A promotional email from Sky TV last month invited viewers to tune into "a different kind of sport, potentially more of a blood sport."
Recipients expecting to see the confident smile of Kiwi UFC star Israel Adesanya would have been left deeply disappointed. What they found instead were the cold, expressionless stares of Donald Trump and Joe Biden daring them to watch the US presidential debate.
The sports analogy in this instance worked on two levels. It was primarily about two contenders tussling against each other but it was also about the appeal of a live event that shouldn't be missed.
For local television companies, the importance of these live must-see events is growing in conjunction with the ballooning online subscriber numbers of the global entertainment giants. As the entertainment turf is squeezed by the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Disney, live television moments become integral in giving viewers something they can't get anywhere else.
The problem is that on the sporting side Covid-19 has all but wrecked the best-laid plans of the television providers. Every cancelled sports event could be tallied down as a loss of guaranteed viewing minutes.
But the unmitigated strangeness of the year has also led to news consumption levels virtually unmatched historically. Throw in an election on top of all this and the news becomes a must-see event that rivals any major sporting event.
The proof is in the numbers. The first leaders' debate between Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins on TVNZ attracted an audience of 1.16 million viewers for at least part of the 90-minute broadcast – a turnout right on the heels of the 1.2 million who tuned in to watch the All Blacks claim the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The cultural currency of each of the debates played out for days after their broadcasts, as pundits dissected the performance not only of the contenders but also the referees. Who won? Was Paddy Gower better than John Campbell? Who handled the pressure best? Our blood lust for sport was truly being sated by the political spectacle.
One-off news events aren't the only big ratings winners at the moment. The 6pm evening news on TVNZ and Three has also been given a major bump by the extra interest in current affairs. TVNZ's bulletin is currently the top-watched show in the country, attracting an average of one million viewers each night in 2020.
Much has been written about how Covid-19 has accelerated decline in other industries, ripping open the cracks that were visible but not immediately life-threatening. Its effect on television news has been quite different, creating a bubble and holding onto viewers who had steadily been migrating elsewhere over years.
The one thing that wasn't given access to that bubble was advertising revenue. Data from researcher SMI shows that advertising spend in New Zealand has dropped to levels well below those seen even during the Global Financial Crisis.
Television has not been spared from this impact, with advertising spend languishing 21.6 per cent behind 2019 levels. There has been some recovery, but 2020 spending still trailed last year by 13.2 per cent in August.
The failure of eyeballs to deliver on the promise of increased revenue ultimately led to some tough decisions, and both TVNZ and MediaWorks cut dozens of jobs this year.
The news departments of both enterprises were largely spared the cull, likely because of the enormous task of keeping up with the tornado previously referred to as a news cycle.
But the financial pressures haven't disappeared. The Covid-19 and election audience bumps won't last forever. And the big question now hanging over both TV news companies is: what happens when the world returns to its normal state of just a mild panic?
Changes on the horizon
Both companies currently linger in a state of limbo, imposed by major changes which have not yet come to full fruition.
The state-owned broadcaster is waiting for its new head of news Paul Yurisich, who is set to arrive from Al Jazeera in the next few months, while MediaWorks TV is in the process of having its business handed over to global TV giant Discovery.
Yurisich will ultimately be responsible for the strategic direction of the newsroom at a time of immense uncertainty from programming and budget perspective.
Former MediaWorks news boss Mark Jennings previously worked with Yurisich earlier in his career and described him as a "smart and capable operator" who will bring some strong opinions to the newsroom.
Jennings said an integral part of Yurisich's role would be to improve the online news offering at TVNZ.
"Newshub has done the online side better," he told the Herald. "It knows what it is. It's a distinctive product and they work hard at it."
The online Newshub brand has become an important tool to build the profiles of MediaWorks journalists and TV personalities, most notably Paddy Gower and Tova O'Brien. During the election, we've seen how this effective online news brand can be used throughout the day as a promotional tool, teasing and coaxing the audience into tuning into that 6pm poll result or a documentary later in the evening.
TVNZ will no doubt be looking over the hedge and thinking of ways it could develop its own version of that.
Coming in from his stint at Al Jazeera, Yurisich will have few tricks up his sleeve to take the online fight to its competitor. Once his feet have settled under the desk, viewers will likely start to see a few tweaks here and there.
Asked what Newshub could do to challenge the dominance of TVNZ on the television front, Jennings said his former employer was in a tough position because of the tyranny of old viewing habits.
"The problem for Three is that they need to give people a reason to switch the channel. It's a tough spot to be in because you have to offer something incredibly distinctive. And then Three also has to compete with The Chase, and that show is a freaking beast."
Once viewers are locked into quiz show The Chase, the evening's viewing becomes an autopilot drive into the 6pm news and Seven Sharp. Newshub might shout and scream on the other channel, but viewers won't act on what they don't hear.
That said, the distinctiveness Newshub yearns for might have been handed to it by the most unlikely source: TVNZ itself.
Earlier this year, TVNZ made the bold move of dropping Wendy Petrie and retaining Simon Dallow as a single 6pm news presenter – a decision a spokeswoman for the broadcaster says came down to the changing demands of the audience.
"Viewer feedback is that the banter between presenters is less relevant than the news itself and the wide range of reporters fronting individual stories continues to provide a diversity of perspectives and varied styles of storytelling," the spokeswoman said.
Despite TVNZ's move, MediaWorks is sticking to its trusty duo of Samantha Hayes and Mike McRoberts, according to news director Sarah Bristow.
"We absolutely see the value in having dual presenters, particularly in an hour-long news bulletin," she told the Herald.
"They do so much for our news products. They offer versatility, variety in terms of how we can use our studio space and they give pace and energy to a bulletin. They are not only fantastic presenters, but they are great journalists as well. And with that comes an immense amount of credibility and it builds trust and rapport with our audience."
However, Bristow and her MediaWorks team could have a different fight on its hands in the coming months.
It's understood the TV arm of MediaWorks has been losing money for years; estimates suggest the latest figures are in the lower millions.
A source suggests Discovery will be looking for ways to plug those holes as it comes into the business. So what could be on the chopping block?
While the 6pm news is untouchable given its cultural significance to the nation, the source pointed to The Project as being in a more vulnerable position.
As a show featuring three presenters in front of a live studio audience with high production value, it's no secret that The Project is expensive to pull together.
The future of the show is largely dependent on how motivated Discovery is to save costs, the source tells the Herald.
Alternative cost-cutting measures could also be to move the production in-house, renegotiate the licensing deal, remove the live audience or to strip back some of the frills to make a simpler show.
Newshub's Bristow put in a fierce defence of the show when commenting on its perceived vulnerabilities to possible cost-cutting measures.
"The performance of The Project at 7pm is the best we've seen in that timeslot in more than a decade," she said.
"They are doing a fabulous job of bridging the gap between the news zone and the entertainment zone."
Another important factor that could dissuade Discovery from canning the show altogether is the emotional attachment the audience has to it. The Project has, in many ways, filled the spiritual hole left in MediaWorks' lineup after the cancellation of Campbell Live. That attachment and the PR fiasco it could create in the event of a cancellation is something a new owner would likely be looking to avoid if it can.
For audiences and the team at MediaWorks alike, it's currently a waiting game that will only end when Discovery finally takes over the day-to-day management of the business in a few months.
When the bubble pops
The cosy audience bump TV news channels are currently enjoying can't last forever. The news cycle has to eventually return to normal – and with that, we'll see a continuation of the trends that have long been taking audiences online.
Linear television still demands the highest level of engagement from New Zealanders, attracting 137 minutes of our time every day.
However, the latest edition of the NZ On Air report on New Zealand audiences revealed a significant milestone, as YouTube pipped TVNZ 1 as New Zealand's most popular site, station or channel for video viewing in terms of overall reach. The study showed an average 51 per cent of New Zealanders are now watching YouTube every day (compared to 44 per cent on TVNZ 1 and 23 per cent on Three).
This might seem like a natural progression of changed viewing habits, but it should also be cause for alarm in anyone worried about our democracy.
The thing with traditional television news and programming is that it gave the nation a trusted source of objective information on a daily basis.
We can argue today about whether a news bulletin needs one or two presenters, but this doesn't negate the cultural importance of having someone report the news in adherence to standards upheld by the Media Council and Broadcasting Standards Authority.
When we venture into the unhinged world of YouTube, there is no uniform standard beyond the ludicrously loose rules the platform introduces when things run awry.
Another alarming observation in the NZ On Air report was that social media ranked as the fifth most likely source of information on Covid-19 for New Zealanders – ahead even of the official Covid-19 website.
The thing with social media and YouTube is that they are increasingly being populated by online activists posing as faux journalists, promising to reveal the truth on current events. The posts can be incredibly persuasive, carefully crafted to create the sense they're asking questions no one else will.
At its worst, this results in Covid-19 denialism, wild conspiracy theories about 5G and a growing anti-vaccine movement – all issues that have already taken root in New Zealand.
In an excellent piece written for Slate magazine on the growing appeal of the conspiratorial group QAnon to women, writer Lili Loofburrow says the narrative approach is unambiguously appealing.
"They tell tantalising stories about their heartfelt conversions that are extremely light on detail and almost invariably conclude by saying 'do your own research'. Of course, this has power. It has the frisson of secrecy — find out what they're not telling you. Most of all, it's flattering: It expresses full faith in the reader's abilities to discover the truth."
The point here is that you may not like what the news presenters say on the 6pm news, but there's good in that disagreement.
It's far more worrying when everyone across the country finds themselves agreeing with everything they hear from their chosen source of information on YouTube.
During Covid-19, we've seen that when things get really bad, the news matters more than ever. The challenge now is ensuring we don't lose sight of that during the quieter times.