats and babies.

"By 7pm ... people are ready for some comment, some humour, some refreshment," Mulligan said.

"That's the future of 7pm, and it's why I'm so excited to be on the team working out exactly what that future looks like."

The show will also include new technology that enables increased interaction with viewers.

Seven Sharp presenter Ali Mau said this week the three hosts - herself, Mulligan and Greg Boyed - would have screens from which they could select real-time comments and debate them with viewers.

The hosts would be able to bring audience's viewpoints directly into the programme.

"You can't leave the viewers behind and expect them to sit politely on the couch and swallow everything you say," Mau said. "You have to give them a chance to respond."

Seven Sharp has already had a dose of social media controversy - when its Facebook page was launched, it received more than 30,000 "likes" within an hour, which raised a few critics' eyebrows.

It turned out the network had swapped the page and likes from Close Up.

Twitter erupted with calls that the move was deceptive and that a TVNZ current affairs programme should have been more cautious. But a spokeswoman called the outcry a "storm in a teacup".

Campbell Live has also been increasing its viewer interaction through Facebook and Twitter.

Ms Lorimer said Campbell and his producers kept an eye on social media during the show and includes viewer feedback as it happens.

Ralston said including viewers in the programmes was becoming increasingly important as social technology improved and made it easier.

"Talking with viewers is a lot better than talking at them. If somebody is motivated enough to send a tweet or email into the show, then you've obviously hooked them ... it's a good tactic. You can definitely use social media to bond with viewers if you use it right."

But despite the hype surrounding Seven Sharp, TV3's head of news and current affairs Mark Jennings said the broadcaster was not concerned about its effect on Campbell Live.

Mr Jennings said he believed TVNZ was trying to move viewers from Shortland Street on TV2 and The Crowd Goes Wild on Prime.

Taking viewers from Shortland Street "kind of makes sense because it has the bulk of the viewers at seven. It's kind of where the hunting game is," he said.

"Seven Sharp is probably going to be to news what The Crowd Goes Wild is to sport."

Mr Jennings didn't see Seven Sharp as competition.

Campbell Live's competitors were TV One's Sunday, the network's own new 3rd Degree programme and the news shows, not necessarily for viewership numbers but for content and comparison, he said.

Mr Jennings said people were quick to assume they knew what Seven Sharp was about, but "nobody actually knows what to expect from them".

"I'm in the school of wait and see."

What Campbell Live promises

A year of intelligent, relevant current affairs, focused on the issues that matter to New Zealanders.

John Campbell says this year for the Campbell Live team is about telling the stories that matter.

"We're all really looking forward to the year ahead.

"While we'll have fun, as we always have, what matters most is current affairs that engages with what's important to New Zealand and the lives of New Zealanders. And if the stories matter we won't give up on them until we achieve a positive outcome.

"The stories I'm most proud of are the ones that make a difference ... Sometimes that's just in the lives of a small number of people, like kids who need major orthodontic work their families can't afford, and other times, as we saw last year, it's in much larger ways.

"Our entire team is committed to this role and to being a constructive presence in the life of our country, from our passionately committed producers and reporters to our editors and camera people."

Before the launch this year, Campbell Live invited Kiwis to tell which questions they most want answers to, via the "It's time for answers" campaign.

The programme has been flooded with responses, many of which have inspired upcoming stories.

What Seven Sharp promises

Ali Mau (Fair Go), Greg Boyed (Tonight) and Jesse Mulligan (7 Days) bring you a fresh perspective in TV One's new 7pm show, Seven Sharp.

Joined by an experienced and energetic team of reporters and producers (including Michael Holland, Heather du Plessis-Allan and Tim Wilson) every week-night Ali, Greg and Jesse will keep you up with the play, discussing the things you and other New Zealanders have been talking about, and having some laughs along the way.

Seven Sharp will be completely interactive, encouraging viewers to join the conversation in real-time through social media. Have your say and ask the questions you want answered from the variety of panellists and guests who will join the show.

The show will not be restricted to following any one format on a day-to-day basis.

Instead, it will be a fluid collection of live interviews, filed stories, hard-hitting current affairs, easy banter and everything else you need to be up with the play on what is happening in our country on any given day.

Seven Sharp won't be afraid to be irreverent and cheeky, have an opinion and have a laugh. We won't take ourselves too seriously.

- NZ Herald

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